History

First Chili Cookoff – 1942 Borger BBQ Battle

There isn’t much to say about the little sleepy town of Borger, Texas until you bring up one landmark incident. The Second World War was still in full-swing, and locals could enjoy BBQ when supplies allowed. During this time there was a massive amount of food rationing at that time and Beef and Pork were scarce. Much of the food was being processed and shipped overseas for the troops. So BBQ, in a nutshell, was whatever was on the grill.

World War II put a heavy burden on US supplies of basic materials like food, shoes, metal, paper, and rubber. The Army and Navy were growing, as was the nation?s effort to aid its allies overseas. Civilians still needed these materials for consumer goods as well. To meet this surging demand, the federal government took steps to conserve crucial supplies, including establishing a?rationing?system that impacted virtually every family in the United States.

 

BBQ King VS Quay Franklin

In Borger, it happened that they had their BBQ King who could always deliver something grilled-up. This man was also a prominent figure in their town who was also an avid Pitmaster in his own right. Not to mention he was also the president of the Panhandle Bank and local Lions Club. This man was non-other than Bob the BBQ King’ Grimes. It was local news that Grimes hosted many backyard BBQs, and was a hit with all the Borger folks.

So while this banker could deliver afternoons of BBQ beef for local town’s people, perhaps his sauce is what made him stand out as being something special.

That is until a stranger blew into town with even bigger aspirations.

Enter the new guy, Quay Franklin arriving fresh from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Originally an Ohio native, Franklin set-out to build-up a rubber plant in Borger in the summer of 1942

A plot to steal the crown

After a few weeks of getting a better idea of who’s who in the city, he began to see how their city worked. And also how residents talked about Grimes being the King of BBQ! It seems this Ohio native also took his barbecue seriously since Ohio was also big on grilling. Franklin then decided he would take a different approach to rally support for his Rubber Factory plans. In a decisive move, Franklin made his first shot in the public newspaper.

It seems that what happened was simple enough. The news had been covering a story about some local rabid dogs that bit some men. Franklin decided to offer his explanation with a statement that lit-up the battle BBQ fire. He essentially said that Grimes had decided to dump his BBQ food over a fence where some dogs were living. As a result, they ate the food and it caused them to go on a rampage! But it seems Grimes wasn’t taking the bait.

Franklin then proclaimed his BBQ sauce would put Grimes’ sauce in the shade’, to which Grimes finally reacted. The newspaper ate up the comments and stories and was a terrific distraction aside from the war. By September of that year, the rumours were already pointing to a BBQ duel between the two. It gained so much attention that the County Commissioner Fritz Thompson wrote his statement to the Borger newspaper“.

He announced he would lend his services to serve as an official judge. This was followed by a woman columnist who replied to the Thompson statement. She requested that women should also be allowed to judge the event! The entire BBQ cookoff continued to swell in interest until the first cookoff duel itself on October 7th, 1942. Sadly it was a bitter dispute which led to a rematch. Which many had thought were to be expected to happen.

Yet out of nowhere, there was a different cry from the people of Borger. It was from the women who were demanding they should be allowed to attend the rematch! On top of that, there was also the claim for women to also judge the food. Yet in these times it was a man’s competition that didn’t allow women to be present.

The rematch forbids women altogether and was held at the local American Legion Hall a week later.

The Masked Marvel arrives

A day before the match a challenger emerged in costume at the local newspaper. Their identity remained a mystery but challenged both Grimes and Franklin for their BBQ samples claiming they were both terrible. The challenger would join the competition only if they could wear their costume and go by the name of the Masked Marvel!

Sadly both Grimes and Franklin did not respond and the contest went on as scheduled.

On that day there were 135 men present at the Legion Hall, along with the Masked Marvel who watched on. By the end of the cookoff, it seemed that Grimes could keep his King of BBQ title from Franklin. But that wasn’t the end for the Masked Marvel who continued to claim their BBQ skills were better. Despite his spectacle win, Grimes boasted to the Masked Marvel aloud, asking them to come up and cook like a Man! The shadowy figure then retreated into the darkness.

This mystery figure who didn’t get a fair chance at entering the competition was often believed to be a woman. Some have speculated that it was Grimes’ wife or a housewife who was fed-up with the rules. One thing is certain since this battle itself was left-out of most BBQ history books.

When women finally did get to enter these competitions, it was long overdue and long forgotten.

In conclusion

In hindsight, the first cookoff wasn’t a major competition but it did prove a very viable point. Both of these driven men were at odds with each other over BBQ boasting. It would take nearly three decades before women were allowed to enter these competitions. But what it did for setting the stage for creating a BBQ showdown was epic, even for that time.

