Monday, May 8, 2017

NERCC 2017

Flying to Reno, NV with multiple connecting flights with two children is one thing.

Riding in a car for over eight hours is another. But, there is a first time for everything and our mission was accomplished. Friday, we set out for a weekend trip to Connecticut so the kids could compete in the New England Regional Chili Cook-off (NERCC).

In typical Eckley chili cooking fashion, we had to have some drama before we could go. Without fail, if Ghon and I were planning to overnight an event we’d have an issue. Heck, most cook-offs that we competed in, we had some kind of issue. Busted car windows, stoves catching fire, dogs eating freshly cut cubed meat, missing spices, missing recipes, staying up too late in general, or anything else that could cause a big argument. After years of dealing with this phenomenon with Ghon, I was ready for it with the kids.

A week beforehand, I bought their canned goods. Three days before, I checked and packed their chili gear. Thankfully, a table was being provided for us and our friends George and Laurie were bringing us a canopy. Two days before, I checked the weather and packed clothes. Enter obstacle #1 – Jonathan presented dirty clothes. The specific pants he wanted were dirty. He didn’t want to wear pants on the ride home. So I was given dirty laundry to pack. Sorry child, but I know I don’t fold your clean clothes with one leg inside out and I certainly recognize the second pair as being on your body yesterday. Now, I had to wash a load of laundry before I could finish packing. No big deal, right? Nope, got it done, no problem.

I wanted to leave Friday morning by 730, which means I would have been happy with 8:00. Yet, this was not meant to be. It was raining. Hard. And while that shouldn’t stop me, it made everyone drag their feet in getting ready. Please get out of bed, please go brush your teeth and give me your toothbrush. Why didn’t you pack your in-car-entertainment bag last night when you were supposed to? Yes, you need to bring your charger. No, I am not downloading a new movie right now. All this while I’m trying to get the cooler bag packed and assemble a snack bag for them and one for me, which shouldn’t be hard considering everything was already put together in the refrigerator.

Finally, I feel like I’m in a position to load the car. Donning Ghon’s raincoat, which is huge on me, I run out to back the car up closer to the shed so maybe I don’t get too wet. I stop and there is a horrendous noise from the brakes. Seriously? I had the car inspected last week. It made no noises last night. And now, as I’m hoping to leave in 15 minutes I get brake noises. I thought for a few moments that perhaps I just wasn’t supposed to go. I don’t have a second vehicle. Do I rent one? A friend offered to loan me one. But no, these are not truly realistic options. Maybe the noise will go away if I back up and down the drive way and keep braking.   Tried that for a minute or two with no success. Next option: phone a friend who is also a neighbor and mechanic. It’s close to 8am and he can check it out at 9:30. I hem, I haw, I can’t decide what to do then just say yes. Better safe than to have an accident. The kids are getting restless and we haven’t even left. I shoo them off to watch a movie and decide that I now have time for breakfast, and finish loading the car. I surrender. My lists (because I have at least 2, maybe 3 related to this trip) appear complete. Perhaps there is some reason I’m not supposed to leave now, and I have to leave and arrive later. I remind myself that if I forgot something it can probably be borrowed or bought while I’m there. I take a few deep breaths and it’s time to go.

The brakes scream at me at the end of my driveway. They give a little yell as I pull into my friend Jamie’s. Then, as I stop outside his shop bay door, there is nothing. No noise. The man is magic. He still throws the car on the lift for me and take a look. No bad brakes or rotors, no rocks stuck in inappropriate places. I have the all clear and we are off, finally, at 10am.

To survive the ride, we each have our own allotment of snacks and drinks. Call me mean, but I did limit the kid’s drinks. If not, I’d be stopping every 30 minutes for Genevieve to go to the bathroom. They each had books, a Nintendo DS, their tablets loaded with movies and headphones. I had my iPod and headphones. Headphones are key. No arguments about her movie being too loud or his game being annoying or heaven forbid if I just played music, that to have it anywhere near a volume I could appreciate would ultimately be too loud for them to hear over their noise pumping into their ears. So while we did do a little noise sharing, we each had our own. And to help with communication, I let them know that if they ever needed me and I didn’t answer right away – to wave. I’d catch it in the rearview mirror. There’s your parenting tip for this blog. Plug your ears and wait for the wave.

