There’s not a month that goes by that someone doesn’t ask me, “Why do they call you Chili Bill?” I feel the time has come to answer this question in a simple, straightforward manner to calm the turbulence in these perplexed minds. Said explanation will be put to paper and handed out upon inquiry, a la the method of the one-time owner of the renowned Horse-Cow Tavern in Vallejo, California, who grew weary of explaining what happened to the miniature submarine on the roof of his establishment.
In my early days as a cook in a small restaurant in The Cannery shopping mall at Fisherman’s Wharf, I was asked to make chili as part of the daily menu. Well, I knew what I liked from my youth in the Midwest: a bowl of spicy ground beef with about 1/8th inch of grease floating on the top. Add a couple of tablespoons of white vinegar and a handful of oyster crackers, stir it together and voila, 35¢ worth of heaven. I knew this cow wouldn’t fly with the boss, a native Californian and professional tight ass with the money. Beans would be prominently featured and the consistency would have to be a little soupier to maximize profit.
I dug around for recipes and stumbled upon an article in Esquire Magazine by the “World’s Greatest Chili Cook” — some mysterious person whom I suspect was either Calvin Trillin or Roy Andries deGroot, who both occasionally wrote articles about food. The recipe called for a number of odd spices, including woodruff, which is used to flavor German May wine. It also required freezing before serving; this caused me to wonder if perhaps this person had his head stuck someplace where it’s hard to breathe. I went ahead and fixed a batch according to directions and felt like the butt of a bad joke. I finally told the boss that for the sake of time — and money — we should just buy commercial chili in big #10 cans and maybe jazz it up a little with some spices. That way I could spend more time and energy on important things, like macaroni salad.
Now this doesn’t mean I gave up entirely on the idea of creating an edible “bowl of red,” as Texans like to call it. No sir. I went to work for the next ten or fifteen years trying to get it right, and I’d like to think that’s been accomplished.
During the Great Trial and Error Years, the chili cook-off phenomenon occurred. This began with the legendary Terlingua Texas World Championship Chili Cook-Off. Some marketing geniuses, including Carroll Shelby, of Shelby Cobra fame, decided that since so many people were coming from California to this obscure little town, why not just have a championship in California? The International Chili Society was formed with Budweiser as its official sponsor. Suddenly cook-offs were being held in every nook and cranny of California, Nevada and the hinterlands. These functions were all structured to be non-profit affairs with proceeds going to charity. The public purchased any number of small paper tasting cups, like the ones restaurants use for jelly. Since there were upward of 30 teams per competition and those cups went for 25¢ or more apiece, the charities usually did okay. How much of Budweiser’s money found its way into the pockets of the Chili Society is anybody’s guess, but I figure it was a tidy little sum.
In the mid-70s, myself and some beer-swilling buddies from Yellow Cab decided to form our own chili team which went under various appellations like Chili Bill and the San Francisco Pepperheads, Missouri Mule Kick-Ass Chili and Hell Bent For Chili, the last and favorite of all. We had our own little matching team T-shirts and a beautiful hand-painted banner that was hung above our table. About twice a month we’d pack up and head off for some exotic place like Newcastle, California or Fish Camp, near Yosemite. Most cook-offs were held on Sunday, so that the participants could get there on Saturday and get all tore up and be hung over badly the next day. At least that’s the way it seemed to me — just one big party. Our favorite town was Auburn, California, and we always stayed at the historic and slightly seedy Auburn Hotel, right on the main drag of Old Auburn. One advantage was that they had a room that would sleep four guys comfortably. And they had a balcony where we could suffer through the hot night with a couple of cases of beer while we planned our strategy for the following day.
“Steve, why don’t you chop the onions tomorrow?”
“Oh, man, I chopped the onions last time. The girls don’t go for the guy that chops the onions.”
“Okay, you wanna open the cans?”
“Yeah, that’s cool.”
Once these little details were sorted out we could sit back and watch the young people cruising endlessly up and down the boulevard in their pickup trucks and street rods. No matter how hard we tried, we could never get a carload of sweet things to come up to the balcony and help us drink all that beer, which meant that we had to drink it all. Which meant that we were always in great shape to handle sharp knives, hot pots and open flames in the AM. None of these cook-off organizers knew the meaning of the word “shade” either, so we were given the opportunity to sweat off all those suds in the noonday sun. Not a pretty sight.
