Category Archives: interviews

Patrice Wynne Interview: San Miguel de Allende Expat Entrepreneur on Doing Business in Mexico, Beauty, Aging, and Love

Inspired by the colors, exuberance, and traditions of Mexico, Patrice Wynne created Abrazos featuring San Miguel Designs, her boutique in San Miguel de Allende and production company designing textile products, which are handmade by local seamstresses working in fair trade conditions. Her collection has grown from a line of aprons to kitchen wares, handbags, baby bibs, dresses, men’s shirts, and more, selling all over the world—from Paris to Beirut to Mexico City. She uses fabrics patterned with Mexican cultural icons, such as Frida Kahlo, Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), lucha libre (Mexican wrestlers), cacti, and chili peppers that characterize what she calls “the fiesta of life in Mexico.”


Expat Entrepreneur Patrice Wynne (2016 photo on right by Kate Frank Cohen)

Gina: Where are you from?

Patrice: I was born on October 5,1951 in Pottsville, in upstate Pennsylvania, but consider Minersville, a town nearby, where my grandparents lived, as my heart home or place of true birth. This is anthracite coal mining country. Both my grandfathers were in the coal mines, one as an executive, the other as a child miner.

Gina: Where all did you live before moving to Mexico?

Patrice: I have had the good fortune of living in tremendously wonderful cities and small towns all over California before moving to San Miguel in 2000.

Gina: What sorts of work did you do before moving to Mexico?

Patrice: I got my training in business and management as a young executive at Fotomat, the drive-through stores in shopping centers all over the US. Over my ten years with the company, I managed 500 “fotomates” [employees].


By the time I quit, I was ready for a huge change, so I took six months off to travel around Europe and ponder my future:  in my late twenties and in a soul crisis. I was interested in becoming a Unitarian minister because it had saved me from corporate America’s grip and seductions. Since I was nervous about public speaking, I decided to get my degree in women’s studies not knowing what I would do, but fascinated by all of the writings by and about women of the 70s and 80s. I just followed my passion.

In college, I was the co-founder of the Rising Spirits Cafe at the Ecumenical House of San Francisco State University and I started the Amnesty International group at SFSU, specializing in Latin American human rights. The Cafe sponsored readings by authors, conversations with professors, poetry readings by Vietnam Vets and organized large scale events for the nuclear freeze movement. It was important political work, but psychologically very challenging. When I graduated I took that summer off to heal in nature at the Ojai Foundation. It was there that I was invited to open their bookstore. I discovered that I loved being in the book world, and opened my own bookstore, Gaia, a few years later in North Berkeley, where I was living.

Patrice at Gaia Bookstore in Berkeley, California

In the beginning, I spoke to other booksellers to learn what I could from them about the business. Without exception they thought it was a tough field and strongly challenged me on my area of specialty, women’s spirituality, not feminist studies, but women’s spiritual processes, religion, psychology and health. I forged ahead, and rented a small space that was so tiny that we never bothered to alphabetize our books, we just put them wherever there was a space on the shelf. In retrospect, it seems like a wild idea, but I was committed and had a ton of contacts and put them all to good use. We flourished, growing into a large store with 25 employees and expanding into other areas of interest, all with a focus on the human spirit. We became nationally known for our nightly author readings; I hosted 3,000 events during my career. When we closed under extreme financial duress from Barnes and Noble and Amazon, I told the world, that I would never ever, under any circumstances, ever open another retail store.

Gina: What skills did you learn in your previous work that came into use when you started Abrazos?

Patrice: Audacity, confidence in myself and my vision, originality in concept and design, people management, mentoring and leadership training, importance of novelty and the new in retail business. Again, I heard the same things: “Oh, you can’t succeed, you are too specialized, it will take over your life.” Blah, blah, blah. I did it anyways, and although there have been times when we barely survived, we are growing for the last three years and I am optimistic about our future.

A few of Patrice’s many San Miguel Designs products

Gina: What new skills did you need to learn to do business in Mexico?

Patrice: Listening to and observing the subtle cultural cues in Spanish that differ from English; tolerance for differences in banking, regulations, tax collections, border crossings, importations; manufacturing complexities; and most importantly, the expectation of courtesies and respect at all times. For example, always asking customers and employees how they are doing before leaping into the question on your mind.

Gina: How good is your Spanish?

