SI Vault
Gary Cartwright
December 11, 1967
When Author H. Allen Smith claimed he knew more about chili than anyone else, some simmering Texans challenged him to a cookoff that wound up in controversy and settled nothing, including stomachs
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December 11, 1967

The Great Chili Championship Fix

When Author H. Allen Smith claimed he knew more about chili than anyone else, some simmering Texans challenged him to a cookoff that wound up in controversy and settled nothing, including stomachs

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What incensed Tolbert and his cronies was not the title of Smith's magazine article, which could be dismissed as eastern stupidity, but Smith's references attacking the revered chili pepper on which the Texas recipe hinges ("It killeth dogs") and the Texans' habit of thickening their boil with masa flour ("You might as well throw in some maraschino cherries").

What is more, Smith's recipe called for vegetables and, God help him, canned pinto beans. Tolbert wrote that Smith's recipe put him in mind of "a chili-powder-flavored low-torque beef gruel."

Smith got into personalities, firing off a letter describing his antagonists as a bunch of "childish, semirumped, Rotarian-type cracker breakers...."

"I have read most of Smith's fact, all the dirty ones," retorted Fowler. "He is a very funny man. The funniest thing he ever wrote was that chili recipe."

To insure that the judgment would be a fair-and-square victory for Fowler and Texas, CASI asked each contestant to select one judge. The society appointed the balancing judge. He was Dallas Attorney David Witts, who is half owner (with Auto Racing Impresario Carroll Shelby) of the 200,000-acre Terlingua Ranch on which the ghost town is situated. Witts also happens to be one of three "kitchen helpers" in CASI's hierarchy. Fowler's advocate was Floyd Schneider, vice-president of a San Antonio brewery; H. Allen Smith puzzled the enemy camp by naming a Texan, Mrs. Hallie Stillwell of Alpine, as his judge. Mrs. Stillwell is Peace Justice of Precinct 1, Brewster County. Her court is in Hell's Half-Acre, Texas, an hour's ride from Stillwell's Crossing. It was much later that CASI learned she is H. Allen Smith's cousin, but that was a paltry concession, under the circumstances.

It was apparent that if Fowler didn't wear down his opponent, the land would. The Big Bend is a lonely, hostile, strangely beautiful land. At times it is like the wildest parts of Arizona; at times the wind wails across the moonscape, and a ghost light winks down from the Chisos (Spanish for ghost) Mountains. It changes personalities constantly. The mountains go from purple gray in the deep shadows of morning to a soft sand in the glare of the day, and they are arranged in a hundred shapes and sizes. In some parts the ranges are long and spiny in the silhouettes of sleeping dinosaurs. Others break off sharply; one resembles a reclining profile of George Washington. Still others are blobs, swirled at the peaks like fresh soft candy, or pinched at the sides to suggest Smokey Bear hats. Landmarks have such fetching names as Hen Egg Mountain (elevation: 5,002 feet), Squaw's Tit Peak and Dirty Women Creek.

"This land is unlike anything I know," says David Witts. "It's scraggy, violent, colorful, friendly, brutal, a paradox at every turn. You wouldn't think you could raise cattle out here, but we had 4,000 head last spring. There are places in Texas where cattle literally die from overeating. Out here there is not much to chew on, but what there is has a very high mineral content."

When Witts bought the land he didn't know he was getting a ghost town in the bargain. Inspired by Dallas Public-relations Man Tom Tierney, a city government was elected. For the first time in three decades Terlingua had a mayor, David Witts. Tolbert was elected water commissioner. In time most members of CASI found titles for themselves. Shelby is chairman of the Terlingua Racing Authority. His Cobras race all over the world under the banner of the Terlingua Racing Team. Europeans, says Shelby, are instantly impressed with the fact that the Terlingua Racing Team insists it was founded in 1860, some years before the invention of the combustion engine. The team emblem is three feathers and a jackrabbit holding his hand against the sun (allegedly saying. "Hold the peppers"), and among other racing titles currently on display in the Terlingua archives is the 1967 Trans-American Sedan Series championship.

Like the vast country where it hides, Terlingua is a town of contrasts—the most obvious being that it lives a lot for a ghost.

Until the mines watered out, Terlingua was the largest producer of quicksilver in the U.S. There was a time when maybe 5,000 boomtowners lived here. Now the population is given as nine, although Terlingua Post Master Daisy F. Adams (the post office is three miles from town) estimates the figure at closer to 20. "The number don't vary a bunch," cackles Daisy, showing off the single tooth remaining in her mouth, " 'cause every time a baby is born around here, a man leaves town."

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