Amateur chefs show their skills for a good cause at South County Love Your Neighbor Cook-Off

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP — There wasn’t much to interest vegetarians at the South County Love Your Neighbor Cook-Off at the Porter County Expo Center on Saturday afternoon.

Nine teams of amateur chefs vied to cook the best pork butt, ribs and brisket in the ninth annual event, which benefits Morgan Township and Kouts schools and fire departments.

For $10, diners migrated between team tables to load their plates with samples of the meats, which had been cooking “low and slow” since midnight.

Diners decided the people’s choice award for brisket by placing dollar bills in their favorite team’s voting jar. Eighteen other judges award trophies for first, second and third place in each category, which also included best baked beans, best barbecue sauce and best cherry pie.

All diners also enjoyed homemade cornbread, a piece of cherry pie and lemonade, courtesy of Birky Family Farms.

The event, founded and organized by Birky Family Farms owner Chris Birky, was held on the grounds of the Malden grain elevator until 2014, when a severe summer storm cleared the grounds almost as soon as the event started.

Birky moved the event to the Expo Center’s Buggy Wheel Pavilion in 2015, which has increased traffic, said Tammy Cox, who coordinated the evening’s prize raffle and is a member of Kouts’ True Value team.

“There’s always a horse show in the arena, too, so they know they can come over here and get a good meal,” said Cox, of Kouts.

Teams set up camp around midnight and cooked until the event began at 3 p.m.

Daniel Maday, David Maday and Tony Carta, of the Make You Squeal team, sponsored by Listing Leaders, camped out on lawn chairs while their ribs, brisket and pork butt cooked through the night.

The men stayed awake with the help of coffee and Mountain Dew, said David Maday, of Valparaiso.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “But win, lose or draw, it’s for a good cause.”

Bob Wichlinski, of Boone Grove, was the only one-man team, and he served brisket and beans with a salesmanship flair.

“I don’t know what’s in ‘em, but you take a first bite and you crave more,” Wichlinski joked with a diner.

Mary Erftenbeck, of the Task Force Tips team, was probably the lone vegetarian on a meat-cooking team.

Erftenbeck became vegetarian a few months ago, after watching “What the Health,” a Netflix documentary.

“That convinced me,” said Erftenbeck, of Valparaiso. “It sent me over the edge.”

Erftenbeck said she doesn’t “preach” to others to “do what I do,” and she joined the team to help further the cause.

“I’m supporting the communities and the money they’re raising for them,” Ertenbeck said.

Others at the event who practice a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle — like Jim and Lois Stone — put aside their healthy choices for one evening.

“I’m trying to be a vegan, and I’m coming to this,” said Jim Stone, of Kouts. “But we try to do that three days a week.”

Stone said he and his wife practice “meatless Mondays.”

“Good thing today’s not Monday,” Lois Stone said.

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