Chapters Celebrate Texas’ Official Dish Featuring Hearty Fare—and Plenty of Heart

Chili, the dish also known as chili con carne, carne con chile Colorado, or simply a bowl of red, is unequivocally Texan. It’s unsurprising, then, that Texans, including and perhaps especially Texas Exes, take every opportunity to celebrate (and sell) chili.

Take, for example, an advertisement for Wick Fowler’s famous “2-Alarm” chili that ran in multiple issues of this magazine in 1965. “THE RAVE OF REAL CHILI LOVERS!” it shouts, before praising the packaged mix’s “rare chili flavor and warmth.” Fowler went on to play a role at the first Terlingua chili cook-off, now the Super Bowl of such contests.

Or take a 1913 issue, in which famed writer Roy Bedichek, BS 1903, MA 1927, recalls stories of two UT chums, and in one scene, stops to rest in Goldthwaite, a tiny town about 100 miles northwest of Austin.

“Having refreshed my mules at the wagon yard,” he writes, “and myself at chili-joint, we proceeded … ”  It seems Longhorns have been real chili lovers for some time.

That taste bud-numbing tradition carries on today. At lively chili competitions in just about every corner of the nation, chapters are raising money for good causes and celebrating burnt- orange brotherhood, all seasoned with the pungent aroma of chiles. Some chapters host their own cook-offs, raising money from ticket sales, auctions, and side dishes. Others compete in cook-offs, helping raise money by attracting fellow Longhorns to the event.

The Texas Exes Washington, D.C. chapter cooks up competitive chili with names like “Alright Alright Alright” and “Just Keep Livin.’” (Yes, apparently chilis can have titles.)

“We consider lifetime Longhorn Matthew McConaughey our patron saint,” says chapter president Shivpal Vansadia, BA ’05, Life Member. They came in third out of 15 at a February competition at the aptly named Hill Country, a Texas-inspired restaurant in the capital city.

When it comes to Exes-sponsored events, however, variations abound, like the minute differences between amounts of cumin in some contestants’ recipes. Some chapters prefer a clear set of rules, matching those of Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), a global cook-off sanctioning organization. Think of it as the International Olympic Committee of chili. Others play fast and loose, focusing on the spirit of the cook-off.

In New York City, they go outdoors to enjoy the spring weather with some big-city flair.

“Outdoor events are still somewhat few and farther between here,” says chapter president Catherine Bazerghi, BS ’04. “We wanted to bring some of that Texas element.” The word has gotten out, as plenty of non-Texans show up each year for a taste of our pride and joy. Around 1,000 hungry chili fans are expected in 2018.

The chapter’s May 19 event will feature other Texas trappings beside an al fresco setting: live music, plenty of Shiner beer, and 20 amateurs and professionals competing in a variety of categories. VIP ticket-holders will even enjoy their chili (brought to them, of course) in a shady reserved seating area, and vote for their own very-important-people’s choice award.

Even at home in Texas, Longhorns make a point to make chili. In the Hill Country, the 25 cooks at the Fredericksburg chapter’s November cook-off stick close to tradition. They follow CASI’s (36-page) rulebook.

When it comes to what makes a chili a chili, camaraderie can be quickly smashed to dust, like so much dried ancho chile, by a simple question: Should it have beans?

Fredericksburg, sticking to the traditional rules, bans the bean. The New York chapter remains agnostic on the issue, at least in the rules.

“I personally don’t think that chili should have beans,” Bazerghi says. “But I’m not allowed to make that a rule.”

At their September 2018 event, the San Francisco group enforced a loose set of regulations. But beans were absolutely not allowed—even when just about anything else was.

“Being as we are in California, there is always one vegan chili that shows up each year,” notes chapter president Chris Hunt. “This year it was a squash chili.” In six years hosting the event, however, a vegan option has never cracked the top three.

Even a tearful acceptance speech couldn’t shield a winning mother-daughter team at the San Francisco cook-off from contention. “There was some controversy over whether they should have been allowed to use Fritos as a side ingredient to their chili,” Hunt says.

For all their peril and subjectivity, the chili cook-offs Texas Exes throw share a few crucial features: They’re about gathering and having a good time, and they benefit a good cause.

And while the after-effects of eating bowl after heaping bowl may be unpleasant, the money raised at cook-offs is always a benefit. Often, it’s in the form of scholarships, as is the case in Fredericksburg and New York, which is hoping to endow a Forty Acres Scholarship.

Even the Longhorn competitors at the cook-off in D.C. stew for a cause. “Part of the proceeds always benefit a local or national charity,” Vansadia says. “This year’s proceeds went toward World Central Kitchen,” a nonprofit started by D.C.-based chef Jose Andrés that has provided 3.4 million meals in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria struck last September.

San Francisco often collects for scholarships, but chose differently for their most recent cook-off. “With the devastation caused by Harvey this past year, we decided to donate all our proceeds to the Food Banks of Houston, Corpus Christi, and the Golden Crescent.” In the end, they raised over $11,000 for what they dubbed the Bay to Bay Relief Fund.

Regardless of the chili you chose to warm your belly with, that’s something sure to warm your heart.


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