In early November I flew 500 miles to Austin, rented a car, and drove another 500 miles to the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert for the 55th annual Wick Fowler Memorial Chili Championship Cook-Off.
Friday afternoon at Cowboy Camp, where all the old-timers gather for a feast of barbecued meats, and groaning sideboards laden with every Texas side dish you could imagine, Wick Fowler was the talk of the affair. As the sun fell behind the Christmas Mountains, a few hundred rangy chili freaks took off their hats and bowed their heads as we all paid reverence to the greatest chili legend the Lone Star state ever produced.
Our moment of respect for Wick was broken when someone rang a cast-iron triangle off in the distance. The feast was on.
A weathered, ranch hand-looking fellow asks to share our table and we readily agree. Talk turns to the chili cook -off the next day and I ask him if he’s competing. He drove in from Mexia near Waco and allows as how he just came to party but makes a fair batch of chili himself. I ask if he has any secrets he’d care to share and he laughs, “I just use the old Wick Fowler mix.”If you’re busy working at the brake repair shop, running a fence line on an American Paint or pulling a shift at First National Bank you might not have the extra 10 hours it takes to make Terlingua championship-level chili from scratch.
Wick Fowler made his bones the right way. He was the bull cook for Chili Appreciation Society International, the big Texas outfit that infamous chili tough guy George Haddaway founded in 1951. Their merry band of chili freaks crisscrossed Texas from Texarkana to Brownsville in search of a bowl of chili as hot as Hell’s brimstone.
They often found it.
Big bowls of Texas Red served seething-hot, cheap and greasy were on every diner menu in Texas in those golden days. And Wick Fowler was there for it. By 1964 he’d developed a blend of spices so potent that he decided to bring it to market and the Caliente Chili Company was born.
By 1970 he wore the crown of King of Texas Chili.It’s Saturday morning and we’re walking along Cooker’s Row, the heart of the Terlingua Chili Cook Off’s vast grounds where you’ll find dozens of tough-mouthed camp cooks at work over their big chili kettles. Every one of these men and women has been competing at regional cook-offs for the past year to earn their way into the Frank X. Tolbert – Wick Fowler championship.
I chat with one gentleman who won rival group International Chili Society’s championship back in the seventies. He’s not competing this year but came to the desert to have a bit of fun and get away from his workaday life in Amarillo. He can remember the old days when the chili appreciation folks would meat up for “sweats” or eating parties. The leader of the group would holler “put your hearts into it mates,” as the band of men would crumble crackers over their bowls in unison and roar with laughter.
If I ever get a time machine this era will be my first stop.
Time is drawing near for the noon turn-in and the sense of anxiety is palpable as we make our way from camp to camp. One lady is cursing at her cooking partner as he tarries a bit whilst bowling up their chili into the standard styrofoam vessel that each cook must use to transport their effort.“Dang you, you get that damn chili in that cup. If we’re not in line by noon we might as well go to the house!”
I ease along so as to not get caught up in the torment.
After the cook teams turn in their chilis a bit of Terlingua-style summer stock theater takes place outside the staging area. A 19th century-garbed sheriff and his deputy have to deal with a trio of rowdy outlaws who’ve come to town with their shooting irons and bad intentions.
This bit of theater brings wild guffaws from the crowd until a deafening shootout takes place and the bodies begin hitting the sandy lot. Justice prevails and the bad guys get their comeuppance much to everyone’s bemusement.
With dozens of cooking teams the judges really have their work cut out. It takes roughly five hours before the event has been properly adjudicated but soon enough the crowd re-gathers to find out who the king or queen of Terlingua will be this year.The crowd roars as a variety of home towns are announced with San Angelo, Texas, drawing particular fervor. Tension fills the room as the emcee pauses dramatically before announcing that Robert Winterbottom of Cedar Park, Texas, is the 2022 Terlingua grand champion. A ferocious war whoop followed by another and another sounds out across the crowd as Winterbottom makes his way to the stage.
The high desert of Terlingua feels like the most important place on earth right now.
We’ve come a long way since early 19th century Houston journalist J.C Clopper spoke on chili 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.”
