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The Real History of Texas Chili and The Chili Cook-Off

Frank X. Tolbert's Tolbert's Texas column made its Dallas Morning News debut in March of 1955. This assignment evolved after over six years of employment with the newspaper. This daily piece touched on all things Texas. His friends and contacts on the subject were legion and his offerings were as diverse as the state of which he wrote. During the decade of the fifties his articles mentioned chili only a handful of times and never in depth.


Tolbert "by lined" the opening day offering in the Dallas Morning News for the State Fair of Texas on Saturday, October 4, 1952, and a recap of the commencement of this event a day later. On the bill of fare, for the fair, on October 5th 1952, was a World Champion Chili Contest. Tolbert made no mention of this in either of his articles. The implication is that the "Godfather of Chili" had no real interest in the matter of chili at the time.


 This all changed by December 20, 1960, when Tobert's Texas headlined with, 'Chili Mail' Is Hot and Heavy. His piece is dedicated exclusively to letters received regarding "Texas Style Chili". Tolbert discovered that the hot dish was a hot topic with readers. Joe E. Cooper had done the same about a decade previous in compiling information for his book, With Or Without Beans, the first dedicated exclusively to chili and its history and the reason for the first World Champion Chili Contest in 1952.


 In the early sixties, chili was hot. A Texan was serving in the White House as vice-president and Lyndon Baines Johnson shared his appreciation for chili with the world by publicizing his personal recipe, Pedernales Chili. Tolbert stirred this pot of interest. A 20˘ edition of the November 24, 1962 The Saturday Evening Post included the Frank X. Tolbert penned, A Bowl of Fire Called Chili. And, chili, with geometric progression, was becoming the primary subject in the Tolbert's Texas column.


Aviator and editor, George Haddaway, and Jim Fuller are credited with creating the Chili Appreciation Society anywhere from 1939 to 1947 depending on who is telling the story. It did not merit mention in Joe Cooper's 1952 book, With Or Without Beans, but by 1960 the Society was making news in Tolbert's Texas. On November 2 of that year, Frank X. Tolbert reported that Haddaway and Ted Malloy were members of the "Dallas Press Club's new chili research and development department . . . dedicated to 'the discovery of the finest chili recipe in the world'."


They were openly soliciting samples from the public and keeping score. Fred Massengill of Terrell was cited as, "having the best yet presented." Tolbert closed his column with, "Personally, I think the committee has just thought up a scheme to get a lot of good, free chili."


Haddaway's Chili Appreciation Society was becoming very much appreciated in its Dallas, Texas headquarters. It's eclectic membership met with semi-irregularity to partake in the eating of chili and to carry on with fellow chili aficionados. One scene of this nonsensical reverence was the Adolphus Hotel, a block or so from Bob Pool's heralded chili joint of a decade earlier.


With George Haddaway as Chief Chili Head and Wick Fowler as Chief Chili Cook, the Society gained international status in a well-documented investiture ceremony held in Mexico City on April 7, 1964. Among the devoted chili heads making the south of the border trip were the afore mentioned newsman, Ted Maloy, Dallas attorney David Witts and American Airlines public relations man, Buck Marryat.


Terlingua, Texas did not begin to enter into the chili mix until 1963, when on June 30 of that year the Dallas Morning News featured an article with the headline, Lawyer Witts Buys 150,000-Acre Ranch. David Witts, born in Denton, Texas, was a very successful attorney, the top scholar in the SMU class of 1948. He collected income-producing properties as a "hobby" and the Maurice Minchen Estate of the Big Bend became his largest holding. The price was "in excess of $1,000,000" for the property advertised in a sales brochure as having multiple potential uses. It would soon gain notoriety for a reason not initially considered.


Along with collecting real properties, another hobby of David Witts was chili.  He served as the host of chili functions in Dallas from the late 1950's into the 1960's. These farcically formal affairs included the company of: friends, clients, business associates, friends of friends, and so on. Held whenever, attended by whomever, chili was ladled, crackers were crumbled and a trip to the bar washed it all down with Witts picking up the tab. A bowl of red was the common thread to some very uncommon personalities. The whimsy of chili spilled onto the newly acquired Big Bend property in a big way.