Patrice: Functionally conversational, but not fluent: good enough to speak to employees all day long; good enough to go to Mexico City every week in search of supplies; good enough to manage a tour business which I did before I opened Abrazos. I cannot carry on a lengthy intellectual discussion on complex issues, or spend an entire night over dinner and understand the conversation if it was all in Spanish.

Gina: How many people do you employ now and what are their jobs?

Patrice: I tell people that we have one hundred seamstresses, but we really only have thirteen, however when you hire a Mexican woman you are hiring her children, her neighbors, her family, and extended family, since everyone helps her and everyone wants to work, too. Abrazos has a talented, professional team that manages the retail and wholesale responsibilities. Since we have two businesses out of one location, it takes a lot of coordination and superior communication and teamwork to operate smoothly. Our business manager, Aaron Leon, has been with us since we opened; Samantha Nogueda is the Abrazos store and production manager and marketing genius; Gaby handles social media coordination; and Lorena is the general assistant who does everything and more to keep the store beautiful and merchandise ready for sales.

San Miguel Designs longtime seamstresses

Gina: What sort of advisors do you have on your team?

Patrice: I have an accountant that we are in contact with all the time, a lawyer who I talk to about once a year, and a Mexico City woman taxi driver who also runs errands for us in the City since our biggest clients are located there.

Gina: What and/or who are your design inspirations?

Patrice: Anything to do with fair trade and slow fashion, so mostly other small-scale designers and creators. I find videos and working cooperativas on Facebook that move me. I am not inspired by anyone in the fashion or manufacturing industry.

Gina: Do you have any personal and/or business role models?

Patrice: I am most inspired by Frida [Kahlo] in spirit, fierceness, individuality, Mexicanismo, and passion.

Gina: What gives you the most pleasure about running your business?

Patrice: Seeing the women come in every day for work with their children and their mothers; watching the brand grow as we are sold in stores and museum shops all over the world; watching the confidence grow in the young women who work in Abrazos. For example, one in particular was very meek when she came to work for us as a housekeeper and now does just about every job with confidence and high performance and speaks up to her controlling father and brothers because she has found her voice and her talents.

Gina: What is the most challenging thing about running your business?

Patrice: Balancing personal time with being the owner/founder. I travel frequently—to open new accounts, to service existing accounts, and to enjoy life all over Mexico with Ernesto. Fortunately, I have employees who enjoy being in charge of the business and are fully trustworthy to manage all the business affairs. From the road, I manage the financial responsibilities, fabric ordering, and off site questions that need attention. The downside is that I am online frequently, but when you’re sitting in a plaza in the Yucatan on an iPad, it’s still a paradise.

Gina: What do you wish you’d known before you launched Abrazos?

Patrice: Opportunity is not the highest value; being part of a family system is much more compelling. Years ago I mentored a very poor young woman who wanted to be her own person. She was my housekeeper, then my assistant, then my store manager. She traveled with me; I left her the business and the house in my will; she was my right hand gal in everything and we were very close. But when her brother and sister were caught stealing from me and I fired them, she had to walk away from it all. Her family would not allow her to work with me, if they had lost their job. Kindness and generosity and opportunities offered do not mean a thing because family wishes always prevail. Family is everything and more in this country.

Gina: What do you think are the most important character traits for being a successful entrepreneur?

Patrice: Focus; kindness and toughness; confidence and humility; and in today’s world, willingness to do shameless marketing, a phrase I coined. You take the point of view “people care and are interested in my life and my work.” You have to be willing to share what you are doing boldly, creatively, and authentically. Professional marketing is no substitute for personal enthusiasm. Marketing skills have to be self taught and exercised confidently, even though your shyer self has all kinds of messages telling you to hide yourself under a blanket.

Gina: How do you stay healthy and keep your amazing energy? Do you exercise or follow any particular diet?

Patrice: Recently I attended a pre-performance talk by Farruquito, the world’s greatest gypsy dancer. When someone asked him this exact same question, we both give the exact same answer: Nothing. PASSION for one’s life and work and “dance” keeps us healthy. This passion keeps us energized, keeps us dynamically engaged with life. However, I do eat modestly, and never overeat, for one thing, because stuffiness makes me groggy. I don’t use any drugs including marijuana, don’t smoke and drink only when dining out.

HOME from FARRUQUITO on Vimeo.

