I was sitting up the other night, watching one of my favorite episodes in the history of The Simpsons. It all begins with Marge doing her damnedest to keep Homer away from the Annual Springfield Chili Cook-Off. Every year, it seems, Homer goes and makes a drunken ass of himself, and Marge wants one year where the family is not the town’s laughingstock. So she’s cutting out any mention in the newspaper and knocking phone cords out of the wall jack and filling the house with the rich, satisfying scent of tobacco.
Eventually, of course, Homer opens the front door and is greeted by the wafting aromas of cumin and chilies and beef. You can only keep the Pope of Chilitown in the dark for so long. So there he is, flanked by his family and armed with the promise not to drink any beer, his special tasting spoon (“I hear he carved it himself from a bigger spoon!”) in hand as he gets ready to judge the various offerings.
Working his way through the booths Homer is viewed by everyone entered in the contest with something bordering consternation and awe. Pulling no punches with each contestant, his bitingly acerbic criticism leaves everyone quaking at their chances. It is this which leads the town’s law and order to fight back.*
It got me thinking back to a conversation I was having last week with a few friends about chili. Somebody was discussing the quality of their favorite recipe; another was extolling his chili as the best. Of course, it was this same sort of blustery bravado that prompted the gathering of pioneers at the Terlingua Ranch for the inaugural World’s Championship Chili Cookoff in 1967.
And just like that, it was like lightning striking my brain. I had to know more about that mixture of spices and beef and the dueling spirits of competition and camaraderie that brought dozens of chili connoisseurs to that hardscrabble patch of west Texas soil near Big Bend National Park four decades ago.
So this week, you’ve guessed it — we’re looking back on the early history of chili cooking competitions, from its nascent days as a good-ole-boy weekend outing in West Texas to the point eight years later when the unity would fracture due to a female winner and nothing would ever be quite the same. No disrespect to Homer, but it’s high time we take a look at the true Popes of Chilitown…
It only seems appropriate that a sportsman was at the forefront of the creation of organized chili cook-offs. Carroll Shelby, the man synonymous with fast cars as both a racer in the 1950s (good enough to be Sports Illustrated‘s driver of the year back in 1956 and 1957) and as an automobile constructor in the decades to follow, invited a group of friends and chili aficionados down to his 220,000-acre Terlingua Ranch for a weekend of drinking and cooking and backslapping fun.
It was all conceived as little more than a publicity jaunt, trying to help Shelby and Dallas attorney Dave Witts advertise land they had for sale in the area. It also coincided with the release of Dallas Morning News columnist Frank X. Tolbert’s seminal book on chili, A Bowl of Red. All in good fun the principals traveled to remote Terlingua to pit chili-spice magnate Wick Fowler against writer H. Allen Smith for the title of world’s best chili. A three-judge panel would taste each man’s chili and render their verdict before a startling crowd of a thousand spectators total.
The first judge, female rancher and local legend Hallie Stillwell, tasted both entries and cast her vote in favor of Smith’s concoction. The second judge, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce vice president Floyd Schneider, winced at the heat before declaring in favor of Fowler’s recipe. Witts, the final judge and self-declared “Mayor of Terlingua”, had the deciding vote. Sticking a spoonful of Smith’s chili in his mouth, soon convulsing from the heat. He would famously cough out, “It’ll take a year for me to git back my taste buds! I can’t vote. That stuff’s just too hot!”
And so it was that Terlingua had become the epicenter for the world’s greatest chefs of the chili pot. The event would return back in 1968, with a winner failing to be declared for a second straight year when the ballot box was stuffed with write-in votes for Smith — who was sidelined at home with what was officially branded either the shingles or an allergy flare-up (but was assumed by many to simple be a case of having consumed his own fiery chili). Instead Wick Fowler was competing against Woodruff “Wino Woody” DeSilva, the former manager of Los Angeles International Airport, in their heads-up brawl. Both men were hoping to become the first fully-crowned champion of chili.
