Covid-19 restrictions brought sad news for Chiliheads. Both of the legendary Terlingua chili cook-offs scheduled for November 4-7, 2020, in Big Bend have announced their cancellations.
The two chili cook-offs, held just a few miles apart in Terlingua, would both celebrate their 54th anniversary this year. Each group calls their own event the Original Terlingua Chili Cook Off, but the competition split into two camps in 1983. The smaller group is known as the Tolbert group, or Behind the Store cookoff. The larger Chili Appreciation Society International or CASI, is held on the grounds of Rancho CASI de los Chisos.
The Tolbert group’s “original Terlingua chili cook off” is held inside Terlingua Ghost town, and usually draws thousands of participants including cooks, families, and spectators. Most camp on the grounds in RVs or tents. Proceeds from their Original Terlingua chili cook off are donated to “Behind the Store,” a charitable organization that supports ALS. Donations also go to Terlingua first responders and schools.
Frank X. Tolbert
Photo: Kara Gerbert
The Tolbert group is named for founder Frank X. Tolbert. The celebrated Texas journalist, historian, and chili enthusiast wrote “A Bowl of Red” in 1967. Another Texas icon, race car designer, and entrepreneur Carroll Shelby, was his partner in the chili venture. Shelby hoped to use the competition as a promotion for his property developments in the remote West Texas area. Only two cooks competed in the original Terlingua chili cook off, Tolbert and New Yorker Wick Fowler.
Tolbert’s daughter, Kathleen Ryan and husband Paul Ryan of Tolbert’s Chili Parlor in Grapevine, run the Terlingua cook-off. In 2019, the Tolbert Chili Cookoff donated $30,880 to ALS.
Kris Hudspeth, with the larger CASI Chili Cook Off, said, “We donated $15,100 to area charities last year. This includes donations to the Brewster County, Sheriff’s Department, Fire/Ems, the Terlingua School, the community matching scholarship fund, Chamber of Commerce, and the Sul Ross Rodeo Team. We also collect toys for Christmas, as well as food donations for the community food pantry. “
CASI Chili Cook Off
Photo: Madison Shiller
While the estimated economic impact of the annual Chili Cookoffs was not available, the influx of chili cooks, their fans and spectators to Terlingua is Brewster County’s biggest tourism event each year. About 10,000 people attend the chili competitions each year, and the event also brings more publicity to the area than any other event.
Hudspeth said “We had roughly 2,000 paying spectators come through the gates at Rancho CASI de los Chisos in 2019, in addition to the 500 competitors.”
“At the start of the COVID outbreak, the CASI Board of Directors put a moratorium on all cookoffs through June 1. At the beginning of June, the Board relaxed the moratorium and put the decision making process back in the hands of local promoters and chapters. As a Board, we felt that the local areas were the best served experts in their areas, with the expectations that they would follow the guidelines and requirements of the local county and state leaders,” Hudspeth said.
“As you are aware, some areas have been hit harder than others, however we have had some areas that have been able to host the occasional event. We are still in discussions as to what our qualifications process will look like for 2021. We will not have a definitive answer until September 20, after our annual membership meeting,” said Hudspeth.
Terlingua Chili Cook Offs
Photo: Kara Gerbert
Midlothian resident Becky Daniels, winner of the Tolbert Chili Cookoff in 2018, and her husband have participated in both Terlingua competitions for many years.
Daniels said, “We actually attended several cook offs through the first part of March and had all the points required to qualify for both Tolbert’s and CASI. I believe we have only attended three, maybe four since the first weekend of March.”
“Since both are charitable organizations they are greatly suffering from this shut down. There are some amazing people out there, though, that are still making donations and helping when they can,” Daniels said. “In just the last week I have seen several cook offs put on the schedule, I think most with fingers crossed. But at least there is a little hope of returning to what we love to do!” she added.