Roughly two-thirds of the way there and two stops in, it hit me. Jonathan didn’t have any pants. That’s just how my mind works. BAM random thought. Yep, we washed an entire load of laundry and never went back to get the pants he wanted to pack. No big deal. We’d just have to buy some there. Along with shoes. Because the day before at school, the sole of his left shoe ripped off the shoe and was taped together by the school nurse. His back up sneakers were donated to a shoe drive at school the week before. So now, we just have to buy shoes and pants. No problem.  We keep motoring.

The state motto of Connecticut is “he who is transplanted still sustains.” However, we have given it a new motto. It is now, “Connecticut, the state that squeezes farts out.” Not every moment of our drive was consumed by electronics and this was an interesting conversation. We hit traffic in Connecticut and trying to explain that we STILL had two hours to go despite me saying that 30 minutes ago is a little challenging. Yes, it’s been 30 minutes but we barely moved; there are new backups ahead of us, yes we will get there tonight… And somewhere in the beginning of the back- Jonathan, then Genevieve got a little gassy. Being the observant ones they are, they wondered why it wasn’t until they were in Connecticut that it happened. We’d been through West Virginia, Maryland, hours of Pennsylvania, a clip of New Jersey and New York, and now, in Connecticut, they start getting gassy. When they weren’t so sure of my explanation that perhaps it was the banana and honey bun that made them gassy, since sometimes too many carbs can do that, I changed the reasoning. It was Connecticut. It just squeezed them out. And just like that, giggles replace the moans about traffic and when will we be there. For at least 15 minutes. And until they decide to tell everyone the next day that this state pushes their farts out. Proud momma moment.

We survived the ride! Hotel at last!
Chili Bitch!

Saturday: time to cook. This is Jonathan’s 5th competition and Genevieve’s 2nd. Just like his Daddy, Jonathan asked me a few days prior if I knew of any weaknesses he had going into the event. He was a little concerned by his competition, knowing that winners of previous years and other events he’d cooked in would be there.  We all had a quick reminder discussion on a topic we’d reviewed on the drive: it’s just a cook-off. Have fun. Don’t get upset if you don’t win. Be humble if you do. Always congratulate the winner if it isn’t you. We were ready.

The other concept I’d covered with them is one of family. Our chili friends are our chili family. We help each other. We are always there for each other. When Ghon died, it’s hard to put into words the support we were given from our chili family. Go back a few posts and you can read about some of it yourself. As an example though, we knew our friend and event Chairman, “Mad” Mike Freedman would provide a table and chairs for us. Our friend Laurie had the canopy. We never would have fit these things in our little car. We were asked in advance if we needed stoves, pots, pans or anything else to lighten our load. We take care of each other - despite it being a competition. Most of the cooks we hadn’t seen since Reno. Some, I hadn’t seen in a year, others, a few years. Cook-offs are the best family reunions. We swap stories. We make plans for the future. We teach each other new tricks. We don’t always share recipes. Some things are sacred.  I love seeing cooks that didn’t always do well in their early competitions succeed. I get so proud of them! It’s amazing to me that I started competing at age 15, and now, I’m helping my two kids at 8 and 6 compete. Watching the kids all play together before cook time, during little breaks, after turn in and after awards – it makes my heart happy. That at the end of the event, they are friends, they are family, and it doesn’t matter who won or what they won; they are in it together.

Of course, going to cook-offs without Ghon is still odd and at times, a little difficult. Still not a year out, we haven’t gone through a full chili calendar of events where he would have been. Some friends were afraid to make me cry; some, I made cry. Many were concerned about how I was doing. Others needed to share a story or how they felt about him not being here. And it was all just right. Of course I threw a little loop in for everyone. Ghon had a lucky shirt that he wore every cook-off for probably close to 10 years. Just two days before the cook-off, my daughter in law found the same saying but different print on a shirt. I bought 3 and the kids wore them to cook in, and I put mine on later in the day. A little emotional for a few folks when they saw the kids in Dad's shirt. Of course, I had the lucky chicken, although it doesn't sound quite the same when I say I have a cock that hangs below my knee. However, those in the know knew why I was wearing it.

We don't give a rat's ass!

