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 risqu.
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 risqu.

High Spoons

TERLINGUA--With Old Dixie and the skull and crossbones dangling overhead, some Hill Country cedar burning on the campfire, and Jell-O shots on the breakfast menu, a couple of West Texas chili rowdies offered a quickie site map of the action.

"It's kind of a clash of styles here. The people up there are the old farts and the judges. We stay down here and drink massive amounts of alcohol, and in order to be a judge, you have to be sober," said John Cross of San Antonio.

His group was camped out in an area called the "white-trash overflow," and they were eager for the newcomers to catch all the thrills.

"Did you see the guy with the lawnmower shaped like a big penis? He drives it around," asked one of his buddies.

But for those who had come more for chili than dissipation, the main event at the Chili Appreciation Society International cook-off was taking place nearby, up a caliche road, past a large illustrated sign reading "West Texas Breast Inspection Station," where middle-aged men sat waiting for takers. Here, an entirely different scene, more Rotarian than raunchy, was unfolding in an open area surrounded by recreational vehicles, tents, and campers, where French poodles replaced pit bulls, and Old Glory flew instead of the Stars and Bars.

With judging less than three hours away, more than 300 chili cooks were hard at it under small cabanas, each tending to a simmering pot of nearly identical Texas red.

"This is nirvana. This is like going to the Wailing Wall. This is what you cook all year for," said Dale Reinecker, 56, working behind a sign reading "Pain in the Ass Chili, Dallas Texas." Beer in hand, and with bottles of bourbon and tequila at easy reach, Reinecker sounded sober, euphoric, and cowed all at once as he prepared his chili.

A veteran of marketing and promotions in the real world, Reinecker was a mere tenderfoot when it came to big-league competitive chili. Just to qualify for Terlingua, each cook had spent thousands of dollars and traveled many more miles earning cook-off points for the championship event.

"This is my first year here. I'm a virgin. I've been cooking four years, and this is the first year I've qualified," he confided. "You feel a little bit intimidated, like you don't have a shot in hell to win, but just to come is gratifying. It's damn sure going in my Christmas letter."

On any other weekend, this patch of desert west of Big Bend National Park is a barren and tranquil place, a postcard scene of ocotillo and flowering sage, frequented by wary coyotes and quick-stepping javelinas.

But each fall, going back more than three decades, an outbreak of untreatable chili madness occurs in these remote parts. Chili heads by the hundreds and revelers by the thousands come from as far away as Canada, Ireland, and the Virgin Islands for the tribal rites.

On the first weekend in November, competing chili cook-offs unfold simultaneously a few miles apart on either side of an old ghost town that was once home to miners who dug mercury ore from these bleak hills.

Almost overnight, hundreds of vans, pickups, and camping rigs clog the open areas. Wood smoke flavors the breeze, the spiky Spanish dagger plants sprout blooms of empty beer cans, and Stevie Ray sings again. The cook-offs draw an eclectic crowd, from the black leather, Harley riding members of "Los Carnales," a West Texas biker club, to well-groomed Dallas stockbrokers in new Suburbans.

Locals both dread and welcome the influx, which puts money into regional charities and cash registers, but also draws a squad of black-and-whites to local roads.

In the balance, though, chili is very good to Terlingua. "The cooks are the greatest people in the world. I cannot tell you how much they have helped our community. But you are a fairly sane person, you get in and you get out," said Angie Dean, owner of the Star Light Theater in Terlingua. "I had a couple in here the other night from Dallas. They were talking about coming down to eat chili at the cook-off. I told them, there's not much chili eaten at the cook-off. It's a place to have fun."

Over the decades, the high desert bacchanals have come to mean excellent chili, wild behavior, and instant amnesia--in short the perfect lost weekend.

"The old saying goes. What happens in the basin, stays in the basin," said one cook.

Both cook-offs are direct descendents of the original that was staged near here in 1967 as a publicity stunt by a group of playful guys from Dallas, led by Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert.

The rough and rowdy Terlingua cook-off quickly became a defining event of Texas popular culture, drawing characters ranging from folk humorist Hondo Crouch, with his sidekick Rocky Caliche, to singer Jerry Jeff Walker, who cut his Viva Terlingua album after attending several cook-offs.

"It was referred to one time as the adult Woodstock. It was sort of like Woodstock, pretty loose, but the fans were country-western fans," said Chris Regas, a Dallas photographer who began attending in 1969. "But even in the early days, when it was wild and loose, we didn't have any police force, and there were never any fights."