The schedule went something like this: at 11am the signal was given for cooking to begin. From then on the teams had three hours to complete their pot of chili, which had to be at least three gallons when finished. At 2pm someone would come around and collect a quart of chili in a Styrofoam cup with your team’s number on the bottom. These were taken to a secret meeting room to be judged, which usually took about an hour. In the meantime, the public could sample chilis at will, using a clean paper cup for each sample. (Remember all those quarters). They were also allowed to vote for their own personal favorite. This proved interesting at times when the People’s Favorite wasn’t one of the three winners of the competition. It would be a bone of contention in the Rift That Was To Come.
The awards were divided into numerous categories. Besides 1st, 2nd and 3rd place in the taste division, there were trophies and prizes for Best Looking Booth, Furthest Traveled to Compete, Best Costumes, etc. In order to go to the World Championship, one had to win 1st place in any category at a Regional Cook-Off, not just any little Podunk City affair. As time went on, it became apparent that not everyone with a great pot of chili could win the Big Shebang. The winners always seemed to be teams with lots of husbands and wives in their 40s and 50s, who worked for some corporation. I personally tasted every chili at every cook-off and I can tell you there were some winning concoctions that I wouldn’t feed to a mad dog. I’m proud to say that we won a couple of 2nd Place trophies and even a popcorn pumper!
After a while the thrill started to wear off. The Chili Society had its own version of The Man With No Eyes (watch Cool Hand Luke to refresh your memory) in the person of one Joe Stewart. I don’t know if Joe had anything better to do, because he was at every single cook-off we ever attended, strolling around in his cowboy hat and aviator glasses, scrutinizing everyone, like he was going to spot a would-be Travis Bickle at any moment. (And if you don’t know who Travis Bickle is, get professional help.) If he enjoyed his work, he never let it show; smile was not in his vocabulary. I’ve always felt that he had some hand in deciding the winners (as in “don’t let those fags from Frisco win.”)
We were at our second visit to Newcastle when another wedge was driven home. The team next to us, Shotgun Willie Chili, had been sharing lively banter and Tequila for most of the day. On our way to the car, I saw one of the members and yelled, “See ya next time!” He turned angrily and said, “Ain’t gonna be a next time!” When I asked why, he explained that he’d managed somehow to get into the judges’ room unnoticed, and that he’d seen them set aside almost two thirds of the samples unopened. And then “that Stewart feller” saw him and ran him out. When Mr. Happy was confronted about what was going on, his answer was “none of your business.”
During the year following our exit from the cook-off circuit, a number of other regular participants apparently decided they had had enough of the International Chili Society’s way of doing things, so they formed their own group, the Chili Appreciation Society Incorporated. The Championship would once again be held in Terlingua, Texas, and the participants would be chosen on a “points” basis. This meant that you could qualify with a minimum of points, acquired in any number of categories, at all the cook-offs you attended. A 1st Place here, a 2nd place there; Best Booth in Reno, Furthest Traveled in Keokuk — it would all be lumped together. A much fairer system, I thought, and if I’d had the wherewithal to muster up another team, I might have had a go at it. But the old Coleman stove had been laid to rest, and rust, in the garage, and I had other ways of spending my leisure time.
I still look back at this segment in time with fond memories and thankfulness for lessons learned, as in Rule Number One of Chili Preparation: Chopping Hot Peppers And Handling Your Genitals Do Not Mix! Rule Number Two: The Beer Must Be Very, Very Cold, And There Must Be LOTS OF IT! And those special moments, such as the legendary Twenty-One Second Fart, which may or may not be recounted elsewhere; the sudden discovery that, hey, we’re out of propane here; or the Marine World Cook-Off where I turned to find myself facing a very large tiger on a very flimsy leash; and of course the time that we set a few empty dog food cans on our table next to the rest of the ingredients. Talk about excitement! Hoo boy, it just doesn’t get any better!