December 08, 2002
Our cookoffs are the chiliest

The Sunday Texas magazine in the Chron has an excellent story on the grandaddy of all chili cookoffs, in a little west Texas town called Terlingua. Jim Henley will no doubt be pleased to learn that the Terlingua tradition started because of beans:

In 1967 New York humorist H. Allen Smith published a piece in Holiday magazine titled "Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do." Smith put beans in his recipe. This chafed good Texans everywhere, especially a select group of gourmets from Dallas, who know that if you put beans in your chili, you don't know beans about chili.

As descendants of cowboys who had worked cattle drives, Texans also had a beef with anybody telling them how to cook beef. Chili, the humblest of grub, inflamed passions.

Dallas newspaperman Frank X. Tolbert challenged the Ignorant Yankee to a cook-off against Honorable Texan and fellow newspaperman Wick Fowler. A showdown was arranged in Terlingua, where Dallas chilihead Carroll Shelby owned half the desert and thought he'd show some property to anyone crazy enough to come down. Terlingua was also good and remote in case the boys got a little rowdy.

The notion of chili contests dates to the 1952 Texas State Fair, when Mrs. F.G. Ventura of Dallas beat the field to have her recipe declared the "official State Fair of Texas chili recipe."

"Just have a family that loves chili," she said to explain her success to the Dallas Times Herald.

The Terlingua contest, which resulted in a tie, was deemed successful, worthy of annual revisits. Soon the ghost town was calling itself the "Chili Capital of the World."

City slickers unleashed in the wild can be a frightening bunch. Among the cook-off's early characters was Wino Woody, who once set himself afire with vodka he put in his chili. Another cook was said to use tarantula venom. This was normal behavior. After all, the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) that the Dallas boys established had but three functions, says Tom Nall, former owner of the Conejos Ranch in Colorado: "Cook chili, drink good whiskey or cold beer, and tell lies."

Reading this article gives the sense that this is the chili enthusiast's version of Burning Man, with more beer and less nudity but the same eccentric characters. I should note that Wick Fowler cashed in on his cookoff fame by creating Wick Fowler's 2-Alarm Chili Mix, a package of which sits in our pantry and which mentions the famous 1967 event on its cover.

One thing I'll add to the pot is that various forms of game meat can be used to excellent effect in chili. My father-in-law has bagged a couple of caribou on hunting trips to Alaska, and I'm here to tell you that caribou meat makes some fine chili. We just finished off a batch of it, in fact.

Some chili cooks hide a dark secret when they're not at a competition:

[Carol] Straughan, recent winner of a CASI cook-off in El Paso, is getting psyched for Saturday's chili competition. Of her recipe, she says, "It's pretty basic. I use a very good blend of chiles, New Mexico hot. But every chili cook has his secret, so you don't know what else I put in it."

That extra secret is known in the trade as a kicker.

The goal, she says, is to awaken the taste buds with one spoonful. "You have to make it so that when the judge tastes that one bite they say, `This is the best chili I've ever tasted.' It has to be hot enough. It has to be spicy enough. It has to have the right consistency, a good pleasing color and aroma."

It's not the same chili she makes for herself. "At home you want to sit down and eat a bowl. The kind I make for competition, most anyone would have a hard time eating a bowl of it because of the spices. And at home I put in beans, just throw in whatever."

Oh, the horror. (Emphasis mine.)

Finally, for the three of you that have probably never given any thought to chili cookoffs, here's the canonical humor piece about judging them.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 08, 2002 to The great state of Texas | TrackBack

Anybody know where you can locate some of he old Terlingua cookoff posters? Many thanks

Posted by: Tom Stephenson on June 21, 2004 2:14 PM

Tom Stephenson: did you used to write for the DTH? If so, please email me as I have a client interested in hiring someone to ghost write a racing horse book.

Posted by: thaddeus on February 18, 2006 8:26 AM

i have several old terlingua posters some back to 1984 if interested email me at

Posted by: bill on May 6, 2006 3:47 PM