Chili, as we know it, did not exist before 1967
That’s when Carroll Shelby and Dallas attorney Dave Witts, who wanted to sell their ranch in Terlingua, Texas, first asked a PR man by the name of Tom Tierney, “What can we do to get rid of that 150,000 acres of rocks and rattlesnakes?” A couple of weeks later, no doubt over a bowl of chili and some cocktails, Tierney blurted out the words that would change so many lives: “We’ll always have Paris.”
No, really, what he said was “Let’s hold a chili cookoff.”
No one had ever heard of a chili cookoff, but it sounded like a good idea and before anyone knew it, the thing was organized and on board. Or, as Shelby says, “disorganized and on board.”
The first cooks gather
Cooking for the Chili Appreciation Society International was Wick Fowler, legendary chief cook of that organization, which was formed in 1951 by George Haddaway. So profound a lover of chili was Haddaway that he once physically attacked a Houston chef who put Boston baked beans in his chili. The police came and, according to reports, yelled at the chef.
Set to cook against Fowler was Dave Chasen, a Los Angeles restaurateur. His chili was so popular that Elizabeth Taylor demanded it be flown to the set of Cleopatra when she and Richard Burton were filming in Puerto Vallarta. Chasen, however, became sick (from eating someone else’s chili), but fortuitously, a New York writer named H. Allen Smith had just published in Holiday magazine an article entitled “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do,” which totally defiled Texas chili. He was chosen to replace Chasen by the CASI group and a challenge was issued.
With Texas newspapermen Frank Tolbert and Fowler making a Very Big Deal about the dare in various publications, Smith could not refuse, and after a great deal of correspondence involving words such as “varlet” and “childish, semi-rumped Rotarian cracker-breakers,” he arrived in Terlingua, a patch of land so desolate that Fowler once said it looked like the place they tested the first atomic bomb – after the bomb went off.
There, beginning at noon on the porch of the Chisos Oasis Saloon on the Chiricahua Ranch, Smith and Fowler stirred and spiced and simmered while about 300 friends, relatives and strangers had a helluva good time eating and drinking (mostly drinking) while they waited to see what would happen.
An annual event begins
What did happen was that one judge, Hallie Stillwell, voted for Smith, another, Floyd Schneider, voted for Fowler, while the third, Dave Witts, self-proclaimed mayor of Terlingua, spat out his chili, derclared his taste buds were “ruint,” and said they would have to do the whole thing over again next year.
“Before that, no one had even thought about making it an annual event,” Shelby recalls. “Those first couple of years, there was a bunch of us who were friends and we just got together before the cookoff and asked each other ‘Well, are you going? Who’s coming with you? What time are you going to get there?’ and that was the beginning, and end, of organization.”
The second time around, a masked bandido ran off with the ballot box, throwing it down an outhouse located over a mineshaft, and again there was no winner. But to the vast majority of the 700 or so fans who had trekked out to Terlingua to witness the cookoff (and in doing so, consumed 90 percent of the tequila in West Texas) it didn’t matter. A year later, to the growing astonishment of the “organizers,” people from all over the country were clamoring to be included in the contest, each proclaiming he concocted the finest chili in the nation. (Women were not allowed at this point.)
Joe DeFrates, who packaged chili in Illinois, heard about it on the radio, told his wife, “I’ve got to get in on this,” and showed up to cook in 1969 against Fowler and C.V. Wood, the man who had brought the London Bridge to Lake Havasu and built Disneyland. (That was also the year Shelby and some friends tried to turn loose a herd of goats on some unsuspecting campers in the ranch house at 2:00am, throwing in some firecrackers and locking the door for good measure. After some initial confusion, everyone went back to sleep.)
More than one thousand fans showed up, and some of them actually were able to recall that Woody, whose “helpers” were a bunch of very beautiful (and very friendly) Hollywood starlets, was named the first official World’s Champion. Whether the judges were more impressed with his chili or his entourage will forever be lost in time.
“He actually thought he made the best chili in the world and wasn’t shy about saying so,” Shelby recalls, adding, “In the very early days we tried to keep the judging honest, but there were only a few judges and I’m not sure if some of them weren’t unduly influenced.”
After Fowler finally won in 1970, Woody returned to cook, demanding a head-to-head battle with CASI’s chief cook, and won again, promptly retiring as the only undefeated World’s Champion. From then on, Woody would watch the proceeding from a throne, wearing an ermine-trimmed velvet cape of his own design and carrying a scepter.
