By Jeff Wilkin
NISKAYUNA — Stash Jakubowski tasted his first cup of chili con carne on Nov. 4.
The 7-year-old from Niskayuna loved the bouncy flavors of beans and beef. He said chili concoctions cooked and served by firefighters at the Niskayuna Co-op food market reminded him of his grandmother’s spaghetti and meatballs.
Parents Carole Morrison and Christian Jakubowski offered other reasons to love chili, the main events at the co-op’s Chili Cook-Off. The party put four fire departments, a couple of firetrucks and a frisky Dalmatian in the paved lot next to the Nott Street store.
“We love it on a cold fall day,” Morrison said. “It’s real comfort food.”
“And, you can eat it all day long,” added Jakubowski.
People had three hours to chill out with chili at the co-op. The event was designed to bring people outside on a sunny autumn day.
Donna Evans, president of the co-op’s board of directors, said the chili party follows the food market’s May party — a gathering that coincides with the town’s annual Niska-Day.
“That got us thinking, ‘That’s spring, what can we do in the fall?’ Evans said. “We started thinking fall, cooler weather and we thought chili. And when you think chili, your mind goes right to fire departments. We said, ‘We’ll have a firehouse chili cook-off.’ ”
Co-op officials contacted Niskayuna District 1 Fire Chief Dale Lingenfelter, who talked up the chili challenge with other nearby fire companies. In addition to District 1, Niskayuna’s District 2, Stanford Heights and the John McLane Hose Co. of Rexford called in working fires to make gallons of chili.
Chili lovers paid $4 for four paper cups full of chili. Funds raised will be given to the New York State Fallen Firefighters Memorial Committee.
“Community is one of our core values,” said Richard “Rit” Gabree, the co-op’s general manager. “It’s just a way to engage the community, get everybody out talking, eating, seeing each other.”
“Community is what we are as a co-op,” Evans added. “This is a nice opportunity to bring people together. They can come out and support their fire departments as well. These are the folks who come to our rescue on a daily basis. It’s nice to be able to shine the spotlight on them.”
Firefighters put their spices in the spotlight.
Dave Meservey, the chili master at Stanford Heights, said his sweet turkey chili was made with ground turkey, sweet Italian sausage, pepperoni, red and yellow peppers, minced garlic, beans and diced tomatoes, among other ingredients. He considered his dish a nice, spicy taste — “Especially on a day like today,” he said.
The Stanford Heights crew also brought proof of their chili expertise. Meservey and company won the South Colonie School District competition in 2016 and 2015. But the guys could only find one of the winning plaques.
Mark Stuart, president of Niskayuna District 2, said chili is the perfect fire department dish because prep time can be spread out. If firehouse chefs are making chili, and firehouse chiefs rush everyone to a fire scene, cooks can continue the process once the all-out has been declared.
“You can’t do that with a souffle or an upside-down cake,” Stuart said. “And you can eat it for dinner or lunch.”
District 2 chili master Jason Germain made about 25 quarts. Like other chilis, beans, spices, sausage and veggies were all part of the plan. “It’s got just enough zing to it,” Germain said.
Randy Paquin of Rexford’s McLane Co. loves vegetables in his chili. “Onions, peppers and jalapenos,” he said. “They add a little heat to it.”
Paquin, former McLane chief and current firefighter, cooked his five gallons on two days before the competition. A little time in the refrigerator, he believes, helps when the chili goes back on the heat.
“You have to have time for the flavors to mesh,” he said.
Shane Sweet, a lieutenant with Niskayuna District 1, said chili contests give firefighters the chance to turn out when they’re not in turnout gear. “This is when we see each other, other than on calls,” Sweet said.
Bill Davis of Schenectady wanted to sample the competition.
“I make my own chili and I’m comparing [theirs] to mine,” he said. “This one here [District 1] is very close to mine. I like a little zip in my chili.”
Now is the time for chili at the Davis residence. “It seems to taste better when it’s cold out,” Davis said. “It’s like soup. Who likes soup in the summertime?”
Lauren Savage of Niskayuna was glad to say thanks to firefighters by supporting the chili test.
“We really appreciate them,” she said. “This is a way of showing that appreciation. And I appreciate the fact this chili is not hot enough so it’s burning my mouth. It’s just perfect. They’re all good.”
And the winner is …
Co-op officials said Stanford Heights won the people’s vote for best chili. A total of 160 voted; the cook-off raised $735 for the Fallen Firefighters committee.
“We’re doing better,” Evans said of the co-op, which changed management earlier this year. “We’re making progress, we’re going in the right direction and it’s in large part thanks to our community, a lot of the folks who came out today.”