The Terlingua Chili Cookoff

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

According to pilot Jim Stoddard, this year’s winner of the Tolbert quintennial “cookoff of champions,” the key is salt content. Judges pass around numbered styrofoam cups of chili and taste single spoonfuls, cleansing the palate with carrot sticks, beer, or saltines. (A "bowl of red," photo Jim Stoddard) For Stoddard, a salting that would be too strong for a chili bowl, heightens the aroma of cumin, spices, and chili powder in bite-size portions. Stoddard also grinds his own meat and uses tri-tip, a bottom sirloin. However, the purposiveness of Stoddard’s approach to chili was unusual as the response of spectators, judges, and competing cooks at both cookoffs tended to repeat one word: “balance.”

Surprising? Fowler’s book speaks of a history of secret beef formulas, spice concoctions, half-moon-shaped cooking pots, and the arduous process of home-grinding chili powder. But when considered within the broader canvas of a cultural shift that is swiftly replacing the American calvinist twist on meritocracy with a social networking conditioning to mediocracy, the chili inquisitive are reminded that cookoff culinary discourse is but an affirmation of the current lackadaisical state of critical habits.

In the consensus-driven culture we are all complicit in affirming, the slogan “think outside the box” has come to urge nothing less than a fear of agonism and the complacency of actions within established parameters. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the championship “bowl of red” aims at replicating chili-in-a-can. And though the canned chili being referenced is, indeed, the legendary "Famous Wolf Brand Chili" — once promoted around the Southwest in a picturesque campaign of Model T Fords, now a ConAgra consumer foods brand — whatever happened to the thrill of the avant-garde?



Breakfast-chef extraordinaire, Truett Airhart, explains what
happened to "integration" and "innovation." (Photo Jim Stoddard)

An octogenerian breakfast-chef extraordinaire for a camp of chili cooks “Behind the Store” claims he knows the answer. Truett Airhart has yet to retire and is currently developing an emergency response system for the refineries of two major corporations he calls “King Kong” and “Godzilla.” "We are surrounded by processes that don’t work anymore,” he declares. “The rate of change caused by technology has exceeded our ability to adapt… and no one is talking about it.... See, capitalism isn’t dead, it’s changing from tangibles like factories and land to intangibles like intellectual property... Our constitution, our faith in the capitalistic system brought us where we are....” 


Spoons, post-judging.

If it is "faith" that has resulted in the depressive climate of a culture of "balance" (and a cookoff championship where the majority of competitors aim to replicate chili-in-a-can to a background of the once iconic landscape of intrepid individualism), then it is perhaps a call to irony that is required.  As artist Donald Judd once wrote in a 1962 review of Wayne Thiebaud's cupcake paintings, "A little grossness, like a little cynicism, is a little impossible."  But, how to proceed from here: a Miltonian desert of Cimmerian air despite the pepsters and showmen in tutus?

Airhart suggests a return to process. In 1990, as the Bush Administration declared the “Decade of the Brain,” Allan Kaprow pronounced that the “experimental artist” of today was an “un-artist.” “Un-arting” meant divesting of nearly all the features of recognizable art so that “art, for a while, lingers as a memory trace, but not something that matters.”

For Kaprow, “artlike artists” look for the meaning of art, “lifelike artists” would play at life’s daily routines and hence find its meaning in “picking a stray thread from someone’s collar,” or, in this case, in the consistency of grind in a “bowl of red.”

As American anarchism makes its final concessions to its neoliberal hyphenation, “anarcho-capitalism,” the Terlingua Chili Championship Cookoffs perform capitalist culture and its discontents: a culinary microcosm of neo-imperialism that has finally "trickled down" as far as the desert sprawl of a ghosttown suburb. As Kaprow would say, the only way to change something is to pay close attention to it.


(This article was originally titled On Life-like Art and a Bowl of Blessedness: Thoughts on the Terlingua Chili Cookoff).


This article is part of the series: What We Should Do With Our Brain, Some Suggestions. Emily Verla Bovino (1980) is author of the fictional character, the hyperthymestic RK, and facilitator of encounters between RK and the world. Artistic fieldwork in preparation for this all-encompassing project involves composing suggestions entitled "What We Should Do With Our Brain," a response to philosopher Catherine Malabou's work, "What Should We Do With Our Brain."