Give Peace and Peppers a Chance

PALESTINE--They don't actually roll up the sidewalks in Palestine on Sundays, but it's fair to say that if they did, no one would be bothered much. The Rockwellian downtown of this East Texas town of 18,000 lies deserted under the noonday sun on March 20, the stillness broken only by the rumble of a passing freight train.

Granted, Palestine's civic energy may have been exhausted by the previous day's Dogwood Trails festival, an annual celebration attracting thousands of visitors with such delights as the black-powder shootout, the gardening symposium and the Knights of Columbus taco dinner. Even so, Palestine this quiet Sunday hardly seems like the setting for a gathering of national luminaries, an elite group of titans in their chosen field. Yet down the hill on Crawford Street, tucked behind Judi's Java Joint in Sawmill Hollow, 37 such dignitaries have gathered under one tent to vie for the prestigious title of the International Chili Society Texas State Chili Cookoff Champion.

Anyone who knows chili would be impressed by the field of competitors. They hail from Connecticut to Idaho, and among them are no fewer than a dozen world champions representing the three major sanctioning bodies of chili competition: the International Chili Society (ICS), the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) and the Original Terlingua International Chili Cookoff Championship (OTICCC), the spiritual followers of cook-off founder Frank X. Tolbert who are better known as the "behind-the-store folks." Most are clad in garish, chili-themed Hawaiian shirts and aprons, and some wear the ribbons and buttons denoting their illustrious qualifications.

"There are no slouches in this bunch," says competing cook Steve Frisch, a large man whose Texas-flag shirt seems as big as the state itself. Frisch used to organize the competition when he was a Palestine resident but turned it over to current coordinator Ava Harmon when he moved back to Fairview, north of Plano, to be nearer family. Frisch is no slouch himself, having finished as high as third in the CASI Texas championship, but he has never claimed a first-place crown. "These are kind of the jet-setters," he says, not without awe in his voice as he surveys the graying, portly crowd.

This group of cooks is impressive in another sense, however. They represent the triumph of a common interest over a divisive past, an easing of the tension that has reigned for decades among the three organizations. Roughly one-third of the field at this ICS-sanctioned event are regular CASI cooks, and even more have competed in the Terlingua cook-off. In fact, the reigning CASI world champion, Roger Foltz of Mesquite, is stirring his pot a few tables away. The rivalry among CASI, ICS and the Tolbert group has been hyped by chili insiders and outsiders alike, but here at the ICS Texas championship, the different varieties of chili cook mix amiably. The blend may herald the cooling of a heated rivalry that has simmered for decades.

The first organized chili cook-off was created in 1967 by Tolbert in Terlingua, a ghost town in Southwest Texas. Tolbert, a Dallas journalist, also initiated the first chili schism, booting California developer C.V. Wood out of the Terlingua event in 1974. Wood founded ICS the next year and began holding a competing world championship event. Tolbert then got into a dispute with CASI in 1982 and organized another championship at a separate Terlingua site behind the town's only store--hence "behind the store."

Considering the contentious origins of the three groups, and that each lays claim to the right to crown the world's best chili cook, it's not surprising that a certain antagonism arose between them. "I wouldn't use the word 'hostilities,'" says Frisch cautiously, "but some people feel strongly about supporting one or the other." Strongly enough that over the years, the delicacies prepared at Terlingua have included knuckle sandwiches.

But as time has passed, each organization has found its niche in chili society. CASI, which has lower fees and doesn't award prize money, is the ubiquitous, user-friendly local club; ICS, whose world champion walks away with $25,000, has fewer, strategically located events that attract vacation-minded cooks from farther away; and the Tolbert group sanctions only a handful of its own cook-offs, mostly serving as a lower-key alternative to CASI's freewheeling Terlingua gathering.

"I stay out of chili politics," says Mike Usiak, who has traveled to Texas more to escape the weather in his native Chicago than for a shot at the $1,000 first prize. Usiak, with a Ditka mustache and a red felt chili pepper adorning his stove lid, embodies the chili détente. Last fall he ran Chicago cook-offs for both ICS and CASI, holding them on consecutive days. Usiak loves the celebrity that his hobby brings him in the Windy City.

"You go to cocktail parties for work and everybody comes up to you, and it's not, 'How's the business?'" he says. "It's 'How's the chili going?'" Usiak is hoping to take the title in Palestine by using his secret weapon: top-quality beef. "If you don't have good meat, it doesn't matter what your spices are like," he says.

Bruce Jones of Canyon Lake, north of San Antonio, is among several CASI cooks testing the ICS waters for the first time in Palestine. He has been cooking competitively for 25 years, and his wife, Honey, was the CASI world champion in 2003. Jones isn't cooking today, but not out of any belated loyalty to CASI; he won yesterday's East Texas cook-off here and can't compete in today's event. "I've cooked a lot of pots of chili, but I've never won $1,000 before," Jones says, unable to suppress his enthusiastic grin. His win qualifies him to participate in the ICS world championship in Las Vegas, and there's no doubt that he'll be there in October.

"I figure there's 45 slots, and I'm guaranteed one of them," Jones calculates. "Now, if the lottery officials came out and said, 'We have 45 scratch-off tickets, and one of them is going to win $25,000,' wouldn't you buy one?"

In the new spirit of tolerance, Mel Fitzhenry, president of CASI, allows that ICS is "a good organization." Both groups say they donate more than $1 million a year to charity, and Fitzhenry even admits that he has cooked in an ICS event. But the goodwill hasn't completely done away with good old-fashioned trash-talking. "We kind of consider ourselves the Cadillac of the industry," Fitzhenry says. "ICS, they might be the Oldsmobile or the Buick."

"It's been getting better all the time," says Palestine contestant Dione Cooley of relations between the factions. Cooley has a raspy laugh, an engaging smile and finger-in-the-outlet spiky hair--not to mention a salsa recipe that won the 2002 ICS world title. Cooley and her husband, Skip, have cooked in both CASI and ICS events, traveling from their home in Reno, Nevada. "It's snowing at home, so that's why I came to Texas," she says. She tallies off a list of cooks' home states: California, Illinois, Missouri... "And the Texans," she adds as an afterthought. "A few of those snuck in here."

They snuck in and stole all the hardware. At the end of the day, the cooks from all corners of the country watch as Texans come in first, second and third. Top honors go to Kevin Foley of Galveston. Foley, another CASI crossover, shouts for joy when his name is announced and pumps his arm in triumph. As he is surrounded by friends high-fiving and pounding him on the back, his exclamation sums up just why it is that chili politics are finally taking a backseat to chili competition. As he beams at the surrounding well-wishers, he blurts almost involuntarily, "Man, this is fun!"

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Rick Kennedy