August 13, 2010

Chili; the State Food of Texas

The evolution of Texas chili, last of a 4-part series

Chili is a controversial dish even among Texans. As we discussed in the previous segment, the only rule that is hard and fast is that beans do not belong in a Texas chili recipe. Other fillers (e.g. corn meal) are frowned upon as well but won't necessarily get the cook run out of town on a rail. Beans may get you shot, but beyond this all rules seem to be rather polymorphous.

The universal truth is that Texas’ chili aficionados are passionate. (I've said that before, haven't I?) Indeed, we’re so  passionate that we hold regular competitions to determine the King (or Queen) of the Texas chili world. There is a bit of debate as to the date of the first chili competition, a regular on the  competition circuit by the name of Ranger Bob Ritchey may have found the truth.

Ritchey did a little research, finding several archived newspaper articles written about the 1952 Texas State Fair Chili Championship. Although many newspaper, magazine and cyber articles have been written claiming the first Chili Championship to be the 1967 Terlingua cook-off, the articles Ritchie found prove that to be untrue.

Take for instance the October 5, 1952 headline from the now defunct Dallas Daily Times Herald, stating that "Woman Wins But Men Do Well in Chili Event." The story following the headline describes how Mrs. F. G. Ventura of Dallas won the Texas State Fair contest and her recipe was declared the "Official State Fair of Texas Chili Recipe." Mrs. Ventura was crowned the first ever "World Champion Chili Cook," a title she retained for fifteen years.

The State Fair event was organized by ex-newspaper man Joe. E. Cooper as a stunt to promote his newly published book, titled With or Without Beans - An Informal Biography of Chili. The competition had no rules as to ingredients, other than banning beans. The first year bragged 55 contestants, judged by a panel of five.

Speaking of the number of judges, Cooper said, "It’ll take a lot of judges because after the first two or three spoonfuls of good, hot Texas-style chili, the fine edge wears off even an expert chili judge's taste buds... It'll be a hot job but one that no true Texan will shirk."

Cooper didn’t live to see the popularity to which chili cook-offs have risen. He died three months after that first competition.

Possibly the best known and most well documented of the early chili competitions is the 1967 Terlingua cook-off. Terlingua is a ghost town and  former mining community, located in one of the most remote areas of the state. You must want to be there, or else you are very lost, if you find yourself in Terlingua. Getting there requires much effort. The nearest airport of any size (if you don’t include Lajitas International) is 240 miles away in El Paso, or 310 miles to San Antonio.

The 1967 competition pitted two well known, albeit self-proclaimed chili champs. Dallas newspaper reporter, Homer "Wick" Fowler, challenged New York humorist and author, H. Allen Smith to a showdown because of a story written by Smith and published in the August, 1967 issue of Holiday Magazine.

The article, titled Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do, made the wild claim that no one in Texas could cook a proper pot of chili. Smith bragged that "no living man, I repeat, can put together a pot of chili as ambrosial, as delicately and zestfully flavorful, as the chili I make." His recipe, which he published with the article, called for beans.

When journalist and author Frank X. Tolbert read Smith’s article, he was righteously offended. Tolbert, author of the definitive tome on Texas chili, A Bowl of Red, began something akin to open journalistic warfare. Tolbert wrote a regular column for the Dallas Morning News, and commenced taking shots at Smith from that pulpit, challenging Texas chili cooks to prove Smith wrong. Wick Fowler stood up for the challenge.

The match was on, and although the competition received a huge amount of publicity, and attendance swelled the little ghost town with over 5,000 spectators, the climax was an anticlimactic tie when Dave Witts, a Dallas lawyer, self-proclaimed mayor of Terlingua, and also the tie-breaker judge, spit his chili on the ground.

Sports Illustrated writer Gary Cartwright described the scene, “[T]he blindfolded judge number three, David Witts, was given a spoonful of chili which he promptly spit out all over the referee's foot. "Then he went into convulsions. He rammed a white handkerchief down his throat as though he were cleaning a rifle barrel, and in an agonizing whisper Witts pronounced himself unable to go on."

Witts declared that his taste buds were "ruint," and said they would have to do the whole thing over again next year. Terlingua has hosted a chili competition every year since. Both Wick Fowler and Frank Tolbert opened chili parlors that have survived the owners. Tolbert’s in Grapevine sells more beer than chili, but his original Texas Red is still at the top of the menu.

The group hosting the Terlingua event for many years was the Texas Chili Appreciation Society, now called the Chili Appreciation Society International. The Society now has some involvement in over 500 competitions worldwide, raising about a million dollars for charities every year. The 2009 Terlingua event hosted over 500 competitors. The 2010 event will be November 3rd - 6th.

In 1977, chili lovers and manufacturers in the state of Texas successfully lobbied the Texas legislature to have chili proclaimed the official "state food of Texas, in recognition of the fact that the only real 'bowl of red' is that prepared by Texans."


Tomorrow I will offer you a couple of my own recipes for your examination and/or approval. In the mean time, click on the banner below to go to the CASI site. Past winning recipes may be found there.



Labrys said...

I am really enjoying this series! My favorite chili, since I am allergic to tomatoes, gets all its "red" strictly from chiles. I've had complaints that my chili is as hot coming out as going in...and guests have begged for beans.

Now, I really must plan some chili for the weekend!

Anonymous said...

Damn fine series! Thanks!

Mule Breath said...

My favorite trophy is the award for CHILI MOST LIKELY TO BURN TWICE. And as you will see when I publish my recipes tomorrow, nary a 'mater in 'em.

Thanks jeg, Glad you enjoyed. The research enlightened me and it was a fun piece to write. Never too old to learn.

Old NFO said...

Good series MB, thanks for the education!