Chili Interview: Debbie Eiland Turner, Chili Champ, Judge, and Publisher

Debbie Turner judging chili. She’s laughing in this photo because when she smelled the chili, she got some on her nose.

Gina: Approximately how many chili cook-offs have you participated in as a contestant and/or judge? What are your proudest achievements?

Debbie: I never have tracked the number of cookoffs I have been a contestant in, ran the judging or judged. But to come up with an estimate I figured since I start cooking in the summer of 1983 and an average estimate would be 30 events a year, that makes it well over 800 events. I am an unusual chili cook since I cook in all three of the sanctioning bodies, Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), International Chili Society (ICS), and the Tolbert group, which leads to proud achievements with each group. Winning major events like the Tolbert Texas Ladies State Championship, the CASI Southwest Open Championship, and an ICS Last Chance Cookoff were very memorable, along with the two second place wins at the Original Terlingua International Chili Championship. But what makes me most proud is to be able to say I can hold my own in competition in any of the three sanctioning bodies cookoffs and I have chili friends across the country.

Gina: Who taught you to cook chili and how did you get involved with cookoffs?

Debbie: I’m a native of Dallas, Texas, where I grew up. My Mother did cook chili, but a very mild version of what I even cook at home. My Mother and Grandmother were good cooks and I enjoyed helping them and learning, so although not a gourmet cook, a good cook.

I worked with computers in my working years, from keypunch operator (dating myself here) to eventually becoming the manager of a computer department for a small oil company. I discovered chili cooking from a fellow employee. She had moved to Dallas from Houston. She was single and had competed in chili cookoffs in Houston and needed someone to go to cookoffs with. I went to one, met some great people, went to a second cookoff, saw the same people again and decided it would be a fun thing to do.

After I had been cooking three years, I met my husband (not a chili cook but former team sponsor) at a chili cookoff that neither of us really wanted to be at, but after ten years of being single, I married him after six months. I told him I would give up my job where I was happy, move from Dallas and my family, but I was not going to give up chili cooking. Twenty-five years later, we’re still together and I’m still cooking chili. He does not often cook competition chili, but participates in the showmanship competition and enjoys giving chili away to the public.

When we married, I quit work since my husband had taken an early retirement and we traveled across the country in an RV. Over the years, I’ve cooked chili in 43 states, two Canadian provinces and two Mexican states. Trying to cook in all 50 states, but most of the ones left are on the Northeastern part of the country where they don’t have many and it’s a long way from Texas.

Gina: What role does showmanship play at chili cookoffs? What did your husband do that won him distinction this year?

Wayne Turner dressed as a Whoopie Pie. Photo by Jim Stoddard.

Debbie: In the beginning of chili, before we had all the rules we do now, showmanship was part of winning. The judges walked around and tasted your chili and you tried to convince them yours was the best by telling them stories or putting on a show to tell how good they were. Now it has evolved into a separate judging. Not all cookoffs even have showmanship judging anymore since cooks have gotten more serious about winning chili and it takes time, effort and money to put on a good show.

Show was kept around to have something to interest the public who attended cookoffs, but in comparison to the 70s and 80s, it has just about died out. Just watching a bunch of people standing around outside stirring their pots of chili is pretty boring. Showmanship judging runs for one to two hours at least 30 minutes prior to or after the chili is turned in so you can be concentrating on your chili in the critical last minutes before turn in.

Wayne Turner's Brain Hat. Photo by Jim Stoddard.

This year my husband competed in One Man Showmanship. There used to be only one category at Terlingua, but to encourage more teams to show and give the smaller teams a chance to win, there are now three categories Open (as many as you want on the team), Limited (four or less), and the One Man Show. Over the years, we did show together but the more involved I got, the more likely he was to do show by himself. Not being a cook, he gets bored at cookoffs sometimes and LOVES, make that NEEDS attention, and showmanship allows him that outlet.

