For 361 days of the year, Terlingua, Texas is a ghost town. For the other four days, people pour in from across the world for the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff. For the past 50 years, Terlingua has been the home of the world’s largest and most competitive chili cookoff.
What began in 1967 as a gimmick to promote Dallas Morning News journalist Frank X. Tolbert’s book A Bowl of Red has developed into an annual tradition, attracting chili cooks from across the world. The winner of the very first championship cookoff, Wick Fowler, was diagnosed with and passed away from ALS, and over 30 years after its start, the cookoff became a party with a purpose.
Tom Nall, now owner of Republic Tequila, worked for Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili company for 32 years. It was a brand he helped build. Around 1999, Tom was contacted by a lady writing a book about Texas men, in which he would be featured. During the interview, she asked “Tom, what is your charity of choice?”
He thought to himself, “Tom, what is your charity of choice?”
From that very question, a 17-years-and-counting commitment to fighting ALS was born. Because of his tie to Wick Fowler through 2-Alarm Chili, soon after that interview, Tom visited the ALS Texas office in San Antonio and told the staff he wanted to raise funds for ALS. When he left the office that day, the staff was doubtful they’d hear from him again.
In 2000, Tom hosted his first chuck wagon ride to benefit ALS. Accompanied by his friend Jack Potter, now member of the chili cookoff planning committee, they trekked from Austin to San Antonio, stopping at Walmart stores along the way to set up cowboy camp and sell chili off the chuck wagon. Walmart agreed to match whatever they raised, and Tom donated $20,000 to the ALS Association that year.
2-Alarm Chili had been a long-standing partner of the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, and in that same year, Tom declared that the ALS Association would be the beneficiary of the cookoff. The Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff is an annual event held in Big Bend, Texas. After Tolbert passed away, his daughter Kathleen and her husband Paul continued the tradition, keeping the cookoff alive 50 years later.
“I enjoy having a good time and helping charity while we’re at it,” Paul said. “A lot of people say they come back to see their friends year after year. The camaraderie around the cookoff is what keeps it going.”
The cookoff continues not only as a family tradition, but also because of the chili cooks, Jack said. Throughout the year, the cooks are required to participate in other cookoffs and to raise money for charity to qualify for the Terlingua cookoff.
“The ALS Association has benefited tremendously because of the chili world, especially because of the involvement of the patients and the San Antonio staff who come out to the cookoff,” Tom said. “It’s become a party with a purpose. People come out to compete in the chili championship and have a good time, but now it has a purpose. People open their wallets, especially when there is an ALS patient there. There’s not a dry eye in the place after they share their story.”
On the Friday night of the annual cookoff, Cowboy Camp, the campsite of Tom, Jack, Paul and Kathleen, among others, hosts a benefit dinner and party. Camp wagons, teepees, and open cooking with Dutch ovens give this tradition its distinction, and it’s continued to grow tremendously in the past three years. In 2016, Cowboy Camp served 380 people with just two serving lines, asking for donations in exchange for dinner.
“Hundred dollar bills get you moved to the front of the line!” said Jack, a member of Cowboy Camp. “This past year, we raised $4,000 in an hour and a half with a whole lot of good food.”
When asked why their commitment to fundraising for the ALS Association continues to be important to them, Jack, Tom and the Ryans all responded with the same answer: “Because there’s not a cure.”
“The purposed of all of this isn’t to get recognition or to talk about what the cookoff has done,” Tom said. “It’s to find a cure for ALS.”