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History

1952 Chili Cookoff [Uvalde, TX] ‘Arama Days’

Among other things that stand out at the Dallas State Fair in 1952 was the first appearance of Big Tex. It was an oversized statue that was originally a giant Santa Clause that was repurposed for the fair itself.

state fair santa clause of 1952 big texas

“It stood atop a department store in the city of Kerns until it was retired. That year in October, they hosted something else that stood-out that included the very first Chili cookoff competition.

Chili Cooking World Championship of 1952 (Arama Days)

This cookoff was dubbed the Chili Cooking World Championship of 1952. This was something new and groundbreaking for spectators who witnessed the event. It was also dedicated to Chili and would set the wheels turning for what most people would know as a modern style chili cookoff for decades after that. Call it a template of sorts, as this was unlike other competitions which prohibited women; as usual, BBQs did.

The Book

It was a concept that was introduced more as a marketing plot than anything else. The person responsible for organizing the event was an ex-newspaper journalist from Dallas named Joe E. Cooper. He was hot to draw attention to his new book.

“With or Without Beans: An Informal Biography of Chili? which is essentially now the Chili Bible of CASI? But what the competition did, was draw-out 55 contestants who all wanted to show off? their chilli skills!”

The cookoff was a real success and by the time the winners were announced, Joe Cooper sat beside himself. Not that there wasn’t any interest in chili cooks strutting their stuff, not at all. Cooper had yet to see any interest in his book the entire time the competition waged-on! Sadly, he died a couple of months later, never getting to see his book emerge later into a best seller! However, when it came to the chili competition itself, two winners came out shining.

Winner’s and Winning Chili Recipes

You might never have expected the first prize winner to be a woman, but more ironically her recipe wasn’t original! Mrs F. G. Ventura from Dallas was crowned the first prize winner.

“After this, she held onto that reigning title for a total of 15 years! Not until the very first Terlingua Chili Cookoff in 1967, was her title officially lost. Yet her winning recipe was in fact, a slight variation of the chilli recipe in the Gebhardt cookbook. By now if you?re a chilli fan and historian, William Gebhardt was the inventor of chilli powder!”

He perfected the spices used in this formula and originally called his mixture Tampico Dust. By 1960, his spice empire was bought-out by Beatrice Foods and included his iconic 24-page pamphlet.

“This included menu suggestions featuring many of his patented products for the Gebhardt Mexican Food Company spices. Mrs Ventura used a near-exact copy of his recipe to win the 1952 chilli cookoff competition.”

You can find the exact recipe she used here.

F.G. Ventura's First Place ChiliMrs F. G. Ventura was perhaps the last winner in over one-hundred years of chili cooking. After her dethroning in 1967, chili competitions became a male-dominated arena with only 1/3 of the participants being women. Before that, chili was a dish that was often cooked exclusively by women and eaten mostly by men. The chili cookoff she entered in 1962 specified no beans, so she used ground beef just like the original Gebhardt recipe called for.

The second winner was, to everyone’s surprise, a man. Mr Julian Capers Jr. took everyone by surprise with an unorthodox recipe. He left large chunks of onion and garlic in the chili giving it plenty of ‘front’ bite. The back bite was thrilling enough with the Gebhardt chili powder and 4 large dried Mexican chili peppers. After the Mexican peppers were soft enough from cooking, he diced them and added the water and pepper mix.

Julian would have been frowned upon by traditional chili cooks these days since fresh ingredients shouldn’t be seen.

“The onion and garlic are supposed to be diced so they disappear into the chili mix. But then again, this was one of the first competitions that had very relaxed rules. We can imagine the folks at CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) scoffing at the idea. Although, this was the first event where the bible of chili premiered!”

 

And though Mr Capers’ recipe was just as simple as Mrs Ventura’s, they both had their methods of ‘Dumping’. This is where many chili chefs time their chili ingredients and spices so they don’t lose impact or flavor while cooking. A crucial part of any serious chili cook, and one that is very selective in the grand championship circuits. Dumping is not the only part of the process as is the cooking time overall.

Both of these winning recipes took about 4 hours to prepare each of them. It should be noted that Mrs Ventura’s was roughly an hour earlier. This was despite both of them using flour to thicken-up their final chilli mix. We might even suppose that this was due to her adding shortening rather than suet (a hard beef fat). But the only way is to recreate these two recipes side by side. You might see how they both render-down when the ground beef is cooked.

