It had to be quite the education for a man born and raised in Texas to travel all the way to southeast Asia – hellbent on cooking chili – only to discover a dearth of the most crucial ingredient: beef.
But you learn to make do with what you got, and in this instance what the Vietnamese had plenty of was buffalo, water buffalo to be precise.
Wick Fowler was field commander of the Chili Appreciation Society International’s Da Nang Vietnam Chapter . This group was the largest of its kind outside of Texas.
Just how did Wick become the field commander?It’s January 2nd, 1966, and war correspondent Wick Fowler is presiding over the debut meeting of the Da Nang Chapter of Chili Appreciation Society International. The Third Marine Amphibious Force, 35 men-strong are in attendance. Fowler stands over the cook-stove of the Da Nang Press Center, inside an old French waterfront motel, for a reported six hours as he brews his chili concoction into the much ballyhooed state of 4 Alarm, the hotter-than-hell pot that drew Wick so much acclaim as the finest chili cook in the entire state of Texas.
In downtown Da Nang a road sign read Denton, Texas 11,257 miles. A bit of mischief from Fowler, a longtime employee of the Denton newspaper.
News reports of the day claimed that there were no casualties til Wick ultimately conjured his nigh-mythical 5 Alarm. Four Star General Samuel Jaskilka then said he would be outfitting his troops with this blend as a “water purifier” for his men that had to venture into the deepest and darkest jungles of the land.
Robert Ohman, correspondent for Associated Press remarked, “I’ve been in Vietnam over four years and this is one of the hottest actions I’ve ever seen.”
Brigadier General Homer Hill, a native Texan proclaimed, “It’s just like home, hot as – wow!”But Wick was not without his detractors. His Dallas Press Club colleague, Herc Ficklen, was no fan of Fowler’s chili saying, “By luring US troops into eating his version of chili, Wick Fowler was aiding and abetting the enemy. Instead he should have been feeding that chili to the Viet Cong.”
During this particular trek to Vietnam, Wick was an eyewitness reporter to the Marine’s Operation Double Eagle the largest amphibious operation since Inchon in the Korean War 15 years prior.
Every Wednesday night during his 1966 run in Vietnam, Wick repeated his performance on the banks of the Da Nang River. His fellow correspondents were holed up at the air-conditioned Caravelle Hotel but Wick was far happier being amongst the boys in a swampy old riverside building perfumed with the aroma of simmering water buffalo chili, cold brews and red pepper and garlic.
Seething hot Texas chili forged in Fowler’s well-worn cook pots and served to battle-hardened leathernecks was a hot topic among the scribes of the day.
When Wick eventually left Da Nang he threw a Wick Fowler Night party at the Press Center and fixed a Tex Mex feast of tamales with all the fixins. Marine Major Mike Styles lamented that Vietnam would not be the same without Wick.
As Fowler departed he gave a custom patch that read “Texas News” to his favorite barkeep Wong. The patch had landed Wick a lot of news stories from the enlisted men who hailed from Texas. Wick told Wong, “You’re now the Vietnam correspondent for Texas. You write down all the Texas news you hear, put it in an empty vodka bottle and drop it in the river.”
Wong reportedly just blinked at the wiseacre Texan.
Bill Rives, the poet laureate of Chili Appreciation Society International penned an ode to Wick upon Fowler’s return to Texas:
In that strange land Fowler began
Seeing every Joe and Willie
But first things first
So he introduced Fowler’s famous chili
The generals soon got onto it
And that is how there sprang
A new and terrible weapon from the chili pots of Da Nang
They found a delightful mixture
Vast power deceitfully blended
Ho Chi Minh had a bowl
Then had two
It may be years before he’s mended
Wick Fowler’s battered old chili pot still casts a long shadow over the contemporary chili scene of today.