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Seeing Red Redux

Monday, October 26, 2015

We’ve written elsewhere about how varying opinions concerning the hows, what-nots, why-nots, and wherefores of chili con carne have led to some—what’s a polite way to describe it—intense ego-driven battles. In case you missed that column—or are too damned lazy to follow the link—allow me provide some background. 
I’ll see your laziness and raise you this (not coincidently saving me the trouble of writing it anew):
In 1967, a humorist named H. Allen Smith—who lived in (of all places) New York's Westchester County—published an article in Holiday magazine, in which he puffed up his chest and bragged, “Nobody knows more about chili than I do.” 
As you might imagine, many chili aficionados, some of them native Texans, took wholly justified umbrage with that Yankee disrespect.
One irate Texan, Frank X. Tolbert, had recently published the very first book about chili: A Bowl of Red. Tolbert was a popular columnist at the Dallas Morning News. A reader of his “Tolbert’s Texas” column protested that no self-respecting Texan should ever allow an insult of that magnitude to stand unchallenged. He urged Tolbert’s friend Wick Fowler -- creator of Wick's Two-Alarm Chili mix -- to defend the Lone Star State against this revival of the War of Northern Aggression. 
The resulting show-down (that – surely a mere coincidence -- served as a promotional stunt for A Bowl of Red) was the world's first Chili Cook-Off. Some 250 people showed up to watch the two-man firefight in the small, but dusty, town of Terlingua. Smith made the classic mistake of bringing a ladle to a gunfight. Fowler, with characteristically understated Texan savoir faire, competed in the shade of an immense sombrero. Everyone expected the locale to have given the home-field advantage to Fowler. 
However, when the dust (and/or flatulence) cleared, the result was a draw.
We’ve since learned that the Smith/Fowler pot was stirred by more than Smith’s first chili boast. About the same time as Smith waved his red cape in Fowler’s face, he also wrote a book, a book that, we are led to believe, was not about chili at all. It was about a cat.
Much like this article, Smith’s book was a sequel. His earlier book, Rhubarb (1946), was about a wild and cantankerous feline that managed to inherit a huge fortune from an equally cantankerous benefactor. Part of the cat’s inheritance, and the bulk of the story, was a losing New York baseball team that was affectionately known to its fans as “The Loonies.” The cat, of course, turned the team into a winner.
But we digress.
Smith’s sequel, Son of Rhubarb, came out in 1967. The fact that it was published in the same year as his Holiday article—and in the year following the publication of Fowler’s A Bowl of Red, might just seem to be a coincidence. 
Unless we read it.
The book opens with the demise of Rhubarb, followed immediately by the scramble of all sorts of unscrupulous individuals for the cat’s millions—all of whom are glad that there was no heir. Unless there was one…
The rest of the book involves the search for that heir, and—lest you think that this digression has gone on too long, and that we’ve lost the thread completely—takes us from New York to…
Wait for it…
And not just any part of Texas, but a ranch called Bowlared, owned by someone named Petticoats Kockamaney (who, like Fowler, had made his fortune selling chili powder). Kockamaney’s was not just any chili powder,; it was made of a secret blend of spices that acted like Viagra on those who ate it. This was a nod to an old O. Henry story, “The Enchanted Kiss,” which—not coincidentally—was the first literary mention of chili con carne. 
In the O. Henry story, Mexican women, called “chili queens,” purveyed their bowls of red on the darkened Military Plaza of San Antonio. Their fragrant dishes gave one certain life-affirming powers—but only if prepared with one very unusual ingredient. Kockamaney’s chili powder also had a special ingredient, but we’ll keep both secrets (so as not to spoil the surprises). Kockamaney protected his secret recipe, and secret stash, with the help of a small army of former Hell’s Angels he called his “Chili Queens,” who—despite their collective name—are no more’n thirty-three and a third per cent” queer. This was, you understand, 1967, when “queer” was still used as a pejorative; hell, it might still be, in Good Ol’ Boy Texas.
Just to make sure we readers know who was doing the boasting and cow-pie tossing, Smith frequently appeared in his own book, portrayed as an incredibly suave, handsome, and omnipotent savior, who showed up—miraculously—whenever he was most needed.
We never get to see the white hat Smith must have been wearing (or his smirk, thinking about Fowler’s reaction to the book).
Smith, H. Allen. “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do.” Holiday 42:68-9, August 1967.
Rhubarb, Country Life Press: New York, 1946.
Son of Rhubarb. New York: Trident Press, 1967

Tolbert, Frank X. A Bowl of Red. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.


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