Conclusion

Interestingly enough, by the time those founding members of what would soon become CASI were divided on this chilli event! Some felt that Cooper, who wrote the book on Chili; would have been accepted into CASI openly. While others felt that Mrs Ventura had no place or mention in their exclusive men’s club. These good old boys never even wanted to invite Mrs Ventura to their first competition that began in 1967.

For a very close look at how CASI began in Terlingua, our next story will cover their rise to fame. You’ll also get to learn how they weren’t the only ones to invade the unknown ghost town called Terlingua. It’s an insight that may have been sparked by Joe E. Cooper, who wrote a book that inspired it all. Be sure to read about the Terlingua’s First Chili Cookoff in 1967.

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History

Terlingua’s First Chili Cookoff in 1967

Texas Chili, the Dallas Press, and a Hot-Rod God

When it comes to chili in Texas, pride is well-known and celebrated for several reasons. But if you thought there’s a conspiracy behind the formation of one of the largest exclusive chili groups, you’re right! The Dallas press is directly involved in this crafty group. It began long before as a social group who were all chili enthusiasts.

“This included a morning news columnist by the name of Frank X. Tolbert. He was writing about chili regularly as early as 1960″.

Although he wasn’t present at the 1952 Chili Cooking World Championship at the Dallas State Fair, he reported on it. He knew full-well who Joe E. Cooper was, and in appreciation of his book; had sought to pen his own.

“Frank Tolbert began his famed work ‘A Bowl of Red‘ as early as 1953. Later it was updated and new material was added in 1962 and finally 1966. The dedication of the revised editions of Tolbert’s book included his homage to Cooper”.

Frank's Bowl of Red Chili Recipe
Click for the famous Terlingua red chili recipe 

 

He also cited that without the work of Joe E. Cooper, his book served as their Bible that formed CASI. Their fabled group had yet gone by an earlier name in Texas as the Chili Appreciation Society (CAS). Formed in Dallas around the 1940s, it was primarily press and magazine writers George Haddaway and Wick Fowler. Others gathered together once a month to praise chili, writing songs, poems, and the vitality of chili. They were known as ‘Chiliheads’ and soon found international press.

photo of carol Shelby bbq

What an odd fate that Carroll Shelby, a race car driver would also share such an avid interest in Chili. Not only did Shelby go on to design the classic Mustang Shelby GT500 and Shelby Cobra, and he also liked a hearty bowl of Red. In 1962, Shelby and a local Dallas attorney Dave Witts decided to purchase some land in south Texas including Terlingua. It was after that, the land changed over to Carroll Shelby exclusively. He then spent his time and money trying to develop the land in some way. He ultimately used it as a 200,000-acre ‘man cave’ hang-out.

The Bad Boys of Terlingua

On many occasions, Shelby and a close friend including Tom Tierney, David E. Davis, and Bill Neale would regale in Terlingua.

“Under their new racing team dubbed the Terlingua Racing Team, they would spend several days being real Texas Bad Boys! They would race bikes, hunt deer, drink, and eat chili like the lost boys’ they were”.

On one occasion they happened to invite some fellow chili buddies that included Wick Fowler and Frank Tolbert.

From there the press influence began to give this new land a whole new title. Tolbert went on to write an article for the Saturday Evening Post called That Bowl of Fire Called Chili. It was among the first that sparked interest in Terlingua. It was followed with thousands of letters to the magazine that showed interest in chili recipes. Not only did this give-way to the emergence of chili con carne, but it also gave birth to the Frito Pie.

As interest was building-up, chili inside a bag of Frito chips became the favorite among Dallas football high school fans. Yet the wild parties at Terlingua began to get bigger and soon included some more influential characters. This led to the invitation of David Chasen and H. Allen Smith, who gave more influence later. However they weren’t around for long, the members of CAS began to evolve.

In Mexico City on April 7, 1964, Wick Fowler attended a widely documented ceremony. He was acting as a war correspondent for the Vietnam War and made chili for the troops. It was at that time his chili group became known as CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International). By April 20th the group launched their first breakthrough statement announcing that Terlingua was the Chili Capital of the World!

This was with the help of Tom Tierney who was an excellent PR guy for the Terlingua Racing Team. They used their other buddies to gain official attention with Wick Fowler, Frank Tolbert, and Dave Witts. Of course, their attorney Dave Witts made the statement that was spread through the Dallas Press. Because of the press they received, it gave them the ability to organize officially. They essentially created their personas as a result.

Terlingua becomes a Chili Capital

They proceeded to create fictitious posts as members of the city of Terlingua, using guerilla marketing to spread the word. Carroll Shelby became Social Director and Tom Tierney became Chief Justice of the Municipal Court. Frank Tolbert became the Water Commissioner and George Haddaway was the Airport Manager.

