“It’s the first time the judges have shown good taste!” bellowed Wick Fowler upon being declared the World Champion of Chili at the big Terlingua shootout in November of 1970.
Fowler had been considered the best chili cook in Texas for a generation and his ascenscion to the title was a given even though it took nearly a half decade of formal competition for the big man from Austin to finally wear the crown.
But like any old Texas tale there is a backstory that must be told to fully understand the events of the day.
During the two decades from 1870 to 1890, more than eight thousand miles of railroad were constructed within the Lone Star state.
In 1882, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company finished their rail-line between the two Trans-Pecos towns of Alpine and Marfa. The closure of this gap would finally connect a stream of commercial transport between New Orleans and San Francisco, and would lead nearby Terlingua to become the quicksilver mining capital of Texas.
Vast deposits of cinnabar ore had been discovered in the region and riches beyond the wildest dreams of the natives were just on the horizon.
Prior to the discovery of the precious metal “travelers hurried through parts of the country as the Sierra de los Dolores (the Mountains of Misery,)…with its Puerto de los Lamentaciones (Gate of Lamentations) and nobody stopped long enough to examine the mountains for their mineral resources1.”
The truth of the matter was that anyone doing so tarried at their own peril. The numerous gravesites dotted across the scruffy back country attested to the folly of the dead
Soon enough the little village took a big step with the establishment of a US post office. Terlingua was poised for the big time.
By 1905, 1200 souls called the small town home.
“In a landscape which wind and weather have ravaged and the sun of thousands of years has bleached to the color of pepper, this is a place of roofless adobe houses, abandoned machinery and a cemetery2.”
That’s as good a description of Terlingua Texas, as you’ll ever find and it holds just as true today as it did in 1956 when it was first penned by an Austrian adventurer.
But what became of all the promise that the tiny village had shown in the late 19th century? By the 1940s the main cinnabar mining company had filed for bankruptcy and with no industry the place slowly became a ghost town.
Terlingua would languish for over two decades before a wild band of chili loving outlaws decided to breathe life into the fabled village.
This is the story of one of them:
On November 6th, 1970, Wick Fowler arose at daybreak to take his fourth crack at winning the World Championship Chili Cook-Off. It was 43 degrees and the comfort of standing over an enormous hot chili pot would not have been a small one. Fowler reportedly had a difficult time navigating his big Cadillac automobile through the vast field of campers surrounding the Chisos Oasis Gallery where the competition took place. 5000 fans or hard-mouthed gourmets as some referred to themselves were in attendance.
But a controversy began to boil before the first fire was lit that morning. Some of the old-school chili cooks who’d been around since Pappy O’Daniel was in the Texas governor’s office did not take kindly to a group of women who’d spontaneously shown up to cook that day at Terlingua.
“Women should never be allowed near a chili pot.” said H. Allen Smith, a previous contestant and current judge; he continued, “I’m going to try and get an injunction against them.”
When Janice Constantine, a regional chili cook from Midland, showed up that Saturday with two female co-cooks the ladies were promptly arrested by Brewster County Sheriff Jim Skinner as they set up their chili pots. The gals claimed to be members of the Women’s Chiliberation Front. They were charged with “cooking chili while being a female person”
A mystery man posted a $5000 bond to gain their freedom from Dirty Woman Creek jail.
Constantine crept back onto the grounds and stealthily cooked a big pot of chili that ended up being rated poorly by the judges. The lady cook from Midland did get high marks for presentation as she served her dish in silver bowls while a violinist serenaded the folks who ate from her table.
Meanwhile, Amber Forever Cree appeared near the cooking area with pots, pans, chile peppers and….a pistol. The male cooks nearly went into a state of revolt. Authorities were called in. The bull sessions must’ve been tremendous. Miss Amber had a burnoose-clad helper supposedly from the land of Arabi
Miss Amber would state, “this is not an attempt at women’s liberation. we women have been cooking the best chili around for a long time.”
The Terlingua Supreme Court would finally weigh in on the matter and determine that Amber Forever Cree would be allowed to compete.
At the end of the day, Cree was pronounced Ladies World Champion Chili Cook, a brand new category created to placate the restive natives. Her chili contained beef, deer, antelope, camel and zebra.
But the crowd had shown up mainly to see the menfolk cook, something Wick Fowler had become quite accomplished at in his six decades on earth.
