The Best Bowl of Red
Celebrating fifty years of chili in Terlingua, home of the dueling cookoffs.
In November 1992 Texas Monthly journalist Joe Nick Patoski wrote the story “Chili Relations,” about the dueling chili cookoffs in the Big Bend ghost town of Terlingua. Patoski was a judge in the Terlingua International Chili Championship, hosted by CASI, or Chili Appreciation Society International. That cookoff was started in 1983 when participants in the other cookoff, the Official Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff, which began in 1967, had a difference of opinion with its organizers, resulting in the split. Members of the former camp were serious about the competition and wanted a more formalized approach to the proceedings. Members of the latter cookoff, started as a gimmick to promote Dallas Morning News journalist Frank X. Tolbert’s 1966 book A Bowl of Red, a history of chili con carne, didn’t want to take themselves too seriously.
In observance of both cookoffs, Patoski wrote: “The Tolbert faction might be more steeped in history, but its determination to eschew rigid rules and structure at all costs increases the likelihood that it will gradually fade away with the memory of the original generation of chiliheads. Clearly, the future is with CASI, which raises more than $5 million a year for charity and has emerged as the official cookoff sanctioning body, with some four hundred cookoffs a year.”
Well, it’s been exactly 24 years since Patoski’s article and the Official Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff, the “Tolbert faction,” is still going strong. (So, incidentally, is CASI’s Terlingua International Chili Championship.) In fact, next Wednesday marks the start of the four-day affair’s fiftieth year, benefiting ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. (The Terlingua International Chili Championship starts Tuesday.) Kathleen Ryan, daughter of Tolbert, who passed in 1984, continues to run the Official Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff, known as the “Behind the Store Cookoff.” This year she expects more than a thousand people from across the country, including Allegani Jani Schofield, an 81-year-old from Fredericksburg, who in 1974 became the first female champion.
The way Ryan remembers the origin story, Tom Tierney, a Dallas advertising man, dreamed up the cookoff as a way to get some press for Tolbert’s book, which would eventually come in the form of longtime Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright’s piece on Terlingua for Sports Illustrated. Tierney and Tolbert were buddies with fellow Dallasites Carroll Shelby, an auto racer and designer, and David Witts, an attorney, who together had purchased a 200,000-acre plot of land in Terlingua. The foursome pitted Wick Fowler, proprietor of the 2 Alarm Chili Kit, against H. Allen Smith, a best-selling New York humorist who had published an article in Holiday magazine titled “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do.”
Smith, the New Yorker, used beans. Get a rope. Beans are a no-no in Texas, where chili was born when the Chili Queens of San Antonio began selling it to passersby in Alamo Plaza as far back as the late-nineteenth century. “If you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans,” Fowler famously said, later inspiring the Cheatham Street Warehouse founder Kent Finlay to write a song based on that line.
Terlingua at the time was a wasteland with a population thought to be in the single digits. But the cookoff had the makings of a classic Texas versus New York showdown, and organizers were able to drum up around five hundred attendees. When all was said and done, one judge voted for Fowler, one judge voted for Smith, and the third and final judge—David Witts, conveniently, one of the event organizers—repulsed by the beans and vegetables in Smith’s chili, claimed his taste buds were compromised and recused himself from voting. It was a tie.
“The older I get,” Ryan said, “I think maybe they were all having a mid-life crisis, and they wanted to do something just kind of crazy out in the desert.”
The wives and other females in the families of these founding fathers of the cookoff weren’t permitted to attend. It was a stag party, with beer flown in to propel the mayhem. However, that didn’t stop these women from making their presence known. In what Ryan described as “a women’s lib thing,” the wives of Shelby, Fowler, and others, chartered a plane to drop leaflets onto the grounds of the cookoff expressing their displeasure over not being invited. A couple of years later, when she was eighteen, Ryan was finally allowed to attend.
“I was mainly the gopher, passing out the judging cups,” Ryan said. “The judging was held at the Starlight Theatre, which didn’t even have a covered roof—it was a ruin. And C.V. Wood—the one that brought the London Bridge to Arizona—he was there. And just a lot of celebrities. There were Rolls-Royces. There were people cooking chili in tuxedos. There was the man who ran the Los Angeles International Airport—Woodruff DeSilva. There were just a lot of characters there. There were Kiowa Indians cooking chili on an open fire instead of Coleman stoves. It was a really large crowd of people.”