“Bill Neale took on the post of Director of the Museum of Modern Art which was simply an outhouse”.

Wick Fowler had the best title serving as Chief Chili Head among other things, yet they weren’t done just yet. By 1966, it marked a big jump for Frank Tolbert who just got signed to Doubleday press. His new book A Bowl of Red was getting nationwide attention and ruffled his fellow press friends’ feathers. To further promote his book he partnered with Shelby to organize a chili cookoff in Terlingua. Shelby was more than happy to help promote the event.

However, there were doubts that their investment in the Terlingua property was not going as planned. In 1964, Shelby was thinking of ways to sell off his investment by using the chili capital theme. They figured they could get one competition and lots of press to cover it and then sell-off their investment. The big press that came in 1966 was just what Shelby needed to start his plan. With the help of his PR guy Tom Tierney, they did just that.

The First Contestants are Chosen

The first of the selections chosen were obvious no-brainers. They selected Tierney and Tolbert against Wick Fowler.

“They had expected to bring in Dave Chasen who owned a Hollywood restaurant and was famous for his chili. Dave’s chili had been renowned to be a favorite of Elizabeth Taylor, however Chasen dropped-out of the competition at the last minute. They had to choose a new contestant quickly, and Tolbert had a replacement ready”.

By 1967, Tolbert was riding high in the saddle with his successful chili book ‘A Bowl of red’. Upon visiting the Doubleday Press offices in New York, he received a letter from H. Allen Smith. He was also signed with Doubleday and had visited the Terlingua boys club in the past. He expressed his interest to show everyone how good a chili cook he was.

“He furthermore drove this home with an article he wrote for Holiday Magazine in 1967“.

This article titled Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do was a direct poke at the CASI group. It was decided in the end that Smith and Fowler would compete against each other. By this time PR wiz, Tierney had begun to set the wheels turning and made his official announcement. They were going to have the world’s first championship chili cookoff and only the press was allowed to attend.

As the event grew closer the group began to argue about the issue of beans. Should beans be allowed or not allowed was the big question. It eventually divided the CASI group forcing Carroll Shelby to form his group. They decided to call themselves the International Chili Society instead and still allowed CASI to hold their competition. On that day of the showdown, it was anti-climatic as it gets with both contestants given a tie decision.

What Became of the Bean Issue?

One of the very first rules decided was that no beans shall be used for making chili. This rule holds-up at every Terlingua World Championship chili cookoff since then. Despite the splitting of groups, Tolbert fought to retain his rights to the CASI competition and later renamed the event. This then became The Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off and is often called the Behind the Store crew. ICS remains more lighthearted in the spirit of Shelby and his heyday of wild chili weekends.

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History

BBQ History Series: Memphis in May (MiM) 1978

The MiM Memphis in May: The World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest, 1978

“Some might say that after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, it spelled the end for Memphis businesses”.

Owners were leaving and stores were closing, as tourism dwindled to near-collapse. Until- that is, that critical thinking took over and a small festival was organized to save the face of Memphis. It started on the waterfront of the Mississippi with 52 grand from sponsors but gained 15,000 new fans in 1977. By the next year, in the effort to attract more people, they added a barbecue competition.

MiM’s Superbowl of Swine

In all, there were a total of 26 teams fought over 1,000 dollars in prize money in 1978. It was held in a vacant lot next to the Orpheum Theatre that had fallen into bad times. They were still showing adult films in the iconic theatre at the time this BBQ cookoff took place. This was their third signature event for MiM, dubbed the ‘Superbowl of Swine’ by a guy who knew a bit about chili. The original idea comes from Rodney Baber Jr. (Chairman of MiM events committee) and Jack Powell, a reigning chili champ from Tennessee.

“It was being called the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest”.

Sidestory

​Terlingua ​International ​Chili Championship

Now an interesting fact about Jack Powell is his direct connection at the first ICS chili championship in California. It seems that after CASI founder Frank Tolbert was pissed-off by an incident that occurred at the first Terlingua event. Carroll Shelby had flown-in a television crew to Terlingua in 1967 that only would cover Shelby and his boys.

photo of carol Shelby bbq Tolbert was furious and asked the ICS group to set-up camp elsewhere for their (own) events. Well, as Shelby wanted to sell his land through development deals, he worked with Tolbert over the years to reach a favorable settlement.

historic photo of terlingua texas in 1976
Photo of​ Terlingua ​ in 1976 when the CASI hosted the first Cookoff Championship

By 1977, the new location for ICS’s new camp would be relocated to the Tropico Gold Mine in Rosamond, California. And they could retain the original title of World Championship Chili Cookoff. That year, a lone Chilihead from Tennessee cooked his chili version made from fresh Raccoon. Others who attended this first cookoff even included the iconic R.S. Holmes, Chill Wills, Rory Calhoun, and Maud Chasen.

