You had to have a tough mouth to roll with Wick. The old Texas chili legend surrounded himself with beat cops, deadline writers, bookies, sailors, race car drivers, and other like-minded souls who could only agree on a few things – the sanctity of Texas chili being chief amongst them.
Times were different when Wick was coming up. The beefy Texas hoss carried a pistol on his hip for his job as a highway patrolman, and as a newspaperman, his prose was so tough you would’ve swore he put on a pair of boxing gloves before he sat down in front of his typewriter.
When you walked into a diner in Wick’s era you asked for a jolt of mud the minute you sat down, and the boiling hot mug of thick, black coffee was in front of you before you could get your hams settled onto the stool. A man could stand his spoon up in the chili, and the red pepper made his eyes water before he could get the first bite in his mouth.
Back then the waitresses wore perpetually faded polyester dresses, and had their hair pinned up in buns or beehives. The cooks sported paper folding hats – rolled their white t shirts up over their biceps – and had anchor tattoos on their forearms.
There was always an ashtray next to the griddle and the chili came out of the kettle seething-hot, cheap and greasy. The subway-tiled floor was covered with shards of Saltine crackers.
Thousands of chili parlors dotted the Texas landscape, and if your town didn’t have one, it did have a pool hall, VFW lodge or bowling alley where a leathery old ex-ranch hand was standing over a battered kettle back in the kitchen.
And if you lived in some god-forsaken, chili-diner free part of the US you could get a package of Wick Fowler’s 2 Alarm Chili mix sent to you in the mail for a single dollar.
In the fifties and sixties when Fowler first started achieving fame as Texas’ best chili cook, he ran with a motley crew of folks who formed a loose confederation around a love of eating, traveling, bragging, and writing articles about their love of what some called ‘the soup of the devil.’The ringleader, George Haddaway, was an aviation pioneer and ardent lover of chili. In 1951 he and Jim Fuller of Bell Helicopters met for supper at Harold’s Log House Restaurant near Fort Worth to discuss the sorry state of chili affairs in the Lone Star state.
The Chili Appreciation Society was born at this meeting.
George famously said, “Without chili, aviation would’ve died in the twenties or thirties because that’s what kept the barnstormers going.” He added, “Every li’l ol’ airport had its green fly chili joint where you could fill your gut for fifteen cents.”How hardcore was Haddaway? He was flying through Houston International Airport once when he ambled into the Dobbs House Kitchen where he got into a fist fight with the cook. The cook’s crime? He put baked beans in George’s chili. When the cops came Haddaway explained what happened, the cops shrugged, went back to the kitchen and lambasted the chef.
When the Chili Appreciation Society needed a bull cook Haddaway put the vote in for Wick Fowler.Frank X. Tolbert of ‘Bowl of Red’ book fame was a good friend to Wick. When Tolbert spoke on chili, people listened. He famously defined the bowl of red thusly:
The original was simply bite-size or coarsely ground beef or other mature meats cooked slowly and for a long time in boon companionship with the pulp of chili peppers, crushed powder from the curly leaves of oregano, ground cumin seeds, and chopped garlic cloves.
That’s as good a place to start as any.
As Wick was divining what would eventually become his Two Alarm Chili mix he and Tolbert were traveling around Texas to Chili Appreciation Society dinners and suppers. If you wanted to hone your skills in the commercial chili trade you couldn’t hope for a sterner committee to judge your work.
Tolbert wrote some 8,000 columns for the Dallas Morning News over a near-thirty year career at the paper. When the Chili Appreciation Society boys prepared to wade into battle at the first Terlingua chili shootout, Frank X. Tolbert made sure his buddy Wick Fowler got the nod as chief chili cook.
Out in the Chihuahua Desert near the Chisos Mountains, the ghost town of Terlingua (population 10) played host to that first Great Chili Confrontation. The competition would spawn hundreds of books, magazine and newspaper articles as well as the modern industry of chili cook offs.There were only three judges at that first shootout, and Hallie Stillwell was easily the most interesting one. Miss Hallie was the Justice of the Peace of Brewster County, Texas, and rumor had it that she held her court in Hell’s Half Acre which was actually 13 acres of rough country on one Gage Holland Ranch. Oh, and it was so primitive there was no way any sort of court could be held there, but that’s how legends are made – with just enough myth to keep things interesting.
