• Image about Chili Parlor


BEFORE WE BEGIN, let us pray:

Chili eaters is some of Your chosen people. We don’t know why You so doggone good to us. But, Lord God, don’t never think we ain’t grateful for this chili we about to eat. Amen. (A Bowl of Red)

Chili -- a dish of meat that’s boiled and then simmered into volcanic hell with peppers, garlic, oregano, cumin, and maybe tomatoes, if you can get away with it -- is a faith with many denominations, each of which possesses adherents who insist that they embrace the one true faith. In winter, chili is soothing, a megaton of comfort. In summer, it awakens a holy savoriness that brings new life to beer or a nice Pinot Noir. At all times, it is a source of familial power: President Barack Obama campaigned in, and sampled chili from, Susie’s Chili Parlor in the town of El Dorado, Kansas, home of his maternal grandfather.

“It’s a poetic dish,” says Frank X. Tolbert2, artist and chili swami. “Eating chili is a spiritual event. It’s soulful and could even be considered cultish.”

Tolbert2 is the son of the late Frank X. Tolbert, renowned Texas historian, onetime columnist for the Dallas Morning News, and cofounder of the World Chili Championship Cook-off (now called the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off) in Terlingua, Texas, which first took place in 1967. The opening prayer, allegedly recited by old-time cowhands, was extracted from Tolbert’s chili saga A Bowl of Red, a brief opus that traces the history of the dish from the pots of cattle-drive cooks to the first championship cook-offs in the late 1960s and early ’70s in Terlingua, a remote yet beatific ghost town that was once a mercury-mining mecca.

The first cook-off was a duel between Dallas Morning News war correspondent Wick Fowler and New York humorist H. Allen Smith, whose taunting “Nobody Knows More about Chili Than I Do,” published in Holiday Magazine, sparked open chili warfare between Tolbert and Smith before Fowler was even enlisted as a chili grunt. The skirmish drew some 1,000 people, including racing legend Carroll Shelby -- developer of the iconic Shelby Cobra and Shelby Mustang sports cars -- who flew in a posse of Swedish fashion models from California to do what chile peppers could not. It ended in a tie.