They didn’t know beans about chili

Seeing several promotions about locally scheduled chili cook-offs made me ask why they have gotten popular in the Deep South. When I think of Southern cooking, I think of catfish, fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread, not to mention sweet tea. To me, chili says Texas, not South Mississippi.

While living in Houston and taking periodic weekend trips into the Hill Country, we became chili cook-off fans. These events were not only entertaining in and of themselves, but they were often associated with some top-notch entertainment, such as concerts by Waylon (Jennings) and Willie (Nelson) and dances at Gruene Hall.

In Texas, chili cooking has a season, just like sports do, and spring/summer/fall is chili cook-off season, the time when serious chili teams compete for points to quality for the Championship Chili Cook-off at Terlingua. You can’t just show up at Terlingua to cook any more than you can decide to race at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. You earn the right to go.

Chili cook-offs are multi-section competitions with points for the chili and points for theme and showmanship, so if you’re serious about getting to Terlingua, you have to come up with a theme for your group, how you’ll dress and what you’re going to do to entertain the crowds who attend.

One spring a group in Houston – some of them our river rat friends – decided to hold kayak races on Bayou Bend in downtown to call attention to the pollution in the bayou. Although chili cook-offs are usually single focus festivals with good bands and Saturday night dancin’ thrown in, the race organizers decided a sanctioned chili cook-off should be part of the bayou boat races.  We had attended many cook-offs by that time; in addition,  and Ken is a seriously good chili maker, so we were asked to help put on the cook-off.

We found out, of course, that running a cook-off is a whole different thing than attending one, given the necessity of obtaining sanction from the association, getting out publicity, taking and organizing entries and doing the set up at the site. Good judges also are essential. We managed to pull it off and awarded points to the winners despite all that.

No wonder we missed Texas so much when we moved to Mississippi: in Hattiesburg there were no festivals at the time, let alone any big cook-off events. (There were of course, fishing competitions on the Gulf Coast, but that didn’t interest us.) We missed the events, and we missed the good chili.

There was only one thing to do: organize a chili cook-off. We had a number of friends and associates who were good cooks and were always up for a party. Nothing else would do, therefore, then to host the 2nd First Annual Hattie Hardy Hell Hath No Fury Chili Cook-off.

All invitees were also invited to enter as well as encouraged to compete for showmanship and entertainment.  Invitations went out, banners were made and Miss Hattie (a scarecrow I’d made by putting a head and clothes on a string bass stand) was dressed for this occasion in cowboy hat and neckerchief. (Miss Hattie was a seasoned competitor, having taken an award for best make-up in the scarecrow contest at The Library.)

The party group was a mix of neighborhood friends, a rather eccentric bunch, plus colleagues. Some were terrific cooks and a few even knew what authentic Texas chili is. The entries were as varied as the group, ranging from an outstanding batch of Oklahoma green to real Texas red to ground beef chili with beans and mushrooms to — oh, my God — canned Wolf Brand chili. Oh, yeah — with beans.

There weren’t many side events but one classic commonly seen at Texas cook-offs was hunkering. Yes, indeed, appropriately duded up entrants exhibited their best hunkering poses, squatted down, beer in one hand with the other clapped on a knee. I wouldn’t take it to the bank, but I seem to recall it was Ken’s colleague Frank Woodruff, a big, country looking guy decked out cowboy style, who won that event.

Judges had been recruited from the most esteemed and honored neighborhood residents who were not competitors: a life-long neighborhood resident, the late Sarah Gillespie; an English professor and author of books on women’s history, Marjorie Wheeler; and Red Bailey, old house renovator and civic leader. All were neighborhood residents, none of whom, as it turned out, were connoisseurs of hot – really hot — food.

Not only that — they didn’t know the ins and outs of authentic chili. You have no doubt already guessed how it went down:  the canned chili won. Yep, right there on the deck of the home of one of the fine chili cookers, Wolff’s Canned Chili, warmed up in a pot, was declared the winner by the esteemed judges.

After all the booing died down and the cooker of the fantastic batch of Oklahoma green threatened to sue, no one was actually brave enough to claim that entry nor accept the award. But there was enough beer and enough good chili and conversation around to keep everyone fairly happy.

As it turned out, however, that Hattie Hardy Hell Hath No Fury Chili Cook-off turned out to be the Last 2nd First Annual one!


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