Gina: How would you describe your personal sense of style?

Patrice: Bohemian Mexican Indigenous Contemporary. I wear the Abrazos dresses when I travel because they go over anything and are super comfortable. Natural fabrics, often mismatched, artistic one-of-a-kind jewelry created by friends, indigenous clothing that I adapt to be more stylish. I’m into style, not fashion. Fashion is dictated by businesses and industry. Style is your own artistry. Your body is the canvas; your closet is the palette.

Patrice Style

Patrice Style

Gina: What are your thoughts on aging and beauty?

Patrice: It is a grace and an opportunity to let life show up in your face, eyes, body, and soul. And it’s fucking hard to have a body that aches with joint pain, which is my suffering. But in my relationship with Ernesto, I am lucky to have a guy that is enjoying me as an older woman and adores me just as I am and validates it all since he thinks aging is cool. And it is, basically, as you watch yourself handle things with more gentleness and love. I actually think I am more beautiful now than I was ten years ago and at various times in my life, when I was more stressed and pushing myself harder.

Gina: Please tell me about your wonderful house in San Miguel. Did you build it?

Patrice: I bought the house twelve years ago after renting it for two years. I wanted to make sure that I would enjoy living a twenty-minute walk from Centro. I do, because it is a break from the constancy of traffic, events, tourism, fireworks, and street closings that are the conditions of life in the Historic Centro. Since my store is located there, it is the best of both worlds: I get the pleasures and benefits of tourism as a business and the peace of living in a quiet Mexican neighborhood.

My colonia, Independencia, is a mixed neighborhood, mostly Mexican, with few businesses so few trucks and deliveries, mostly residential, on a hill, with breezes and natural sounds from birds and the wind, as well as the church bells, which we can hear from our bedroom in the mornings and at night. There’s also a mariachi school nearby so I get to hear them play and watch them go by. Love it.

Patrice’s Casa

When I bought the house it was a wreck. Ernesto calls it “the place that Frida came to get ideas.” It is muy Mexicana colorful. I paid a little over US$100,000 and put in another US$50,000. Over the years, I added a rooftop terrace and a landscaped garden where we spend time being restored and secluded. Avenida Independencia, the main entrance to town on this side of the city, is two doors from our house. So we can watch the world go by and the religious processions, which we love to do from our rooftop. Also horses and donkey pass by our house frequently.

Gina: When and how did you and Ernesto meet?

Patrice: I met Ernesto when a friend introduced us three years ago though I had a crush on him a decade ago when he dated a friend. I kept it to myself and never spoke to him, only to my therapist. I was a goner and could not figure out why I was so fascinated by him. After we began dating I understood: he seduced me with his kindness, his gentlemanliness, his Mexicanismo.

Ernesto and Patrice

Ernesto and Patrice

For the full story, see an essay I wrote for the Huff Post called “Reborn On Cobblestones” about how we met. It reveals a lot about me. I let it all out about my fierce independence and the stages of meeting him and letting myself surrender to that love in my sixties.

Gina: What is he interested in (besides you!)?

 Patrice: He enjoys taking care of our home, caring for our darling rescue dog Rudi (notice a theme here?), documentaries, reading thriller novels, hanging out on the rooftop, and napping. He loves the simplicity of life that he can create for himself. We are both huge admirers of each other’s ways and interests and place no demands on each other to be anything but the best we can be: he as a professional napper, reader, and walking retiree; me as a professional social entrepreneur and slow fashion advocate. Our daily activities are a huge contrast, but that unites rather than separates us as we talk about every detail of our days when we are together in the evenings. We share a passion for eating delicious, simple meals, reading, talking about Mexico, music, and traveling all over Mexico. And we both love Facebook and find amusement to read all kinds of things to each other.



Gina: Have you had a formal public wedding ceremony yet? I enjoyed your wedding dress quest on Facebook. Did you end up buying any of those dresses?

Patrice: I am still collecting wedding dress ideas that I see on Facebook and in stores. Have tried on a few and find that they always look better in theory than in practice. A friend summarized my problem: I can’t decide whether to have ten people or a thousand. I know a city full of people and don’t want to leave anyone off the guest list that I have known all these years. However, a wedding of ten is not my dream since my first marriage was a small one and I never felt that I celebrated enough. As you can see I am stumped, but it will sort itself out over time.

