John Raven, Ph. B (Dr. of Barbecue Philosophy) is a member of the Chili Appreciation Society International Hall of Fame. Born and raised in Taylor, Texas, he founded and published a chili cook-off newsletter called Goat-Gap Gazette in 1974 and wrote for it for 24 years. For the past 12 years, he has served as the Southwestern and Texas style food expert for www.texascooking.com, where his articles are archived under “Traditional Texas Food.” He recently won 1st Runner Up in the Texas Monthly Where I’m From Short Film Contest (scroll down to see his entry titled Lyndon’s Hills).
Gina: Approximately how many chili cook-offs have you participated in as a contestant and judge? What were your proudest achievements?
John: I have participated in hundreds of chili cook-offs. Starting as lowly, first time chili cook to being a finals judge at the World Championship at Terlingua.
I am proudest of having three trophies from Chilympiad, the Texas State Men’s Chili Cook-Off. I won the first one in 1974, which was for being in the top ten at the cook-off. There were probably 40-50 cooks in the competition. In 1980, I took 6th place out of a field of over 300 cooks and in 1985, I was in the top 20 cooks out of over 300 again. Chilympiad was the greatest cook-off of all time.
Gina: I gather you’re known for your great pyrotechnic daredevil acts at chili cook-offs. What kinds of things did you do and why?
John: I worked with explosives in my chili showmanship. The main shows were: The backpack rocket and The Diabolical Death machine. The backpack rocket was a homemade device that mostly just blew up without the expected space flight. The best backpack exhibition was done at the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio in 1975, a photo of that has become standard for articles about Folklife Festival.
The best Diabolical Death Machine performance was at Traders Village in Grand Prairie, Texas. It started the only goat stampede ever witnessed.
Gina: I read that you think chili cook-offs have gone down hill in recent years. What’s changed about them? What were the glory years and best contests?
John: Chili cook-offs with one or two exceptions have gone in the dumpster in the past 10-15 years. First reason for their demise was the fact that there were too many of them. They were no longer a novelty, you could find three or four within a day’s drive time every weekend. The cook-offs became too regimented. Too many rules and regulations that had nothing to do with making chili. People just love rules and regulations.
When the cook-offs lost their novelty they lost the media attention. In the early 70s any cook-off would get at least one representative of the local press on the grounds. A cook-off that was publicized would get a couple of local TV crews out to tape the action.
The first generation of chili heads loved to entertain crowds of people. They were very good at it. The present day chili heads don’t want any outsiders on the grounds, they want their own little, or big, private party. Their whole reason for being is to get to cook at the “Big Un” in Terlingua. I understand Terlingua still draws a few spectators, I imagine, hoping that the early R rating will still be working.
The “Glory Years” were from 1967, when the first Terlingua contest was held, until about early 80s.
Best cook-off of all time was Chilympiad in San Marcos, any year. Flatonia, Texas has been producing Czhilispiel for over 30 years and it still has some of the original feel to it.
Gina: Who taught you to make chili and how did your technique evolve?
John: I was taught to make chili by the people who were in the chili cook-offs when I started. They were all very helpful and never gave me a bogus tip. Through the years I developed a recipe that was good and improved slightly on the standard technique.
Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?
John: Individual tastes. Not everyone likes the same thing. The chili or whatever wins a cooking contest is the entry that offends the least number of judges.
Gina: What’s your advice for cook-off contestants?
John: A competitive chili cook will be consistent. His/her product will not be good one time, awful the next. Find the people who win consistently and probe them for tips. Taste their chili and go in that direction. You will never get anyone’s “secret.” The chili that wins will be the one that has the best blend of spices and a consistent texture.
Gina: What criteria should a chili judge consider and do you have any tips for judges?
John: A food judge will use his/her taste to grade the sample . You will be told to rate sample on: Color, Aroma, and Taste.
Chili cannot be made from hamburger. The meat in real chili will be coarse or “chili” grind. The best chili is made with small chunks of meat roughly one-half inch square. It does not have to be square, any shape will do.
The first chili of the day that you taste will taste great. From there the ratings will bounce all over the place. That is why the judges all get a different sample to be their first taste. I bet you didn’t know that.
Gina: Chili seems to inspire extraordinary passion. Why do you think that is?
John: Chili is like an urban legend. There are thousands of stories about it, some truth, some fiction.
Chili takes us back in our genetic memory to the time we were squatting around the campfire. It is an ancient recipe.
The chili we know today grew up out of hard times. In the times when the basic food was skinny, tough wild cattle and whatever vegetables we could find. Somewhere along the way, meat and the chile met. It was the beginning of a long lasting romance. When cumin came to the new world with the Canary Island settlers in San Antonio, Texas it became the spice that has held chili together all these many years.
In the Great Depression the chili parlors, which served chili for a dime a bowl, kept many a poor soul from giving up.
The chili legend was kept alive by a bunch of guys who held a mutual respect for chili. When chili fell out of favor in the good times following WWII the guys came up with the World Championship Chili Cook-Off at Terlingua and generated enough interest in the peasant dish to have it nominated as “The National Food of the United States.” Papa John’s pizza will never get that far.