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The History of Chili Cook-Offs
Part One: In the Beginning

by John Raven, Ph.B.

For a half-century or so, chili-cooking competitions -- known as cook-offs -- have been a part of the American and world scene. The premise is simple: people get together and compete to see who can make the best pot of chili -- that day.

The first cooking contest to get wide attention and publicity was the Pillsbury Bake-Off. It was started in 1949 and was known as the "Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest". It was held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, and had a top prize of $50,000. The only required ingredient for the contest was Pillsbury's Best Flour, and it was soon being called the Pillsbury Bake-Off.

Our chili cook-offs came along shortly after the first Pillsbury Bake-Off. There are some unconfirmed stories about competition among the Chili Queen vendors in San Antonio around 1900, but there is no solid evidence.

The first modern-day chili cook-off was held in October of 1952 at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. (Until just recently it was pretty much given as gospel that the first chili cook-off was held at Terlingua, Texas in 1967. However, Bob "Ranger Bob" Ritchey dug up the facts of the 1952 competition in the newspaper archives at the library.)

The 1952 cook-off was the brainchild of Joe E. Cooper as a way to advertise his new book With or Without Beans. The contest was a success with 55 contestants trying for the first prize. Mrs. F.G. Ventura of Dallas was crowned the winner. Cooper died a couple of months later and never saw his book become a best seller. With or Without Beans is now considered the authority on chili history and lore. It is the book all the chili authors refer to.

The recipe for the first winning bowl of chili is amazingly simple. It is nearly identical to the recipe found on the Gebhardt's Eagle Brand Chili Powder label of the day (see photo).

The second place winner at the 1952 affair was Mr. Julian Capers, Jr. Mr. Capers' recipe was a bit more complicated, but still simple by today's competition chili standards. Here are the recipes:

Gebhardt Book
Corrected chili recipe from
old Gebhardt's cookbook

Mrs. F.G. Ventura's First Place Chili

  • Two pounds ground beef
  • One teaspoon shortening
  • Two teaspoons ground cumin seed
  • One small bottle chili powder *
  • Four tablespoons chopped garlic
  • One tablespoon salt
  • Three cups water
  • Two tablespoons flour
  • One-quarter teaspoon black pepper
The small Gebhardt's chili powder bottle held one ounce, which would be about 4 to 4-1/4 tablespoons.

Drop ground beef and garlic in hot grease: cook slowly 15 minutes, add chili powder, flour and cumin seed, stir and add water, salt and pepper, cook for 35 minutes.

Mr. Julian Capers' Second Place Chili

  • Two pounds lean beef (chuck, plate, or round)
  • One-half cup suet
  • Two tablespoons Gebhart's chili powder
  • One teaspoon oregano
  • One large onion, chopped
  • Four large Mexican dried chili peppers
  • Three large pods (cloves) garlic
  • One tablespoon salt
  • Two tablespoons ground comino (cumin)
Cut meat into half-inch cubes with a knife, trimming out all fat, rind and gristle. DO NOT GRIND THE MEAT.

Cut the suet into similar cubes. Put the suet into a heavy iron pot or kettle, and heat until you have 1 or 2 tablespoons of fat in the kettle. Remove the suet (solids) and discard it. Put the beef into the kettle, turn up the fire and cook until meat is browned, stirring frequently. Add the chili powder, one tablespoon of comino, the oregano and enough water to cover the meat well. Simmer very slowly over an asbestos pad for two hours, adding a little water if necessary. Keep covered and stir well every half hour.

MEANWHILE, prepare the chili pepper as follows: Open the pods, remove all seeds, fibers and stems; place in a saucepan, cover with water and cook over medium fire about 15 minutes. Remove from pan, saving the cooking water. Carefully strip off the thin, tough membrane that covers the peppers. This is easily done if you strip it off while the peppers are still warm from the cooking.

Then take the pulp and either put it through a sieve or put into a food blender with the cooking water and turn on the blender for about one minute. If sieved, mix the sieved pulp with the cooking water.

AT THE END of the first 3-hour cooking period, uncover and add the pepper pulp and cooking water, one large onion chopped fine; return to fire, cover and cook very slowly over the asbestos pad for another hour. Next, chop the garlic and grind it with a pestle into the tablespoonful of salt, until you have a paste. Add this garlic paste and the other tablespoonful of comino to the chili. Continue cooking for another 15 minutes or more. If the juice is thin, add one or two tablespoons of flour shaken up with a little cold water in a tightly covered jar or bottle, to thicken.

Serve very hot with or without beans. Never cook the beans with the chili. This quantity will serve six or more.


Note that neither recipe uses any tomatoes. Mr. Capers does use onion, but the only other fresh ingredient is the garlic.

Mrs. Ventura's cooking time of 35 minutes seems a bit short. Mr. Capers' cooking time of approximately four hours may be about right. (The cooking times given in the recipe don't quite add up). Both recipes use flour to thicken the mix.

Next month, part two: Chili Competition Erupts in Terlingua.
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