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.

Which is not to say things were taken extremely seriously.

The challenge was to find a true winner among 23 samples that looked and tasted very much alike. In 1999, this proved impossible, as four chilis ended with exactly the same score, forcing a random computer draw to select Coats as champion.

"I think they should dump all 23 on the floor and give the winner to the one Bonnie, my Australian red heeler, eats," joked Miguel Sandoval, the city manager of Marfa, one of the VIP judges.

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.

With a half-dozen red-shirted CASI officials looking on, frivolity ended as soon as the tasting began. The samples were passed counter-clockwise around the table with each judge taking a whiff, then a spoonful, and then recording a score on a lavender sheet of paper.

This time the computer had a year off.

Dixie Johnson of Lamar, Missouri, Harry Truman's hometown, won with a recipe called "Bess' Best," named in honor of the former first lady. At the other cook-off, down the road and behind the store, Bonnie Mosley of Kemah, Texas, whose mother and brother had placed in years past, won first prize among 150 cooks at the Tolbert event.

Who cooked the best chili? Who knows? Who cares?

And why do people do this anyway? Why do they spend good money all year long chasing qualifying points at cook-offs so they can cook at Terlingua, and come up with a chili that tastes just like everyone else's?

In the end, it isn't even really about chili, according to a former champ who has been cooking on the chili circuit for the past two decades.

"It could be beef stew. It could be chili. It's about folks getting together," Coats said. "When you cook chili, people don't care what you do for a living. You're accepted for you. Until you prove you're an asshole, everyone is going to like you.

"Chili cooks never go to therapy on the weekends, and this is much cheaper than therapy."

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