How old school was Hallie Stillwell? As a 13 year old she arrived in Brewster County in 1910 in a covered wagon. And the adolescent girl was the one driving the four-horse Conestoga. As a 19 year old school teacher in those rough and ready times Hallie asked for and received permission to carry her father’s .38 caliber Colt pistol to work. Presidio, Texas was an odd place for a single Anglo woman to be earning a living and any time Pancho Villa’s raiders were rumored to be preparing an attack young Hallie would seek refuge inside nearby Fort Leaton.
As a 96 year old Stillwell reflected back on her time in the Texas chili scene saying “I have made many friends. I cherish each and every one of them, especially…Wick Fowler, and of course Frank Tolbert.”Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning US war correspondent was a good friend of Wick’s. On March 22nd, 1944, Pyle wrote an article detailing the story of how the villa he and Wick were staying in in Italy during WWII was bombed by the Germans. Living through a harrowing attempt on your life can make you close friends with your fellow survivors. Later in the war when Pyle was killed by a Japanese machine-gunner Fowler traveled to the site near Okinawa where his old buddy was slain.
He had to pay his respects.
Had Ernie made it through the war you know Wick would’ve coaxed him out to Texas for cold beers over a hot pot of chili in Fowler’s backyard in Austin.Jo Ann Horton, known as Queen of the Chili World, moved in Wick’s orbit. As a 19 year old coed, Jo Ann was named Miss A&I College but it was her work as editor of the Goat Gap Gazette that turned heads in the world of competitive cooking. The tabloid was devoted to all things chili and at one point boasted 1500 monthly subscribers. Horton enjoyed a decade-plus long run as a judge out in Terlingua and was also a former competitor. When she retired from cooking she said “…it’s easier to pack up your tastebuds and Rolaids and just go.” Hondo Crouch bought the town of Luckenbach, Texas (pop. 10) for $29,000 in 1970. Frank X. Tolbert wrote one of his famous folklore columns about the sale, and the following year Hondo threw the all-woman Susan B. Anthony Memorial Chili Cook-off. Frank and Wick made the trip to check out the competition and the three forged a fast friendship. Hondo, with the classic look of a crusty old prospector who’d just rode down from the mountains on his favorite burro, was one of the great old characters of Texas history and even had a brief flirtation with Hollywood appearing on episodes of Rin Tin Tin and Gunsmoke. Allegani Jani Schofield is a legend in the world of Texas chili.
In 1971, at the behest of Wick and Frank X. Tolbert she traveled from Houston to compete at Terlingua. Jani had appeared on the duo’s radar due to her second place finish at the Susan B Anthony shootout in Luckenbach. Headlines of the day claimed that “women’s lib…gripped the arid desert region of west Texas,” and though Jani didn’t win she developed a lasting case of chili fever. Schofield became buddies with Wick and would emerge as the victor in 1974.
Sadly Wick had already passed.
And so too has the heyday of chili cook offs in Texas. The freewheeling days are long gone. The old Texas hippies and free spirits that used to run the competitions have either passed on or aged out of the scene.
Nowadays the only way you can get that real, old-time Texas Red experience is to take a road trip out west to Terlingua. Once you get there, set up camp in the greasewood flats, sit in a chair along Dirty Woman Creek and squint through the weak autumn sun off towards Hen Egg Mountain.
Now’s the time to put a big pot of chili on your Coleman camp stove. Break out a packet of Wick’s 2 Alarm and commence to cooking. That’s how Wick and his band of outlaw chili freaks did it back during the Johnson administration.
Once your chili is finished cooking, ladle out a big bowl and listen to Gary P. Nunn sing his ode to Terlingua.
Well, you know, we’re probably too old for this.
Maybe the rest of the world is too young.
We drive 500 miles to get loose and get wild.
And stay up till the last song is sung.