Where have all the Crock-Pots gone? I think I know: Upstate New York. The place is absolutely crawling with them. I went to Cazenovia, N.Y., to visit a friend last weekend and ended up in the middle of a convocation of slow-cooking appliances that would have made you think it was still the 1970s.
The occasion was a chili cook-off, an informal potluck event organized by my friend and his wife. Way more serious than your average Saturday-night dinner party, the cook-off pitted friends, strangers, even spouses against each other, competing in two categories: best chili and most original concoction.
The Crock-Pots started rolling in at 6 p.m. sharp until there were at least a dozen elbowing for room, each tagged with the name of the chef and the chili recipe (one even arrived in style in a fancy Crock-Pot carrying case). Entries were a healthy mix of mostly meatless chilis made by and served to a largely outdoorsy, granola-crunching crowd. There was definitely no gut-busting Cincinnati-style chili buried under 2 inches of orange cheese.
I felt like I was miles from home.
It's always interesting to see what brings out the competitive edge in people. One husband and wife showed up with two separate pots of chili ("There's no way he was going to get to make the chili for both of us"). After a heated debate about voting (majority rule vs. appointing expert judges), in the end everyone got to cast a ballot for their favorites.
The winners? A hearty meat chili with broccoli florets and beans won Best in Show. Made from tasty organic beef raised on a bucolic little farm just up the road, it really was exceptional. A vegetarian Thai chili took the prize for most original: Savory and fresh-tasting with hints of lime and curry, it definitely pushed the boundaries of chili-dom.
Awards for the winners were tokens, really: a T-shirt and a winter hat. There were also door prizes, the highlight of which was a tacky, wind-up porcelain bell that had been received as a wedding present. (This shameless attempt at re-gifting failed when the recipient conveniently left it behind.)
The real prize of the First Annual Cazenovia Chili Cook-Off, though, was shared by everyone there. It was a night of conviviality and connection, of the energy and engagement that comes of good-natured competition and of the rich feeling of renewal that springs from the gathering of friends. The night was one more proof for me of the eternal power of food to bring people together.
It also got me to thinking. On the heels of the great chili cook-off, I've realized that my entertaining has become pretty formulaic: Mix equal parts friends and wine, combine with a simple menu, add some music and presto! it's a dinner party. Just like the last one and the one before that.
I think it's time to spice it up a little and try something different. Like holding a Potluck Pig Roast or a Meal-in-a-Cup party or a Best Ribs Barbecue-Off. Who knows? Inspired by my weekend in the hinterlands, I might even try something original involving Crock-Pots.
CONTACT CRAIG BIDA: cbida(at)citybeat.com