The Republic of Texas Chilympiad didn't happen this year. For the past 33 years the zaniness surrounding the chili cook-off in San Marcos on the third weekend of September was a state icon on which legends were based and lies were bred.
According to Red Jurecka, El Jefe Grande of the El Jefe Association that has staged the event since 1970, the group is going to have to regroup after a series of financial losses. "We'll make a decision (whether to continue the chili cook-off) in December," Jurecka says.
During the past few years the chili cook-off has struggled to break even. The weekend after Sept. 11, 2001, the cook-off lost more than $38,000. Last year the volunteer organization went an additional $19,000 in the hole. It takes a minimum of $20,000 to $25,000 to put on the event, Jurecka says.
Since the mid-1990s, team registration and attendance has been on a slow decline. The number of cooks had dropped off to around 450 in the last couple of years, Jurecka says. Along with that, attendance has been on the slide. Without the beer sales to pay the bills, the association couldn't afford the expensive bands that brought the beer drinkers out to the Hays County Civic Center on Saturday night.
A final insult came when the sanctioning body of chili cook-offs, the Chili Appreciation Society International, moved the Men's State Championship title competition out of San Marcos to North Texas, causing the number of dedicated "chili heads" at Chilympiad to dwindle even more. Now there is a rumor that even the state championship, a precursor to the international chili cook-off in Terlingua, might be in trouble and looking for another home.
Chili cook-offs really became a cultural phenomenon in 1967 when Dallas columnist Frank X. Tolbert got Austin's 3-Alarm Chili salesman Wick Fowler to meet journalist H. Allen Smith in the dusty ghost town of Terlingua in the Big Bend to see who could cook the best bowl of red. Fowler and Smith tied, but vowed to try again the next year. Over the last three decades, friendly cooking competitions have spread around the world and to barbecue, beans, menudo, and almost any other food that can be cooked over a Coleman stove.
One of the first to join the cook-off craze was the Men's State Championship, which began with 30 men in 1970 on the grounds of Aquarena Springs Resort in San Marcos. Because women weren't allowed, the Women's State Championship, or the "Hell Hath No Fury" chili cook-off, was started in Luckenbach. The women's state title competition has since moved to Seguin.
Once claiming the title of "world's largest chili cook-off," Chilympiad peaked on its 25th birthday with 588 registered chili stands spread over the dirt parking lot around the tin barn of the civic center. Over the years, the organization raised thousands of dollars for charities and scholarship funds. A food booth at Chilympiad was a major fundraiser for local scouts and little leaguers. It was about the only place you could buy a juicy Gilbert's hamburger.
The three-day event began on Friday afternoon with a parade through downtown San Marcos that would rival any Mardi Gras parade. College students competed for a trophy on Friday night, and on Sunday afternoon the kids and women tried their hands at cooking.
But the real fun was Saturday afternoon after the white, Styrofoam cups were collected for the judging. Visitors were treated to free samples of chili as they wandered the grounds by inebriated and exhausted cooks trying to empty their stew pots. In the years when the showmanship competition was the fiercest, there were comedy skits, singing groups, and games galore trying to attract a crowd and the judges' favor.
Because chili runs through their veins, a bunch of the Chilympiad folks from San Marcos will be holding a much smaller chili cook-off on the third weekend of October at the Old Fish Hatchery on the San Marcos River.
In the contentious world of chili cook-offs, even the international championship in Terlingua was split into two cook-offs -- the CASI-sponsored event and the breakaway Frank X. Tolbert/Wick Fowler Memorial Championship Chili Cookoff. Both have their own set of rules and are held on the first weekend of November in the Big Bend ghost town. For information on CASI-sponsored cook-offs, go to www.chili.org; or for Tolbert chili organization information, go to www.abowlofred.com.
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