Mexican gowns

Some of Patrice’s potential wedding gowns

Gina: Why do you want to get married rather than just live together?

Patrice: We want to be married because we love the idea of doing it over again this time around as a married couple with all the lessons culled from living to this age of sweet wisdom. And because we are so much in love, we want to formally proclaim it to the world by a marriage. In some ways, we are both old fashioned about marriage, it is a joyfully public expression of a commitment that just being partners in life does not satisfy.

Gina: What are your tips for a happy relationship?

Patrice: Forgive Quickly, Kiss Slowly; Nothing is worth fighting over if you can resolve it with forgiveness and a kiss and most everything can; speak up if you are hurt because holding grudges will come out later the wrong way; listening is better than speaking because we all want to be heard; spending quiet times together at home builds intimacy, even if you are both in other rooms doing Facebook—as long as you share stories and read to each other periodically; give each other the freedom to be apart if that is what makes another happy; primarily, enjoy your own company and share as much as you can with your partner whenever you are together.


Follow Patrice on Facebook at Abrazos featuring San Miguel Designs by Patrice Wynne.

Art Historian Ann Bermingham on Dogs in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century British Art (or, what my English springer spaniel Goose’s ancestors were up to)

For the past several years, I’ve made an artistic practice of photographing my English springer spaniel, Goose, during our walks in the Berkshire woods in western Massachusetts. My friend, Anne Burt, suggested that these photographs are kin to eighteenth and nineteenth century British paintings of dogs in nature and I was curious to know more about this tradition.

Goose by Gina Hyams, 2014

Anne put me in touch with her art historian aunt, Ann Bermingham, who kindly agreed to participate in this blog interview about the topic.

Ann Bermingham

Ann Bermingham teaches art history at the University of California Santa Barbara. She specializes in British art and has written on landscape painting, women artists, the history of drawing, portraiture, domestic architecture and the work of Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner and others.

Gina: What inspired you to become an expert in eighteenth and nineteenth century British animal painting?  What is it about that era of art that fascinates you?

Ann: Actually I not a specialist in animal painting, I am a specialist in British art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and animal painting goes with the territory. British art is incredibly diverse in terms of the subjects it treats. This is because unlike so much Continental art of the period, British art was not produced for a King or a court but for a market. The market’s wide range of patrons with their varied tastes and interests helps to account for the unusual, even eccentric, subjects taken up by British artists. This artistic variety attracted me.

I’ve also been interested in our relationship to nature since the industrial revolution. Britain was the first industrialized nation in the world. Starting with the eighteenth-century when industry beings to transform Britain noticeably, rural subjects such as landscape, and I’d include animals, become prominent in British art. One might think of this as nostalgia for something that is being lost or changed, but I think it has more to do with a need to use the aesthetic to recreate nature in a new ways that acknowledge loss while also accommodating it.

Animal painting is a good example.  There was a tremendous interest in animals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of this was economic—the improved breeding of livestock and sporting animals like race horses—and some of it was imperial—the fascination with exotic animals from all over the globe—and some was philosophical—the ethical issues raised by animals in relation to mankind—did they feel pain, were they intelligent, did they have souls, etc. The economic, imperial and philosophical interest in animals results in new ways of depicting them. We see that in the work of the two greatest British animal (and dog) painters George Stubbs (1724-1806) and Edwin Landseer (1802-1873).

Gina: Who are your favorite dog painters? What sorts of dogs did they paint and what were they trying to express through their art?

Ann: Because of their acute sensitivity to the changing place of animals in society, Stubbs and Landseer are my favorite dog painters. Before them, dogs appeared in art largely as symbols of fidelity. They rest at the feet of married women or gaze up adoringly at their male masters. Stubbs and Landseer move beyond the symbolic and depict dogs in new ways.

Stubbs is the scientist. He began his career as an artist by dissecting horses in order to understand them anatomically so as to represent them accurately. His working assumption was that nature was always superior to art and so he directed his attention away from the older traditions of animal painting and relied on his own observation. In doing so he set animal painting on a new path. He painted famous Newmarket racehorses, exotic animals in the Royal menagerie, and of course dogs. His dogs were for the most part bred for hunting—pointers, spaniels and foxhounds.

