The Georgia State Chili Cook-off Championship sanctioned by the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) will be held in Jasper for the ninth consecutive year. It will happen at Lee Newton Park next Saturday, July 13. There will be free music from the stage and all visitors can sample the chili made by these kooky cooks. All donations and entry fees go to Habitat for Humanity – Pickens County.
Competition cooking began in 1967 with a mock competition between H. Allen Smith, a New York humorist and author, and Wick Fowler, columnist for the Dallas Times Herald. Smith wrote a story for Holiday magazine titled “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do,” which raised the wrath of Texas chili fans, many members of the Chili Appreciation Society (International). Fowler and Frank Tolbert, a competing Texas newspaper columnist, publicly debated Smith until it was decided a cook-off was the only way to settle who made the best chili. The major hotbeds of chili were Texas and California so neutral ground was sought.
A place was picked half-way between Dallas and Los Angeles. Terlingua, Tx., was chosen, a ghost town in the Big Bend area of far west Texas. Set on volcanic tuft, cinnabar had been mined for mercury there and is a hot, dry and dusty place near the Rio Grande River. The conditions meant only serious chili aficionados known as “chili-heads” would show up.
The competition between Fowler and Allen was attended by many including Carroll Shelby of Shelby Cobra fame and astronaut Scott Carpenter, and covered by publications such as Sports Illustrated. Representatives from 209 chapters of CAS(I) came to observe. The judges were the mayor of Terlingua, a Lone Star Brewery executive (how else to get free beer in the middle of nowhere?!), and Halley Stillwell, county Justice of Peace, who would grow in legend and is worth reading about aside from this tale.
Judge Stillwell was the first to taste. After several spoons of Fowler’s chili and a tiny sample of Smith’s, she proved her long friendship to the New Yorker and voted for Smith. Judge Schneider (Lone Star beer) took a good bite of Smith’s chili and frowned, but ate greedily of Fowler’s and boisterously voted for Fowler. Finally, Mayor Witts tried Smith’s chili, turned red and contorted in agony. Recovering his composure, he declared his taste buds were ruined and could not fairly render a decision. The referee had no choice but to declare a tie and the first ever chili competition ended.
It wasn’t until 1969 that a winner was declared and that was C.V. Wood, the man who bought the London Bridge and moved it to Arizona. Annual competition in Terlingua has occurred every year since. So when you come out to the park next Saturday, you won’t be just tasting chili, you’ll be tasting history. Best of all, you’ll be supporting Pickens’ Habitat for Humanity.