The Terlingua Chili Cookoff

Staff Writer
An artist's take on a classic chili festival in far west Texas
The Terlingua Chili Cookoff
Emily Bovino

In far west Texas, the official culinary emblem of contemporary desert sprawl or ghosttown suburbanism, is a “bowl of red” — what Will Rogers used to call a “bowl of blessedness" — more commonly known to the rest of us as “chili.” Texan connoisseurs of this cowboy staple will quickly remind the uninitiated: "No beans in our chili, no chili has no beans. Ours is just meat — meat, and whatever it sits in."

Though chili had been cooked by rangeland cocineros at cattle roundups since the beginning of the 20th century, and sold by sidewalk vendors in San Antonio as early as the late 19th, it was a campaign designed by two Dallas writers in the 1960s that managed to make the dish protagonist to a radical though understated land development scheme.  In the early 21st century, this conjuring trick has managed to effectively banalize one of the most sublime locations of American isolationism.

In 1958, artist Allan Kaprow predicted that the “alchemies of the 1960s” would be, not ordinary things made extraordinary but, the discovery out of ordinary things of the very “meaning of ordinariness.”

“People will be delighted or horrified,” wrote Kaprow, “critics will be confused or amused,” and art would be defined as “how deeply involved we become with elements of the whole.”

Meanwhile, as the '60s progressed in the Texas borderland, towns deserted after World War II by former military and mining outposts became destinations for individuals looking to “get off the grid.”

 

It's still possible to get off the grid and even "the cloud" in Terlingua.

Though “grid” may have once been used to recall electrical lines and water pipes, in recent years it has been employed as a metaphor for refusing general convenience and facile connection. In these remote locations, electricity and running water are never givens, and even “getting off the cloud” (of cloud computing) still appears possible, as failing cellular connections prevent self-tracking with GPS.

In their desire to evade the ubiquitous micromanagement of everyday life and 21st-century self-promotional culture, a varied group of escapists have found themselves building an unintentional collective since the 70s. Retired corporate managers, idealistic academics, disillusioned hipsters, and aggravated hippies have made their way to one such location, Brewster County’s Terlingua Ghosttown, living amidst gentrified ruins of a former cinnabar mine at an entrance to Big Bend National Park.

It is of no coincidence that the ghosttown rush of the late '60s and early '70s was contemporaneous with the work, “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art.” For this event, artist Tom Marioni, under the pseudonym Allan Fish, invited 16 friends for beer at a closed museum, then called the remaining debris an “exhibit.” In the same span of time, legendary characters like pirate radio producer "Uh Clem" and popular porch therapist "Dr. Doug" populated Terlingua Ghosttown, then site for the annual World’s Chili Cookoff since 1967. Also in 1967, Allan Kaprow would declare in his essay “Pinpoint Happenings” that simply “assigning a new or multiple set of functions to a situation normally bound by convention” or at the very least, a “consciousness of this possibility,” could transform a situation into a Happening, or purposive activity. Happenings, for Kaprow, would be the “best efforts of contemporary inquiry into identity and meaning,” for they would “take their stand amid the modern information deluge.”

The original idea for the 1967 Chili Cookoff was for legendary Hollywood restaurateur Dave Chasen — whose chili actress Elizabeth Taylor loved so much, legend has it she had him send her ten quarts on dry ice when on location for Cleopatra — to be matched against the chief cook of the Texas Chili Appreciation Society International, Wick Fowler. When Chasen became ill, H. Allen Smith, who was living on a goat farm near Mount Kisco, N.Y., was selected as his substitute. Smith was the author of an anti-Texas article “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do” (Holiday Magazine, 1967), in which a chili recipe, blasphemous for Texans, listed the heathen ingredients of sweet bell peppers, canned tomatoes, onions, and kidney beans.

As Chili Cookoff founder Frank Tolbert writes in his definitive history of the "chili wars" (A Bowl of Red, Texas A&M University Press, 1994) the whole operation was "prankish." At the heart of the game was the extent to which talents in persuasion and manipulation could be pushed to get people as far as Dallas, out to Terlingua: Tolbert was a newspaper columnist, and co-founder Tom Tierney, managed a public relations firm. Thus, the first edition of the cookoff invented a New York-Texas rivalry, while the second promoted a good old duel with the state of California. The popular magazine Sports Illustrated was present to report.