Terlingua Cooks Spice Up a New Year's Favorite

A maverick and an outlander took second and third places in Terlingua's 20th annual Black-Eyed Pea Off this weekend.

About three dozen cooks entered the benefit contest, which got its start as a showdown between Desert Deli Diner owner Pam Ware and Tommy Hancock, owner of Lubbock's legendary Cotton Club. Ware and Hancock stuck to standard Southern recipes, but this year's silver medalist won over the judging panel with an unprecedented amount of heat.

"It was an untraditional recipe, I must admit," Ware, now a judge, said of Terlingua resident Carlos Mendoza's entry. "It had jalapenos. They never heard of that in Georgia."

Third place went to a visitor from Austin.

"I've had a people come up and say 'I can't believe a foreigner won'," Ware says.

Rhetta Phillips wasn't the first tourist to wow the natives with her good-luck dish: The contest was once won by a woman who was rolling through the area in her motor home. According to Ware, she used a recipe she called up on the Internet.

"She was a Yankee," Ware recalls. "She didn't even like black-eyed peas. That had a lot of people raising their eyebrows."

"She was quite the lady," Ware continues. "I'm sure she still has that trophy in her RV."

Pea Off attendees could sample all the entries -- along with a hunk of cornbread -- for $5, but since the serving line required them to heap the various pea preparations atop one another, it was impossible for civilians to determine which black-eyed peas were worthy of the win.

Ware says the event's informality is intentional.

"We were really making fun of the chili-heads and how serious they were about rules," Ware says. "We insisted on only two rules: Have fun and no beans."

Helping to keep the status quo in check, Big Bend National Park maintenance supervisor John Lowe won this year's contest with a highly traditional recipe. Ware's confident many attendees would have agreed with the judges' decision, had they been able to distinguish the Lowe peas in their bowls.

"It wasn't a point or two difference," Ware says. "It jumped right out there. It had the perfect texture and flavor. Although it wasn't the one I would have personally picked: The pot likker was a little thin."

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