Inside the tailgating competition at Willowdale

English Country Afternoon theme offers stunning displays

By Cathy BranciaroliSpecial To The Times


First place winners Jennifer and Jonathan Bordelon’s display featured hearty food and a place to lounge at the end of the hunt, during Sunday’s Willowdale Steeplechase tailgating competition.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — Tailgating has been a part of the Willowdale Steeplechase tradition since its inception and the 22nd running on Mothers Day , May 11th,  was true to form.    Tailgate spreads ranging from elaborate displays to simple picnics graced the parking areas and many hosts urged those passing by join in their fun by dropping in for a bite or a beverage.

According to associate race director Lisa Hatcher, the tailgates add excitement to the always festive Willowdale atmosphere.  “The roots of the Steeplechase are with families and while the real stars of race day are the horses, jockeys, trainers and owners, we try to provide something fun for all family members, from terrier races, to the shopping tent to the antique cars.   Families are already celebrating Mothers Day and the tailgates bring another dimension to that celebration,” she said.

In addition to the family parties and spreads, an annual tailgate competition ups the ante considerably.   This year a select group of contestants vied for the competition’s top prize of a dinner party at The Whip restaurant.  They hoped to catch the judges’ eyes with gourmet food and stunning displays to illustrate this year’s theme of “An English Country Afternoon”.  According to Hatcher, the theme was inspired by the popularity of the PBS program Downton Abbey and the ongoing exhibition of its costumes at nearby Winterthur Museum.

I accompanied the judges, Diana McCulloch, Katie and Chad Groves of Studio 882 and the mother-son team of Sally and Adrian Reed as they sampled each contestant’s dishes.  Chief judge McCulloch advised, “We want this to be fun and relaxing for the participants.  They all went to great lengths to organize their display and prepare the dishes being presented today.  Now they should be able to bask in well-deserved attention for their efforts.”

After each stop the judges considered how well the entrants met four criteria – their interpretation of the theme, their use of local Chester County or British ingredients, their creativity and their presentation.  “Taste is critical of course so sometimes it takes a number of tastings to make sure we get it right,” said McCulloch with a smile.  The team’s champion taste tester was Adrian Reed, a young man totally committed to his work.  He captured the spirit of the competition by proclaiming at the end that he was stuffed.


Second place winner Francine Covelli used local ingredients to best advantage according to competition judges.

Ultimately, the tailgate competition’s top winners were Jennifer and Jonathan Bordelon of Mechanicsburg.  Their choice of menu featured hearty hot fare suitable for refueling after a long afternoon of hunting at an English estate.  The spread included shepherd pie, ground meat and sausage turnovers and a cheese tray featuring port wine cheese.  The centerpiece of their décor was a suede chaise lounge, exactly the spot the judges agreed where one would want to relax after a long hunt.

The second place award of a design consultation with Studio 882 went to Francine Covelli of Organic Life Farms.   The judges viewed her entry to be tops for local food.  Her lavender and herb themed presentation was decorated by English flowers including wisteria and featured a whole poached salmon with wild capers and cucumbers placed on a bed of locally grown baby kale.  Her refreshing infused lemonade made from the juice of 20 lemons and 20 limes relied on rosemary and basil for its distinctive flavors and was sweetened with agave rather than sugar for its smooth taste.


Third place winner Mary Ann Yost brought authentic British decor and creative dishes to her tailgate display

Third prize of an additional Studio 822 design consultation went to Mary Ann Yost of Easton, MD, who decorated her space with period English antiques from her late husband’s family including Willoware plates and a Trout plaque recognizing a heroic catch from 1944.  A creative cook, she made her own Devon Cream using crème fraiche, sour cream, sugar and vanilla.  Her mushroom pie was made with Stilton cheese, Stropshire cheese and sautéed local mushrooms.  A true horse lover, she was excited to be dividing her time between her tailgate and working in the paddock area.

When I signed on to be a tailgate judge wannabe, Diana McCulloch promised a laid back, fun afternoon.  It certainly was that.  And at the judging conclusion I had to agree with Adrian Reed.  I was stuffed.  Oh yes, and there was the horse racing.

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