In his depiction of these dogs Stubbs concentrates on their anatomy and their characteristic markings and postures. The point is to describe the breed and Stubbs’s genius is to make all of this naturalism visually interesting. In his painting of Five of Lord Rockingham’s Foxhounds in a Landscape (1762) he arranges the dogs so that we clearly see their markings and physical features, but he also makes these elements aesthetic.

Five Hounds in a Landscape by George Stubbs, 1762

(image via Dog Art Today)

There is a crisp rhythm to the line of the dogs with their repeating dark ears, spots, pointed noses and curved tails. The eye moves across the frieze of dogs to the “climax” of the composition, the place where the two white bodied hounds, a male and female, meet nose to nose.

Like this painting of foxhounds, many of Stubbs’s dog paintings are really portraits of specific dogs belonging to friends and patrons. An interesting example of this, and one that goes a bit against the grain of Stubbs’s usual treatment of animals, is his painting of a Spanish Dog belonging to Mr. Cosway chasing a Butterfly (1775).

Spanish Dog belonging to Mr Cosway chasing a Butterfly by George Stubbs, 1775

(image via Flax Farm)

Richard Cosway was a fellow artist and something of a fop. His little dog is a breed known as the Papillion because its fringed, perky ears looked like the wings of a butterfly. It was a favorite breed of royalty and popular in France. Stubbs shows Cosway’s dog chasing a butterfly to underscore the name of the breed and to suggest something of its playful nature. Unlike so many of the dogs painted by Stubbs, which tend to be working dogs, this dog is clearly a pet, a lap dog, and in this sense the painting points to some of the period’s more expressive representations of dogs as pets such as Gainsborough’s portrait of the Duke of Buccleuch with his dog (1770).  

Duke of Buccleuch with his dog by Gainsborough, 1770

(image via Clan MacFarlane Genealogy)

What any dog fancier must see when they look at Stubbs’s paintings is how many of the breeds he represents have either gone extinct like the English Water Spaniel, or have evolved into modern breeds.

Water Spaniel by George Stubbs, 1769

(image via Yale Center for British Art)

This later point is particularly true of the spaniels he depicts which in many cases seem to be the ancestors of your dog, Goose.  

Land Spaniel by George Stubbs

(image via Wyldwood Springer Spaniels)

If Stubbs sets animal painting on the path of naturalism, Edwin Landseer turns that path in the direction of sentiment.  Landseer is interested in character and dogs become his medium for exploring it. Dignity and Impudence (1839) is a perfect example.

Dignity and Impudence by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839

(image via Tate)

Here the dignified bloodhound is wittily contrasted with the scruffy, feisty—“impudent” —little terrier. Both dogs belonged to a friend of Landseer’s and so again we’re dealing with portraits. But this is not so much the portrait of a breed as it is a depiction of a breed’s personality or temperament.

To see the difference compare Landseer’s depiction of a Newfoundland dog (1831) with Stubbs’s depiction of the same breed (1803).

Distinguished Member of the Humane Society by Sir Edwin Landseer

(image via Wikipedia)

Portrait of a New Foundland dog by George Stubbs, 1803

(image via Landseer van Bellandseer)

In the case of Stubbs we see the display of all the signs of the breed but we have no sense of what this breed is like. Is it hyper, domineering, timid, slobbering, snappish? We don’t know, and Stubbs doesn’t really tell us. In Landseer we have the physical appearance of the dog described perfectly accurately, but we get more; there’s something in the dog’s gaze and the set of his large thoughtful head that suggests a noble nature. This is a portrait of a dog known as Bob that survived a shipwreck and went on to rescue people from drowning. The setting tells us he is a water dog and the title, A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, tells us he is a heroic rescue dog. Just as in the case of Dignity and Impudence, the title is essential in creating the effect of the dog’s character.

In a sense Landseer is the Charles Dickens of animal painting, creating vivid, memorable characters in dramatic, sentimental, and amusing narratives. Even class gets it’s due in pendants like High Life and Low Life (1829) where an elegant, long-boned deerhound in an aristocratic interior is contrasted with a squat bulldog pugnaciously guarding a butcher’s doorstep.

High Life by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1829

(image via Tate)

Low Life by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1829

(image via Tate)

In the 1950’s Walt Disney would translate this kind of Landseer narrative of class into Lady and the Tramp.

