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Ventura County Fair : Chili Cook-Off Hot Attraction at Fair


Just an hour after fair-goers descended upon Kris Pustina's stand Saturday with scores of requests for her special blend of turkey and chicken chili, she realized that disaster was about to strike.

"I think we're going to cry," lamented Pustina, owner of Franky's Place of Ventura. "We can't make everybody happy now because we're going to run out of chili. . . . I'm shocked, I thought it would last to the end."

But Pustina and her crew huddled together to consider what they should do. A minute later, a determined Pustina took off for Franky's to round up more turkey meat and search for leftover chili.

Along with the 14 other contestants at the International Chili Society's district competition, the Franky's group aimed to please both fair-goers and judges with their simmering mixtures of meats, tomatoes, spices and beans.

As the Ventura County Fair entered its next-to-last day, fair spokeswoman Teri Raley said that by Friday evening, 193,844 people had filed through the gates, down about 5% from last year. The fair ends at midnight today.

Raley called the decline only a nominal decrease. "We're genuinely pleased," she said. "Obviously, we've been favored with incredibly good weather.

The chili cook-off--held on a grassy, wood-chip covered square from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday--drew contestants from around Southern California and some chili enthusiasts from much farther away.

"I flew in from Salt Lake City last night just to come here," said 28-year-old Robert McMichael as he shoveled heaping scoops of beefy chili into his mouth. "My buddy David Stratemeyer told me about it. . . . It was the best excuse I could find to come see him again."

McMichael and Stratemeyer, of Calabasas, used to work together in Woodland Hills.

"I'm a real fan of hot chili," McMichael announced, adding that the best chili has a good orangish-brown color that shows "it's been stewed with the tomato base and the chili pepper."

In fact, he said: "If it's brown, it hasn't extracted the fluid from the chili pepper."

And even though McMichael discovered a favorite delicacy with that "hearty, earthy flavor," he said none of the chili brews were spicy or hot enough for his flame-resistant palate.

"All the ones here have been tamed down from the real spicy flavor because the average bear can't take it," he figured.

Along with the chili cook-off, Saturday's fair featured the second day of the professional rodeo--which kicked off Friday evening and ends today--as well as a turtle and tortoise show, an arm-wrestling contest and a cow chip toss competition.

At the chili cook-off, participants started stirring and tasting their slushy mounds of red, orange and brown stuff before noon. They were given three hours to craft their brews from scratch.

"I'm using something a little bit different this year," said Harry DeWitt of Santa Barbara, as he glanced over at his steel vat of chili. "Last year I used a little bit different spices, but they went bad over the winter."

DeWitt's wife, Dianne, who sported chili pepper shirt, shorts and earrings, has competed alongside her husband on the contest circuit for the last four years. They enter about 15 contests a year, said Harry DeWitt, 55.

DeWitt used to have spices shipped from Arizona and New Mexico, but they weren't breaking down fast enough and left a gritty texture, he said.

So this year, he bought his spices from a former world chili cook-off champion from Fillmore, and "they have a little bit better flavor" and a higher oil content, allowing them to break down more easily.

The change paid off, because for the second year in a row, DeWitt's "Ambrosia Chili" took first place in the taste competition, judged by about 25 to 30 ICS members and celebrity judges.

Second place went to "Gear Jammers Chili" by Bob Dylan of San Bernardino; third to "Double D Chili" by Dianne DeWitt; fourth to "Swick & Swick Chili" by George Swick of Bakersfield, and fifth to "7/8 Chili" by Kenton Stafford of Fillmore.

The people's choice award went to "Wild Wheat's Chili" by Gene Wheat of Angelus Park.

The cooks weren't the only winners. Hundreds of fair-goers took advantage of the chance to gobble up a wide sample of the spicy chili.

Joe and Lisa Garcia of Moorpark shared their 4-ounce white Styrofoam cups of the brew, which sold for 50 cents a pop. Lisa, 28, said the four or five cups they devoured were not a health concern.

"That's why we came to the fair," she said. "To pig out."

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