Tolbert's Texas of April 20, 1964 revealed that Witts had christened Terlingua "The Chili Capital of the World". The ghost town had official stationery declaring such, as well as a Bill Neale designed coat-of-arms that doubled as the Terlingua Racing Team logo. David Witts was the self-appointed Mayor of Terlingua and the Tolbert column allowed that, ". . . Witts hopes to make it a kind of chili shrine with a portly statue in the town square of Wick Fowler, one of the Southwest's premier chili makers."


This same Tolbert column went on to detail each of the city officials appointed by Mayor Witts and listed on the stationery, as follows: Frank X Tolbert, water commissioner; John B. King, park commissioner; Jim Underwood, city meteorologist; George Haddaway, airport manager; Murray Forsvall, road commissioner; Carroll Shelby, social director; Thomas J. Tierney, chief justice; Bill Neale, director of the Museum of Modern Art; Holland McCombs, librarian; and William T. Rives, superintendent of schools. Many of these names are now famously linked with the "Great Chili Confrontation", which was not yet even a thought. That event was still three years down the chili timeline.


Terlingua, Texas is appropriately described as about as far as one can go to get nowhere. Veins of red ore were discovered beneath the desolate landscape in the late 1800's and were the lifeblood of the remote town. Terlingua relocated as old mines played out and new pockets of ore were discovered nearby. By 1942 there was no more cinnabar to be found and Terlingua rolled up her caliche sidewalks to become a ghost town. She lived and died by an ore of red. It was a bowl of red that brought her new life. The former "Cinnabar Capital of the World" became the "Chili Capital of the World."


The Ford Mustang was as hot as chili during the mid-1960's and provided additional spice for a rejuvenated Terlingua. The principals in the auto klatch included: Carroll Shelby, automobile designer and former racecar driver, Tom Tierney, public relations and advertising wizard, Bill Neale, artist and automobile illustrator, and others. All were friends of David Witts and affiliated with the Dallas chili klatch through the Chili Appreciation Society. Several times a year Shelby would pilot his DC-3 airplane to Dallas from his California address, load up the plane with cronies, and fly to the Terlingua Ranch for extended weekends of doings in the desert. The Terlingua Racing Team logo was gaining notoriety as it appeared on an increasing number of racecars including a Grand Prix winner. An officially sanctioned race was seriously considered for the Big Bend, but the rubber of this idea never did hit the roads of Terlingua.


Meanwhile, back in Dallas, Texas, the world headquarters for chili appreciation, Frank X. Tolbert remained the chili clarion through his daily columns in the Dallas Morning News. He reported on the antics of David Witts and fellow chiliheads to a readership hungry for tales about the humble dish and its storied aficionados. Tolbert and his contemporaries devoted plenty of newspaper ink to the chili phenomenon. The time was ripe for a new book about chili.  The year of 1965 came to a close with A Bowl of Red for reading, versus eating, in the making.


Chili awareness in 1966 was something like a game of darts with the dartboard being Texas and Dallas serving as the bullseye. In the five or so years since Frank X. Tolbert discovered the public's interest on the matter, chili was cited in nearly 200 of his Tolbert's Texas columns in the Dallas Morning News — roughly once a week. Chili had appeared in less than twenty of his daily columns in the seven years prior to his chili enlightenment — about twice a year. Tolbert had authored six books, each of which delved into people, places and events in Texas history. The historian had amassed a double bowlful of information on chili and his seventh (and final) book was thus titled, A Bowl of Red — A Natural History of Chili Con Carne. The chili dartboard was fixing to get a whole lot bigger than Texas.


The 120-page Tolbert book emphasized "the world-famous, seldom-found-today, original, Texas-style bowl of red." It opened with, "This isn't a cookbook, although some recipes will be recited." Seven chili recipes followed with Wick Fowler's recorded in Spanish. Beyond chili, chapters were dedicated to other Texas native foods and some colorful personalities associated with them. This included: tamales and enchiladas, son-of-bitch stew, black-eyed peas and pinto beans, jalapeno corn bread, hot sausage and barbecue. It closed with "The Chili Prayer". Subsequent chili history would eventually expand the 1966, 1st edition manuscript to more than 200 pages.


