Tag Archives: Terlingua International Chili Championship


The 2014 California Chili Cook-off Championship has come and gone, and I didn’t win a thing. But I had a lot of fun and learned about chili cook-offs. (This was my second, the first one being in New Mexico over ten years ago.)

The event was held at the Woodbridge Winery near Lodi, California. I had never been to that part of California, and was pleasantly surprised by Lodi. It is not Napa or Sonoma and sits on the edge of the Central Valley. It reminded my wife of Lubbock, Texas “with hills”. That said, the downtown turned out to be charming with lots of wine-tasting rooms, restaurants, and shops. The fields surrounding the town are almost completely taken up by vineyards.

The Woodbridge Winery is the elephant in the room. It has 300 acres of vineyards, and a large bottling operation that bottles 27 different brands of wine. It ships millions of cases of wine each year (One source says over 6 million compared with 500 cases or fewer by local family operations.)

Woodbridge was established by Robert Mondavi, but is now owned by a huge conglomerate that bought out Robert Mondavi a number of years ago. Still, it feels committed to the local community and makes a point of sponsoring a number of community-oriented activities throughout the year at its park-like headquarters space.

For 12 years it has put on a combined chili cook-off and car show. The cook-off serves as the California state championship with the winner entitled to go to the CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) World Championship  in Terlingua, Texas. That’s sort of the chili equivalent of the Burning Man in Nevada. This year the contest attracted entrants from all over California as well as from as far away as Illinois and Kansas. The reigning world champion along with two former world champions were cooking.

The car show was huge. There were hundreds of cars of all ages, makes, and models. They were all in mint condition.

There were other things to do as well, so that the crowd was in the thousands, most of whom were anxious to taste chili, guacamole, and salsa that were prepared for respective contests.

I tagged along with my friend,, Reggie Graves, who is himself a champion chili cook who has won many contests throughout Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. We decided to enter all three contests. Reggie was in the Top Ten chili cooks. I was not. And we also didn’t win in the guacamole or salsa contests. That’s just the way it goes.

Here’s an image of some of the winners:


some of the winners

some of the winners



Filed under Food, Travel


My friend, Reggie, has invited me to cook with him at the upcoming California State Championship Chili Cook-Off. I have accepted the offer. He is fun to be around, and the competition is in California wine country.

Reggie is an excellent chili cook, and he has won many contests over the years. I have previously written about his exploits at the Terlingua International Chili Championship. I, on the other hand, have only entered one other contest, and that was over ten years ago.

Clearly, I don’t know what I am doing (There is nothing new about that!) so I have been reading about chili and practicing my chili cooking. Reggie was very generous in giving me his recipe for competition chili, but I wanted to know a little more about the ingredients and why things got added when they did.  I made a practice run with his recipe, but I still needed more information. This is my report.

First, there is the matter of spelling. If you live in New Mexico, chile is spelled with an “E”, and everybody knows that refers to the plant, the peppers that grow on the plant, and the powder that is made by grinding up the peppers (also called ground chiles or – in Spanish – chile molido). If you live in Texas, chili is spelled with an “I”. Unfortunately, not everybody knows that the word refers to a meat and gravy concoction that includes a seasoning made up of ground-up chiles along with cumin, garlic, and other ingredients that is known as chili powder. To add to the confusion, there is an abandoned railroad line in New Mexico known as the Chili Line. I think it mainly carried forest products.  In the UK, the peppers are called chillis, so there you are.

On top of all this, there are at least 200 different chiles, and new ones are being developed all the time. In the US Southwest, the most common chiles are New Mexicos, Anaheims, jalapeños, poblanos, serranos, güeros, Santa Fe grandes, habaneros, and arbols – among others. Then, if you smoke a jalapeño it becomes a chipotle. If you dry a poblano it becomes an ancho. The well-known Southwestern chef, Mark Miller, has put together a beautiful little book, complete with beautiful images, to make this understandable. The book is called, The Great Chile Book, published in 1991 by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.

It becomes clear that the spice master has a wide palette to choose from when he or she decides to grind up a batch of Texas chili powder. Besides, the chile can be left raw, smoked, dry roasted, etc., etc., giving a myriad of options, never mind the cumin (dry roasted or not) and the ingredients that are top secret. Getting the recipe for commercial chili powders is like asking about instructions for building an atomic bomb.

Then, there is the rivalry of various purveyors. Gebhardt’s and Mexene are two brands that may be available at your local grocery store, and they are still  used in cooking competitions. Pendery’s has been making chili powders for over a ceentury, and Mild Bill’s has a following because champion cooks have used their chili powders.  At both, the choices available to the buyer rival the choices in an upscale wine shop.

Fort Worth Light and the alternative Cow Town Light (Fort Worth is known as Cow Town, get it?), San Antonio Light, San Antonio Red,  RT-Rio Tejas, Spice Mistress, and New Mexico Light are different mixes that have their own characteristics as well as guidelines as to when you add them during the cooking process. Timing is everything, because with cooking, the various powders lose their punch, and it is essential to have just the right balance of flavors at the minute the chili competition entry is turned in to the judges.

Is it any wonder that it takes years of practice and the refinement of a recipe to become a competitive chili cook who is repeatedly among the top entrants? I am clearly in over my head, but competitions are more than winning (REALLY??) There is the chance to have a beer – or more – with old friends. There’s the travel and seeing new places. It’s easy to see why folks can become what they call chili heads. I shall keep you posted on my progress and my success or lack thereof.




Filed under Food, Photography