But there is now a chili verde competition as well -- with those New Mexicans and their Hatches trying to horn in on the Texas original -- and a barbecue cook-off that includes salsa, chicken, black-eyed peas, and “any kind” of beans, in addition to pork ribs and beef brisket. “We’ve been doing barbecue since at least 1983,” says Kathleen Tolbert Ryan, whose father was aforementioned chili legend Frank X. Tolbert. “It makes for more fun, and people just plain love to cook.” For the first time this year, there’s also a Texas authors’ tent.
Tolbert Ryan says that the number of participants varies from year to year, but “there were over 100 chili cooks alone last year,” some of which fly into (relatively) nearby Marfa from as far away as Florida. “We’ve upped our Porta-John count [for the 50th],” she does admit, adding that tent and RV space is about all that’s now left in terms of accommodations, as local hotels and motels, many of them full of repeat offenders, have been booked since June.
With more room to spread out under starry skies above, the CASI confab attracts a larger, and looser, crowd. Complete with its own police and fire department and pop-up hospital facility, it has been referred to as “spring break in the desert” and, if only aspirationally, as a kind of Texas Burning Man -- without the burnt hombre. Burning Man’s sharing ethos is alive and well, however, a fact that’s made reference to in more than one biker blog (yes, bikers tend to congregate at this one, and yes, they have blogs too). And if the Terlingua contingent tends toward T-shirts sporting cook-off logos, the CASI crowd turns to costumes as cartoony as chili pods and as racy as modern-day dance hall queens. These folks know how to party. And to that end, both groups feature headliner Texas bands such as the Texas Tornados and Gary P. Nunn -- all in the price of admission, which, at both events, is $40 for the duration.
It seems only right that, with attendance routinely topping 10,000, there’s no room left in local inns. As Tolbert Ryan points out, chili is, after all, the state dish of Texas. If pressed, she might have allowed how, between the two competitions, visitors can experience in one place the best chili the world has to offer--not to mention some pretty damn good ‘cue, a passel of searing salsa, and rip-roarin’ ribs and chicken for days, all while doing a little boot scootin’ and star gazing.
And a little nostalgic, if only slightly macabre, reminiscing. Clay Henry, the bibulous billy goat who was once also the honorary “Mayor” of Terlingua, is now preserved in finest Texas taxidermy fashion at the Terlingua Trading Company. Yes, he’s shown chugging a longneck. So we take it back: There are still at least three reasons to visit Terlingua.