Ryan and her husband, Paul, recently moved to Terlingua and built a house. Her involvement in the cookoff has come full circle. In 1977, the year Texas adopted chili as the official state dish, Ryan abandoned her pursuit of a master’s degree in special education and joined her brother and father in opening the first of a number of Tolbert’s chili parlors, on Main Street in Dallas. A single restaurant remains on Main Street in Grapevine. “My dad always said beans and chili can’t be cooked together, because the beans just get mushy, but in our restaurant we serve ‘north of the border’ chili, and we just add beans at the end of the cooking process.”
In 1988 she appeared in U.S. Federal District Court, in Pecos, to fight for the right to keep the CASI distinction, which the other cookoff competition had appropriated from the Tolbert gang, who had previously appropriated it from a Dallasite named George Haddaway, who formed CASI in 1951. ““There was a crazy [district] judge, Bunton, [presiding over the court] that would shoot his water gun at people if they didn’t agree with him, and so we lost that name, but we are the original cookoff.”
Ryan has been a judge in roughly the last thirty cookoffs and knows what makes winning chili. “My dad used to say if it smells bad he wouldn’t even taste it and go on to the next one. You can only have one spoonful. It’s the aroma, the color, how it tastes. If it’s too hot, that could be bad.”
Not a lot has changed at the Behind the Store Cookoff in fifty years, except its location. In the split, it moved to land owned by the White family, who made tamales that Tolbert praised in his Dallas Morning News column. People still camp in tents and RVs. And live music is still a nightly fixture. This year the Texas Tornados, among others, will join Gary P. Nunn, the Texas country singer whose “London Homesick Blues” was long the theme song for the Austin City Limits TV show.
Count on Nunn’s rendition of “Terlingua Sky,” the ballad that, according to Ryan, Larry Joe Taylor wrote expressly for the cookoff. It goes a little something like this:
Well, you know, we’re probably too old for this.
Maybe the rest of the world is too young.
We drive 500 miles to get loose and get wild.
And stay up till the last song is sung.
Terlingua, November 2–5, abowlofred.com
Other Events Across Texas
A Case of the Blues
The music writer John Morthland, who covered the tumultuous Altamont Speedway Free Festival for Rolling Stone and later wrote for Texas Monthly, died this past March. But his spirit lives on in the black and white photos comprising “Mississippi,” an exhibit documenting a 1996 road trip that Morthland and his buddy, Texas Monthly contributing photographer Wyatt McSpadden, took in part to chronicle blues musicians.
Lewis Carnegie, October 28 to November 10, wyattmcspadden.com
DALLAS / AUSTIN
Music for Bloodsucking
If you thought Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre paid proper homage to the 1922 German vampire movie Nosferatu, wait until you see the Invincible Czars, an Austin band, live-score the silent film—playing this Sunday in Dallas and on Halloween in Austin—with period music borrowed from Romanian folk dances.
Texas Theatre, October 30, 7:30 p.m. and Alamo Drafthouse, October 31, 7:15 & 10 p.m., invincibleczars.com
Are You Ready to Rumble?
The Lone Star Rally, celebrating its fifteenth anniversary, claims to be the largest motorcycle gathering in North America, with a quarter million bikes expected this year. For the bikers that means stiff competition in the Motorcycle Rodeo, where the “Barrel Roll” and “Weenie Bite” are worthy contests, and for the onlookers, earplugs.
Downtown, November 3–6, lonestarrally.com
Beer, Brats, and Bowling
There are plenty of other places in Texas with deeper German roots, but don’t let that stop the thirsty people of Plano and the greater DFW area from renting lederhosen and uniting at Steinfest, an Oktoberfest celebration with beer, sausage, and live music, of course, in addition to keg bowling and a wiener dog fashion show.
Downtown Plano Arts District, October 29, 10 a.m., steinfest.org
The Great Awakening
Just as the San Antonio power trio Girl in a Coma was coming to life on a national scale, frontwoman Nina Diaz pulled the plug and started a solo career. The decision seems to be a keen one, as her debut album, The Beat Is Dead, has secured a coveted spot on NPR’s First Listen, but fans can judge for themselves when Diaz plays a hometown record release show on Friday at the Tobin Center.
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, October 28, 8 p.m., ninadiazmusic.com