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O’Leno’s Chili Cook Off

Saturday March 28, 2015
O’Leno State Park
High Springs, Florida



David has been looking forward to today ever since we got here and he found out there would be a Chili Cook Off as well as music and the Model Railroad Club on our last Saturday in the park.  And all within walking distance of Winnona.   It is a perfect day for a chili cook off.  High predicted at 69 so you won’t be too hot to want chili but best of all NO RAIN!!



The festivities start around eleven so we walk down to the area near the river  where the old CCC Buildings are located.   The CCC Pavilion has the music provided by The Weeds of Eden who are very good.  Four guys and a gal on the drums.  They play to a sparse crowd since the weather is beautiful and everyone is walking around looking at the booths and chatting.  But their music is an excellent background for the day.




The Dining Hall is being used for some non chili concessions, the chili judging and the awards ceremony.  In the CCC Rec Hall are the kids activities and the model Railroad Display.   All around the outside at separate tables are Environmental Exhibits and the Chili Cooks.   This is really a great park for large activities like this.



We check out the environmental booths and find that they are nearly all connected with water.  Protecting the river, protecting the springs.  I’m amazed at the number of booths and groups in this area.   The local water board and the county service organizations also have booths, the forestry service and the park is well represented by a ranger with two native snakes wrapped around his arms both are racers.  A second ranger has a baby gopher tortoise, off spring of Snow White and Prince Charming.  Snow and Charming live in a large outdoor pen just outside the nature center.  I feel sorry for them and don’t understand why their hole has to be penned in so they are not free to wander.  Koreshan has a resident tortoise who has been there for years and is free to come and go.








The Chili cooks each have a canopy, table, heating mechanism and all their ingredients.  Some of the tables have table cloths with hot chili peppers on them.  I make note that these are likely too hot for me.  Most are all ready for the tasters since they have to give samples to the judges at noon. 

We wander around a bit and talk to them.  I find it interesting that there are several husband/wife teams.   In one pair, the husband has a Jerk Chicken Chili and the wife has an All Florida Vegetarian Chili.  You have to have a name for your chili in a cook off it seems.  Not sure I’ve ever been to a cook off since I’ve always assumed chili meant hot for most folks and a cook off would be “the hotter the better”.   We later taste both of theirs and they are quite good.  We both give hers the biggest thumbs up though.  It has a sweetness about it.  I ask what sweetener she has used.  She says none but it might be the orange zest.  Wish I could remember all the Florida ingredients she put in it.  Not sure what the rabbit ears are about but they are cute.  I remark to David that she sure doesn’t have much chili in that big pot for the size of the crowd.







Time to hit the model railroad display.  I love the building it is in.  Built by the CCC with a gorgeous fire place, window shutters and totems poles flanking the entry doors it is just what I think of when I conjure up CCC buildings.   Great views from the porch of their recreation hall which faces the river.



In the center of the room is the H-O gauge track, the largest display with amazingly detailed towns and farms.





Here is one of David’s favorites with the mechanic checking under the hood of the truck.



There are several trains on this track each with a different railroad logo.  Central Pacific, B&O,  Rock Island Line, Western Pacific.  Freight trains, passenger trains, big black engines.  These big boys are having fun with their toys.  You can see the “engineers” in the center of the display making sure things are running correctly.




Love the details of the people looking in the lighted store windows.



David is having a great time.  He likes the trains passing each other going different directions and the little cable car that zooms back and forth.  All my pictures of it were blurry except when it stopped for a second at the end of its run.






My favorite is the totally Florida citrus area.  This is how I remember the Ocala area looking in the late 50’s with open air citrus packing sheds and trucks full of oranges.




Off to one side of the H-O gauge are the Lionel Trains and fun for the littler kids.  There are two displays side by side that the kids can operate. They are bigger and plastic.   A big gator keeps anyone from wandering between the two tracks.








When I see the pink and purple Pet Shop Express, I notice that all the animals in the open car are piled on top of each other on their sides.  Now this is not a good example.  Animals should be looking out of the cars.  So I set to work to fix this being told by the engineer that it’s a hopeless cause but as you can see, not so.  When I finish, they are all looking out as they go by.









My good deed done we head out through the totem poles and onto the porch.   Before we leave I catch two pictures of the Big Boys in their dress up hats. 







At 1:00 they start selling the chili tasting kits which consist of one styrofoam cup, one plastic spoon, one napkin, a ballot and a tiny pencil. All in a plastic bag. I would think some of the environmental exhibitors would help them come up with a more eco friendly kit.

The tasting begins.  Behind David here are two boys with a very sweet chili.  The one on the left has entered contests before with his dad and has this unique heating set up.  Looks like a stove top.  They both have just graduated from culinary school and wear their black chef’s culinary school jackets.  Their chili is not too hot but it is the sweetest one of the afternoon.  I ask about the sweetener,  “just sugar”.   My guess is, plenty of it.  





Now these folks know how to go to a cook off.  Apparently they go all over to them and bring muffin tins into which they collect their samples with the numbers of the booth so they can taste them and discuss them, savor them and choose their favorite.   Seems to me they might qualify for professional chili cook off judges. 



This taster is just using the conventional styrofoam cup and plastic spoon.   Theirs is a much better idea for sure.



I’m thinking this guy with the gator booth is going to win the People’s Choice Award when I see the lines. 







This is Granny B and her mom.  Their Chili was our choice.  Quite a few of the cooks didn’t have big enough pots of chili and ran out before all the tasters had come by.  But not Granny B or the chefs or the Gator guy.






