If nothing else, Old Mill Tasty Shop owner Mary Wright deserves a trophy for chili tenacity.
Earlier this year, Wright launched a statewide hunt for the chili recipe used by her restaurant’s original owner, Otto Wermke, when he operated the restaurant from 1932 until his death in 1981. Wright remembered eating it as a child, and she knew the recipe had to be out there somewhere.
Wright finally found it a few months ago when a woman from Eufaula, Okla., mailed her the recipe, saying that her husband had been a regular of the restaurant and got the recipe from Wermke.
That chili — beef broth-based and made with hunks of steak and lots of beans — will be one of the many entries available for sample at Saturday’s Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff, which will be set up in the street in front of the Old Mill Tasty Shop, 604 E. Douglas.
The chili cook-off, now in its 29th year, fills closed-off blocks of Douglas with teams of chili cooks attempting to make the best chili and those hoping to impress judges with their spirit or booth theme. The more serious competitors are vying for a spot at the World Championship Chili Cookoff next month in Charleston, W.Va.
Attendees buy a $5 tasting kit, which allows them samples of all the entered chilis. The kit also entitles them to one full bowl of chili, plus all the fixins, prepared by the Wichita Wagonmasters.
While there, people also can watch a pepper-eating contest, listen to live music from popular local cover band Lucky People, get their kids’ faces painted and eat free ice cream.
“There is no way you walk away hungry,” said Ann Keefer, vice president of marketing for Downtown Development, the group that helps organize the event.
A new addition to this year’s cook-off is called “Chili for Charity.”
It will include teams from local charities competing with each other for prize money. So far, several teams have signed up, from the American Red Cross to the Ronald McDonald House.
“We thought it was a win-win because it also gives them the opportunity to get their cause’s information out in front of 8,000 to 10,000 people,” Keefer said.
Also, this year’s event will include a live judging demonstration. Several celebrity judges will be on stage, tasting the charity chili and showing the process they go through to select the winner.
Wright will have two entries. Otto’s chili will be entered in the red chili with beans category, and she’ll also submit a kicked-up version of her restaurant’s famous green chili in the chili verde category.
The cook-off also includes a no-beans red chili category and a salsa category. And a new one this year is “homestyle chili,” which is much more loosely defined and gives more cooks a chance to get involved.
Keefer said that this year’s event will feature 50 cooking teams and could draw as many as 10,000 people if the weather is as beautiful as predicted. The Wagonmasters distribute money raised to various charities.