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SalsaFest coming back hot

Eastern Arizona Courier Article by Sam Ribakoff

After having to take a year off because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 15th annual SalsaFest will kick off again Friday and with it, the salsa-making competition.

Run this year by the Graham County Chamber of Commerce and the Safford Lions Foundation, 11 contestants so far have signed up to compete in the salsa-making competition, said Brooke Curley, marketing assistant at the chamber. This year though, the first place prize in the Judges’ Choice category for best salsa will take away $1,000 in prize money because of an increase in the festival’s sponsors’ support, Curley said.

The festival, which will be held on Safford’s Main Street September 24-26, will include an art show, live music, a community yoga event, a Chihuahua race, folklorico dance and the “Taste of the Trail,” where local restaurants will set up booths to share their salsas with the community. Chips to try the salsas will cost $5. Proceeds will go to the Safford Lions Foundation.

The Safford Lions Foundation will donate the money they make to scholarships for local students to attend Eastern Arizona College, said Michelle Wilson, a Foundation member. Wilson has also run the competition every year.

The SalsaFest Challenge, the salsa making competition, will take place at the City of Safford Town Square on September 25 at 11 am. There’s a $25 entry fee to compete.

“I tell them all good luck and may the best salsa win,” said Deanna Best, 2019’s first place prize winner.

Best’s “D Best” salsa has won 10 awards, from People’s Choice awards to judges awards, in seven years of participating in the salsa making competition.

In 2019, Best won both the Judges’ and the Peoples’ Choice Awards, for which she won $700 in total, most of which, she said, went to just paying for the raw ingredients needed to make the salsa.

This year the salsa competition will include three awards categories, Judges’ Choice, Peoples’ Choice and Best Presentation. All awards include prize money.

With all this money on the line, Best says she’s sticking to her tried and true fan favorite that swept the awards in 2019.

“My salsa is just something for everyone. I’m very passionate about it,” Best said.

Best described her salsa as mild and full of flavor and suitable even for kids and people with acid reflux.

Although she wouldn’t divulge all the secrets to her salsa, Best said it does include tomatoes, jalapenos and red pepper flakes.

“I’m very consistent with my salsa,” Best said, “I try to keep it where everybody can enjoy it.”

Best said she has worked in the food industry, managing restaurants like the local KFC for years. In 2015, she entered into her first SalsaFest competition with her “D Best salsa,” a recipe she said she just came up with one day in the kitchen when she was a teenager. Since 2015, she’s made five gallons of her salsa every year for SalsaFest.

“I could do it in my sleep probably with my eyes closed,” Best joked.

Although she bought a food truck after winning the competition in 2019 hoping she’d be able to sell her salsa, Best said she had trouble working with the county’s health department in getting her salsa bottled correctly to meet health codes. However, she’s hoping to restart that process sometime soon.

In the meantime, Best said she’s excited to try everybody’s salsa this year and excited to get back to celebrating the community at this year’s event.

Despite being “a little leary and nervous” about the rising number of Delta variant COVID-19 cases in the county, Wilson said the festival will hopefully be a “big morale booster” for the community.

“We’re kind of moving forward not really knowing, but it is an outside event and we hope people come outside and enjoy,” Wilson said.

Wilson said she will be reaching out to the county health department to talk about further COVID-19 mitigation strategies the festival can take.

“The viewpoint of the chamber is we are now 18 months into the pandemic and we’re trusting the public to do what is right for them when it comes to the spread of the Delta variant,” Curley said.

Despite that, Best said she thinks the increased prize money will bring more people out to compete.

“It brings everybody together and it’s a really good time. Who doesn’t love chips and salsa?” Best said.

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