Since this was the 45th year, he pulled out several of the old show programs and every 30 minutes changed costumes and games. He started with our original show, where you tossed items that might be in a pot of chili into a cast iron pot on the ground. Next he changed into his Fart’ O’ Meter costume, checking for excess gas on passers by.

The third was a costume change into a giant Whoopie Cushion. You may see a theme here, eating chili and drinking beer often leads to excessive gas. The final costume (and by this time he was hot from the costume changes and work) he just took off his shirt and wore a western hat without a crown on top of a plastic skullcap that looked like a brain. That just was to shock people.

At various times during the two hours, he has a puppet goat on strings named Gertie and challenged the public to made Gertie dance. He also had a leftover Halloween prop, a five-foot Frankenstein who played music and danced. If the public participated with him in any of his actions, they got to choose a toy as a prize.

The criteria for show is theme, costume, audience participation, and audience appeal.

Gina: What’s the difference between competition chili and eatin’ chili?

Debbie: With competition chili, you are trying to “wow” a judge in one bite instead of eating a whole bowl. Because of that, the chili is often heavy with spices. That does not mean hot with spices, but more spices you would normally use. An average competition chili might use over 7 tablespoons of chili for 2 pounds of meat while an eating chili might only have 5 tablespoons. Cooks are also prone to adding more salt to their recipes, especially in hot weather since their judges often have been drinking beer or sodas, which contain a lot of salt.

Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?

Debbie: If I really knew that answer, I win a lot more cookoffs. But someone once told me, you need to look for a chili with no negatives. Not too hot, not too mild, not too thick, not too thin, have no flavor that overrides the others, but have the flavors blend together.

Gina: What’s your advice for cook-off contestants?

Debbie Turner took 10th Place at Terlingua this year.

Debbie: I have a saying that I made into a button to give to friends years ago and still believe in it. “Don’t hurry, Don’t worry, Do your best, Forget the rest.” Winning chili is probably at least 95%luck and 5% good chili. At any cookoff I have won, there are people there who have beat me at other events. Also, more cookoffs are lost in the last 15 minutes. That is when the cook does the final taste and thinks it “needs” something. Trust your recipe. The flavors in your chili will change as it cools down. And sometimes your taste buds are off because of what you have eaten or drank or have a cold or hay fever.

If the organization you are cooking with allows it, sign up to judge on the preliminary table. It’s quite an eye opener to some new cooks to taste the number of flavors and styles of there are in a competition. The more you taste chili, usually the better you will be able to distinguish a winning chili.

You have to have a good competition recipe. The one you have cooked at home and all your friends rave about probably won’t do well. Do some research. Go on-line and check out the CASI and ICS web site for their Champions recipes. That will give you a good starting point. Cook several practice pots, your friends will love to share your leftovers. Don’t’ forget to continue to taste the chili as it cooks down. Does it get hotter, the heat go away, the cumin get overpowering, the salt either dies, or intensifies?

Use fresh spices ordered from a spice company, not what you find at your local grocery story. You don’t know who long those spices were on the shelf or how they were stored. Spices deteriorate with time and heat, so store your spices in glass jars in the refrigerator or freezer. Keep them in a cool place when you go to cookoffs. I always keep mine in my RV refrigerator or an ice chest. Don’t buy more spices than you can use in 6 months or a year. Any I have too long are relegated to cooking with at home or when making chili to give away to the public. It’s not bad, just does not have the edge needed for competition.

Use good meat. Stay away from real tender cuts of meat because them have a very short window of time between being done and turning into mush. You want to be able to simmer the spices a couple of hours in the meat and it not have it fall apart. If using cubed meat, cuts like tri-tip, chuck tender or London broil work well. If you cube your meat, try to maintain a consistent size. It will make the chili look better and not have the problem of some pieces done and some tough. And just because you love venison chili or other exotic meat, most judges do not. A good thing to remember is you are cooking for the judges, not for yourself.

