Terlingua chili isn’t just for cook-offs…


A couple weeks ago, my daughter came to visit us for a long weekend. We did what any good West Texans do when someone comes way out here to visit… we loaded up and went to Terlingua for dinner.


I’ve been to Terlingua many times, and am diligently eating my way through the Starlight Theater’s menu. Everybody needs goals, right?

Now that we live about an hour and a half away, we often end up down south after an afternoon cruise through Marfa to Presidio and along River Road, straight to Ghost Town and the Starlight. The majestic mountains that flank FM 170 take my breath away and make me even more grateful to be a Texan with each trip.  My roots go back seven generations in this great state… this place that is filled with so much beauty when you can get away from the congestion of city life and breathe deeply like we do out here.

We were all in the mood for burgers. None of us were brave enough to try a Diego Burger – one pound of beef, four slices of bacon, three slices of cheese, two fried eggs, grilled onions, pickled jalapenos, pickles and a pile of fries. My husband and I each had a Terlingua Chili Cheeseburger while my daughter had an Original Gardenburger. He added a fried egg to his burger. While it would defeat the purpose to add chili to the Gardenburger, I bet it would taste marvelous. We shared a large piece of decadent Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Pie. A couple cold pints of Big Bend Brewing Company’s La Frontera rounded out a terrific meal. There’s a picture of my Terlingua Chili Cheeseburger down below.

IMG_3533(1)The ghost town of Terlingua was brought back to life in the late 1960s by a chili competition born of some chili-know-it-alls. A New Yorker named H. Allen Smith wrote a magazine article called, “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do,” that included beans in his chili recipe… clearly a challenge to Texans that could only be settled by a cookoff. Frank X. Tolbert, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and the author of the everything-there-is-to-know-about-chili book A Bowl of Red, led Team Wick Fowler. In Dallas, Fowler was also a newspaper man and was thought of as the best chili cook in all of Texas.

The first chili cookoff in 1967 was a huge party in Terlingua, and the final tie-breaking judge supposedly gagged on a bite of the New Yorker’s chili. So, they decided to try it again the next year. The Terlingua Chili Cookoff continued through the 1980s, until two separate cookoffs formed for whatever reasons. The Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) and the Behind the Store cookoff each have their own devotees today.

I know a group of grandfatherly gents that make the trip every year from the Hill Country, and have for at least 20 years, but I never asked which cookoff they preferred because until recently I didn’t know there was more than one.

At least I know that beans have no place in a bowl of red, Terlingua chili or not.

One Version of Terlingua Chili
(rumor has it this was The Original Recipe)
2 lb. very lean ground beef (I use round steak and cut it into small cubes)
7 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 white onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons masa
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce

Brown beef and drain. Stir in tomato sauce and 2 cans of water. Mix in all ingredients except cayenne pepper and masa. Simmer 30 minutes to one hour, until the meat is tender and flavors have blended. Add as much pepper as desired, and add a little water here and there if it gets too thick. The longer and slower you cook your chili, the more tender the meat will be. Mix masa and ¼ cup warm water and add to chili and stir well. Simmer another 30 minutes… just be sure and add your masa during the last 30 minutes of simmering.




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