Food history: chili cook offs

National Chili Day is February 27th.

Let’s prepare to celebrate one of the best dishes ever by examining not only where chili originated, but specifically chili cook offs. 

Speaking of chili cook offs, I’ve won two with this gem right here:

Absolutely amazing chili is the best source I found on chili-related history. They explain that while the origin of chili itself is elusive, one thing is certain: chili did not come from Mexico.

We can infer this notion from a 1959 article entitled, “San Antonio: An Historical and Pictorial Guide,” where author Charles Ramsdell writes, “Chili, as we know it in the US, cannot be found in Mexico today except in a few spots which cater to tourists. If chili had come from Mexico, it would still be there. For Mexicans. . .do not change their culinary customs from one generation, or even from one century, to another.”

There are many legends on the aforementioned’s highly informational page regarding where chili came from, if you wish to delve into that topic further.

The first chili cook off, though, occurred at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, in 1952. It was the idea of Joe E. Cooper, author of With or Without Beans, to hold this contest with hopes of promoting his bookFifty-five contestants competed for the championship, which was awarded to Mrs. F. G. Ventura.

The second (but known for a long time as the first) chili cook off was much more memorable than the first, and occurred in Terlingua, Texas, in 1967. Today, on the first weekend in November, roughly 10,000 people come together for the annual Chili Cook Off in Terlingua.

The modern day Terlingua Chili Cook Off involves almost 200 teams competing; it was much smaller in 1967: there were only two competitors.

It started when H. Allen Smith, a writer for Holiday Magazine, produced a piece entitled, “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do.” With a horrifically arrogant title like that, the piece inevitably drew some attention.

Fast forward to the first chili cook off ever. Wick Fowler, known for his “Two Alarm Chili” (later turned into a kit), was chosen to prove Smith wrong on his presumptuous claim.

Interestingly, the competition turned out to be a tie. Out of three judges, one voted for Smith, one for Fowler, and the third reportedly spit out the chili on the first bite and went into “gastric distress;” they were forced to call a draw.

After the event, Smith published a book: The Great Chili Confrontation.

The International Chili Society was formed as a result of the second (but kind of first) chili cook off. Today, there are numerous chili cook offs held all over the country, some as huge as the Terlingua festival, others much more smaller and local. Often, proceeds go to charity. And, the ICS still runs the famous Terlingua Chili Cook Off today.

The Terlingua Chili Cook Off has three categories: Traditional Red Chili, Chili Verde, and Salsa; beans (and pasta) are strictly forbidden with the chili, but not with the salsa.

Although my go-to chili recipe contains three different kinds, it turns out that Sheldon Cooper was right: real chili has no beans.

Another important conclusion we can draw from the history of chili cook offs: While some food legends, like barbecue, may forever be duked out between various states, Texas is clearly the one who can lay claim to chili – and, chili cook offs.