I brought several bottles from Ghon’s bourbon collection with me. One to our friend and Chief Judge Dave, for continuing to step in and help where we may have been running events and because I knew he’d appreciate the bottle and would need it after a long day. A bottle to our friend Matt, who has assumed a role as my financial advisor, and from whom Ghon won the bottle from in a bet. It was fitting for it to return to his purchaser, and ironically, presented moments after he commented he had done at the event! And the final bottles to our friend Scott, whom Ghon shared a bottle with many times in the past and considered a great friend, who built our beehives and helped me shop for the other supplies we needed, who video chatted Ghon through introducing bees to the hive, and who was just a phone call away  for me through a few incredibly difficult nights for me last year, and gives some of the best hugs when we are lucky enough to see each other. I know Ghon is happy with the choices I’m making in the great bourbon cleanout. A few more bottles to go…

Speaking of hugs, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Nathan for being another awesome hug provider. I’m not sure how or why I decided they needed to have my legs wrapped around you, but thank you for bearing with me – and teaching me another meaning to lick it and stick it – to fix Jonathan’s stove. Just tell me to get down in July when I go for it again. Side note; I’m really proud of you too.

Through the cooking period, I admit, I was a little edgy. I had to manage two kids with fire, hot pans, a close call with fire and a pot holder, and fight the urge to help them a little more than allowed. They both made their own recipes; not mine, not Ghon’s, not one new one. They had their own. They mixed and prepped them on their own. The end result – was amazing. Their chili turned out so good (unbiased mom opinion). I was so proud of them and told them a million times and a million more after announcements. There were eleven youth competitors and Genevieve came in 4th! I saw a few signs of Jonathan getting upset, and again, true to his dad’s fashion, he wanted to see his scores and comments. Once we determined he had finished in a tie for 6th and had a first place vote and great comments, he was happy as a lark. No whining, no crying and no “I’m not cooking ever again.” It was perfect. Even more perfect, yet slightly odd, they denied the chance to eat out. We went back to the hotel and they ate their own chili, straight from the judging cup, for dinner. I even saw them take a taste of each other’s chili. Incredible.

Youth Cooks Meeting with Judge Jerry Buma

Listening attentively!
Signing for their cups

Cooking time

Mr. Impatient's turn to cook

Filling their judging cups

The line of youth, headed to turn-in

The nervous and the proud parents, guard the kids and take photos of the turn-in parade. We also yell at spectators to make room so none of them have to dodge people or trip and spill their entries.

Handing out samples

They drive me crazy - but I love them so much!!

Waiting - together. Isn't that perfect??

Youth Cooks

My 4th place finisher!

With our buddy Connor.

The first way to make my kids happy while staying at a hotel is to go swimming. After a chili dinner in our room, we were off to the pool and hot tub, then the pool and hot tub again. The second is letting them eat just about whatever they want off the continental breakfast line.  

Sunday morning comes and we meet several of our friends at breakfast. Mad Mike joins us and gives the kiddos a stove to share! How amazingly cool? They were excited for sure, but also excited that mom let them take a mini donut and some cereal in a cup for snacks on the ride. Kids and their priorities.

G and her banana phone, which is a direct line to Mad Mike.

 We drive, we drive, and we drive some more. One missed turn because I saw it too late while jamming to my music, 3 bathroom stops, a lunch break and a stop to see Eric's new house - and we made it home. Quickly unpack and throw the kids in bed.  What a whirlwind trip. 

Trips like these - they are priceless. They teach us patience. Resilience. Flexibility. Sportsmanship. Friendship. The time it takes to get there and the time it takes to get home seems like forever. But the memories created, lessons learned in that blink of time spent with fr-amily makes it totally worth it. I'm so thankful that over 26 years ago, I was introduced to this crazy world of competitive chili cooking. I'm thankful that it forced my parents to get to know Ghon, since a 10x10 space doesn't leave much room to avoid someone. I'm thankful for the friendships we made together as adults. I'm thankful for those that help me and the kids remember their Daddy. I'm thankful for those that help create these experiences for the kids, as they are the future of this crazy hobby. I'm thankful for the other parents that bring their kids to compete and help look after all the kids as if they were their own (Lisa, you are a real MVP!). 

I'm thankful for Cindy and Laurie sharing some amazing photos with me too.

Until the next cookoff; I know something you don't know.


  1. Absolutley perfect blog! You are an incredibly strong woman.... see you and the kids on the trail :) #spitonit

    1. Thank you, Nathan. July, my house. #spitonit

  2. Thank you for making me smile before bed. I really needed that.