For the next couple of years, the cookoffs were sort of like an adult version of spring break. “The idea,” says Shelby, “was to have fun first and worry about who made the best chili second. Woody brought in hot-air balloons, Hollywood celebrities and beautiful assistants. It became an adult Woodstock. I have fond memories of those cookoffs.”
While Shelby and his band of fun-loving Californians appreciated the show-biz glamour and excitement that Woody brought to the event, Tolbert did not. The final straw came when Shelby and Wood transported a CBS camera crew on their private plane to the cookoff. Naturally, the television people interviewed Shelby and Wood, who claimed the original cookoff was their idea and all but ignored Tolbert.
The Cookoff comes to California
Steamed, Tolbert wrote to the duo and said he was ready to quit, as it was obvious they were trying to promote something he said should be called the annual C.V. Wood Show. “Why don’t you fellows stage it in California and save the freight,” he suggested.
Which is precisely what Shelby and Wood did. Unbeknownst to the Chili Appreciation Society, Shelby had copyrighted the title “World’s Championship Chili Cookoff” several years earlier, and in 1975 they held their own event to raise money for the Children’s Hospital at Tropico Gold Mine, an abandoned mine located near Rosamond, California. Terlingua continued as a site for an annual cookoff, which later became several cookoffs going on simultaneously, as CASI factions warred over who ran which cookoff.
Unlike Terlingua, which is about eight hours from Nowhere, Rosamond is just ninety miles north of Los Angeles. Rather than a few thousand fans, the first cookoff at Tropico drew fifteen thousand people, and it became clear that the event needed more than the fond but haphazard guidance provided by Shelby and Wood.
Cookoff benefits others
“When we first organized the ICS to be more than just a bunch of friends having a party, we hired Jim Westas our executive director,” Shelby says. “Jim had an office and did something (entertainment director) for the Balboa Bay Club, a private yacht club. So our first office was at an exclusive private club on the waterfront in Newport Beach, California. We brought in sponsors like Hunt-Wesson, McIlhenny Company (Tabasco) and Pepsi. Rules and regulations were formulated and we started approaching charities and nonprofit organizations to hold cookoffs. The fun didn’t change, but we put some meaning in the crazy madness that cookoffs represented. I’ll bet there weren’t over twenty-five cookoffs in the world at that time, and by 1994 over 300 cookoffs were sanctioned throughout the United States and several foreign countries. There has been many millions raised by these organizations from sanctioned chili cookoffs.
And the fun continues
Jim is still the director and credit must go to him for staying with it, but I think he will tell you, as I will, that it’s an American phenomenon because chili is a creative food, and everyone thinks they can make it better than the next guy. The organization makes chili cookoffs a fundraiser; the dish itself, fun and creative. Most of all, the thousands of chiliheads who have volunteered, starting with the first cookoff, have contributed to the growth. Another reason cookoffs have gotten so big is they are fun! Some of the early cookoffs were wilder – I was a little younger back then – but I still have as much fun as I did at the first one.”
The pots of chili have gotten smaller and the prizes bigger at the celebrity-infested World’s Championship, now held in the Biggest Little City in the World – Reno, Nevada – the first weekend in October. The haphazard concoctions that were so predominant at the first cookoffs have been replaced by chilis that are so fine-tuned in the quest for the perfect bowl of red, it is difficult to imagine further evolution.
In 1998, the 32nd Annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff was held in downtown Las Vegas under the canopy of The Fremont Street Experience. There was a Shelby Club Competition of about 150 Shelby Cobras on display along with the Chili Competitions. Actor/Singer David Cassidy sang the National Anthem flowed by the ” official start ” of the shotgun and then 170 cooks were cooking up their goods!
From the very first cookoff in 1967 – H. Allen Smith
(Tied with Wick Fowler), Austin, TX
- 4 pounds course-ground chopped sirloin or tenderloin
- olive oil or butter
- 1-2 small cans tomato paste, with water
- OR fresh tomatoes, finely chopped
- OR canned tomatoes pressed through a colander
- 3-4 medium onions, chopped
- 1 bell pepper, chopped
- 2-10 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- teaspoon sweet basil
- 1 tablespoon cumin seed or ground cumin
- salt and pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons (or more) chili power
- OR some chili pods
In a 4-quart pot, brown meat in oil or butter or in a blend of the two. Add the remaining ingredients, Simmer 2-3 hours with the lid on.