Carroll Shelby shows off the rustic packaging of his chili spice mix

“It’s what you want when you make it. You can put anything in there you want. Make it hot or mild, any blend of spices you feel like at the time. You make it up to suit your mood.”

That’s the free-wheeling wildman Carroll Shelby speaking on the art and science of Texas chili. Shelby’s roots in the chili game go back to the late 60s when he and a group of chili-loving Texans converged on the ghost town of Terlingua in the Trans-Pecos region of the Lone Star state.

“The Great Chili Confrontation” pitting native Texan Wick Fowler vs Yankee writer H.Allen Smith took place on the 21st of October, 1967, in front of over a thousand people.

50 had been expected to attend.

Nearly a decade before the shootout, Carroll Shelby and his business partner David Witts, calling themselves the Terlingua Ranch Land and Cattle Company, had purchased 200,000 acres of land in the region. Back then, that part of Texas was dirt cheap and you could afford to sit on a big parcel on the off-chance that development might eventually come to the area.

For his part, Fowler started his chili mix brand, Wick Fowler’s Two-Alarm Chili in 1964.

“The beauty of chili to me is that it’s really a state of mind.” Carroll Shelby

“Friends told me my chili was better than any they could buy and suggested I sell it.” Carroll Shelby

The first Terlingua chili cook-off was a wild success by any metric but the good old boys who gathered out in the desert in the shadow of the Chisos Mountains had only one thing in mind: having a good time.

“Everybody stayed in this ol’ ranch house for three days. All it was was an adult Woodstock. I had to send my DC-3 to El Paso twice to load up with booze.” Leesburgh, Texas-native Shelby recalled.

It may have been a lark to a big gang of rowdy Texans but a host of national publications including Sports Illustrated and the Wall Street Journal were on hand to cover the affair.

1970 was an important year in the annals of Terlingua chili as it marked the first appearance of Carroll Shelby’s International Chili Society as the governing force that formally sanctioned and sponsored the cook-off. It also marked the only victory of the legendary Wick Fowler in the World Championship.

Oh, and the use of the cook-off as a promotional tool proved to be a huge boon to Carroll Shelby as The Great Western Corporation started to purchase big chunks of the land the race car king had invested in.

Those first few years were a sort of rural idyll. The original old gang of the Chili Appreciation Society International would trek off to Terlingua in the late fall and have the time of their lives acting like fools, drinking beers, chasing girls and engaging in all manners of tomfoolery.

But a sea change was slowly beginning to occur.

Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili Mix

In 1972 Carroll Shelby decided to follow in his old buddy Wick Fowler’s shoes and completely immerse himself in the business side of chili. He started Carroll Shelby’s Original Texas Brand Chili Mix and went all in on the marketing by packaging his seasoning blend in a plain brown bag emblazoned partly with “….you can fix it tame or you can make it so the heat will jolt you. The roof of your mouth will corrode…and the tissues of your cheeks will contract like cellophane…Now you can eat it and may God help you.”

This original packaging contained an emergency ration of bromo seltzer for the weak of stomach.

If it was any more country Shelby would have had to sell it out of a chicken coop whilst wearing his signature bib overalls.

Carroll Shelby invested $75k in his new company in January of 72. He went the co-packer route saying, “Right now I’m much to small to build my own facility.” He grossed $200k in his first year of operation.

But trouble was on the horizon.

Texas chili legend Frank X. Tolbert

Frank X. Tolbert was not a man to be trifled with. The legendary author of A Bowl of Red was a stalwart member of the Chili Appreciation Society and had written hundreds of articles about the stuff for the Dallas Morning News. C.V Wood, the chief judge for the Terlingua crew, and an amusement-park mogul who had supervised the development of Disneyland got sideways with Tolbert in spite of having won the 1969 and ’71 Terlingua Cook-offs.

“I had to fire Wood because his arrogance had alienated so many of the chili-heads and I had petitions from several chapters of CASI saying they wouldn’t come to Terlingua if C.V continues as chief judge.”