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

"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.

"Frank was a little hard to get along with sometimes, but he was a good man. He didn't deserve all of this. I truly think this is what killed him. He was an old man and I know it upset him badly. It got real ugly," said one Tolbert loyalist who asked not to be named.

"The first year we had the cook-off behind the store, I saw a sign that said, 'Frank, when you have a heart attack in Terlingua, how are you going to get to the hospital before you die? We're going to buy the ambulance for Terlingua.'"

The other faction later sued the Tolbert group in federal court and won the rights to the name Chili Appreciation Society International, and have grown and prospered ever since.

All three organizations now hold the world championship event. "As Hondo Crouch once put it, there are now more world chili championships than there are worlds," recalled one old-timer.

The annual invasion of RV's, pickups, and Harley Davidsons into Terlingua each fall begins about a week before the first full weekend in November.

At the entrance to the CASI event off the state highway, the caliche road forks just past a small rise, and much like the moral path in Christian parable, it presents the arriving pilgrim with a fateful choice.

To the left is the "Old 320," the official chili cook-off area, and therein lies charity, virtue, industry, and moderation. Down the slope to the right is "Crazy Flats," of which the "white-trash overflow"' is a mere subdivision.

This is the low road to ruin, because herein thrive most of the seven deadly sins. And this is precisely what a whole bunch of people is looking for in Terlingua. "Shit, we come because it's fun. The beer, the titties, and the chili, and we could do without the chili," said Charlie Hullis, 38, of Marlette, Michigan.

"We don't cook no chili, but we make a mean breakfast burrito," he joked as a parade of heavily loaded vehicles, including one with "Tittie Wagon," spray-painted across the front, rolled past. A sign nearby read, "Mardi Gras in the Desert," a comparison that does not flatter New Orleans. In Crazy Flats, people drink heavily, take their clothes off, and do things their children might find curious. The drill is fairly basic: The men along the roadside, beers and cameras in hand, shout, "Show us your titties," to the women riding or walking past. When obliged, the men swoop in to take photographs and donate beaded necklaces or a cold beer to the lucky lady.

Vacation shots, one man called them. Stress relief said another. "On my job, I basically baby-sit 750 people every day," said Hullis, 38, an employee of Lear Corp. and formerly of Midland. "The main thing is, it's a stress reliever. No phones, no problems, no nothing. My wife told me, 'You've got to go to Telingua this year.' It's like spring break for adults."

Like modern cave glyphs, the T-shirts and stickers tell the story. "Instant Asshole, Just Add Alcohol," read one shirt. "Moody Bastard, Seeks Kind, Considerate Woman for Love Hate Relationship," another. A third read simply "Nookie Patrol." The most popular sticker read: "I got laid in Terlingua."

"The real truth is the men don't have to deal with reality. They can chill out and pretend for three days," said Christie Trower, 35, who left two children and reality behind in Odessa. "I just love it because it's a kickback."

The showstopper each year in Crazy Flats is the motorized penis created and driven by Wayne Rogers of El Paso. The papier-mché phallus, 3 feet long and about 18 inches thick, is built over a riding lawnmower and ejaculates water on command.

"All the women want to sit on it, get their picture taken, and sign it. They can even ride on it, it's got foot pegs, and actually the men like it too," Rogers said. Almost all the men, that is. "An older gentleman walked up to me today and said I'd be arrested in his community. But if you're a prude, you shouldn't be here. It's not for children."

Late on a Saturday morning, as the action in Crazy Flats started to pick up, a group of girls, recent graduates of Madison High School in San Antonio, made the rounds wearing T-shirts advertising something called the "Heath Massey Challenge."

"It's a boobie contest at 3 o'clock down by the creek, that away," chirped one, pointing to a site across an arroyo, adding that Heath Massey was a recent inspired graduate of Sul Ross University in Alpine. Taking it all in from her roadside perch on a Kawasaki four-wheeler was a fully clothed Crystal Hammock, 36, of Austin.

"This is worse than any Harley Davidson biker party I've been. God, no wonder we don't try to reproduce. You look at this crowd, and you think about babies growing up to be these kinds of children," she said of the Madison girls. "My dad would kick my ass if I showed my titties, even at 36."

Which statement prompted a question from the Oklahoma gent sitting next to her that, given the spirit of the moment, seemed almost appropriate.

"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.

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.

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.

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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