Chili cook-offs canceled amid ongoing pandemic

TERLINGUA — The 2020 events for both the CASI and Tolbert chili cook-offs have been canceled, Brewster County officials said last week, marking some of the latest public gatherings to fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended public events across the country and globe, from big gatherings like South by Southwest to smaller ones like the Blackwell School Block Party. Late last month, The Big Bend Sentinel reported on Viva Big Bend, the annual music festival that went virtual in effort to protect attendees.

But unlike music shows, chili tastings can’t go virtual. And at a Brewster County Commissioners Court meeting last week, officials decided not to permit the events.

On Thursday, Robert Alvarez, the executive director for the Brewster County Tourism Council, said in an email that both events had officially been canceled.

“The Tourism Council had hoped that these events would have helped the tourism industry here make some sort of comeback after spring break was taken away due to the pandemic,” he wrote. The council, he added, “will look into targeted marketing to perhaps help alleviate this unfortunate cancellation somewhat.”

The organizers behind the CASI and Tolbert-Ryan cook-offs did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in statements, both organizations expressed sadness at the developments.

In a lengthy post, Keith Karaff, the executive director for the Chili Appreciation Society International (or CASI) called the news “a very disheartening update.” The group considered moving its Terlingua chili cook-off elsewhere, he wrote, but ultimately decided it could compete with “the ease and accessibility we have at the [CASI de los Chisos] Ranch,” where the event is normally held.

“We cook in the rain, snow, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, droughts,” Karaff wrote. “Name a weather event and we still gather to make it happen. But with circumstances beyond our control, this year we just can’t work a miracle.”

The Frank X. Tolbert and Wick Fowler International Championship Chili Cook-Off — also known as the “Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off,” “A Bowl of Red” and “Behind the Store” — put out a similar statement on its website. Brewster County Judge Eleazar Cano was unwilling to sign off on the event’s mass-gathering permits, the statement explained.

The group was considering “our many options” and was “holding out hope for a change of heart,” the statement said. But given the circumstances, they acknowledged they would likely “focus on November 2021 instead.”

Tolbert had developed new suggested protocols for the coronavirus pandemic. It encouraged cooks to prepare food outside, said it would provide workers with masks and gloves and said it would likely encourage attendees to bring a “tasting kit” with their own cups and spoons.

But as early as July, the group cited the “surge of positive COVID-19 cases in Texas” and warned the event wasn’t a sure thing.

Many of the events on the calendar for this month and next are being canceled or postponed,” the group wrote at the time. “We will update our schedule as promoters either get approval or denials from local officials.”

In an interview this week, Alvarez, the tourism director, said he was also disappointed by the decision. Still, he noted that mass gatherings were still banned across the state — not just in Brewster County — and stressed that “public health and safety, particularly for our workers and residents, are most important.”

“I’m not a prognosticator, but I could kind of see [the cancellation],” he added. “I was hoping I was wrong. It turns out I wasn’t.”

The two chili cook-offs typically sold out hotel rooms throughout South County, he said. Losing those events contributed to the already dire circumstances of tourism in the region, which also saw a subdued spring break — typically the region’s peak tourism time. The council had already cut $600,000 off its budget next year, or about half of the total, he said.

To make up for shortfalls at restaurants and hotels, Alvarez is encouraging residents to take staycations — particularly at Big Bend National Park if they’ve never been. “Take a day,” he said. “Do a drive. Have lunch in Lajitas.”