If you are looking for the John Olivarez family on the evening of Nov. 21, look no further than Heritage House, 660 N. Spring St.

You’ll find them there judging the annual Chili & Soup Cook-Off sponsored by Neighborhood Council 15.

For a quarter of a century, judging has been a family affair for John Olivarez, his wife, Gerrie, and his mother, Joanne. John is responsible for the chili; Joanne and Gerrie, the soups.

“How can we ever thank them enough,” says Barb Wiley, Council 15 president, noting that on several occasions the cook-off coincided with their wedding anniversary. “But they came anyway.”

Sitting in The Gathering Room at Heritage House with event organizers C.J. Anderton and Pearl Wise, Barb recalls John Olivarez was asked to judge the neighborhood event because he was Hispanic and then owned a small Mexican restaurant on the site of the defunct Natatorium swimming pool in Independence.

“And we thought, ‘Who better (than John) to judge?’” Barb recalls.

Held the Thursday before Thanksgiving, the cook-off has become a popular event, says C.J., Neighborhood 15 historian and cook-off coordinator the past eight years.

“I do believe it has become a tradition,” she says, explaining neighbors, as well as residents of the high-rise look forward to the get-together each year.

The first cook-off was started in 1988 as an annual fall neighborhood get-together, offering neighbors a chance to come together, share stories, enjoy good food and get acquainted.

Heritage House, which Barb says has hosted the event since its inception, invites all of its residents and those of Neighborhood 15 to participate in the event – either as a cook-off participant or as a spectator – and sample the many entries. The meal also includes homemade deserts, which are not judged, and a beverage – all for $5 per person. Cooks eat free.

Entering the cook-off is as simple as locating the signup sheet next to the elevator on the ground floor, then checking one or more of the following categories: chili, soup, desert. Neighborhood 15 residents are asked to call C.J. at 836-0209. She will add their names to the signup sheet.

Entries will be accepted in the dining room from 5:30 p.m. until judging begins at 6 p.m. The meal will be served around 6:30 p.m., following the presentation of medals to the winning cooks.

“The first-, second- and third-place winners in each category receives a medal that they wear around their neck,” says Pearl, president of the Heritage House Residence Organization. “The overall winners get a wooden spoon.”

The prizes, though, have changed over the years.

“Back in the olden days, we gave a can of beans to the chili winner and a wooden spoon to the soup winner,” Barb recalls, noting the awards – whatever they may be – “are basically bragging rights” for the winners.

As for the medal, “That is what (the winners) like,” Pearl says. “… I can’t tell you how many times people tell me how proud they are of their medal.”

Competition is still keen but not as fervent as it used to be.

“I think we had more (competitiveness) in past years,” Pearl notes, explaining residents new to Heritage House aren’t as competitive as their predecessors.

Because of the transition of new residents, “We have gone into a new phase,” Pearl says, explaining that during the last few years, most residents who were here from the beginning have passed away.

“So we have a whole new crew of residents here that are not familiar with the program, and we are trying to acquaint them with the programs … and the (cook-off),” Pearl adds.

Like the after-meal entertainment in The Gathering Room, where the American Rhythm Ensemble dancers have been entertaining for years. This energetic group of area children and teenagers are known for their high-energy, crowd-pleasing performances, including skits, dancing, songs, music and more.

“I think the people here at Heritage House really enjoy looking forward to all the energy they create, says C.J., noting that in earlier years, the now-defunct Heritage House Band provided music for the event.

A Heritage House resident since 2006, C.J. encourages everyone in the neighborhood to try to attend the fun-filled event.

“To (attend) for the first time,” she says, “to get a feel not only for their neighbors at Heritage House, but for the opportunity to see how much fun this event can be.”

And in doing so, “It might just instill in (them) the desire to become more involved in other activities, as well as this activity in the future.”

So mark on your calendar: “Cook-off. Heritage House. 6:30 p.m. Nov. 21.” Ya’ll come! It’s the place to be.

Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. Leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.