As a former Lehigh tour guide, one joke I made on every tour was, “If you want college students to do something, anything, offer them free food.”
Over four years in college it’s held true that free food almost guarantees a student presence at any event. So, it’s no surprise that when a representative for Bethlehem’s Spring on the South Side festival reached out to The Brown and White for an editor to be a judge in this year’s chili-tasting contest, I was quick to volunteer.
I’d never even heard of the Spring on the South Side festival, which is two decades old, even though I’ve lived in Bethlehem for four years. At first I didn’t question this, but as the day went on I thought to myself, “Have I really ‘lived’ in Bethlehem?”
Our team of judges met at the South Side Arts Office on Third Street, and we split up from there. One group would take the west side and the other the east. Each would choose their top three locations, and then we’d switch, sample the other group’s top three and determine a winner.
Our team made its way to West Fourth Street, where I live. Our first stops would be Molly’s Irish Grille & Sports Pub, Sotto Santi, Tulum and Deja Brew. We made a circle around my apartment, and as a looked up I could see my window. The city was bustling right beneath it, and if I wasn’t participating I would have had no idea.
As we hit each location, every chili consisted of a different concoction — its own special mixture of meats, spices and secret ingredients. But at every location one thing remained the same — plenty of Bethlehem residents, no Lehigh students.
I stood at Tulum and devoured a sampling of chorizo-based chili, one of my favorites of the day, and stared at Lehigh’s campus and students across the street. An invisible divide separated us. Blame the “Lehigh Bubble.” Blame “poor town-gown relations.” Blame students who were too hungover to get out of bed before noon on a Saturday.
I don’t really care what the reason is, but I do care how we fix it.
We began to deliberate how we could “persuade” students to get involved. As a senior, I promised myself I’d make more of an effort to explore the city of Bethlehem because I’d never live here again. But where’s the good in that? I would discover all the city has to offer, only to leave it behind upon graduation. It has to happen sooner.
As we continued to drop pins on the map of our chili tour the spicy samples and their decorative components became less of a priority to me. Everywhere we went, even in the rain, people greeted each other like old friends whether they knew them or not.
I’d spent so much time thinking how little the South Side had to offer us, and as I was repeatedly offered samples, drinks and genuine kindness I realized we were the ones who had offered so little to it.
Ten dollars. Or eight dollars and a food-bank donation. That’s all it would’ve taken students to experience any or all of the 19 chilis scattered across the South Side from the Steel Pub to the Comfort Suites. They wouldn’t just be buying a ticket to eat, though, they would be purchasing a ticket into the community that is the South Side.
As the judges deliberated we quickly came to an agreement, almost unanimously, on two finalists. We debated on sweetness and presentation and spice.
We chose the Puerto Rican Beneficial Society because, while they served us what was arguably one of the best cups of chili, complete with chunks of pineapple and a plantain for garnish, it wasn’t a number on the score sheet that stuck out.
The room was lit with red, green and yellow string lights and festive music played. I’d never been in a room where so many people were smiling as they adorned giant chili pepper necklaces and springy headbands. They cooked their chili in a pot so big the woman who made it needed to stand on a stool to look inside and stir it. They won the contest two years ago, and the chili pepper trophy sits front and center over the bar today. They welcomed the community, and this trophy meant the community welcomed them back. In that moment our solution was clear: A partnership.
It took me 13 samples of chili to realize it shouldn’t take free food. It shouldn’t take “persuasion.”
It takes a partnership. At Lehigh we have our own communities, but we are not separate from the Bethlehem community.
We are a part of it.