W_-_Chili_IMG_9673_copyWith their booth having as much flare as their chili, buffallo is the secret ingredienet for Stephen and Clara Spicer. 

HIGH SPRINGS – As the rain dripped down from the tips of the tents set up at O’Leno State Park on Saturday, cooks huddled underneath, warmed by the spicy, and sometimes sweet, aroma of their chili.

It was the 5th annual O’Leno Olé Chili Cook-Off, and despite Mother Nature’s best efforts to wash out the contestants, the fiery flavor still won the day. The cook-off brought in 15 chefs and garnered $1,500.

The O’Leno Olé Chili Cook-Off began as a simple fundraiser for the Friends of O’Leno organization, but as popularity spread, the Santa Fe River Springs Basin Working Group joined them to create the Springs Celebration, which featured live music, a dance show, shadow puppet shows and other educational activities.

The chili wasn’t the only thing with a unique flair at the cook-off. Some of the contestants displayed their “wild side” through their displays.

A brown buffalo head was positioned on top of a can with chili peppers on it. Two buffalo statues adorned with multi-colored boas and hats framed the colorful shack. Clara and Stephen Spicer, from Sarasota, said the hodgepodge collection doesn’t reflect all of the decorations they have stored at home.

“If it jumps out, it’s ours to keep,” Clara Spicer said of the collection.

The two said they didn’t care if they won, but only cared about making good chili and supporting the charity. Their secret was real buffalo meat. They won second place for showmanship and second in the open class.

The first place winners for showmanship, Mitch Cooper, Dianna Cooper and Clint Herrick showed off their antiques. Mitch Cooper wore black suspenders and cooked the chili on Herrick’s 1888 wood stove. Herrick, who donned a leather getup, also donated several wooden pieces he made and a wagon from the 1900s that he refurbished to look like a western-style covered wagon.

Mitch Cooper said that in his 30 years of making chili, he’s never made two batches of chili the same.

The cook-off is part of an international non-profit called the Chili Appreciation Society International, known simply in the chili world as CASI. When chefs win a CASI cook-off they earn points, and when they earn enough points they are invited to the Mecca of CASI chili cook-offs in Terlingua, Texas.

Candi Knight-Arevalo, an officer for the Florida division of CASI, grew up in the chili world. She made it to the Terlingua International Chili Championship last year.

Her booth featured a wooden cart that read “Candi’s Kisses.” When she was little, Knight-Arevalo said, she ran a kissing both on the side of her parents’ tent while they cooked chili at cook-offs.

She took home a fourth place in the CASI class on Saturday.

The winner of the CASI division, which is graded on a strict system based on five categories, was Bert Dunn, of Homosassa, who has been participating in the O’Leno Olé Chili Cook-Off since its first year.

The winner of the open class, which was graded based on a less restricted scale, was given to Gilchrist County resident Jeff Runde.

The People’s Choice Award was given to Fort White Resident Brenda Smith-McKenzie, or “Granny B,” who had three plaques and six trophies on display to show her chili-cooking prowess.

Another chef, Kathy Gunderson, of Spring Hills, Fla., earned her first chili-cooking trophy on Saturday. Gunderson, who goes by “Kat,” calls her chili the “Kat’s Meow.” She said she was inspired to try a chili cook off after her 20-year-old son, who had moved out, called back home for the recipe, saying that he couldn’t find anything like his mom’s chili.

Gunderson won third place in both the open class and the showmanship category.

While the rain may have prevented some chili cooks from coming out and participating in Saturday’s event, conceded Friends of O’Leno member Harriet Walsh, of High Springs, Gunderson said the weather didn’t keep her down.

“It hasn’t spoiled my time,” she said.