Scott Carpenter, the Mercury 7 astronaut who had also been part of the SEALAB experiments, was serving as head judge and demanded a new vote. But after votes had been recast, the ballot box was stolen by masked marauders and tossed into an outhouse positioned over a defunct mine shaft. Evocative of wrestling’s gimmickry, there was nothing that could be done at this point — the chili had been consumed completely. So Tolbert, the referee and master of ceremonies, was forced once more to declare no solitary winner.
The year 1969 would see the crew descend once more upon Terlingua for the third annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff. This time it would also finally see somebody emerge victorious as the world champion. The assembled crowd, which had grown to over five thousand spectators by the third edition of the annual cookoff, were also witness to the appearance of the California contingent that would fissure the burgeoning sport apart at its seams like pants splitting after too many tastings of the chili on offer.
C.V. Wood, Jr., the amusement-park mogul who had supervised the development of Disneyland in the early 1950s before splitting off into his own entity, had garnered fresh publicity the year before when his corporation supervised the transport and reassembly of the London Bridge at Lake Havasu, Arizona. With a mind bent toward the promotional, he arrived in Terlingua in a double-decker party bus filled with an entourage that came prepared for work.
With his rooting section donning t-shirts he had had printed up prior to coming to Terlingua, and a couple of Hollywood starlets to work as his assistants, Wood’s cooking area was filled with electronic gadgets and giant displays of spices. Displaying Barnum-like showmanship that would become the standard of culinary competitions to the present, Woody knocked Fowler from the teetering peg he had occupied the past few years as the king of chili.
But was it showmanship that won the title for Wood and relegated Fowler to runner-up status? The seventies would begin in Terlingua without a rematch, as Fowler cruised to his long-sought first world title while Wood sat on the sidelines, Bacchanalian in his self-promotion yet unwilling to put his crown of chilies on the line a second time.
1970 would also be the year that the first woman would arrive with her utensils of chili creation to compete in the championships. Janice Constantine of Midland, Texas would be the groundbreaker that created the level playing field that would ultimately tear the championship asunder in just a few short years. H. Allen Smith, the legendary co-champion of the inaugural competition, demonstrated the still-rampant sexism of the times when he tried to have Constantine arrested for “trying to cook chili while then and there being a female person.”*
The ploy would backfire, as Constantine was granted entry. She would set up her station with her own touch of protest to the way “things were done”, classing up the joint with an array of silver service and candelabras to provide a stark contrasting tableau to the Texas scrubland all around. She would even go so far as to employ a tuxedo-clad male violinist to provide a soundtrack to her preparations. And while she would not place in the top three, Constantine nevertheless opened the doors for other women to ultimately step up and take the next step toward victory.
In 1971 Allegani Jani Schofield got her first taste of the Terlingua competition. The top three finishers in the inaugural women-only Susan B. Anthony Memorial Chili Cookoff in Luckenbach had officially been extended an invitation for entry into the World Championship by Tolbert and Fowler the month before. And so it was that Terlingua got its first look at Schofield, who came to Big Bend Country with a look (tight white t-shirt, red hot pants) that was nothing like the chili championships had ever seen donned by one of its competitors.
She had dreams of a championship when she set out from Fredericksburg despite never having made chili before the Susan B. Anthony Memorial. Her recipe — “Hot Pants Chili” — was flavorful and up to the task. ”But, I got down there and saw it was all just one big farce,” Schofield said, laughing when she talked about the tale with Bonnie Walker of the San Antonio Express-News in 1995. “This chili cook-off was a place where these men got together to boast about their chili, drink, cook, and boast some more.”