But Wood had committed an even more grievous crime. In an article for People magazine he extolled the use of boiled chicken and celery in chili. At this, Tolbert went apoplectic, “Imagine this in chili!,” he thundered.

This schism in the fabric of the Texas chili scene was cataclysmic in scope and was reported in hundreds of newspapers across the Lone Star state.

Dick Hitt, reporting for the Dallas Morning News said: “There has been panic erupting in the Big Bend Country of Southwest Texas lately all the way from Martha to Marathon.”

In 1974, dyed-in-the-wool chili purist Tolbert, resigned from the board that organized the original series of Terlingua cook-offs. He decried the modern state of the chili scene and openly lamented the passing of the care-free days of yore when it was just a bunch of outlaws drinking cold beer and eating Hades-hot chili out in the desert.

Carroll Shelby was a founder of the International Chili Society

A year later, Carroll Shelby, who had registered the World’s Championship Chili Cook-Off as a trademark, took the chili shootout concept to Orange County, California, and hit the ground running. C.V Wood, Tolbert’s archenemy and president of McCulloch Oil Corporation, became his right hand man.

Shelby’s move was met with disgust by Tolbert who erupted: “The canard that the 9th Annual World Series for chili cooks has been moved from Terlingua to the California desert is a lie started by a bunch of soreheads who’d rather tell a lie on credit than tell the truth for cash.”

An important ramp-up cook-off that was set to take place in Odessa, Texas, was forced to change its name to The Ostentatious Chili Cook-off for Peons, Plutocrats, Politicians and Procrastinators.

This event went down at the Chuck Wagon Gang Lounge behind the Ector County Coliseum on October 4th, 1975. It’s a day that will forever live in Texas chili infamy as a troupe of young Girl Scouts won the grand championship.

The burgeoning Benedict Arnolds in the troupe took a vote and decided to fly to California to compete in Shelby and Wood’s version of the World Championship instead of trekking to Terlingua to test their skills at Tolbert’s cook-off.

A visit to Disneyland engineered by C.V Wood assuredly had nothing to do with their decision.

Carroll Shelby was a founding member of the Texas competition chili scene

After a failed attempt to bring master negotiator Henry Kissinger into the fray to settle the dispute between the aggrieved parties, the contretemps between the Texas and California contingents ended up in the courtroom of District Court Judge Jerry Delana. When Delana demanded a surety bond of $300 from the Tolbert faction he was countered with an offer of one boiled chicken and two cases of pinto beans.

At that, David Richards, Tolbert’s attorney, dropped the suit. The California faction won. The old Texans retreated and doubtless began to plot their revenge.

Carroll Shelby’s first California cook-off took place at the Tropico Gold Mine, an hour and a half northeast of Los Angeles, California. The entrepreneurial Shelby had the Midas touch and 15,000 people reportedly attended. Robert Mitchum, Ernest Borgnine, and Joey Bishop were on hand to judge the chili and have a bit of fun.

Meanwhile in Terlingua; Tolbert and his crew threw their 9th chili party. Since Wick’s untimely passing in 1972 his society brethren renamed the event the Wick Fowler Memorial World Championship Chili Cook-off. As you pulled into what some might call “the town,” a sign advised travelers of 50,000 acres of free parking.

A corn dog vendor had his goods on offer for .75c but there were few takers.

Wick Fowler’s niece got married at the shindig and at sunset she and her newly-minted husband rode off into Mexico via donkey-back for their honeymoon. Charles Kuralt of CBS television fame had his team filming the whole shebang.

Shelby had a keen business mind and in 1976 he began courting corporate sponsors in earnest. Tequila Sauza, Pepsi, Budweiser, Hunt-Wesson, Tabasco Hot Sauce, and the American Spice Trade Association ponied up the dollars for his International Chili Society and its attendant cook-off.

But the uneasy detente between all the factions was slowly beginning to fragment.

