Students, faculty, and staff at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science taxed their analytical abilities to the utmost on Friday evening as they tackled one of the most challenging questions in marine science—who at VIMS makes the tastiest chili or cornbread.
The Institute’s annual Chili Cook-Off, now in its 6th year, is a community-building event organized by the Graduate Student Association (GSA), the official governing body of Master’s and Ph.D. students in William & Mary’s School of Marine Science at VIMS.
GSA Vice President Matt Freedman, a Master’s student who is studying the impacts of the invasive Asian clam Corbicula fluminea on the York River ecosystem, was the lead organizer for this year’s cook-off. He describes it as “a fun competition that’s designed to encourage faculty, staff, students, and their families to interact outside normal academic events.”
“This year’s cook-off was one of the most hotly contested to date,” says Freedman.“There were 28 entries overall—12 for meat chili, 8 for veggie or vegan chili, and 8 for cornbread. The participants and their taste buds were hard pressed to decide the finest secret recipes from among the many that the VIMS community had to offer.“
During the competition, more than 60 members of the VIMS community tasted small samples of each entry, using their scientific training in hypothesis testing and statistical analysis to choose a single winner in each of the three categories.
As an example of the tasters’ analytical rigor, Adjunct Professor Paul Panetta tasted each cornbread recipe both with and without a cinnamon honey glaze supplied by one of the chefs, noting that this helped to minimize bias in his experimental design.
Winning chefs for 2013 were graduate student Ryan Schloesser and his wife Jess (meat chili), professor Panetta (veggie chili), and Communications Director David Malmquist (cornbread). Second place for meat chili went to the family trio of Research Associate Professor Ryan Carnegie, Assistant Research Scientist Corinne Audemard, and future marine scientist and budding chili aficionado Léo Carnegie, with graduate student Carissa Wilkerson taking third. Second and third place for veggie chili went to graduate students Randy Jones and Lori Sutter, while second- and third-place prizes for cornbread went to graduate student Emily Loose and the graduate student duo of Katie May Laumann and Jon Lefcheck.
The top winners in each category won an apron (hand painted by Freedman) that featured a fire-breathing Bay scallop, brown pelican, or summer flounder. Second- and third-place winners were awarded cooking spoons decorated with designs that included a moray eel, Pacific octopus, cownose ray, starfish, pipefish, and diamondback terrapin. Freedman and fellow graduate students Cassie Glaspie and Gar Secrist made the creatures from Sculpey clay.
Perhaps the most stunning outcome of this year’s cook-off was the passing of the coveted Golden Bowl Award from students to faculty—with faculty/staff entries earning 92 total votes compared to only 87 total votes for student entries.
“This is the first time in the three-year existence of the award that it has gone to faculty and staff and not students,” says Freedman. “Hopefully they will display it proudly before the students claim it back next year. As always, may the best chefs win!”
In addition to community-building events like the Chili Cook-Off, the GSA also hosts periodic fund-raisers, with proceeds supporting student research, travel, and equipment purchases. The GSA’s next fund-raising event is their annual Yard Sale, which will take place in late August on the VIMS campus in Gloucester Point. For details, visit vims.edu/gsa.