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.

By most accounts, roughly 1,000 people came to Terlingua, the largest human presence the place had seen in almost half a century. On hand was a pack of reporters who had been quick to spot a story that involved more booze than real work.

Some 20 planes landed at the Terlingua airport, delivering spectators from points including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston. A jazz band came south from Fort Stockton to entertain the crowd while Smith and Fowler cooked on the front porch of the old Terlingua general store.

A covey of "Swedish models" was flown in from California to lend moral support and comfort to the Texans. All other women had been banned from the site. During the cook-off, a plane hired by the banished wives of the participants flew low overhead, dropping ribald leaflets.

Long gone are the days when someone would dare serve up a bowl of armadillo chili at Terlingua, as once did the late prince of Lukenbach, Hondo Crouch, seen here in a photo from 1971.
Chris Regas
Long gone are the days when someone would dare serve up a bowl of armadillo chili at Terlingua, as once did the late prince of Lukenbach, Hondo Crouch, seen here in a photo from 1971.

"Congratulations, you get the children," and "It's how you make it long," were among the messages.

Smith, no stranger to West Texas, had declined Tolbert's invitation to spend the night before the cook-off with the Dallas chili "delegates" at a nearby ranch. When he arrived well rested from Alpine that morning, his decision was vindicated. Besides appearing unkempt and hungover, some of the Tolbert faction bore the nose-wrinkling stench of goat.

"The night before, after some of the delegates had drunk their fill and settled in their bedrolls, some out of doors and some in a big stone garage under the ranch house, I had the herders run some Spanish goats over the sleepers, just to make the night exciting," Tolbert wrote in his book.

Attempts fell short to get John Wayne and U.S. Rep. George Bush of Houston to judge the contest. Instead, the three selected were Witts, Big Bend doyen Hallie Stillwell, and San Antonio beer distributor Floyd Schneider, who had replaced San Antonio lawyer Maury Maverick, whose chili political leanings apparently were suspect.

Smith recorded his impressions of the panel. "I was curious about the new guy [Schneider] and looked him up and down carefully. He was a specimen that anthropologists would have rejected. Both he and David Witts were unshaven and bleary-eyed after what must have been a night of sin at the ranch. They were in no condition to judge skimmed milk or a tarantula race," he wrote. "On the other hand, Hallie Stillwell was clear-eyed and alert. And clean-shaven."

After Smith rudely rejected a proclamation from Gov. John Connally making him an honorary citizen of Texas, saying, "I have no plans to behave in any honorable way during my stay in Texas," the duel began in earnest.

As spectators looked on, Smith and Fowler cooked a few yards apart on the porch of the old Terlingua store. The moment of truth came at noon. Stillwell voted for Smith's chili, pinto beans and all. Schneider, who tasted next, liked Fowler's but a draw was called after Witts declared himself incapacitated after consuming one spoonful--of which chili pot the record is not clear.

By any measure it was a howling success.

Such were the whimsical beginnings of a chili cult that has spawned three different chili organizations, each with its own board of directors, Web sites, rulebooks, and version of history.

Smith moved from New York to Alpine, participated in several more cook-offs as a cook or judge, and died in 1976. Fowler won the cook-off in 1970. When he died in 1972, he left behind the commercial version of his 2-Alarm Chili Kit, a spice mix still found in your local grocery. Tolbert stayed on to run the show with an informal, old-boy style that rankled some. In the early 1970s he butted heads with California developer C.V. Wood, a cook-off participant whose claim to fame was buying the wrong London Bridge and moving it to Arizona.

According to one account, Tolbert was offended at how Wood introduced Janie Scofield, the first woman to win in Terlingua in 1974. "This year's winner is not a man, but god-damned woman," said Wood, according to Scofield. Tolbert told Wood and his buddies they could take a hike back to California, which they did, founding the "International Society of Chili." The group later sued Tolbert for the right to call itself the "world championship chili cook-off," and won. When its championship was held this fall in Nevada, the winner got a check for $25,000.

In 1983, Tolbert got crosswise with some others in Terlingua. Some say it was because the cooks were fed up with his arbitrary administration, others say it was caused by a dispute over buying an ambulance for Terlingua. Still others say Tolbert was deposed in a palace coup by an ambitious faction that saw a good thing and had been plotting to take over.

The upshot of it was that in the fall of 1983, another group rented the traditional Terlingua cook-off site out from under Tolbert, forcing him to make a hasty move down the road to a new spot behind White's store.

The breakup was bitter, and although overtures were made that winter to mend things and a truce seemed possible, Tolbert's death in January 1984 meant the divorce was final.

Some Tolbert loyalists link his death to the conflict.

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