The Terlingua Chili Cookoff

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

The “wild” one, otherwise known as the “Krazy Flats” or “CASI,” an acronym for the Chili Appreciation Society International, is five miles down the road, past a cluster of constructions resembling a marooned pirate ship and a metal sign incised with the phrase “Passing Wind.” 

Ask anyone from other towns in Brewster or the neighboring Presidio County about the Terlingua cookoff and they will nudge you with a chuckle: “Krazy Flats” is known for its “wild women.” For an irridescent aluminum chili pendent on a string of beads, women of all ages will pole dance topless while flatbed trailers carry them through desert arroyos. “Over there, don’t bring your wife, don’t bring your kids and don’t bring small animals,” jokes one chili cook, who prefers to remain anonymous.

“Krazy Flats” and “Behind the Store” are so committed to their respective differences they have established identical schedules to prevent cooks from participating in both. Inquire as to the reason for the split and experienced judges, cooks, and spectators first cite a disagreement among organizers over rules, then elaborate upon critical differences in organizational style.

 

"I’m on a mission to cook in all the states," explained Debbie Turner.

Debbie Turner, awarded 10th place among 21 cooks at the finals of “Behind the Store,” has been participating in the Terlingua Championship for 25 years. According to Turner — whose “mission to cook in all the states” has her culinary trek mapped at 43 — in 1983, the chili cooks decided they wanted to control organization of the cookoff and hence split with the original Tolbert group. As White puts it, when the cookoffs "divorced each other," they even went to court.

“Over here, the cooks and the spectators all cook together,” explains Turner, whereas “five miles down the road, they segregate them.” This is “good for the chili cooks,” asserts Turner, “because, they don’t have to put up with the craziness." 

 

"I don’t cook, I just show." explained Wayne Turner, Debbie's husband. "I hug the girls and I drive the bus." (Photo courtesy Jim Stoddard)

But most participants agree, it is the “craziness” that brings in the more than 300 cooks and the cash of thousands of spectators to the “Krazy Flats.” Because the CASI Terlingua Championship funds local scholarships, none of the concerns about indecent behavior or rowdiness of spectators at “Krazy Flats” are likely to register as anything more than complaints anytime soon. (Left, Wayne exhibits "Behind the Store" champion showmanship, photo Jim Stoddard)

It's interesting to note that while neuroscientists test the effect on the brain of capsaicin, the compound responsible for the burning sensation of chili peppers, the cookoff “Behind the Store” donates its proceeds for research on ALS, a high-profile neurodegenerative disease. Indeed, it was only a year after the founding of the first chili cookoff that the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee on Brain Death established a new neurologically based definition of death, which we now take for granted as simple fact: “brain death.” (Left, Wayne exhibits his "exposed brain" hat, photo courtesy Jim Stoddard)

But, beyond the neuroscience of chili and the performance politics of cookoffs as “Event Happenings,” a crucial question begs asking: What makes a championship “bowl of red”?