When A Bowl of Red hit the bookshelves it made Tolbert, the chili reporter, a chili celebrity as well. His publisher, Doubleday & Company, promoted the new book with signing appearances and the like to a national audience. This publicity effort garnered Frank X. Tolbert an October 1966 guest spot on a very popular television show of the era, To Tell The Truth. Tolbert had to tell a lie. The show was taped for airing at a later date. To cover, he reported that his trip to New York was to, " . . . attend a national convention of water commissioners in connection with my duties as water commissioner of Terlingua, Texas, 'The Chili Capital of The World."


While in New York Tolbert dropped in at the Park Avenue office of Doubleday & Company. He found waiting for him a long letter in which the writer threatened him with a public horse whipping. Why? The author of the letter took exception to the "original" chili recipe that appeared in A Bowl of Red and allowed that only a northerner could make proper chili. Upon his return to Dallas, Tolbert shared the ravings of this self-described "King of the Independent Chili Heads" in his Tolbert's Texas. The column was titled, "Wonder What 'H' Stands For?"


The "H" to which Tolbert referred stood for Harry, the first name of a humorist author who penned his works as H. Allen Smith. "H" was the largest selling humor author since Mark Twain, but he found nothing funny in the publicity that Tolbert was receiving as an authority on the history, and making, of chili. After all, it was in his first of thirty books written to this time, that Smith opened a paragraph on page nine with, "One evening I threw a chili party at my house . . . " and closed with a guest's parting comment, "And I want to compliment you on your chili. It was better than Childs." The copyright date in the book's first edition is 1941.


H. Allen Smith's love for chili was attributed to his frequent visits as a child to "Chili Bill's" in Decatur, Illinois. Here a dime was good for a bowl of chili, a half-a-dozen soda crackers, a glass of milk, and a priceless memory of youth. This recollection included beans, onions, and tomatoes all of which items were tabooed in Tolbert's declared "original " Texas chili recipe appearing in A Bowl of Red. This "original" concoction called for the use of Masa Harina, the cornmeal essential in tortillas and tamales, as a grease absorbing thickener. H. Allen Smith's toes curled at the thought of thickening chili so it might be eaten with a fork instead of a soupspoon. The chili war was on.


Smith's attacks on Tolbert, the Chili Appreciation Society, and original" Texas chili were unrelenting and he insisted himself to be the real chili authority at every opportunity. This went on for almost a year with a Tolbert's Texas feature addressing the issue on July 27, 1967. It opened with, "On Darrell Royal's Yen for Burritos", then disclosed that the pesky, Yankee, chili know-it-all Smith of Mt. Kisko, New York was threatening to burn A Bowl of Red on his hometown square. Also in the same clipping, a reader of Tolbert's column wrote to say H. Allen Smith was on national television declaring himself, " . . . the greatest chili cook in the world, bar none." And that Smith was growing his own chile peppers on his goat farm, so hot that one must wear rubber gloves to handle them.


The provider of this information was Billy Bob Crim of Kilgore, Texas, friend of the Chili Appreciation Society, and too, several of its members. Crim's contribution included, "Surely, Wick Fowler, your chief chili cook in the Chili Appreciation Society, will challenge Smith's claims. Maybe some sort of duel could be arranged to see who does make the hottest chili." So, for the first time since 1952, a chili contest is suggested to determine a champion cook. Wick Fowler replied in the same news piece, "I'm ready to duel with Mr. Smith, and I'll bet he will find 8-alarm too hot to swallow." Thus the contestants for the first chili-cooking contest in fifteen years were determined? Well, not exactly. H. Allen Smith's infamous Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do appeared the following month in Holiday magazine and stirred the chili controversy to a frenzy.