Instead of Schofield’s efforts, which would finish out of the running in 1971, it was the appearance of Ormly Gumfudgin — one of the original supporters of the cookoff and the historian for the recently-formed International Chili Society — with Scott Carpenter that caused the biggest stir. Father Duffy, a phony monk who was another of the original co-conspirators in the creation of the inaugural cookoff, started spreading rumors around the crowd that Gumfudgin and Carpenter had spiked their chili with marijuana. Soon a run had been made on their chili pot, the contents drained by a crowd expecting a buzz. They would be disappointed, and so would Gumfudgin and Carpenter — the crowd had so thoroughly picked over the pot that there was nothing left to present for judging. Instead it would be Wood who came out to play again, stepping off the sidelines to win his second world championship.
By this point the competition was starting to gain legitimacy, and both the ICS and the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) were jockeying for preeminence and control over the structure and management of the championships. The death of Wick Fowler in September 1972 had shaken up the growing sport, as there was one fewer voice of authority to keep the peace. The old guard could only watch as its original vision was drastically altered into something more closely resembling the codification going on around the greater sports landscape at this point in history.
The times they were a-changin’, as equal rights combined with greater organization of the events to irrevocably move the sport away from the “guys’ weekend out” that had originally marked its creation and into a realm of popularity that had never been foreseen. The CASI was organizing pods around the country to serve as regional competitions and, in some cases, as qualifiers to the main event itself. The ICS was gaining greater legitimacy on its own, working from its base in California to gain ever greater share of the market.
Wood had returned to the sidelines for good, giving up his apron for a role managing the event. His retirement from competition combined with Fowler’s death would leave the 1972 field wide open. The only two men who had previously been world champion were both gone from the competitive scene.
The perfect storm was brewing. Howard Winsor of Colorado would win the 1972 title, beating out Ohio’s Dub Rhodes and native Texan Dick Slocumb for the championship. The next year would see longtime competitor Joe DeFrates of Chicago, who had taken third in 1970 behind Fowler and Chief Fulton Battice, finally claim the title on his fifth try. Rhodes once again would play the runner-up, bested this time by the Illinois champion for the big prize.
1974 would be no better to Rhodes…
The eighth annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff would be the last that Terlingua would host in name.
Schofield became the first female ever to be crowned world champion in that year, the next link in the chain from Mrs. Ventura to Janice Constantine that continues to the present. Competing against two other women and 22 men in the largest field the competition had yet known, Schofield and her Hot Pants Chili won the championship by secret ballot over the rest of the field.
As the announcer, part of the California contingent of competitors, came to the microphone to announce the champion, the first words to pass between his lips were the atomic bomb that tore asunder the coexistence of the ICS and the CASI.
“It’s a ****in’ woman!”
As things nearly came to blows, the event had grown to such proportions that television crews and print journalists were on the scene to cover the booming craze. They were also there to see the dissolution of a solitary and definitive world chili championship. Wood and Tolbert, who had competing visions of what the world championship should be and how it should be represented to the press, saw that latent sexist attitude cause the final split.
Wood packed up the official title and went to California, where the world championships would be held in name. In Terlingua, the CASI would work to ensure that the annual event would continue to invigorate the ghost town in West Texas every November and keep alive the spiritual home of the championships.
The next year, 1975, would see Susie Watson of Houston become the second straight woman to win the title in Terlingua. But this time around she was not declared the world champion. That distinction would go instead to Joe DeFrates, joining Wood as a two-time world champion, as he defeated Myles Grossman of Nevada in November at Tropico Goldmine in Rosamond, California.
It would never quite feel the same. The CASI and Tolbert would eventually see their own peace fracture in Terlingua, and at present we now have three separate international-level championships. The ICS version has switched venues over the years, but both the CASI Terlingua International Chili Championship and the International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler Memorial Championship Chili Cookoff still take place every November on that same rough-hewn patch of desolation where it all began.
Consider it a papal schism of sorts, with the dueling houses in Avignon and the Vatican. Because as soon as the world championships split from the land that gave birth to them, both the title and the venue lost some of their mystique. One lacks the legitimacy of a title, the other the roots that connect it with the past…