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.

In the peculiar world of chili, some things are constant, as noted by H. Allen Smith, one of the cooks in the first Terlingua competition.

"You may suspect by now that the chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt, and sizzling scorn," he wrote.


The spicy dish known more correctly as chile con carne originated late in the last century, not in Mexico, but somewhere in South Texas, most likely San Antonio, according to most chili historians.
Dixie Johnson from Lamar, Missouri, took home the top prize for her chili recipe. Even veteran competitors admit there's scant difference between brews.
Dixie Johnson from Lamar, Missouri, took home the top prize for her chili recipe. Even veteran competitors admit there's scant difference between brews.
Above: Dancing at a chili cook-off in 1975--the competition has changed but the two-step's the same. Below: Deposed cook-off patriarch Frank Tolbert in 1971.
Chris Regas
Above: Dancing at a chili cook-off in 1975--the competition has changed but the two-step's the same. Below: Deposed cook-off patriarch Frank Tolbert in 1971.

As the name implies, the primary ingredients are red chiles and meat, usually beef, and anything beyond this is subject to intense debate. To the modern-day mullahs of Texas-style red chili, beans are a sure sign of the infidel, and any meat besides chopped lean beef amounts to a sacrilege.

"Anyone who puts beans in chili failed Texas high school chemistry," said one chili wag.

But until the great chili showdown of 1967, in which Lone Star pride and chili orthodoxy were challenged by a subversive wise-ass from New York, chili was hardly the stuff of headlines. The only other chili controversy to make the news came in 1943, when the San Antonio chile queens, street vendors with their caldrons and bright lights, were evicted from the downtown public squares on public health grounds. But all that changed in the months before the cook-off in Terlingua in which Smith faced Fowler in a mano-a-mano, high-noon showdown. That much is certain, everything since is open to debate.

"It all started with the newspaper people, a group of writers in Dallas from the Morning News, Times-Herald and Star-Telegram," said Tom Nall, president of 2-Alarm Chili, in Austin. "All these reporters would get together and someone would cook their favorite recipe, and they would drink beer and tell lies, and Wick Fowler did it better than anyone else."

As a dynamic subplot, David Witts, a Dallas lawyer, and California muscle car designer Carroll Shelby owned some land in a far corner of the West Texas outback, and they were keen on stirring up some interest in it. Their holding, the Terlingua Ranch, was named for the ghost town that now has several dozen residents, city water, and a paved road. But in '67, it was a collection of empty rock houses.

Terlingua had boomed in the first decade of the century, as 1,000 workers mined mercury ore for the Chisos Mining Co. Mercury production peaked during World War I, but began to decline in the 1930s, and when the Terlingua mine closed at the end of World War II, the town was abandoned.

Most accounts credit Tom Tierney, a Dallas public relations man, with the idea of staging a cook-off there to promote both the land and the book Tolbert had just published, A Bowl of Red.

The slim volume was a paean to crusty chuck wagon cooks, Texas-style red chili, and other regional dishes and funky eating places around the state. Tolbert later added several chapters about the chili wars. "It started out as a spoof to advertise the Terlingua Ranch that Shelby and Witts owned. Frank Tolbert did not start it, but he jumped on the idea, and he did one hell of a lot of good for chili," said Vann York, 74, one of the chili ancients.

But who would be an opponent worthy of Fowler's talents?

The perfect foil appeared in the person of Smith, who in December 1966 had published an article in Holiday Magazine titled "Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do."

The reaction in Texas among the chili irregulars was hostile. "It set the jackals of Texas and particularly the hungry hyenas of Dallas against me in full cry," Smith recalled.

He had added further insult in his comments about Tolbert's book, "There are fiends incarnate, mostly Texans, who put chopped celery in their chili, and the Dallas journalist Frank X. Tolbert, who has been touted as the Glorious State's leading authority on chili, throws in cornmeal," wrote Smith. "Heaven help us one and all! You might as well throw in some puffed rice, or a handful of shredded alfalfa, or a few maraschino cherries."

Tolbert, in turn, found Smith's chili a feeble dish. The impertinent Yankee, it seemed, considered beans, green peppers, and Accent seasoning to be perfectly legitimate ingredients.

"It's not really chili. It's a chili-flavored beef-and-vegetable soup. He cooks pinto beans, even kidney beans, right in with the mess," he wrote. In another column, Tolbert called it "a chili-powder-flavored low-torque beef gruel," adding, "the maternity wards in Texas hospitals have to warm up Smith's formula before feeding it to newborn babies."

Smith responded by threatening to fly to Dallas and horsewhip Tolbert at his newsroom desk along with everyone else in sight.

Catching the spirit, he referred to Texas chili as "owl residue," to Texans in general as "gristle eaters," and to Tolbert as a "varlet," which no doubt sent a few bubbas hustling for their Websters. The gauntlet had been thrown.

By this time, reporters were all over the story, and Smith agreed to come to Texas after a magazine offered to pick up his expenses. Like Tolbert, he had quickly grasped the journalistic potential of the stunt.

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