A bowl of red stew had not been such a contentious matter since a starving Esau traded his birthrights for one way back in Genesis 25:29-32. H. Allen Smith could not have fathomed the enormity what he had gotten himself into, out of, and back into again. When public relations ace Tom Tierney came across the chili rants in Holiday magazine, he reported his findings to Tolbert and got himself designated as official matchmaker for the pending competition. Maury Maverick of San Antonio had coined the phrase Great Chili Confrontation in reference to the contest. Planning was fast and furious and mostly unknown to H. Allen Smith.


When Tierney took the reins his first thought was to replace Smith as a contender with someone who could bring more to the table than an attitude. Like maybe a Hollywood restaurateur named Dave Chasen, famous for his vegetable-laden chili, and who just might bring Elizabeth Taylor, the movie starlet of the era, as a second or a judge. Beauty conquers belligerence, so Smith was out and Taylor, er Chasen was in, at least for a while. By September 9, 1967 the details of the cookoff appeared in the Dallas Morning News indicating the contestants would be H. Allen Smith and Wick Fowler, just as Billy Bob Crim had originally suggested.


Wick Fowler provided by mail some of his 2-Alarm fixings to Smith, which put the Yankee's chili tongue to flip-flopping. He blamed his wife for the bell peppers called for in his published recipe, explaining he hoped to outlive her that he, " . . . be able to make a pot of chili without a whisper of bell pepper in it." Smith all but conceded that Wick Fowler was his chili-cooking superior in a hilarious letter requesting pricing on additional packages of 2-Alarm Chili. He ended his note with, "Don't for god sake let Tolbert know, but I liked what the masa did for it." Smith knew he was a chili patsy.


Jack Daniels donated cases of whiskey and Pearl donated even more cases of beer to the promoters of the trumped up chili contest. The Texas faction took advantage of these sponsors' offerings at the Chiricahua Ranch on the Friday night prior the big showdown. Hangovers were the rule in Terlingua the next day. Smith prudishly bowed out of the invitation to the Friday night party and arrived in Terlingua much the less for wear. He and Fowler assumed their places behind Coleman stoves and The Great Chili Confrontation commenced at just about high noon with all of possibly 200 onlookers witnessing the history being made on the porch of the old Chisos company store.


H. Allen Smith never really had a chance, but a little creative choreography saved him from total humiliation. Hangovers aside, this was too much fun to end just now. So the powers that were devised a clever plan that the farcical duel end in a draw. And so it did when the first two judges split in their choices for the winner and the third judge declared himself unable to make a decision. It was deemed that the matter be settled the same time, the same place, the following year . . . and the year after that and . . . . .




Myself, a young native Texan dedicated to Texas Chili, and recognized and accepted by Wick Fowler as having the requisite credentials and integrity, he passed on his most-secret, top-secret Chili secrets to me in the early 1970s, conditionally. My oath to him required me to share some of his regular Chili secrets only by allowing other Chili interested people to witness it being prepared.


Over the years I have followed through with my oath to Wick many times. When I for sure became a retired retiree,  I thought it prudent to require a family member to receive the Wick Fowler most-secret, top-secret Chili secrets, conditionally, under the Wick Fowler oath as I did 50 years ago.


I have designated only one family member, native born Texan, my nephew Kenneth C. Baff of Auburn, WA, as the responsible person of great integrity to possess the most-secret, top-secret Chili secrets passed on to me, alone, by Wick Fowler in the early 1970s. Kenneth, known in Houston as “KC”, will, no doubt, someday pass on the most-secret, top-secret secrets of World Championship Chili only to a deserving with the necessary integrity to take the Wick fowler oath to protect the most-secret, top-secret secrets of World Championship "Real Texas Chili".

~~ Bob Hutchinson AKA Armalee Gumfudgen



Poster given to me by Carol Shelby at the Chiricahua Ranch first Saturday of November evening in 1968. He had invited us Louisiana bikers there after the Cookoff to promote CASI and a Louisiana Chapter. Carol had the Louisiana CASI Coonass award mounted to the wall benind his office desk for years. Terlingua.JPG