By Christina Garcia
The colder months are the best time of year to tuck into a steaming hot, hearty bowl of deep red chili – named the official Texas state dish in 1977. Luckily, the Lone Star State hosts many Texas chili competitions, known as cook-offs, each winter. Follow your nose to these now decade-long, belly-filling traditions to explore the land, meet people from around the globe, and taste world-class chili you’ll want again and again.
Cooks face off in a friendly attempt to outdo one another for the most beautiful and satisfying bowl of Texas “meat and gravy” — beef with a thick sauce of dried red chilis. Cook-off entries are graded on aroma, taste, consistency, and color, and while some say beef is optional for the trophy bowl, others say disqualification awaits anything less. One thing everyone agrees on with Texas champion chili — no fillers are allowed. Beans, rice, and corn are not considered part of an authentic bowl of Texas heat.
For some elite competitions, chefs win many smaller cook-offs as the price of admission to a larger championship. Whether you’re at a small regional cook-off or one of the bigger title fights, you’re in for a meat-lovers treat.
Terlingua’s Chili Championship Cook-Offs
Texas’ best-known chili championships simmer amidst the breathtaking beauty of West Texas on the first weekend of November in Terlingua. With roots stretching back to 1967, the now almost week-long food festivals, split into two separate cook-offs in the 80s, gather chili enthusiasts from around the globe.
Sprung from the culinary duel between Texas writers Wick Fowler and Frank X. Tolbert (author of A Bowl of Red) and New York journalist H. Allen Smith, the original matchup in Terlingua aimed to settle a dispute over which region’s chili masters knew more about the dish. Despite ending in a draw, the rivalry created an enduring tradition. After a few years, some participants worried about commercialization, resulting in the creation of a separate Terlingua championship. Today both organizations work to raise as much money as possible for charities.
Despite the division in competition banners, both cook-offs take place less than five miles apart, with cooks often visiting each other and trying for titles at both gatherings. Look for the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff (also called the Tolbert Cookoff or Behind the Store), and you’ll spot the CASI Terlingua International Chili Championship down the road and vice versa. Keep your ears open as live country music bands are a guaranteed draw and nightly pastime at both events.
Both Saturday chili championships are invitation only, but all are welcome to camp and politely ask chili cooks to taste their creations after submitting their entries to be judged. Smaller competitions on the days leading up to Saturday’s championship include titles for the best margaritas, brisket, black-eyed peas, chicken, salsa, pinto beans, and chile verde at the Tolbert Cookoff. Meanwhile, the CASI cook-off judges entries for margaritas, traditional and non-traditional salsa, wings, and beans. A special category called Anything But Chili awards sweet and savory dishes made with the CASI Terlingua Championship Mix sold exclusively in HEB.
Explore nearby Big Bend National Park, and The McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, or simply look up at the vast sky for stargazing. With camps observing dark sky rules, chances are good that you might catch a blazing show of shooting stars above and take in a fantastic view of the Milky Way. ABowlOfRed.com, CasiChili.net
Galveston, Yaga’s Chili Quest and Beer Fest
The coastal sun shines on this Galveston January 20 to 21 event on The Strand. Grab a ticket to taste world-class chili — traditional and exotic, then sip a few of over 100 craft beers. Run it off in the Beerfoot Brewery 5k in Galveston or enter the Cornhole Tournament. Test your mettle with a jalapeno eating competition, and don’t forget to take in Galveston’s rich architectural history. This festival, now in its fourteenth year, benefits the Downtown Strand Historic District. YagasChiliQuest.com
Not only does Flatonia’s Czhilispiel include a chili cook-off, but this event also hosts a car show, grand parade, 5k race and Halloween costume contest, pie auction, and carnival every fourth weekend in October. If you can stomach it, enter the jalapeno eating contest. If not, enjoy competitions for spareribs, bloody Mary’s, beans, and margaritas. Begun as a way to fund a local student’s medical school education, this cook-off continues the spirit of community giving with local donations each year. Czhilispiel.com