Arriba Terlingua World Chili Cook-Off at Villa de la Mina

In 1983 Carroll Shelby’s California-based International Chili Cook-Off Society declared war in Terlingua and filed suit in state court in Dallas claiming that Frank X. Tolbert’s cook-off infringed on its copyrighted title. Over the years Mr Frank’s shootout had slowly morphed into the appellation – Annual Original Terlingua Chili Appreciation Society International Championship Chili Cook-Off and Wick Fowler Memorial.

While the attorneys for each side pressed their suits and sharpened their pencils the rival factions prepared for their chili shootouts. Ever the showman, Shelby mustered an airplane to fly over Tolbert’s site and leaflet-bomb the crowd with coupons promising a free gallon of wine if they would decamp to his Arriba Terlingua World Chili Cook-Off at Villa de la Mina just five miles away. Tolbert responded by calling Shelby a “turncoat Texan.”

The war of words continued with Shelby saying (Tolbert was) “egotistical enough to appoint himself…the high guru of chili…nobody owns chili…chili is a state of mind and I don’t care how many books Frank Tolbert writes about chili he doesn’t own it.”

When the Terlingua natives grew restive over the fracas between the two chili legends Shelby cracked open his wallet and spent $60k on a brand new Dodge ambulance for the community.

Just two months later Frank X. Tolbert would pass away in his sleep. One of the longest and most bitter rivalries in the annals of the Lone Star state could finally be put to bed.

Carroll Shelby was the founder and publisher of Chili Monthly magazine

But Carroll Shelby was not quite finished with his beloved chili. The unrelenting race car man and spice mix tycoon soon entered the magazine publishing game with the debut edition of Chili Monthly which “. . . covers chili . . . and other necessary ingredients of the good life such as country music, memories, barbecue, beer joints, back roads, cook-offs, good books, good friends and good times.”

This venture only lasted 18 months and the back issues command a premium price on the secondary market.

In February of 1986 Carroll Shelby would venture to Washington D.C to receive the greatest accolade of his career: The Will Rogers Chili Humanitarian Award. As a journalist Rogers had written at length about the near-mystical ability of chili to unite the common man, and it was widely known to be his favorite food. A limited-edition Will Rogers belt buckle — was given to Shelby with the admonition to place it on an “expanding belt” with a view towards eating many, many more bowls of chili over the coming years.

Just six months later Shelby would sell his Original Texas Chili Mix company to Kraft Foods. Terms were not announced but it was widely speculated that the savvy businessman came out quite well in the bargain. At that time the dry chili mix industry was known to ring up $40 million annually.

Carroll Shelby, flush with cash, was not done with the chili scene just yet. He showed up at the annual World Championship Chili Cook-Off in California that fall and sat on the judging panel with Linda Gray, Wilt Chamberlain and John Denver. 17,000 people were on hand for the 20th year of the event.

Today Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit sits in the stable of brands of New Orleans’ Reily Foods, the century-plus old company purchased it from Kraft some 30 years ago.

And Mr Shelby? Married seven times he only allowed six as one “took place in Mexico.”

The legendary Texan wore a lot of hats during his nigh 90 years on earth: chicken farmer, oilfield roughneck, hot-rodder, World War II flight instructor, European road racer, African safari operator…but much like Wick Fowler – who wryly announced that in spite of all his accomplishments he was just regarded as a “damned chili cook” – Shelby will best be remembered for his role in the formation of the world of professional competition chili cooking.

In the Lone Star state that’s a fine thing for a man to hang his hat on as he reflects back on his life’s work.

Early label packaging for Carroll Shelby’s Chili Kit

Research sources

Carroll Shelby: The Authorized Biography by Rinsey Mills
The Last Shelby Cobra: My times with Carroll Shelby by Chris Theodore
Inside Shelby American: Wrenching and Racing with Carroll by John Morton
The Carroll Shelby Story by Carroll Shelby
Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed…by A. J. Baime
A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert
Turning the Pages of Texas by Lonn Taylor
At Chili Championship, Taste Is In, But Hot’s Not by William Rice, Chicago Tribune

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