Pop open some cans of beans and bust out the crockpots because the 3rd Annual Leslie Gaston Memorial Chili Cook-Off is just around the corner. This highly anticipated culinary event will be held on Saturday, Feb. 22, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. behind Ocie and Belle’s in downtown Alexander City. The cook off is much more than a competition – it’s a celebration of a really great person.

Leslie Gaston was an Alexander City native who passed away in 2015 from an amniotic fluid embolism or AFE. It is a life-threatening, acute and unexpected birth complication that can affect both mother and baby. Her daughter, Parker Ann Gaston, survived, and the chili cook-off – conceived by her sister, Kaci Patterson Letts – is a fun party that is reflective of Leslie’s fun, loving personality. 

“The event supports research for the AFE Foundation in hopes that no other family will lose a mother to this devastating birth complication. We hope people can come out and have fun, taste some amazing chili, as well as support an incredible foundation that can change lives,” Letts said.

Letts teamed up with Ocie & Belle’s owner Blair Gilliland, who was one of Leslie’s best friends, to bring the event to life.

 “This day is so much more than a good time. I never want to go a year without remembering my friend that I miss terribly. This event is our way of memorializing Leslie in a fun way while also giving back to the AFE Foundation,” said Gilliland.

The 2019 event had 32 teams. It is amazing how many different ways one can make chili: red sauce, white sauce, spicy sauce, sweet sauce, beans, no beans? Cheese options? Fritos? It’s all there, and the options are endless.

My husband, John Howell, and I have been involved as a team the past two years. Once we did a Mexican-style chili with avocado; and then, last year, we did a Thai-infusion chili complete with a fortune cookie. 

It was not enough. 

Cornerstone Insurance placed first; Alexander City Rotary Club took second; and Team Sigma came in third. A panel of judges makes the final call, and cash prizes and a People’s Choice selection are awarded each year. But really it’s all about the bragging rights.

Teams have discovered that to stand out amongst the crowd, they need to go all in and dress up with a theme. Last year, one team managed to cook over open fire and another set up horse saddles, hay bales and Western gear. 

Five dollars gets you in the door, and you can sample all the chili you want. 

Ocie and Belle’s will be open and slinging drinks to the live music. Don’t wear a white shirt, come hungry and we’ll see you there.

“On behalf of Leslie’s family and the AFE Foundation, we cannot thank Mark and Blair Gilliland enough for continuing to support the AFE Foundation through this event as well as the town of Alexander City for coming out the last few years and showing support. This event has turned out to be so much more than we imagined, and we are forever grateful to our family as well as participants and attendees,” said Letts.

Visit afesupport.org for more information about AFE.

 ~ Lacey Howell is a recovering English major from Auburn, who now lives on Lake Martin, sells real estate, rides horses and loves good wine. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram @LaceyHowell.