Could the Chubby Chili Baby finally bring home the crown on this, his fourth attempt?
As the morning wore on local wags would claim that they had overheard Fowler saying, “I put some marijuana in my chili…the judges will get high and declare me winner.”
Think for a moment how transgressive a statement that was in Texas in 1970. Even in jest, and Wick was a world-class wit, that was extremely edgy as those were the day when even a single joint could land you behind bars for unseemly stretches.
Other notable contestants included Fulton Battise, Alabama Coushatta Indian chief, who came in in second place with his Big Thicket chili. The tribe’s medicine man, Jack Battise, blessed the cook’s herbs and beef whilst wearing an enormous, scalped-buffalo head.
A Russian wild boar chili was prepared but the cook’s name has been lost to the sands of time.
Hijinks are the order of the day out in Terlingua.
Albert Angor got a taste of Wick Fowler’s outsize personality at the Texas State Championship aka the Chilympiad in San Marcos in September. This meet determines the champ of Texas who then receives an invite to Terlingua.
Wick took one bite of Angor’s potent brew and whipped out a fire extinguisher to spray the offending bowl of chili. The crowd went wild.
It was said that Angor performed in “virtuoso fashion” in Terlingua.
Joe de Frates, a legend in the world of Illinois chili finished third with his chili con carne y frijoles. Frates won audience favorite which led Frank X. Tolbert to declare that beans would be banned the following year.
Chalio Salas, a Tarahumara Indian, who supposedly ran to Terlingua from Durango, Mexico, spent more time playing his guitar than he did cooking and his results were uneven at best.
Frank X. Tolbert of Chili Appreciation Society International served as the ramrod of the affair and lavished praise on his old friend Wick by referring to his chili kettle as a “poem,” and went on to declare it “one of the best in history.” It was later revealed that Wick had cooked the rare 3-Alarm version of his chili that day.
Tolbert hired Dutch clairvoyant “mind reader” Peter Hurkos, a psychic who had been employed in the Sharon Tate and Boston Strangler cases to be a celebrity judge. Hurkos reported that he sensed “no base motives” from his fellow judges.
Addressing the thorny issue of judging, Tolbert had this to says:
“We kept scorecards for a point system somewhat similar to those used by judges of a boxing match. And judge Enrique Vasquez of Uvalde interviewed each of the other judges and tabulated the points, somewhat confusing the judges from out of state, for Mr Vasquez, the great armadillo chef (he wears an armadillo shell cap) counted up the points in both Spanish and English. I guess you would call it Tex Mex arithmetic but it was accurate.
C.V Wood, former vice president and general manager of Disneyland, Inc. had won the year before but elected to solely be a member of the judging panel for this year’s shootout.
After a long morning of cooking and an intensive judging panel, the time came for the winner to be announced. It was reported that the six judges, fearing violence, decided to allow the only female judge to declare the winner. Ruta Lee, a Hollywood starlet who had just been elected Chili Queen of the event, declared that the champion for 1970 was one Wick Fowler.
The crowd went bananas as he strolled the red carpet directly to the golden throne where he was crowned with a garland of chili peppers. Wick’s ascension to the apogee of the world of Texas chili was complete. His victory cemented his legendary status in the world of competitive chili and earned his Caliente Chili Company untold riches.
Wick Fowler is to the world of chili what Willie Nelson is to the world of Texas country music.
To this day you can walk into thousands of grocery stores across the US and purchase a pack of Wick Fowler’s custom chili mix. The recipe has not changed in over a half-century.
1) Quicksilver: Terlingua and the Chisos Mining Company by Kenneth Ragsdale
2) God’s Country Or Devil’s Playground by Barney Nelson
3) The Terlingua Quicksilver Deposits, Brewster County, by B. F. Hill and W. B. Phillips
4) HUMANISTIC SERIES, No. 7 MARCH 1, 1900 Railroad Transportation in Texas BY CHARLES S. POTTS, M.A., LL. B.,
Adjunct Professor of Law and Government, University of Texas
5) Wick Fowler Archive. The Witliff Collections. Texas State University
6) The Chili Cookbook: A History of the One-Pot Classic by Robb Walsh
7) A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert
8) Texas Monthly, April 1991
9) Texas Monthly, February 1976
10) Tolbert’s Texas by Frank X. Tolbert
11) The Great American Chili Book by Bill Bridges