BONNERS FERRY — People gathered together in the Memorial Hall of the Boundary County Fairgrounds on a chilly day to warm their hearts and bellies with another kind of chili. The inaugural “Veteran and First Responder Chili & Cornbread Cook Off” started at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 5.
With about 20 chili competitors showcasing a wide variety of chilis from sweet, to smoky, to spicy, the attendees had a tough job picking their favorite. And chili lovers were not disappointed by their choice of sides, as they got to sample a variety of classic and unique cornbread entries as well.
People were invited to the event either as a competitor or a judge. The intent was to show support for those at risk of post traumatic stress. This time of year, as the holidays end and families return home, veterans and first responders often need the community support the most.
Bonners Ferry VFW Post 3622 Commander Tom Chaney co-organized the event with veteran John Riddle. Both were moved to put on this event due to their own struggles, losing veteran friends to suicide.
“I’m just tired of seeing it. So many times you don’t see the warning signs. They always talk about the warning signs, the issues, the struggles,” said Chaney. “This is the time of year where the family is there, and then they leave, and they are gone.”
“The family leaves and now you are stuck in the house by yourself or not as much family. The depression hits right away. The main reason for doing all of this is to show everybody that we are here,” said Chaney, who is also a North Bench firefighter.
For Riddle, the circumstances are similar. He came from a family of law enforcement and is a veteran himself. He lost a man that he considered his brother to suicide about three years ago.
“I didn’t see it coming ... his family didn’t see it coming ... but I still feel somewhat responsible that I didn’t see it,” said Riddle. “I know mentally that that is not rational, but in my heart I am always going to feel like I could have saved him.”
“We are at 20 a day ... veterans that commit suicide. That is ridiculous. It is a stupid number,” he continued.
However, the day was not about sadness, it was the joy of being together. Many first responders turned out as well, partaking in the food and games, with firefighters and paramedics cavorting around the cake walk, eliciting laughter from their peers.
“I am very happy with it,” said Riddle. “The people who have talked with me, the people who have made comments ... everyone is getting their belly full so I can’t complain at all.”
“I think it is terrific,” said Boundary County Sheriff Dave Kramer. “All the effort that John and everyone else put into this. It is good seeing all the first responders groups in the community supporting this. It’s some really good chili and cornbread.”
Tony Fleck, owner of Two Tones Cafe, also attended.
“I am here because I am a veteran and I appreciate veterans and first responders, and anything that I can do to support the community — giving back what was so freely given to me, so that is why I am here today,” Fleck said.
When the beans were counted, there were more than 300 votes for the favorite chilis and cornbread entries. Chaney won the chili competition with his Elk White Chili and Lori Werder won the cornbread division with her sweet heat, which had a bowl of mango habanero butter along side of it.
“Thank you for coming out today,” Chaney told the crowd. “I hope we can continue this each and every year.”