Eventually we have tasted everything but the HOT ones and tasted our favorites twice.  We put in our votes and according to the schedule, the Awards ceremony in the Dining Hall is over an hour away.  So we walk back to Winnona.



David is tired and takes a nap.  I volunteer to go to the awards ceremony and report back.  It is at 3:15 according to the schedule.  I set out at 2:45 and when I arrive, I see everyone leaving.   Rabbit ears tells me she won 1st place in the Vegetarian category and $75.  Granny B says she won 5th.  I’m shocked at that since before we left I had seen a stack of papers with their number on it. 

I am able to find out that the Chef Boys won the People’s Choice award.  All that sugar I presume.  And the judges gave first place to the hottest chili of the day.   Wish I could remember its fire breathing name but the booth had fire extinguishers on the table.   Luckily I took a picture earlier in the day of the awards themselves.   I’m bummed to end the day not seeing them given out to the  people I’ve talked with win and for whom I was rooting.  Apparently the judges decided arbitrarily to move the awards up nearly an hour. 

Guess the take home message is to hang around until the bitter end if you don’t want to miss it.  Schedules are apparently made in jello too.  One thing is for sure, this was a great serendipity of our visit here and we would love to do it again.  I’ll for sure be on the look out for chili cook offs in any other travels we are able to do.





  1. Loved the trains! A really fun day and a chance to sample all kinds of chili recipes, now that's my kind of day!

  2. Nice to see there was a vegetarian chili category. We discovered the best veg black bean chili last year in Bend, OR. I asked the waitress for the secret ingredient and it was brown sugar. Now I always put a tablespoon or so in mine and it really improves the flavor.

  3. I have to avoid vegetarian chili, too often there are sweet potatoes in it and I'm violently allergic to them. It's not very nice when I've eaten that chili and then give it right back to the cook! :cO

    Nice fun day you had. Extra points for fixing all the animals in that train car! :c)

  4. One of my cousins is married to a guy who'd be fascinated by all those model train sets!

  5. we love model train exhibits as well. . .what a lot of fun!

    Texans love chili and have numerous Chili Cookoffs all over the state. . .the biggest being in Terlingua TX.

    Chili should NOT have beans in it. . .that's just yucky. . .LOL! and it should not be fiery hot. . .there should be a beautiful nuance of flavors. . .it's a wonderful thing when done right!

    I must say the Four Alarm Chili Kit (usually available by the canned chili) makes a pretty tasty batch when we have a hankerin' for homemade chili. . .I could easily see making a vegetarian version using it.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your day!

  6. In the years prior to fulltiming, John built railroads and the layouts. We would always have our camera with us on rides in order for him to take pictures of old buildings for his layout. All was sold prior to our fulltime departure.

    I love making all kinds of chili. Would love to attend a cook-off sometime. Thanks for the tour.

    OH, thought of one more thing. John bought a "walking stick/seat" to take with us when we hike or go to festivals. When he gets tired, he opens his walking stick and sits. David might like one.

  7. Not sure why, but I always enjoy looking a model railroads:) Of course chili is one of my favorite meas.

  8. This looks like so much fun. I love trains and I spied King Kong on that one with the alligator between the tracks. That was hysterical. I could sit and watch the trains go around the tracks for hours. Those muffin tins were quite creative. They *are* professionals. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Sweet chili? That doesn't sound too appealing. I'd go for the spicy ones. ;-) How fun that you guys were there for the cook-off and the train show.

  10. So glad you had a cooler day for the chili tasting. I love chill and Cook Offs are such a treat:)

  11. Neat trains!! Makes me think of the one we used to set up around the Christmas Tree - no doubt Dad was a happy camper :) Did you go play Mexican Train after that? LOL. The Chili cookoff is a neat tradition - so glad the weather was nice for it even though you didn't get to see the award show when it was scheduled - guess they just finished with the voting and went ahead with it. I would definitely not go for the hottest of the hot...I like sweet, but, tons of sugar I think would make it taste not so much like chili anymore.

  12. Now this is the kind of "event" Wayne and I could get into. I'm guessing the ears were about Easter, isn't that in a week?

  13. Love chili, and have several of my own recipes that I follow. One with sweet potatoes, lol. What a fun day for you two!

  14. What a great day and combination of events. Played with trains in the basement as a kid. This park sure knows how to put on a show, just not keep to schedule. ;)

  15. Fenced in animals make me sad too, but sometimes I wonder if it's as much about keeping us from harming them? Before Knotts Berry Farm became another amusement park they had a "miniatures" display with towns and festivals and trains and all sorts of everything in small scale. I loved it! Can't tell you what makes a good chili for me - my favorites often taste nothing alike. I just know when I like it! Of course you set the animals so they could see out, it was the right thing to do!! My father set up a train under the Christmas tree as well - thanks to Carrie for that memory :-)

  16. Don't know about the cook-off, but the miniature trains would be the draw for us. Love the little details that go into creating the towns.

  17. Too bad we weren't fast enough to taste all the chilis before some of them ran out. I Liked pretty much all of them except a couple. The woman who said her secret ingredient was "love" had used too many spices and they did not blend well into a chili IMHO. Her husband made his chili with Hershey's milk chocolate kisses, but not enough that you could actually taste them or even know it if her hadn't told you. His chili was much better than hers. Who knew chili could be so much fun? What a great day - I would definitely do that again!

  18. We had our first experience of a Chili cook off in East Texas! And these people really take their Chili seriously. Only you Sherry notices those minor details that need corrections. You are right those animals should looking out and not on top of each other. Another fun day in Florida!


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