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.

"Do you put vice-grips on your nipples?"

"Absolutely not," Hammock replied.

"Well about three years ago there was this old girl running around here with vice-grips on her nipples," he added politely.

A beer fisherman reels in his 

catch at the Terlingua chili cook-off in the mid-1980s. Today his catch might be a tad more risqué.
A beer fisherman reels in his

catch at the Terlingua chili cook-off in the mid-1980s. Today his catch might be a tad more risqué.

Above: They come in campers from across the country to celebrate chili in the Big Bend, among other things, below.
Chris Regas
Above: They come in campers from across the country to celebrate chili in the Big Bend, among other things, below.

The climax for the tittie hounds was the Massey boobie contest, held on a flatbed trailer past the creek, at the far edge of the campground. It unfolded during the later final rounds of chili judging across the arroyo at the main pavilion.

The contest rules were fairly simple: No touching. Breast and fanny exposure OK. Anything more and the four mounted Bexar County sheriff's deputies standing by would take action.

"We're here to keep the peace. They can't take their bottoms off, and they can't touch," said one deputy.

Surrounding the flatbed trailer 10 deep were drunken men with cameras, chanting "beaver, beaver," and "let's see some titties," and other unprintable suggestions.

After a score of svelte young beauties performed on the trailer, a 63-year-old drywall hanger and nudist from Alpine named Betty Jane Laird followed them to shouts of "Grandma, Grandma."

And, by popular acclaim, she took first.

"I won the tittie contest. I guess it was just the atmosphere of the other women doing it. It required a bit of vodka and orange juice," she confided later, holding a large trophy. "I haven't the slightest idea of why I won. I guess I was the oldest one who had the guts to do it. A lot of the younger girls were pissed off."

About the time Laird was stripping off her white halter top and reminding everyone what a half-century of gravity will do to a woman's bust, another moment of truth was approaching. After numerous rounds of judging, the 23 finalists in the CASI main event, the chili cooking contest, were about to be narrowed to a winner.

The judging had begun at noon shortly after 297 chili cooks, lining up single file like supplicants waiting for the wafer and wine, had filed into the pavilion, each holding a 24-ounce Styrofoam container of chili.

"It's a madhouse for the next 15 minutes. You have 150-plus judges and 300 chili cooks all coming in at the same time," said Mel Fitzhenry, the CASI president, as chaos swirled around him. "We always say we've got it made when we get past the first round. It's an adrenaline rush, I'll tell you."

On each judging table were scoring forms, galvanized buckets of plastic spoons for tasting, and packets of saltines and trays of fruit and cheese for clearing the palate between samples.

Beer, soda, and bottled water were also available.

The rules were fairly simple. Each chili is evaluated on a 10-point scale based on taste, aftertaste, aroma, consistency, and red color. The rules resembled those of jury service.

"You cannot talk about the chili. You can talk about sports or sex or the week, but you cannot talk about chili," said Karin Barnes of Houston, a "mentor" to a group of new judges.

With each round, roughly half the chili samples were eliminated, and a new set of volunteer judges would then be seated, to halve the pool again.

Competition chili has become a highly standardized dish over the past three decades, and the double-blind judging procedures utilized would make the Food and Drug Administration feel sloppy.

Long gone are the days when someone like Hondo Crouch could show up in Terlingua and cook armadillo chili or when winners were decided by the hottest pot or who didn't win last year.

In 1968, C.V. Wood won with a recipe that included five pounds of pork chops and a 2-pound stewing chicken. Such a concoction would probably result in excommunication if not a speedy lynching in today's environment. These days, the only acceptable ingredients of competition chili are cubed lean beef, chili, various spices and tomato. The results are so similar that few cooks could even recognize their own creation.

"If I closed my eyes, I couldn't tell which was mine," said Coats, the 1999 CASI champ who had his winning recipe published. "I went to a cook-off this year with 18 cooks and I didn't make the top 10. I got beaten by three people using my own recipe." But a proven recipe is only the beginning.

Chili is a funny thing, and according to accepted cook-off wisdom, such variables as humidity, elevation, wind direction, ambient temperature, and the sexual orientation of the cook's younger brother can influence the final product.

"You can have two people cooking side by side, using the same recipe, and it will come out two different chilis," said Bert Paine of Dallas. "By the time you get here. There ain't no bad chili. I'd hate to be a judge."

By the final round of judging, all but 23 of the 297 entries had been eliminated. Judges for this crucial stage were selected on a VIP basis that had little to do with chili credentials.

Among them were several guys connected to Lone Star Beer, which is one of the CASI sponsors; Steve Smith, who earlier this year bought the Lajitas resort; a handful of area politicians; and yours truly, who grew up in New Jersey eating chili with kidney beans.

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