MARSHALL, MI – Is it about the blues, or is it about the chili?
Why not both?
At the 24th Annual Bill Russell Memorial Blues Jam and Chili Cook-Off, the public can have both, and lots of it. The event, which happens at 6 p.m. Saturday at Marshall United Methodist Church, (721 Old 27 North, Marshall, Michigan), is a fundraiser for The Haven of Rest Ministries, a homeless shelter and faith-based aid organization in Battle Creek.
This year, the lineup includes Big Boss Blues Band, The Slytones, The Gator Boys, The Jacob Kershaw Band, Good Thang Goin’ and Ed Englerth Band.
Dee Russell, widow of Bill Russell, said her husband started the event just as a way for some musician friends to get together and jam. Then more and more people started showing up, making it into a food and music festival. Russell now coordinates the event.
“After a few years, we decided to do it as a fundraiser for The Haven,” Russell said. “And the chili cook-off took off. At first, we just had a couple crock pots of chili. Well, now we usually have about 50 chilies, so it’s grown a lot in 24 years.”
Russell said her husband, who died in 2006, was on The Haven’s board and would be happy with how it all turned out.
“The fact that we’ve been able to continue all these years and be able to raise a significant amount of money, I know he’d be amazed, really,” Russell said.
But is it a blues concert or a chili cook-off?
Russell said if she had to pick, she’d probably call it a blues event because that’s how it started.
“The food, the chili, it really was an afterthought,” Russell said. “We had a lot of people showing up, so we better feed them.”
The big lineup of bands means lots of blues music, including some duos on the lower level acoustic stage. Then, at the end of the night, the musicians will have a jam session.
Russell said the bands are donating their time and talents.
“We’re really grateful for that because if we didn’t have the music, that would be kind of a problem,” Russell said. “I don’t take that for granted that these guys have to bring their guitars and drums and whatever they have to bring, come out on cold nights and come and play.”
Jeff Rzepka’s chili recipes can be found among the Crock Pots of the cook-off, but the whole thing is a little more personal to him.
Rzepka’s a December graduate of The Haven’s Life Recovery Program. “The Haven is a good place for people who struggle with addiction,” Rzepka said. “I have for many years, but not anymore. And I would recommend it to anybody. It’s worth a year out of your life to get your life straightened out.”
Now, Rzepka’s got a job cooking food at Pastrami Joe’s in Battle Creek. He’ll be making his own chicken chili entry and will supply another chili to be entered under the Pastrami Joe’s banner.
Rzepka didn’t want to give away his chili secrets — developed while learning the art of food over 23 years, he said — but he did have some advice.
“You’ve got to let it simmer,” Rzepka said. “Put it on low and just let it go for two to three hours.”
As for why he’s entering his food, as he did last year, it’s about coming full circle.
“I reaped the benefits of it and now it’s my turn to give back,” Rzepka said.