Kickin’ It Up in Keyport: Chili Festival

Monmouth County will be a much spicier place October 11 and 12, when the 17th annual Screamin' Country Jamboree and Chili Fest returns.

A steaming bowl of chili from last year's Screamin' Country Jamboree and Chili Fest in Keyport.
A steaming bowl of chili from last year's Screamin' Country Jamboree and Chili Fest in Keyport.
Photo by Matt Rainey

“I love chili and try it at most places I go,” says Greg Tomczak, 37. The Keyport resident will no doubt be digging into the spicy stuff October 11 and 12, when his hometown puts on its 17th-annual Screamin’ Country Jamboree and Chili Fest. Last year, more than 500 chili aficionados cast their votes for their favorite fiery fare.

“There was a good mix of sweet and spicy flavors, and I enjoyed them all,” says Tomczak.

In addition to finger-licking food, the outdoor festival in Keyport’s Waterfront Park will feature live country and rock bands, games and carnival rides for kids, a beer garden, Saturday-night fireworks and dozens of vendors and craftspeople. Since 1996, it has drawn thousands each year to the Raritan Bay town known as “the pearl of the Bayshore.”

“The Jamboree has a definite country feel, complete with a pumpkin pancake-eating contest and a screaming contest,” says Stuart Koperweis, executive director of the Keyport Bayfront Business Cooperative, the event’s organizer. “It really kicks it up a notch.”

The main attraction is the October 12 chili cook-off. About 10 local restaurants are expected to square off for bragging rights. Chili lovers fork over $5 for a sampling spoon, napkins, a map of participating eateries and the right to cast their vote. Last year’s chili contest raised $2,600 for the Keyport First Aid Squad. (This year’s beneficiary had not been named by press-time.)

Defending his 2013 chili crown will be John Merla, owner of Jersey Shore Subs & Soups on Main Street. “Our chili is a four-day process that’s just over the top,” boasts Merla, Keyport’s former mayor. Last year, Merla sold all 35 gallons of his smoked pulled-pork chili with garden vegetables and secret seasonings he created for the Jamboree. “We have lines out the door waiting to taste it,” he says.

Merla will face competition from the likes of Burlew’s Seafood & Steak, the 2013 runner-up. “Ours has a really nice spiciness to it,” says owner Ed Burlew.

The Screamin’ Country Jamboree is a welcome return to small-town pleasures for a town hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. It’s also a good way to get to know Keyport and its numerous restaurants and shops. “Keyport puts a lot of emphasis on building community and is a wonderful town to raise a family,” says resident Donna Bonk, 38.

The Screamin’ Country Jamboree and Chili Fest runs from 11 am to 6 pm in Keyport’s Waterfront Park (West Front Street and American Legion Drive). Entry is free, but tickets must be purchased for games and rides. For information, call 732-739-5138 or visit the event website.

Susan Bloom is a Chester-based reporter.

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