Death by chili seemed to be the goal of those who devoured countless cups of the flaming hot stew at Sunday's Conejo Valley Days Chili Cook Off.
No fatalities were reported, but many tempted gastrointestinal disaster by snacking at some 35 chili stands in Conejo Creek Park. There were 70 entries, and many chefs boasted that their concoctions were terminally hot.
"It's the best chili out here. . . . Trust me," said Bob Delaney of Newbury Park, who constructed a cemetery near his stand for anyone daring enough to eat his "Graveyard Chili."
Patrons weaved through a set of foam rubber tombstones and past a gallows. Delaney, his mouth smeared with fake blood and his body pierced by toy arrows, helped serve up gallons of steaming hot chili that he said took more than 40 hours to prepare.
Across the midway, Doug Roberts of Thousand Oaks was hawking his "Texas Chainsaw Chili."
"This is Texas Chainsaw Chili Part 3," said Roberts, explaining that this was his third year participating in the massive outdoor cook-off that leads into the springtime Conejo Valley Days festival. "We put a little food coloring in there to make it look bloody."
The talk of the cook-off was the "Heaven's Gate Chili" booth, decorated by a poster of cult leader Marshall Applewhite, the Nike swoosh symbol, and the sneaker company's "Just Do It" slogan.
"We definitely have the most controversial booth," said Keith Stapp, who was one of seven friends from Thousand Oaks working the stand. "We pick a current event every year. . . . It was either this or cloning, you know, when they came out with the lambs. But we thought this would be a lot more exposure."
The cook-off's deadly chili was indeed a test of strength for some.
By 11 a.m., Richard Burns of Thousand Oaks had downed his fifth cup.
"Some of the super hot ones are good, but, God . . ." said Burns. "Water won't do any good."
Cook-off organizer Tom Glancy of the Thousand Oaks Rotary Club said good weather was a key ingredient in the event's success.
Sunny skies and warm weather--temperatures were in the high-70s--brought out about 15,000 people from throughout the area.
Dressed in beach gear, they got an early start on their suntans, played carnival games and listened to rock and country bands perform. Many waited in long lines to buy $2.50 cups of beer that cooled chili-singed tongues.
Glancy said beer sales account for the vast majority of revenue at the cook-off, a fund-raiser for civic groups that is expected to gross more than $60,000. "Unless you get rain, you ain't gonna screw it up," Glancy said. "We've got a great formula for success here."
Among the crowd was congressman and chili judge Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), who didn't mind taking a freebie.
"It's one of the congressional perks," he said. "Free chili."