Great Bowls of Fire

Texans love their chili and enjoy pursuing the perfect bowl of red.
By Sarah Parkin

Texas and chili share a long relationship. While chili is found throughout the United States, it comes from Texas, and Texans have strong opinions about their state dish.


Below: Each November, thousands of chili cooks and spectators travel to Terlingua, a southwest Texas ghost town, for two prominent chili cook-offs. Jason Ezell photo


President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.”

Other Americans must have shared that opinion because requests for his wife’s recipe poured into the White House, prompting Lady Bird’s staff to print recipe cards.

As much as Texans love chili, they also love a good competition, which is how the chili cook-off has become a part of Texas culture. Often benefitting local charities, these cook-offs combine fun with dedication, so grab your spoon and appetite as we take a tour of Texas’ chili cook-offs and festivals.

The history of chili

While the exact history of chili cannot be known, there are indicators chili was being made as early as the 1730s.

In March of 1731, 16 families were ordered to Texas from the Canary Islands by King Philip V of Spain to establish a foothold on the region. These families settled in what is now San Antonio and made a spicy Spanish stew believed to include the basic ingredients of chili: hot peppers, garlic and spices.

The cattle drivers and trail hands helped to create the legend of the spicy beef and pepper mixture as a Texas staple. The dish would have been easy to prepare on the trail. Peppers, garlic, onions, herbs and spices could be dried on the sides of the wagons as they traveled.

Women served chili from carts in San Antonio’s Military Plaza during the 1880s. Chili became so popular that a night on the town in San Antonio was not complete without a stop at a chili stand where customers could buy a bowl of chili served with a side of beans, bread or tortillas and water.

In 1893, the San Antonio Chili Stand was in operation at the Columbian Exposition at the World’s Fair in Chicago, giving chili its initial national exposure.

Around 1900, chili joints began opening up in towns across Texas. By the 1920s and through the Depression years, nearly every town had at least one chili joint that usually was just a shed with a counter. However rugged they may have been, many say that the chili joints kept people from starving during the Depression.

In 1977, chili was named the official state dish of Texas.

A little friendly competition

There are three major associations cooking chili for charity in the United States. The Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) was founded in 1947 by magazine publisher George Haddaway and corporate spokesman James C. Fuller. In October 1967, members from 209 CASI chapters arrived for the first chili cook-off in Terlingua in remote southwest Texas. Dedicated chili fans have been making the annual pilgrimage to Terlingua ever since.

In 1975, the International Chili Society (ICS) was formed. Frank Tolbert, a writer for the Dallas Morning News, spun off his own chili competition from CASI in the 1980s. The Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert–Wick Fowler Championship Cook-off goes on during the CASI competition that takes place the first Saturday in November. Related events flank Saturday’s cook-off.

Roughly 10,000 people arrive to take part in the two events in Terlingua, a ghost town near Big Bend National Park that was once a mining community. There are a few services available to travelers, but most competitors and spectators choose to dry camp. Many come early to stake a spot. One certainly needs a sense of adventure for this event.

Competitors from around the country meet in Terlingua, and solid friendships often are formed. The cooks tease one another, taking a little heat from others as to who will have the winning cup of chili.

“Everybody here knows everybody,” said Bob Plager of Pools Brew Chili, who lives in Colorado and attends events throughout the nation. He has been the red chili champion at Tolbert Terlingua in 1996, 1998 and 2006. He and his wife, Kathy–an ICS chili champ–attend about a dozen events in Texas each year. His winning 1996 recipe (see related story) uses prunes as a special ingredient.

Chili cook-off rules can vary, but there are a few constants. Prepared foods allowed in competition are canned or bottled tomatoes, tomato sauce, peppers, pepper sauce, beverages, and broth. Spices and meat can be ground in advance, but competitors cannot cook the meat before the cook-off begins. All other chopping and preparation must be done at the competition. No fillers–including beans, rice and pasta–may be used in competition chili.

Judges do not see the cooks bringing the containers to the judging area. Some cooks agree to judge at other cook-offs.

“I prefer to be cooking,” said Dick Swenberger, who lives in Mesa, Ariz. “Of the five cook-offs in Arizona, I am the judge for three.”

Contestants may also prepare chili to serve to the crowd. This recipe is often quite different from the recipe they provide to the judges, and sometimes contains beans or pasta. Spectators often vote for this people’s choice chili, allowing everyone in on the fun.

Many regular chili competitors have decorated chili stands and painted cook stoves. Wendell Rankin, a solid member of the chili community, doesn’t fix any chili. He travels to events to paint camp stoves and chili stands.

“At larger cook-offs, we usually have a stove raffle. All the money raised goes to the charity of the cook-off,’ said Rankin. “At Terlingua, we usually raise around $1,400.”

The chili cook-off institutions are non-profit organizations. While each sponsored event may be different, they have one purpose, according to Carol Hancock, Chief Executive Officer of the International Chili Society. “Raise money for charity and have a good time doing it,” she said.

