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Annual Winterfest and Chili Cook Off Sets Record Attendance

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Jayme Slais wants to learn the art of ice carving.  “I’m new to carving, never handled a power tool in my life before,” she said, the cuffs of her Carhart coveralls flecked with ice and mud.

The Henry Ford College student attended Winter Fest and Chili Cook Off at Grass Lake High School last Saturday.  Slais said she came to Grass Lake to take notes and to cheer on members of the school’s ice carving club, which she recently joined, to watch them turn the solid form of H2O into a work of art.

This year was the first time that the event was held at the high school.  Previously Winter Fest happened in the Village, which made sense, so that residents could see the sculptures but there is more room at the school.   

“This is a better venue, a very functional venue,” said pharmacist Todd Raehtz, who co-coordinated Winter Fest and the Chili Cook Off with photographer April Scott.  “Fantastic!” Raehtz said.  “This is the biggest crowd yet, a balance in the dead of winter.”

Organizers estimated that between 600 and 800 people attended the annual event.  Approaching the venue one noticed the tent city set up outside the entrance to the school, the music pulsing and rattling your fillings.    

Greg Cagney, the dean of the Chili Cook Off, stood by the entrance of the gymnasium where all the booths were set up.

Cagney in his shirtsleeves chided me for wearing a scarf.  I asked him about his award-winning chili, “Papa’s Poyson.  “I won five out of the last six contests,” he said.  “I finished second one year.  My recipe is simple — no recipe.  I just dump everything in until it tastes good.”  He filled his pot with elk and venison.  He said he didn’t bag an elk this past hunting season but imported one shot by a friend in New Mexico.

There were no sore losers here. “Me and Greg lost our plaques this year,” said Kim Miller, who won best booth in 2016. “We were happy to lose our reigning bowls.  I think it’s good.  Let somebody else claim the title, which will be good because more people will come in.”

“We were out of chili by 2:15,” she added.  “Everybody was.  After two o’clock everybody was scraping bottom, which never happened before.”

First place went to Lori Sumala of Jackson for her “Cow Girl Filly Chili,” second place to Swift Cooking in Rives Junction, and Rex Murdock took third.    

Murdock offered samples of Mexican-style chili laden with bacon, onions, Mexican sausage, and jalapeños.  He acknowledged that his recipe was an acquired taste.  “If it’s too spicy then you’ll lose your audience.”

Didn’t I know it?  Bottled water went for a buck a pop but the penniless writer carried no cash. After much sampling my mouth tasted like the bottom of a bottle of Fireball.  Avoiding the entanglement of the line dancers in the atrium, I searched for a water fountain to quench the blaze.  Where was the Good Humor Man when you needed him?

You didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew Saturday — it came up from the South.  Nevertheless, many wondered about the weather.  The Weather Channel forecasted a freak warm spell, a rise in the mercury to a balmy 57 degrees.  Who could complain about that in late January?  If there were any climate changers in the crowd they must have been praying secret alleluias.  Contingency plans were crafted but in the end the Ice Men did cometh.

Planning has begun for the 2018 Winterfest and Chili Cook Off, Miller said.  Slais said that she hopes to make it back to Grass Lake next year, this time with her picks, handsaws, and carving tools.   

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