1974 Twenty-five Years Ago

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On February 5, as the nation struggled with Watergate, food shortages, and the energy crisis, John Tower of Texas took the Senate floor to address a topic of more immediate concern: chili. The previous week, in a speech at the National Press Club, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona had said: “I have heard that the club serves only Texas chili. Tell me this is not true. A Texan does not know chili from leavings in a corral.” Harsh words, perhaps, but extremism in the defense of chili is no vice. In the Old West such intemperate remarks might have led to a shootout, but Tower confined his weaponry to ridicule ("Comparing Arizona chili to Texas chili is like comparing Phyllis Diller to Sophia Loren") and challenged his opponent to nothing more dangerous than a cook-off. Goldwater eagerly accepted. Years before, he had been Tower’s mentor, but some things are bigger than politics, even in Washington.

Other senators quickly joined the fray, continuing a long-time tradition that through the years had seen floor debates over the proper way to prepare fish chowder and crab cakes as well as whether corn pone should be dunked or crumbled into potlikker. Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico scoffed that when it came to chili, Texas and Arizona were merely fighting for second place. Sen. Robert A. Taft, Jr., from the well-known cow-punching territory of Ohio, audaciously proclaimed that “the only real chili comes from Cincinnati.” In support he offered an article by S. Frederick Starr, who would later become president of Oberlin College. Starr was particularly effusive in praise of the Five-Way, a specialty of Cincinnati’s Skyline and Empress restaurants that combined chili, spaghetti, grated cheese, onions, and beans. Southwesterners reacted to this sacrilege the way a New Yorker would to a cinnamonraisin “bagel” with peanut butter and jelly, or a Georgian to salmon teriyaki “barbecue.”

The cook-off, at the National Press Club on April 4, matched seven chilies from six states. Sen. Henry Bellmon’s Oklahoma recipe included white beans, Rep. Lindy Boggs put Louisiana sausage in her “bayou chili,” and New Mexico’s senators entered separate versions, Domenici’s using red chilies and Joseph Montoya’s using green. As for Ohio, Starr recalls that a group of Cincinnatians “drove up to Washington in a big old Cadillac with a ton of the stuff in the trunk"—presumably after obtaining a permit to transport hazardous materials.

In the end none of the pretenders made much headway against the original pair of combatants. Tower’s chili won first place in an audience poll (amid charges of Lone Star-style vote rigging by the club’s Texan president), while a panel of judges found Goldwater’s version tops in a blind test. Goldwater’s chili put the purists to shame, shunning exotic ingredients in favor of supermarket fare like ground beef, canned beans, tomato purée, and chili powder. Goldwater was a shop-keeper’s son, so it’s no surprise that his recipe read as if it could have come from a special advertising section in Woman’s Day .

As creative and ingenious as the various chilies may have been, they paled beside the elaborate insults the partisans devised to disparage one another’s products. The Phoenix Gazette said Texas chili was redolent of “gasoline or diesel fuel” and good only for paving runways at the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. The newspaper maintained that “a bowl of it dumped into the Gulf of Mexico could poison marine life as far away as the Straits of Magellan.” Less elegantly, Goldwater was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that chili “was a good stew until it hit Texas and picked up +$%’”(∗ rat ∗%’#.” Tower replied that “Arizona chili is a contradiction in terms” (like Texas modesty, he might have added). Meanwhile, Taft promised his colleagues that Cincinnati chili would “deflate both their provincial egos and their lower tracts.”

A few years earlier H. Allen Smith, the veteran journalist and self-proclaimed chili expert, had written a book called The Great Chili Confrontation that contains many such putdowns. One Texan dismissed Smith’s New York chili by saying, “Texas hospitals have to heat that stuff up before they feed it to newborn babies.” Another Lone Star epicure said, “A man could get more flavor from a set of stewed piano keys,” with yet another calling it “thinner than diluted water.” Chili haters, of course, can be every bit as passionate as chili lovers. Smith also quoted a New Jersey friend’s concise and emphatic verdict on any variety of the stuff: “I’d rather eat the bindings off a set of Winston Churchill.”