Illustration by Kirsten Ulve

A weather-beaten old cowboy poet once described the arid, wind-blasted region as the place “where the rainbows wait for rain.” Another lifelong resident insists his hauntingly isolated Trans-Pecos corner of Texas isn’t exactly the end of the world but admits that, “You can see it from here.”

Yet every year, thousands arrive to brave sun, sand and stark landscape for a gathering that is one part tent revival, one part pots-and-pans celebration. Near the ghost town of Terlingua, once a thriving cinnabar (quicksilver) mining center in the late 1800s, they have been conducting the annual Terlingua International Chili Championship since 1967. There, in the shadows of the Chisos Mountains, not far from deserted mine shafts and crumbling adobe walls, they gather to sing, dance, carry on, tell tall tales and finally see who will concoct the absolute best bowl of red.

For those like Dallas’ Jennifer Hansen, the trek beats an all-expenses-paid visit to the Riviera.

Last year, she was one of the 389 elite cooks who qualified for the cook-off. It isn’t easy. To become eligible to vie for the coveted prize, one has to earn a certain number of points in regional cook-offs throughout the year. Thus, she traveled the state on weekends with her portable stove and a tongue-teasing collection of secret ingredients, cooking her way to a spot in the grand finale.

Cook-Off Details

Terlingua, Texas, site of the 47th annual TERLINGUA INTERNATIONAL CHILI CHAMPIONSHIP, is a 250-mile drive south from Midland International Airport.

Gate admission for the three-day event (Oct. 31 to Nov. 2) is $30 per person, and camping is available at the Rancho CASI de Los Chisos cook-off site.

Only cooks who have earned the required number of points in CASI-sponsored events are eligible to compete in the featured chili cook-off, but visitors can enter their beans and buffalo chicken wings for a $20 entry fee. A Best Salsa competition, live music and an Ugliest Hat contest round out the festive event.

Visit the Chili Appreciation Society International websites at www.chili.org and www.casichili.net for additional information.


Though she ultimately returned home to her bartending job with no trophy from her rookie year, she recalls the experience fondly, saying, “It was unbelievably exciting, and I learned so much. My goal now is to qualify to go back and try again.” To that end, she’s tweaking her recipe as we speak.

Dana Plocheck, a second-generation chili cook, understands such determination. “I started going out to Terlingua with my parents, who were competitors, when I was just a kid, and first competed when I was a senior in high school,” the Missouri City, Texas, resident says. By the time she and her Lady Bug Chili were announced the 2006 winner, she had spent a decade chasing the elusive prize. “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” she says.

They are affectionately called Chili Heads and are not put off by it in the least. They gather on the first Saturday of each November from hither and yon. “Over the years,” says Chili ­Appreciation Society International (CASI) executive director Richard Knight, “we’ve had competitors from all 50 states in the U.S.” Other hopefuls have come from England, Canada and the Virgin Islands. Last year, a delegation from Singapore joined the competition. Crowds range annually from 10,000 to 12,000 people.

It began back in 1967 when famed humorist H. Allen Smith wrote an article for Holiday magazine and boldly claimed to be the world’s foremost chili cook and authority. He even shared his recipe with his readers. Dallas newspaperman Frank ­Tolbert and pal Wick Fowler quickly shot back to say that the fact that Smith’s recipe included — heaven forbid — kidney beans automatically disqualified him as a chili purist. A pot-and-ladle duel was challenged. Thus was born an event that even Sports Illustrated has covered. Today, the event has grown to a heaping serving size.

This, folks, is serious business. The sponsoring CASI has 10,000 members and has purchased the 320 acres where the event is held. Over the past decade, the society has distributed an average of $1.5 million annually to college scholarships and charities from earnings at the Terlingua event and the more than 500 qualifying cook-offs it sanctions.

Knight, a resident of Elgin, Texas, long has been a competitive cook himself, finishing in the Top 10 at Terlingua four times. “Every year is like a giant family reunion,” he says. “It’s not unusual to find yourself cooking between a guy who spent his last 25 cents to get there and another who flew in on his private jet.”

In the chili-cooking world, understand, all are happily equal. Until the judges announce their decision.

Friendships aside, those who compete guard their recipes like precious jewels. Hansen, still dreaming big and eager for another try, isn’t about to disclose the mixture of meat and sauce and spices that goes into her brew — but she will say that she would never include a single kidney bean in her recipe.

“That,” she explains, “is what real chili cooks refer to as a foreign object.”