“The Chasen restaurant was the LA hotspot is where one famous chili dish was adored by Elizabeth Taylor. This event raised nearly 15 grand the first year alone!”

Go figure that all the Hollywood attention, celebrity endorsements, and plenty hoopla gave ICS a real monetary value. However, the Terlingua CASI group still hosted the ICS group under Tolbert’s eagle eye, every year after that? So- Jack Powell knew that a BBQ event could turn this new Memphis contest into a real crowd-pleaser. Since then it has bloomed into a very successful franchise for the MiM organizers. With much thanks to Jack Powell and Rodney Baber Jr. for heading-up the idea!

The first winners

The original first prize winner of this event was Mrs. Bessie Louise Cathey who won 500 dollars. It turns out this was a good return on her 12 dollar entry fee. And that was followed by 2nd and 3rd place winners Lee Waterbury and Mrs. Johnny Whitaker. They could win 250 dollars for their winning entries. Yet what stood out from the others was a taste that has Bessie was working hard to create. In all, there were 9 judges and most of them were not professionals. Among the group, there were three that stood out for having tasting skills.

There was Big? John Grisanti of the Grisanti family and Ronnie Grisanti’s restaurant.

“Then there was Charlie Vergos owner of the Rendevous restaurant and his famous charcoal BBQ ribs. And finally, there was Audrey Taylor Gonzalez, who was a journalist who grew up in Memphis in a BBQ family who raised pigs. Bessie Cathey was an average homemaker who entered the contest on a whim. She cooked her pork ribs on a backyard barrel cooker made from a recycled oil drum!”

She didn’t like the rowdy and lewd behavior that the team next to her was raging over but kept her composure. We’ll talk about that group a bit later! When asked if she had any idea if she’d win or not she wasn’t worried and said she’ll win. Then she continued to tell the local newspaper reporter from Press-Scimitar the following, Everybody who eats it, says it is!? And though all the winning contestants had to submit their recipe the next day, Bessie said she would think about it. However, the big secret was finally purged that she used an ordinary bottle of Hyde Park brand BBQ sauce.

Ironically, it was purchased from a local Piggly Wiggly in town. But perhaps it was the slow cooking method she knew would win-over the judges, just like her friends and neighbors. She often used a small kitchen mop that was modified to be used for basting her ribs as they slow-cooked over that pit barrel. Now years later, it was one of the judges who remembered Bessie’s recipe to judge other contests. Audrey Taylor Gonzalez who had grown-up among a family of BBQ enthusiasts trusted her tongue and her wits.

This globe-trotting journalist, who had interviewed Elvis in 1960, had narrowed down her judging abilities. The taste and sense she would later base the winning flavors on Mrs. Cathey’s BBQ style. According to the official WCBCC rules, the rib meat should pull off the bone rather than fall off. This is exactly what Bessie’s pork ribs had done.

The rowdy boys of BBQ

Now there was a brief mention of a cooking team that Mrs. Cathey kept a stiff upper lip about.

“It seems her direct neighbor was a team that defines what the MiM World Championship Barbecue Contest is all about”.

This of course is another well-known competition crew that’s been there since the beginning. Woody Masters and Pete Gross were just young dudes around 22 or 23 years old at the time. They entered the contest as the only organized group called the Midtown Master Basters. The next year in 1979 changed it to Redneck Bar-B-Que Express.

While they might never have won an official title at this BBQ cookoff, they’ve entered it for the last 40 years! They are simply known as tribal elders at this BBQ contest and are well-known for being a crazy party group. It’s often been a tradition of this cookoff that crazy antics and getting close to the crowd is the name of the game. However, the judging is yet another story altogether. Some judges can be bribed with certain contestant gifts to win an appeal. They can provide fancy water bottles and drinks, while judges are allowed to visit cooking tents to ask questions.

It’s a big family-style party. Some BBQ Pitmasters also have sneaky tricks to keep their entries warmer than others. Their blind boxes contain their entry with special bribes included. Some will even go so far as to sneak in alcohol shots in their entry boxes. It won’t work since the judge panels are carefully weeding out what tastes good versus what is bad. Yet since the very first contest, the combination of fun and barbecue cooking is celebrated. This is why this competition survives for being very down-home and distinctly Memphis-like to this day.

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