Chili season returns to Terlingua

TERLINGUA — Chili season has returned to the Big Bend with two competing chili cook-offs.

First, there’s the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off, also known as the Frank X. Tolbert and Wick Fowler International Championship Chili Cook-Off, also known as “Behind the Store.” Started in 1967 as a self-described publicity stunt, the cook-off was designed to “settle the dispute over who knew more about chili — Texans or New Yorkers,” according to the group’s website.

Around 100 cooks are expected to compete in the main event, said Laury McCullough, a webmaster for the group and the 2014 state champion. (Her chili pro-tip: using chopped instead of ground meat.)

As for how many people will attend this year — that’s harder to predict. “It’s really hard to anticipate what the gates are going to show at the end of the season,” McCullough said.

The Tolbert Cook-off starts next Wednesday, with music by The Lavens and The Tejas Brothers. The music starts at 7:30 p.m. “Terlingua time,” McCullough said.

“They may start at seven,” she explained. “They may start at 7:45.”

Cooking starts on Thursday, with a Verde Cook-Off sponsored by Mild Bill’s Spices in Corsicana. That cook-off is for people who make and/or enjoy chili with hatch green chilies and (typically) chicken or pork. There will also be Margarita Mix-off that day.

Then, on Friday, there will be beans, BBQ and black-eyed peas cook-offs, as well as the “Tolbert’s One Last Chance” cook-off, designed for people who didn’t make it into the main competition but still want to show off their chili skills.

Then, on Saturday, there’s the main competition.

“You want some heat there, but it’s all about the taste,” McCullough said, explaining what judges looked for a winning chili. “All these champions, they’ve figured out their recipe and they cook it continuously. You can’t cook once or twice a year and expect to win. You’ve got to keep your chops tuned.”

The cook-off will benefit the ALS Association of Texas, a group dedicated to helping people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Two other chili cook-offs have spun off from the original Tolbert cook-off. One, founded by the International Chili Society, is no longer based in Terlingua.

The other group, CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International), will hold its own cook-off at Rancho CASI de los Chisos.

CASI is typically a bigger event, with around 275 cooks and thousands of visitors expected this year. “It’s the wild and crazy group,” McCullough said. “They have huge turnout.”

Like the Tolbert Cook-off, CASI’s cook-off will also include a week of events, said Keith Karaff, executive director of the group. The ranch opens Monday, October 28, as does the “Krazy Flats Saloon.” On Monday evening, at 7:00 p.m., there will be a domino tournament.

On Friday, there will be beans, hot-wings and salsa cook-offs. The main cook-off, on Saturday, is for invited contestants.

As Karaff explained in an interview, getting invited to compete at the CASI event involves a point system. CASI holds chili cook-offs throughout the country, at which winners earn points.

“The state you live in [determines] how many points you need,” Karaff said. “It all depends on the number of cook-offs that you have in that state.” Texas cooks must earn 12 points.

“Friday is a really special day for us,” Karaff said. Students from Big Bend High School in Terlingua come out to play music and dance.

“It’s a fun week,” Karaff added of the event. “It’s a great time.”