The Chile and Frijole Festival started in 1995 as a way of identifying and celebrating Pueblo's unique culture through the harvest of Pueblo's chilies. Events, exhibitors and attendees have grown over the years; more than 50,000 were expected to "Experience the Flavor" at this year's festival, held last weekend. We were among them.
We got there early enough to wander amid a moderate crowd; by early afternoon there was almost pedestrian gridlock. By late afternoon many bushels of freshly roasted peppers were sold, the bands were gearing up and the beer was tasting better and better. By the time darkness fell, it was a party.
Held in the Union Avenue Historic District, the Festival offers a variety of food booths and vendors as well as proximity to the many antique shops and restaurants along the District.
Festival vendors range from the schlocky (does anyone ever buy those blow-up space alien dolls?) to the crafty (sequined and beribboned tiaras for princesses of all ages; handmade leather goods) to the civic-minded. You can pick up a free copy of BlueSky, a magazine celebrating life in southern Colorado, or you can gather information from the Pueblo Chemical Depot Outreach Office on why we should dispose of chemical weapons and how to do it safely. With the aroma of roasting chilies in the air, chemical weapons seem a far-off threat, but knowledge is power and the information is free.
But, hey, this is a food festival at its heart, and we were there to eat. Our goal was to sample something from every booth and we almost succeeded. We passed on the soft ice cream and Hawaiian shaved ice, grilled brats and turkey legs, but gorged ourselves on roasted corn, tamales, quesadillas, breakfast burritos, bean and cheese burritos, green chili, Pueblo sloppers (essentially a Sloppy Joe with green chili) and menudo. Yes, tripe stew. Definitely an acquired taste.
Menudo aside, most of what we tried was pretty tasty. Tres Rios Farm Coop and Torpedo Farms had booths offering their best organic produce and natural pork products. The folks from Torpedo Farms had the grill going with kielbasa and hot sausage grinders available. This has been a terrific year for Colorado corn and the ears roasted at the festival were as sweet and tender as corn can be.
We did make one classic festival mistake. One vendor, Cinfully Delicious Catering, had a long line. Another wagon not too far away had a very short line. Because all we wanted was another bowl of green chili, and we were short on time, we went to the short line. We went to the wrong line.
The chili was so gelatinous and nasty we took it back. Lesson learned: Locals know where to eat. That line was long for a reason.
Cinfully Delicious, incidentally, swept the salsa competition (the condiment, not the dance), held as part of the chili judging inside the stately Vail Hotel. About 64 hopefuls entered samples and secret recipes for red chili, green chili, salsa and beans that were then judged by nine of the hardest-to-impress palates in Pueblo County: City Council members, chili pepper growers and roasters, and just plain locals. Romero's cafe, Papa Jose, Molly's Tamale House and Starr Bar shared honors for red and green chili.
The festival ought to hand out awards for the most enticing pepper displays. Some of the growers had stunning displays of colored baskets, peppers of every type spilling out, jars of salsa, pickles, condiments and sauces lined up like soldiers, ristras ranging from 4-inch minis to 2-foot behemoths. And behind each booth, huge roasting barrels filled with peppers tumbling around and around.
Each day at the festival offered special events. Voyeurs watched braver participants in the Jalapeo Eating Contest held on Saturday.
Children's events, held on Saturday and Sunday, included a Piata Drop, a Tortilla Toss and a Bean Spitting Contest. Runners of all ages signed up for the Hot-to-Trot 5K on Sunday morning.
This year's festival is over, but there's always next year. And, if the crowds start to overwhelm you, take a short stroll along the Riverwalk. Wander the shops along Union Avenue and browse the restaurants in the area.
Be sure to check out the extraordinary brick Victorian buildings that Pueblo has had the good sense to preserve. Between the festival and the environs, you'll feel you've left Colorado Springs a million miles behind.