50 years after his death Wick Fowler still casts a long shadow over the world of Texas chili.
See those 30,000 chili freaks flying their flags out in the Chihuahuan Desert come the first weekend of November every year? Their beer-soaked cook-offs owe a spiritual debt to Fowler, the single most important man in the canon.
See the rise of Texas chili shootouts from one big fandango per year to hundreds of sanctioned competitions all over the entirety of the US? Wick Fowler, the so-called Chubby Chili Baby, was instrumental in this happening.
Walk into any supermarket these days and you will find shelf after shelf groaning under the weight of jarred chili, canned chili and innumberable spice and seasoning kits with which you can make your own chili from kind-of-scratch.
Wick Fowler was tilling the soil of this fertile commerce in the mid-60s – well before any of his putative competitors had even the glimmerous notion of entering the space that he created and would go on to dominate.
And the ghost of old Wick is still out and about in the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas.
It’s a thousand miles to nowhere from New Orleans Louisiana, heading west out towards old Mexico. I haven’t visited Terlingua since the 90s in spite of the tiny ghost town hosting the biggest chili cook-off in the United States for over a half-century.
Austin is the halfway point and you’re still looking at nearly a 10 hour drive through the Texas hill country before you reach the prairies and deserts of west Texas.
Wick Fowler was well-familiar with this terrain as he was not only the finest chili cook of a generation; he also earned a good living criss-crossing Texas whilst working as a journalist for 40 some years.
Every good story starts at the beginning and this one is no different.
Aviation legend George Haddaway and best friend Jim Fuller formed The Chili Appreciation Society in the mid-20th century to “improve the quality of chili in restaurants and broadcast Texas-style recipes all over the earth.” The north star that guided the men was the book With or Without Beans by Joe Cooper of Dallas. It’s a foundational document in the world of Texas chili.
In 1962, Wick’s good friend Frank X. Tolbert wrote an article for the wildly popular Saturday Evening Post entitled That Bowl of Fire Called Chili. He received 29,000 pieces of fan mail in its wake. A land-rush of chili enthusiasm was just over the horizon.
As the Society began to gather steam it was determined that the group needed a bull cook and it wasn’t long before Wick Fowler was deemed the best of the gang. George Haddaway was a dreamer and soon enough he’d booked a trip to Mexico City where the Chili Appreciation Society decamped for a week of frivolity and chili-cooking.
April 7th, 1964, was the day the Society became an international concern. 50 Mexicans joined the Texas contingent and suddenly CASI had hit the big time.
It’s been reported that even today, somewhere in Distrito Federal, in an upscale hotel, “Chili con carne, ala Wick Fowler, 18 pesos.” is still listed on a menu.
1964 also saw Wick Fowler form the Caliente Chili Company. The business became a wild success through the branding of the Wick Fowler 2 Alarm chili mix, a food kit that is currently available in thousands of grocery stores and markets across the US.
By 1967 that excitement hit a fever pitch as Wick Fowler strode onto the chili battlefield of Terlingua Texas, a ghost town of 10 residents in the Big Bend region of the Lone Star state. Fellow Texan Carroll Shelby had purchased 200,000 acres of land in the area and was attempting to market the property.
PR man Tom Tierney, and Frank X. Tolbert came up with that original chili cook-off to help Shelby turn a profit on his investment, and help Tolbert move copies of his A Bowl of Red chili folklore book.
That first chili battle was documented in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated and all of the major players in the world of Texas journalism. Wick Fowler emerged as the star of the event.
But it would be 1970 before Wick would finally taste victory as champion of the affair; the first three battles were cloaked in controversy. Impertinence if not actual malfeasance often carried the day in that long-gone era.
It’s not hard to find signs of Wick Fowler in the Terlingua of today. Winding along the two lane FM 170 it’s impossible to miss the huge sign announcing the Frank X. Tolbert, Wick Fowler Memorial Championship Chili Cook-Off.
Both Tolbert and Wick’s mugs stare down from the big wooden facade. After 500 miles on the trail we head up the road just a little bit further to the High Sierra Bar for a couple cold longnecks before settling into our camp at the chili cook-off site.
Our barkeep looks like an extra from an old Peter Fonda movie. I glance at the menu. “How’s the chili partner?”
“It’s real good.”
As good as Wick Fowler’s?
He grins. “You didn’t hear me say that.”
After a couple cold Coors Banquet brews we head east and back towards the official site of the Tolbert-Fowler Cook-off (there’s a rival cook-off down the road but they’re mere pretenders)
The two ladies working the gate ask if we know which cook-off we’re at, “Ain’t but one, and that’s Tolbert-Fowler,” I crow. They look pleased and wave us inside. We’re running late, and head straight for Cowboy Camp where a group of old-timers that have clocked centuries of Terlingua chili weekends between themselves have set up a bunch of folding tables for a feast of Texas-sized proportions.
“Where can a body get a big bowl of Wick Fowler chili,? I holler to nobody in particular. Two of the old cowboys chuckle and begin piling my paper plate high with smoked brisket and sausage. I show off my Wick Fowler belt buckle to one of the men and he gazes in appreciation.
I’ve never eaten more food in my life.
The next morning is the competition and I make way to “cooker’s row” where a long encampment of travel trailers are lined out with cook pots and camp stoves. I walk up to the nearest one where two old boys that look like Sam Peckinpah compadres are cooking and drinking cans of Bud Light.
“Well, if y’all ain’t allowed to use Wick Fowler 2 Alarm I reckon scratch will have to do,” I announce.
The men laugh and we pass the time for a bit over skewers of quail stuffed with jalapenos and wrapped in bacon.
Time goes by fast in the desert and soon enough a man comes on the PA-system and calls for everybody to bring their entries to the judging pavilion. I’ve judged dozens of barbecue and chili shootouts and it’s hard work. I do not envy the folks at the judging tables.A few hours pass and it’s time for the winners to be announced. The apogee of the weekend is upon us. Gene Moffett, an ajax of a man from Temple, Texas, is declared the grand champion of the affair. He’s nearly beside himself as any right-thinking individual would be. Winning the Tolbert-Fowler cook-off is the pinnacle of the competition chili cooking world. The next morning I arise at dawn to break camp and start heading back home to New Orleans
It’s been said that like Eldorado, the perfect chili always lies ahead, just over the horizon, hopefully somewhere near the Chisos Mountains where Wick Fowler proved his mettle as the finest chili man to ever draw a breath in the great state of Texas.
And there’s still plenty evidence of Fowler’s ghost in the sand dunes of Terlingua in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Just squint off into the distance towards Dirty Woman Creek or Study Butte and you can practically see an Olympian-calm Wick with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, tending to his battered old chili kettle.