Chili Cook-Off returns after three years, draws crowds despite heat

Six teams entered nine types of chili; 200-plus people attended

Susan Cavanaugh, right, of Polo, talks to Laura and Jim Vock, of Bloomington, during Polo's Chili Cook-Off on Sept. 30, 2023. The cook-off was held in the city-owned lot next to the Shell station; it was the first time the event has taken place since 2019.

POLO — Temperatures in the upper 80s didn’t stop more than 200 people from venturing out to taste various types of chili being showcased at the first Polo Chili Cook-Off in three years.

“It’s wonderful to have to back in town and have so many fabulous people participating,” said Susan Cavanaugh, of Polo. “It’s a great number [of people], music and vendors. It’s great for the community.”

Hosted by the Polo Chamber of Commerce, the chili cook-off took place on Sept. 30, in conjunction with the Larry Lannen Memorial Blood Drive. Both events were held in the city-owned lot next to the Shell gas station on South Division Avenue.

The chili cook-off went “so good. Better than what we thought,” co-organizer Becky Davis said. She and co-organizer Jodi Boelens — who also is her cousin — had no idea what to expect, but it ended up being an incredibly fun day, Davis said.

“We want to bring back all this stuff that we had growing up,” she said. “Just have fun things all the time. I love doing stuff like this. We both do.”

Six teams entered a total of nine types of chili, with some of the teams selling out of chili within an hour-and-a-half, Davis said.

Cavanaugh and her friends, Laura and Jim Vock, of Bloomington, said all the chili was excellent, and that they enjoyed the variety.

Nineteen people donated blood, which far exceeded the three or so people that had been scheduled to donate, Davis said.

The Polo Chili Cook-Off was canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chamber Vice President Tammy Merdian said. Attempts to revive it in 2021 and 2022 drew only two- or three entries, so it had to be canceled those years, she said.

Chamber of Commerce Board members were ready to give up on the event, but Merdian said she convinced them to give it one more go under the direction of Davis and Boelens.

“I gave her [Davis] two boxes of old chili cook-off stuff and said, ‘Go through this and find what you can. Have fun with it and see if you can make it work,’” Merdian said, looking around the crowded event space in awe. “She did this. Her and Jodi.”

Davis and Boelens had about five weeks to plan the chili cook-off; Merdian handled setting up the blood drive.

“We were hoping for the best and we got more than the best,” Boelens said. She later added, “Next year, we are hoping for bigger, better and, maybe, at some point down the road, make this into like a whole fall festival for the town.”


Showmanship: First State Bank, Spice It Up Chili.

Nontraditional Chili: Teri Grobe, White Chicken Chili.

People’s Choice: Jason Dean, Vampire Chili.

Judges’ Choice: Mark Pellini, Sweet Chili.

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner

Alexa Zoellner covers Ogle County for the Oregon Republican Reporter, Forreston Journal, Mt. Morris Times and Polo Tri-County Press. She has seven-plus years of experience in journalism and has won numerous awards, including a first place award for investigative reporting from the WNA.