High Spoons

Bare breasts, a bowl of red, and bad blood among the chili brethren in the Big Bend. Texas doesn't get any better.

Nowadays, moonlighting deputies keep order in the larger CASI cook-off, but serious incidents are rare. Over the years, most of the actual bloodshed came in the so-called chili wars, as the political and sectarian combat among the factions is known.

And now, after more than three decades of cooking, feuding, filing lawsuits, splitting up, and rewriting history, there are as many versions of what happened as there are graying chiliheads with bad memories. Since an acrimonious split in 1983, the two cook-offs have evolved into very different creatures. The larger one won the original name, Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), in a court battle and has grown and prospered, with more than 70 "pods" from coast to coast. Despite its wilder side among the denizens of the white-trash overflow, it's now a modern chili United Way, a non-profit corporation with a strict set of rules for almost everything, a well-organized board, and ample funds for good causes and self-improvement.

CASI officials say more than 8,000 people attended its cook-off this fall, held at its own 320-acre plot a few miles west of Terlingua. Last year alone it pumped $50,000 into improving the site, which has three steel structures. This fall, according to CASI president Mel Fitzhenry, it donated more than $35,000 to local causes in the Big Bend, including the ambulance service, the volunteer fire department, and scholarships at Big Bend High School.

The atmosphere is more laid-back, and some swear the music is better, at a Terlingua's Tolbert cook-off, held the same weekend as the larger CASI event.
Chris Regas
The atmosphere is more laid-back, and some swear the music is better, at a Terlingua's Tolbert cook-off, held the same weekend as the larger CASI event.
In the cook-off's early days, shown here in a photo from 1972,  the rules were less stringent and the competition more relaxed.
Chris Regas
In the cook-off's early days, shown here in a photo from 1972, the rules were less stringent and the competition more relaxed.

And CASI has just announced a nationwide scholarship program.

"The CASI people are extraordinarily generous to this community. There isn't a town in Texas that wouldn't be glad to have them come," said Tom Williams, a local school board member.

When they deign to acknowledge the far smaller and less organized Tolbert cook-off, some CASI heavyweights dismiss it as the irrelevant effort of a pack of hopeless muddlers.

"Frank (Tolbert) was their idol, and they still go there. They still have it. It's like people meeting on Halloween waiting for Houdini to come back but it [the split] was strictly a business decision. We raise over $1 million a year just for charity, and that's what it's all about," said Ray King of San Antonio.

The other cook-off, named the "Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler Memorial Championship Chili Cookoff," after Tolbert and Austin chili cook Wick Fowler, takes place a few miles to the east, "behind the store," in chili parlance. This year organizers said around 1,400 people attended. With the Chisos Mountains as a backdrop, the setting here is both grander and more primitive. A few junk cars, adobe buildings, and unused construction equipment lend a funky 1960s ambiance to the camping area behind Arturo White's store.

By consensus of chili heads who have visited both cook-offs, the live music and food are better behind the store, even if there are no ambitious programs for charities or rented cops directing traffic and checking wrist bands.

"We're so small, we have a hard time surviving. We'd love to make huge donations like they do, but we can't," said Kathleen Tolbert Ryan, daughter of the founder. "We're getting more organized. We really have to in order to compete with them and survive and get sponsors. They've already taken some of our sponsors away."

The Tolbert folks say they alone are following the true path. The original idea, after all, was simply to have fun and cook chili. "We're kind of laid back. We don't make a lot of rules and regulations, and we don't make any we can't bend," said Sam Lewis, 78, of San Angelo, who conducts armadillo races around Texas and sells jalapeño products.

Compared with the CASI cook-off, both the cooking and the debauching are less intense at the Tolbert.

"This whole thing is a celebration of life, and it takes a bowl of chili to get us here. To me, that's what this is all about," said cowboy poet Luke Dudley, a Tolbert loyalist. "They say those boys behind the store don't know what they're doing, and of course we don't. We didn't come down here to do anything smart."

It's probably safe to say that if Jimmy Carter, who recently left the Southern Baptists because of their rigidity, were a chili head, he'd be found behind White's store.

Both cook-offs claim to be the authentic heir, adding the most potent of spices--politics and ego--to the chili pot. And while most cooks ignore the politics, the hard feelings still run strong below the surface. As in many bad divorces, the irreconcilable differences don't always go away.

"It was like a church splitting. We put $1 million a year into charity, and they don't put anything back into the community," said Bob Coats of Irving, last year's champion at the CASI cook-off. "I think they're a bunch of assholes. They've taken what we started and prostituted it. We're the major leagues. They're the bush leagues. It's unfortunate they didn't qualify to come to the big show."

A Tolbert cook had equally harsh words.

"They're the high-rollers and the rich people with $200,000 motor homes. They think we are scumbags who don't know how to cook chili and are ruining it for the rest of the world," he growled, asking that his name not be used. "They're like the religious right. If you're not 100 percent with them, you're 100 percent against them."

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