Stay consistent in what you do, follow a recipe to the letter, not just a dash of this and a dash of that. And remember that at each cookoff they are probably different judges who like different things. That was brought home to me sharply when at one of my major wins I got first out of 134 cook and the next day using the same recipe, same type meat, cooked in the same manner, I did not even get on the final table out of only 41 cooks.

Gina: What criteria should a chili judge consider and do you have any tips for judges?

The organizations have similar criteria, but make sure and read the judging sheet and really consider the criteria. There is more to a winning chili than taste. Check out how it looks and smells. It is getting harder to judge now than when I first started since it is now so easy to go on-line and download winning recipes. I say much of the chili is “clone chili” these days. Too many people using a similar recipe with similar spices.

For first time judges, remember, you are tasting the chili, not having it for lunch. You will often be tasting over 15 chilies at one sitting. Not only tasting them, but also cleansing your palate with a cracker, cheese, carrot, or something similar and drinking something. You can fill up faster than you realize. I like to always end with the same palate cleanser before I start judging a new chili. In other words, usually the last thing in my mouth will be something bland like a cracker so I start with the same taste in my mouth for each chili. For some people it will be a sip of their drink.

Please bear in mind, these cooks have spent a lot of time, money and effort to cook their pot of chili and would like you to be as serious about judging it as they were about cooking it.

Gina: Chili seems to inspire extraordinary passion. Why do you think that is?

Debbie: I wonder if some of the passion comes from its history. Chili got its start when our nation was expanding. There are plenty of stories about chili on the cattle trails, and later was a common dish found in cafes across the country. Famous people talked about chili. One of my favorites was the humorist Will Rogers who rated a town on their chili and even movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor made the news by having chili shipped to her from her favorite place in Hollywood while she was on location.

We are a competitive society, everyone one wants to be the best or have the best. Chili is easy to make. A favorite food at deer and fishing camps has always been chili and men prided themselves on their own special pot of chili. When you have pride in what you do, that instills a passion to be better than your friends. Not surprisingly, there are more men chili cooks than women and that was especially true in years past.

Gina: How many times have you been to Terlingua and what makes that cook-off so special? I gather it’s a pretty rowdy, festive scene. Can you describe it?

Debbie: I’ve attended the Original Terlingua cookoff every year since 1983, that means I’ve made the trip 29 times. A few things make it special. The fact that only qualified cooks are able to cook mean you are cooking with the best of the best. It has a long history and winning there is the pinnacle of success for chili cooks. You get to see friends from across the country and sometimes the only time you see them is in Terlingua.

Add to all that is the mystique of that part of Texas. It is really hard to explain, it’s almost like being in a different country or time, although over the years progress has crept in. It’s only been a few years since we were able to get cell service down there and we were so excited when a Bank was built in the area with an ATM. It’s still a 2 and half hour drive to the nearest hospital or grocery store in Alpine. So, for this modern world, it’s as close as you can get to the old west.

There are two Terlingua Championships about five miles apart on the same day. I attend the one called the Original Terlingua cookoff and it is a much smaller and milder event than the one down the road at the CASI site. That one is known for their rowdy spectators. They even have set up a special area called Krazy Flats for them and have built a bar in that area of the campsite. The chili cooks camp in a separate section of the site and are not very rowdy at all. In fact, a large number of cooks, on both sides are at in their 50’s and up, so they are not near as rowdy as they were 20 or 30 years ago.

There are not that many motels in the area so most of the attendees camp out at the site. It looks like a large RV park. A lot of alcohol is consumed during the event, so it’s a good thing most people do not get out on the roads. It’s like a small town has risen up, in the desert in the middle of nowhere. People actually begin arriving a week before the championship is held and over the years other events like beans, salsa and barbecue competitions have been added to the event. Those are held on Thursday and Friday and open to everyone, not just qualified cooks.

Different Pods (chili clubs) and other groups of people have parties during the week prior to the cookoff. These have started by Wednesday at the CASI site. The Tolbert site also has parties at different campsites.