CASI president Renee Moore agreed.

“Each cook-off promoter determines the charity for a particular cook-off,” she said. “CASI chili cooks, a.k.a. chiliheads, are a great group of people that spend thousands of dollars every year in support of charities by competing in chili cook-offs. They receive no cash prizes. Our slogan is ‘Chili, Charity & Fun’.”

Rounding up the cook-offs

The two Terlingua chili events may be a stretch for most casual chili fans to attend, given the distance to travel, crowds and limited services. These additional fall events are more centrally located in Texas and accessible to a greater number of spectators.

The annual Stumble Inn Chili and Barbecue Cook-off will be Sept. 12 in Bastrop, located 30 miles south of Austin off state Route 71. Nearby Rockne will host the Last Chance Chili Cook-off Sept. 26 and 27. Rockne is about nine miles south of Bastrop off FM 20 and FM 535.

October has several chili and barbecue events, including:

  • the 39th Annual Tolbert Ladies State Chili Championship, Oct. 3 in Blanco ( Blanco is about 50 miles south of Austin U.S. Highway 281.
  • Terlingua Tuneup Chili and Barbecue Cook-off, Oct. 10 in Lockhart, located 29 miles south of Austin off U.S. Highway 183.
  • Hog Mountain Retreat Chili and Barbecue Cook-Off, Oct. 10, in Mineral Wells, located 45 miles west of Fort Worth on state Route 180.
  • Czhilispiel (pronounced chili-spil), a chili and barbecue festival with a Czech flavor, Oct. 23–25, in Flatonia, located 108 miles west of Houston off Interstate 10 and state Route 95. Music, a parade and other events will be part of the fun (

Good food, entertainment and plenty of hijinks are part of a chili cook-off, Texas style, proving there will be a hot time in these old towns tonight.

Sarah Parkin is a new contributor from Phoenix, Ariz.

Susan Dean’s chili recipe

Winning recipe 2008 CASI Chili Cook-off

3 TB San Antonio Original Chili Powder
2 TB Mexene Chili Powder (these combined creates Susan’s chili powder blend)
2 lbs coarse ground beef
1 14-ounce can Swanson beef broth
1 8-ounce can Hunts no salt tomato sauce
1 cube Knorr’s beef boullion
1 cube Knorr’s chicken boullion
1 TB granulated onion
1 TB paprika
1 packet Sazon Goya
1 tsp granulated garlic
1 TB cumin
Louisiana hot sauce

Brown ground beef. Cover with liquid and boil for 20 minutes. Add broth, tomato sauce, boullion, 3 TB chili powder blend, onion, paprika and Sazon Goya and simmer one hour. Add 2 TB chili powder blend, garlic, cumin and simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust heat with hot sauce.

President-pleasing chili

Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson’s chili recipe was in such demand during her husband’s term that the White House printed and distributed recipe cards. Here is the recipe, courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin.

Pedernales River Chili

4 pounds chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ground oregano
1 tsp. comino (cumin) seed
6 tsp. chili powder (more if needed)
1 1/2 cups canned whole tomatoes
2–6 generous dashes of liquid hot sauce
2 cups hot water
salt to taste

Place meat, onion and garlic in large, heavy pan or Dutch oven. Cook until light in color. Add oregano, comino seed, chili powder, tomatoes, hot pepper sauce, salt and hot water. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about one hour. Skim off fat during cooking.

Bob Plager’s Pools Brew Chili

2 pounds chuck tender roast, trimmed and cut into small cubes
Vegetable shortening for browning the meat
1 14-ounce can beef broth
1 14-ounce can chicken broth
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
2 pitted dry-pack prunes
Water, if required

Spice mix #1:
1 TB paprika
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. beef boullion granules
1 tsp. chicken boullion granules
1/2 tsp. salt
1 TB chili powder

Spice mix #2
2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. salt
4 TB chili powder

Spice mix # 3
1 TB chili powder
1 tsp. cumin
Salt to taste

In a heavy medium-sized pot, brown the meat in a small amount of vegetable shortening over high heat. Drain off excess shortening. Add beef broth, chicken broth, tomato sauce, prunes, and spice mixture #1. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover the pot, and cook approximately two hours. Remove prunes and add water if necessary. Cook mixture longer if meat is not yet tender. Thirty minutes before serving, add spice mixture #2 and cook over low heat. Fifteen minutes before serving, add spice mixture #3 and continue cooking over low heat. Salt the chili to taste and serve hot. Yield: 4 Texas-sized servings.

Sept/Oct 2009 Issue


For more information, contact:

• Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI);

• International Chili Society (ICS);

• Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off (OTICCC) or Tolbert

Terlingua visitor information is available through Texas Tourism, (800) 8888-TEX (800-888-8839),

To visit the chili cook-off and festivals in Texas, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. List of offices

Order free information about Texas through the Reader Service Card, found online at

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