Milwaukee’s Great Chiapas Chili Cookoff

The first cookoff was held in 1990 and “some contributors have volunteered every single year for 30 years,” said organizer Rick Sankovitz

Rick Sankovitz
Rick Sankovitz (photo: Photo Provided)

Born in Colorado and raised in Milwaukee, Rick Sankovitz is the team leader of an annual event at his Milwaukee parish, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church — the Chiapas Chili Cook-Off. This was established 20 years ago to celebrate the parish’s relationship with the Parish of San Ildefonso in Tenejapa, Chiapas, Mexico. For anyone who loves food, pulling this together must be a terrific gastronomic delight. Note: The proceeds go to support San Ildefonso.

Born and raised in a devout Catholic home, Sankovitz attended Catholic schools and Marquette University. Obviously a man strongly living his Catholic faith, Sankovitz said his parish is small but vibrant, and his fellow parishioners are always involved with what goes beyond the doors of the church building. That explains how he and his fellow parishioners have gotten involved to support the sister parish by participating in the chili cookoff.

Sankovitz said that a parish committee and the pastor, Father Jack Kern, decided to host a chili dinner for parishioners. The first cookoff was held in 1990. Parishioners were asked to sign up and bring their chili creations to the parish hall. “Every year about 35 different chilis simmering in crockpots are brought,” he said. “Volunteers bring it in and serve it to people who attend. People sample all the chilis. Even the chili-makers sample each other’s — ‘Let me try some of yours.’”

“Some contributors have volunteered every single year for 30 years. One staple is a pheasant chili that the volunteer calls ‘The Fowl One.’ We had one with African spices mixed with the regular ingredients. And then we have had some who make the hottest in order to make people sweat the most. One of the most popular is called ‘Ruth’s Radioactive Chili.’”

Sankovitz, who for 20 years has led the team that puts on this chili event, said that usually 240 people show up, and about 75 parishioners offer to volunteer. “We have a team who are dedicated to get this done,” he said. “They run the kitchen and take care of the money. Often we hold a silent auction of handmade items our parishioners have brought back from Chiapas, like dolls, purses and table runners. Americans feel like they want something they can put their hands on to feel connected to others.”

Sankovitz himself has traveled down to Chiapas three times and found how the locals live to be very enlightening. As he noted, they don’t have all the material things North Americans have, but they have a very strong faith and that makes a difference in daily life, the community and family life. “Our sister parish is in the mountains and that is why the Mayans survived the Spanish conquest,” he said. “The parish priest must serve 10 thousand families in 52 separate communities covering 100 square miles. One thing our parish contributed to our sister parish was a Jeep so the parish priest could visit.” Parishioners see their parish priest only once a month, but each community is served by a strong cadre of deacons, and in each community the faithful have constructed their own churches for regular liturgies, called hermitas.

Sankovitz concluded that this Chiapas Chili Cook-Off is really the universality of Catholicism in action — with prayers and generous efforts that nurture the souls of both those who are served and those who are serving and those who are served.