Both sites have bands playing at night later in the week. CASI usually only has one band while the Tolbert site has at least two bands a night for three nights. Most of it is country music with lots of dancing around the stage area.

The weather makes it a unique and challenging experience. It’s not unusual to start the day in several layers of clothing, only to start shedding all those layers by the afternoon. A temperature swing of from the 40’s to upper 80’s in one day is not unusual. And then there is the dust. It is the desert, so dust is expected, but sudden wind gusts are more normal than not. By the end of the week, everything you own is covered by a thin layer of caliche dust, kinda of a fine, powdery, gritty dust.

Gina: Do you have any favorite songs about chili or that you think of as being part of a classic chili cookoff soundtrack?

Debbie: Since I started in the 80s, my favorite will always be Gary P. Nunn and the Bunkhouse Band. For many years he was the headliner at the Tolbert site. He still has a following of chili cook fans who follow him at gigs across the state and even country. He even has a song written about chili cooking, called appropriately enough, “The Chili Song” from his For Old Times Sake album. Since Texas and chili are synonymous, other favorites are “What I like About Texas” and “London Homesick Blues” from his Home with the Armadillo album.

In the early days of chili, part of the enjoyment of cookoffs was sitting around the campfire and listening to singers playing their guitars and singing the favorite tunes or ones they wrote. Kent Finlay, of the Cheatham Street Warehouse fame (a place new singers got their start), has a great song about chili, don’t know if it was ever recorded, the only time I ever heard it was around chili cookoff campfire.

Gina: What’s the history and editorial focus of Goat Gap Gazette? How did you become involved with the publication?

Debbie: John Raven started the publication in January 1974. At that time, there was only one chili organization, although by the next year, a group of cooks headed up by Carrol Shelby split off from the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) and became the International Chili Society (ICS). The Goat Gap was not directly associated with either organization although, being published in Texas was more likely to report on activities of the CASI group.

In April 1975, Hal John Wimberly, a newspaper writer in Houston, Texas took over / purchased the paper and changed it from a newsletter style format to a tabloid sized newspaper. He continued the paper until his death in September of 1982. His wife, Judy Wimberly took over the paper at that time and ran it until her passing in August 1994. At that time, Jo Ann Horton the editor, a freelance writer had worked with the paper since Hal John took it over inherited the paper from Judy. A little over a year she sold it me.

I took it over in January 1996. At that time, it was only published eleven months of the year since there was very few cookoffs in January, so the year began with the February paper. After I took it over, I went to twelve issues a year because times had changed and there was enough activity going on all year long to warrant a paper. Unfortunately, like many large newspapers, the internet and changing chili politics forced me to change from the tabloid newspaper format to a booklet style format in 2009. There was a Goat Gap Gazette website for a few years, but at this time it has been shut down, but hopefully will be back up in the near future.

A combination of decisions lead to me taking over the paper. In 1989 I took over publishing a name, address and information book of chili cooks, called the Cooks Register that Jo Ann Horton had published. Before that, I began contributing short article about my chili travels and other snippets of gossip to the “Hot Flash” column in the paper. So when Jo Ann decided not to continue with the paper, she turned to me. Probably the main reason she did was I had the willingness, time and income to purchase and produce the paper. It is not a money-making job, more like a labor of love of chili history and friends. I have no formal journalism training, but have been an avid reader all my life and enjoy people and history and am very detail oriented, which you need when tracking cookoff listings and winners.

The paper is dedicated to the chili cooks and their friends. With the change of format, it now just reports on Tolbert cookoffs and winners, but subscribers can contact me for information on the other events. It has humorous articles and retains the “Hot Flash” column for more gossip type items. I still report on significant information about the whole chili world in its pages, not just Tolbert related items.

The Tolbert Behind the Store Experience 2011 from Jim Stoddard on Vimeo.

"Chili Cook-off In a Box" by Gina Hyams will be published by Andrews McMeel next summer.

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