The Terlingua Chili Cookoff

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An artist's take on a classic chili festival in far west Texas

Watch the sunset over the Chisos Mountains (photo James Stoddard) from the “Terlingua porch,” and stories about the cookoff are guaranteed within earshot before nightfall. The gathering space referred to as “the porch” — a raised platform in front of a vast landscape of rolling foothills, mesas, and buttes — serves as the entrance to recently remodeled ruins of a former theatre and trading post, now restaurant and souvenir shop. The shaded concrete and wood construction is a rare manifestation of semi-public space in Texas, whose singular ribbons of road both guide and confine movement through tract after tract of private land. On “the porch,” amateur and professional musicians play accompaniment on guitar and harmonica to songs of salvation that only the silver haze of a desert moon would dare match in sentimental glory.

In Terlingua, the cookoff has always already just happened or is soon to be around the corner: a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, a string of “chili beads,” a reference to the welcome economic relief after a slow summer season of infernal temperatures, complaints about the upcoming chaotic descent of thousands upon the otherwise isolated community.

 

The sentimental glory of a desert moon over Terlingua.

In popular accounts, Terlinguans get more specific about what Tolbert calls his “prankish operation,” or what others of us might call in Kaprow’s terms, his gamelike, ritualistic and contemplative, “Activity Happening." Stories relate that the history of chili and desert land-development schemes are inextricably linked at the Ghosttown: the first Terlingua Chili Cookoff was nothing other than a ploy to get new Dallas wealth investing in remote areas near the United States-Mexico border.

“It was all a gimmick to get people out here to sell land,” recounts John Goforth, one of the directors of the “Krazy Flats” cookoff hosted by the Chili Appreciation Society International. “All they were doing was playing little games, then people start taking it seriously.”

 

The judges' table for the cookoff "behind the store."

Tolbert’s account confirms this version of the 1967 event: “a tongue-in-cheek local promotion” that grew into an “international sport.” This, keeping in mind, that “international” in Texas, means the republic of Texas, plus a complementary five or six locations in the greater United States mentioned for lipservice to the claim to cosmopolitanism.

After devouring a hearty home-cooked brunch special (right) at India’s Cafe (where, if asked, owners Ken and India might share the fantastic coincidences of their meeting over the internet), a right turn onto a dusty paved road leads to the Terlingua store. In succor of disoriented newcomers, store owner Delia White might be overheard introducing the concept of “the two cookoffs” — the “wild” one and the “mellow” one. The “mellow” one — otherwise known as the “original cookoff” or the cookoff “Behind the Store” — has set up camp each year, since 1984, in a vast rolling plot of dusty land that is located, as one might imagine, behind the store.

As a child in the early days of the cookoff, when the “chili wars” were staged amidst ruins of the now semi-restored Ghosttown, White sold her mother’s tamales to spectators and cooks. This pairing for the occasion of the "Behind the Store" cookoff, has become tradition.