Who could have predicted this humble dish that sustained generations of Texans for a pittance would one day grow into a multi-million dollar cook-off industry with thousands of competitors wading into battle in all 50 states and not a few foreign countries.
Without men like Frank X. Tolbert, Carroll Shelby and most importantly Wick Fowler, Texas chili would merely be a food staple served in household kitchens across the greater American southwest.
And about Wick. 50 years after you’re departed will 200 people take their hats off in reverence and offer a moment of silence in your memory? On a high desert mesa surrounded by the prettiest mountains you ever laid your eyes on?
That’s what we did for Wick Fowler last weekend in the ghost town of Terlingua, Texas.
“Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.” Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States”
Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff Champions
1967 (Tied) Wick Fowler & H. Allen Smith
1968 “Wino” Woody DeSilva
1969 C.V. Wood, Jr. – Arizona & California
1970 Wick Fowler – Austin, TX
1971 “World” – George Wright – Dallas, TX
Super Bowl – C.V. Wood
1972 Howard Windsor – Colorado
1973 Joe DeFrates, Springfield, IL (1 of 2)
1974 Allegani Jani Schofield – Fredericksburg, TX
1975 Susie Watson – Houston, TX (now in New Orleans, LA)
1976 Albert S. Agnor – Marshall, TX
1977 Tom Griffin – Houston, TX (now in Wallis, TX)
1978 Richard Simon – San Antonio, TX
1979 Wayland Walker – Ardmore, OK
1980 Bob Moore, Spring, TX
1981 Bill Douglas – Austin, TX
1982 Tom Skipper – Pasadena, TX
1983 Dave Talbot, Houston, TX
1984 John Billy Murray, Humble, TX (now Kingwood, TX)
198 Jim Ivy – Irving, TX
1986 Dorene Ritchey, Garland, TX (1 of 4)
1987 Steve Strattman, Dallas, TX
1988 Maxine Reed, Austin, TX (now Schertz, TX)
1989 Ruthann (Newman) Cosgrove, Gutherie, OK
1990 Jerry Thomas, Hobbs, NM (now Brownfield, TX)
1991 Dorene Ritchey, Garland, TX (2 of 4)
1992 Dorene Ritchey, Garland, TX (3 of 4)
1993 Bill Coad, San Angelo, TX (now West Helena, AR)
1994 Dani Ritchey, Round Rock, TX
1995 Brian Peddigrew, Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, Canada
1996 Bob Plager, Dallas, TX (now Littleton, Co) (1 of 3)
1997 Dorene Ritchey, Garland, TX (4 of 4)
1998 Bob Plager, Dallas, TX (now Littleton, Co) (2 of 3)
1999 James Barker, Dayton, TX (now Baytown, TX)
2000 Bonnie Mosley, Kemah, TX
2001 Alan Greiner, Round Rock, TX
2002 Clif Dugan, Denison, TX / Caddo, OK
2003 Ted Hume, Dallas, TX (1st place was disqualified) (1 of 2)
2004 Linda Odom, Manchaca, TX
2005 Tom Burrows, Lockhart, TX
2006 Bob Plager, Littleton, CO (3 of 3)
2007 Mike “BB” Hughes, Lockhart, TX
2008 Billy Bob Weatherly, Canyon Lake, TX
2009 Jim Stoddard, Coppell, TX (now Irving, TX)
2010 Christine Knight, Cibolo, TX (now Knight-Ober)
2011 George Odom, Manchaca, TX
2012 Ted Hume, Dallas, TX (2 of 2)
2013 David Lazarus, Killeen, TX (1st place was disqualified) (1 of 3)
2014 David Lazarus, Killeen, TX (2 of 3)
2015 David Lazarus, Killeen, TX (3 of 3)
2016 Deanna Castillo, Terlingua, TX
2017 Terry Parton, Bedford, TX
2018 Becky Daniels, Midlothian, TX (now Maypearl, TX)
2019 Vicki Sanders, Ennis, TX
2020 Cookoff cancelled due to COVID
2021 Gene Moffett, Temple, TX
2022 Robert Winterbottom, Cedar Park, TX