Associating July 4th celebration in Palo Alto with chili

Chili on a warm summer day. Perfect for July 4th. Hadn’t done this in years – attending the chili cook-off on July 4th at Mitchell Park in Palo Alto. So, it felt like a novelty again: braving long lines of chili enthusiasts, savoring fresh made, delectable chili in small paper cups, basking in the sun and the music, watching impromptu dancers in the circle — a delightful and fun way of celebrating the 4th.

I enjoyed the activity with a family friend at a lovely setting in the midst of crowds of happy families from various localities, all raring to partake in this highly touted community event that featured chili tasting. I would not have gone if my friend hadn’t needled me about celebrating in the outdoors. July 4th in America equates with barbecue and picnics – these, of course, not without some patriotic sentiment. But July 4th commemoration in Palo Alto, for decades, has been equated with chili. I’m glad I succumbed.

Parking was the first challenge. We could have walked from my home about seven blocks way, but of course, we preferred to not sweat it out in the 80+ degree weather. We lucked out. Found a spot adjacent to the park, and that pleasantly kicked off our celebration. Our steps became faster as wafts of chili aroma reached us, and we imagined hot chili brewing in pots in some 18 booths that lined up nearly the whole stretch of the park. On the stage in the park’s rotunda, a band was blaring danceable music. Some children and adults were gyrating in hula-hoops to the rhythm of the music. Others were performing the swing or disco moves. Several moms and dads slowly pushed their babies’ strollers back and forth in front of the stage, as though making their babies soak in the ambience of the party. Throngs of onlookers watched from the cement benches circling the rotunda. Many sat on the grass underneath shady trees. And others were eating their picnic lunches. It was a fiesta! And I love fiestas.

Five dollars for five tickets for five cups. Not bad at all. Five small servings of chili from different booths actually filled me up. Beans, meat in tomato sauce, some hot and others mildly spiced. We strategized our chili tasting. After exchanging our ticket for a cup of chili, we ate it as we joined another long line. By the time we finished savoring the saucy mix, we were in front of another booth to pick up our next chili cup. This pattern continued until our last cup.

Customer lines were loooooong, but the wait was not terrible at all. Amazingly, service from all the booths went fast. We just kept moving. Loud lively music from the band entertained the attendees. I saw some folks swaying with the beat or jerking fancy dance moves as they ambled on the lines. It was easy to pick light conversation with those around. People were in party mood. The atmosphere was festive. It was interesting to see that great numbers of community volunteers were busily at work to keep the celebration going. Everything went smoothly.

Remembering the chili cook-off of over 9 years ago (the last I attended prior to this year’s), it seemed that the crowds were more enormous this year. The chili booths tripled in number, and the paper cups for chili tasting doubled in size. That, to me, was the best surprise. I love chili – and most especially enjoy discerning the variances in taste and flavor from different “secret” recipes and techniques devised by chili chefs. I critiqued to my friend every portion that I tasted. In the loudness of sounds around us, I doubt if she heard my animated comments. The cook-off was a contest, and tasters had the chance to vote. My choice didn’t win, but I surely would want to have that team’s recipe.

After my fifth cup, I was full. Yet, I craved for the hot dogs or burgers from the barbecue stand. The smoky fragrance of grilled meat was awfully tempting. Since my friend didn’t want any more food, I resisted. Better to make my own chili when I get home, I thought.

When I got home, I had Ramen soup instead.

Linda P. Jacob