Chili Cook-Offs Return To Terlingua After Being Cancelled Last Year

The annual chili cook-offs usually bring thousands of visitors to the Big Bend, but were cancelled last year because of the pandemic. Now, the two events have gotten the all clear from local officials to host guests in early November.

A scene from one of Terlingua’s popular chili cook-offs in 2013. (Jessica Lutz)

By Travis Bubenik

Two long-running chili cook-offs are returning to the Terlingua area this year after being cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Brewster County Commissioners on Wednesday voted to approve mass gathering permits for both of the popular – and often dueling – events, known colloquially as the Behind the Store and CASI cook-offs.

Before the vote, County Judge Eleazar Cano summed up the feedback he and Terlingua-area commissioner Sara Allen Colando received at a recent public meeting over whether the county should issue the permits.

“Overwhelmingly, people were really supportive of the event moving forward,” Cano said. “No opposition, really.”

The vote was a notable turnaround from the county’s posture toward the events last year, when officials declined to issue the permits over concerns about the pandemic, as the Big Bend Sentinel reported at the time. 

Brewster County has not seen a notable surge in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, though the Delta variant continues to be a concern across the state. For months, Texas healthcare workers have been fighting a spike in hospitalizations for the disease. 

The two Terlingua cook-offs typically draw some of the largest crowds in the Big Bend region, — often attracting a few thousand visitors.

“We’re expecting to see larger than average numbers this year,” said Keith Karaff, an organizer with the Chili Appreciation International Society, which runs the CASI cook-off. “With everybody not getting to go last year, you know, they missed it.”

Organizers of both events had already begun promoting the cook-offs before Wednesday’s vote, but they acknowledged that they realistically wouldn’t have been able to move forward without the permits.

“We were being optimistic,” said Kathleen Tolbert Ryan, who leads the group that puts on the Behind the Store event. “We wouldn’t have it without the permits.”

Ryan, whose father Frank Tolbert helped found her group’s cook-off in the 1960’s, said she’s “very excited” about the event’s return. She and others involved in putting it on have been going to the cook-off since the late 1970’s.

“It’s like a family reunion,” she said.

Organizers say they won’t be mandating any particular safety measures at the mostly outdoor events, though there will be some logistical changes to the competition aspects.

“Things will be a little different in the judging areas for sure,” Ryan said, though she said the details of that are still being worked out.

Karaff, with the CASI cook-off, said his group is planning similar changes.

“So there’s like, no sharing of condiments and these kinds of things,” he said. “If you feel comfortable, please wear the mask.”

The CASI cook-off takes place November 1 – 6. The Behind the Store cook-off is set for November 3 – 6.

About Travis Bubenik

All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter
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