By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
TERLINGUA--With Old Dixie and the skull and crossbones dangling overhead, some Hill Country cedar burning on the campfire, and Jell-O shots on the breakfast menu, a couple of West Texas chili rowdies offered a quickie site map of the action.
"It's kind of a clash of styles here. The people up there are the old farts and the judges. We stay down here and drink massive amounts of alcohol, and in order to be a judge, you have to be sober," said John Cross of San Antonio.
His group was camped out in an area called the "white-trash overflow," and they were eager for the newcomers to catch all the thrills.
catch at the Terlingua chili cook-off in the mid-1980s. Today his catch might be a tad more risqué.
"Did you see the guy with the lawnmower shaped like a big penis? He drives it around," asked one of his buddies.
But for those who had come more for chili than dissipation, the main event at the Chili Appreciation Society International cook-off was taking place nearby, up a caliche road, past a large illustrated sign reading "West Texas Breast Inspection Station," where middle-aged men sat waiting for takers. Here, an entirely different scene, more Rotarian than raunchy, was unfolding in an open area surrounded by recreational vehicles, tents, and campers, where French poodles replaced pit bulls, and Old Glory flew instead of the Stars and Bars.
With judging less than three hours away, more than 300 chili cooks were hard at it under small cabanas, each tending to a simmering pot of nearly identical Texas red.
"This is nirvana. This is like going to the Wailing Wall. This is what you cook all year for," said Dale Reinecker, 56, working behind a sign reading "Pain in the Ass Chili, Dallas Texas." Beer in hand, and with bottles of bourbon and tequila at easy reach, Reinecker sounded sober, euphoric, and cowed all at once as he prepared his chili.
A veteran of marketing and promotions in the real world, Reinecker was a mere tenderfoot when it came to big-league competitive chili. Just to qualify for Terlingua, each cook had spent thousands of dollars and traveled many more miles earning cook-off points for the championship event.
"This is my first year here. I'm a virgin. I've been cooking four years, and this is the first year I've qualified," he confided. "You feel a little bit intimidated, like you don't have a shot in hell to win, but just to come is gratifying. It's damn sure going in my Christmas letter."
But each fall, going back more than three decades, an outbreak of untreatable chili madness occurs in these remote parts. Chili heads by the hundreds and revelers by the thousands come from as far away as Canada, Ireland, and the Virgin Islands for the tribal rites.
On the first weekend in November, competing chili cook-offs unfold simultaneously a few miles apart on either side of an old ghost town that was once home to miners who dug mercury ore from these bleak hills.
Almost overnight, hundreds of vans, pickups, and camping rigs clog the open areas. Wood smoke flavors the breeze, the spiky Spanish dagger plants sprout blooms of empty beer cans, and Stevie Ray sings again. The cook-offs draw an eclectic crowd, from the black leather, Harley riding members of "Los Carnales," a West Texas biker club, to well-groomed Dallas stockbrokers in new Suburbans.
Locals both dread and welcome the influx, which puts money into regional charities and cash registers, but also draws a squad of black-and-whites to local roads.
In the balance, though, chili is very good to Terlingua. "The cooks are the greatest people in the world. I cannot tell you how much they have helped our community. But you are a fairly sane person, you get in and you get out," said Angie Dean, owner of the Star Light Theater in Terlingua. "I had a couple in here the other night from Dallas. They were talking about coming down to eat chili at the cook-off. I told them, there's not much chili eaten at the cook-off. It's a place to have fun."
Over the decades, the high desert bacchanals have come to mean excellent chili, wild behavior, and instant amnesia--in short the perfect lost weekend.
"The old saying goes. What happens in the basin, stays in the basin," said one cook.
Both cook-offs are direct descendents of the original that was staged near here in 1967 as a publicity stunt by a group of playful guys from Dallas, led by Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert.
The rough and rowdy Terlingua cook-off quickly became a defining event of Texas popular culture, drawing characters ranging from folk humorist Hondo Crouch, with his sidekick Rocky Caliche, to singer Jerry Jeff Walker, who cut his Viva Terlingua album after attending several cook-offs.
"It was referred to one time as the adult Woodstock. It was sort of like Woodstock, pretty loose, but the fans were country-western fans," said Chris Regas, a Dallas photographer who began attending in 1969. "But even in the early days, when it was wild and loose, we didn't have any police force, and there were never any fights."