On January 9th, 1984, newspaperman and chili connoisseur, Frank X. Tolbert died of a heart attack. He was 72 years of age.
The old chili man, and “walking encyclopedia of Texas” went quietly in his sleep.
A native of Amarillo, Tolbert worked on the sports desk of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal while attendeding Texas Tech University in the 30s. I’d be willing to bet he spent many nights at the legendary Bloody Bucket saloon.
Although Tolbert attended four different Texas colleges he never attained a degree. Instead, he got his education from the thousands of Texans he interviewed and wrote articles about in a journalism career that stretched over five decades. After leaving Lubbock he returned home to Amarillo where he worked at the Amarillo Globe News before migrating to north Texas where he secured employment at the Wichita Falls Times.
Journalism then and now is suitable work for a vagabond and when the Fort Worth Star Telegram beckoned, Tolbert packed his bags and relocated 100 miles south.
A patriot in the finest sense of the word; the young man enlisted in the Marine Corp in 1942. He immediately went to work as a combat correspondent for Leatherneck, the Marine’s in-house publication. After returning stateside in 1946 the ex-Marine went to work for the Dallas Morning News. He would stay there for 30 years.
In spite of a storied career as a man of letters, Tolbert remains best-remembered as a Texas chili expert. He befriended fellow chili lover George Haddaway who had founded the Chili Appreciation Society in 1951, and the men set about reinvigorating the Texas chili scene.
As early as 1731, Canary Island emigrees began cooking a form of chili in what would become Texas. Oregano, ground cumin seed, and chopped garlic were blended into meats such as deer, buffalo, turkey, and beef cattle. A century later, J.C Clopper would write about the dish saying: “When they (poor families) have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for a family; this is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat-this is all stewed together.”
Chili was the food of the working poor, and Tolbert was determined to tell the stories of the people making it and eating it – all the while assigning importance to this singular food and art form.
Tolbert would claim that chili was not a food but a “way of life,” and the Texas legislature agreed making chili the official food of the state in 1977.
“All this chili stuff has sort of obscured my reputation as a Texas historian,” Tolbert would later lament.
When his opus A Bowl of Red came out in 1966 the middle-aged newspaperman and his side-kick Wick Fowler had already visited hundreds of Texas chili parlors in search of a bowl of chili as “hot as Hell’s brimstone.”
The book cemented Tolbert’s position of preeminence in the world of Texas chili and would lead to his crew founding the Terlingua International Chili Championship in 1967. Frank X. would continue definitively writing on the subject of Texas chili til 1978 when he opened his restaurant: Tolbert’s Native Texas Foods and Museum of the Chili Culture.
The restaurant’s opening would represent the culmination of a life spent in chili. After his passing some six years later, his family followed his final request for his ashes to be spread across the area of Big Bend, Texas. An area that included his beloved Terlingua.