New Castle News

February 4, 2013

Photo Gallery, Story: Shenango chili cook-off creates scholarship money, community interaction

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Who says you need a spaceship to travel between worlds?

Sometimes, a bowl of chili works just as well.

That, Shenango art teacher Jason Naelitz said, was the concept behind Saturday’s second annual Chili Cook-Off in the high school cafeteria.

The event was sponsored by the school’s arts, languages and life skills departments. For $10, visitors got to choose a ceramic bowl handmade by Shenango art students, try each competitor’s chili, vote for a winner and enjoy live musical entertainment, also provided by Shenango students.

“I teach digital media, so I’m really trying to advance technology,” Naelitz said. “But at the same time, you want to have something authentic, something you can touch – working with your hands, and getting your hands dirty. Making the bowls is one way to do that.

“It’s also the whole idea behind this day: to have some human contact with our students and parents. We live in an era with the Internet and everything is ‘cyber-this,’ everybody’s on the computer. There’s nothing wrong with that. But we wanted some real face time with the community; a get-together that takes place in real space instead of cyberspace.”

In addition, Naelitz explained, money raised from the event goes to a scholarship fund for students in the participating departments.

Senior Nicole Essinger, a fourth-year art student, has participated in both last year’s and this year’s programs.

“I think it’s really cool to have everyone in ceramics make their own bowls and sell them,” she said. “Last year, I made chili, too. I didn’t make any this year, but I plan on trying them. I like the spicy ones.”

Visitors to the cook-off also had the option of paying just $5 and getting a utilitarian foam bowl rather than a handmade ceramic one. Early on at least, most folks went for the upgrade. About 150 ceramic bowls were made for the meal, and just over an hour into the three-hour event, about 100 already had been purchased.

Meantime, French club students added to the affair by making crepes, and others such as Jesse DeLorenzo, Mike Gaydos and Gabriel Davis – members of the band Dime Store Novel – performed live for diners.

Ultimately, the Shenango Conservation Club’s chili was named the best of the day with 137 votes, while $800 was raised for the departments’ scholarship fund.

For Naelitz, a highlight of the event was a visit from Richard Wukich, a professor of ceramics at Slippery Rock University and Naelitz’s mentor in the medium.

“He really turned me on to ceramics, and I loved it,” Naelitz said. “I only took one ceramics class, but I found myself thinking, ‘Man, I wish I’d have taken more than one. But I’ve tried to teach myself more and more about it, and the kids love it.”

He added that his efforts are assisted by the presence of a gas kiln in the art room, “which is rare; not every school has that.”

“The guy who came before me was really specialized in ceramics,” Naelitz went on. “I took over about four or five years ago, and I have tried to keep that alive.”