Landseer gets a bad rap these days because he is seen as projecting human characteristics onto dogs. This is certainly true, but not a reason I think to reject him. He interests me because his work points to a new relationship with animals, one that sees them as more like us than not. The science of the day supported this. If animals were like people then people were like animals. Charles Darwin believed that not only did human beings have a direct kinship with other animals, but that animals had social, mental and moral lives too. In The Descent of Man (1871), he wrote: “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.”In the nineteenth-century anthropomorphism (this tendency to see animals in human terms) is responsible for changes in the law, which protected animals from wanton cruelty. These laws begin in 1839 with the London Police Act and culminate in 1911 with the Protection of Animals Act and the founding of the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA).

Today we tend to respect dogs for their difference from us—we don’t need to humanize them (although it’s hard not to given our inheritance from the nineteenth century) in order to love and appreciate them. They are fine in all of their essential dogginess. I see this in your photos of Goose. Like Stubbs many of your portraits show him outside sniffing fallen logs, or running on country lanes and just enjoying being a dog outdoors.

What you don’t show Goose doing is hunting, and this sets your work off from that of many earlier artists. For them the portrait of the dog had to display the purpose of the breed—hunting, rescue, herding—by showing them doing their characteristic work. For instance, George Armfield (1808-1893) was a Welshman who had a great fondness for painting spaniels hunting game. He shows them splashing through water and racing through the underbrush. He occasionally depicts them resting by firesides and nestling with their littermates, but for the most part his portraits are action packed and depict the dog doing the work it was bred to do.

Spaniels Putting Up a Mallard by George Armfield

(image via Rehs Galleries)

Goose is not shown “at work” but rather at play. In this sense, he’s more a child than an adult. This points to a sensibility that also distinguishes our relationships with animals from those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dogs and cats are now part of our families, children (or maybe grandchildren) to be enjoyed and indulged. I’m struck by how many people today refer to themselves as their pet’s “Mom” or “Dad.” I think even Landseer might be surprised by that.

Gina: Can you direct me to any paintings of my English springer spaniel Goose’s ancestors?18

Ann: Goose comes from a distinguished line of sporting dogs.  Spaniels originate in Spain, hence their name. In the eighteenth century, spaniels were split into three categories: land spaniels, water spaniels and toy spaniels. The land spaniels were split into two further types, the cocker spaniel and the springer spaniel. Springers were the large dogs born in a cocker spaniel litter. The cockers would be used to sniff through the underbrush for woodcocks while the larger dogs would be used to “spring” game from the brush so that it could be shot. The English springer spaniel was recognized as a breed distinct from the English cocker spaniel in 1902.

The English cocker spaniel is different from the American cocker; it has a longer snout and a slimmer, less cobby body. English springer spaniels carry these same physical characteristics. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries different types of land and water spaniels were interbred in Britain and one of the ancestors of Goose, in addition to the cocker spaniel, is the Norfolk water spaniel, a type which is now extinct.

Brown and White Norfolk or Water Spaniel by Stubbs, 1778

(image via Yale Centerfor British Art)

Gina: Thanks so much. What’s your next project?

Ann: I’ve been interested in the cottage as a vernacular form of domestic architecture. Traditionally, cottages were the homes of peasants and agrarian workers. However, at the end of the eighteenth century they came to have great appeal to the middle classes. All you have to do is recall in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility Robert Ferrars waxing enthusiastically to Elinor Dashwood about the “comfort” and “elegance” of the cottage to get a sense of how much an object of middle-class fantasy it had become. I’ve already told some of that story, but I’d like to look at the cottage now in relation to the development of working class housing in the early industrial revolution. It’s the root form not only for suburban villas but also for worker housing, so I’m interested in exploring this other aspect of the cottage’s history. There is a lot of interesting research to do, so it’s a topic that I imagine will keep me busy for a while.

Goose by Gina Hyams, 2014


Interview with Author Andrea Lawson Gray about “Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions, and Recipes”

Andrea Lawson Gray

San Francisco-based author and chef Andrea Lawson Gray collaborated with Adriana Almazán Lahl on a wonderful new book titled Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions, and Recipes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). It delves into the foods of Mexico’s many holidays, each chapter featuring historical and cultural background information, along with recipes and photographs. This comprehensive volume explores both major and lesser-known fiestas, as well as rites of passage celebrations, such as quinceñeras, weddings, and funerals.


Andrea is the proprietor of Tres Señoritas Gourmet, a caterer specializing in authentic Mexican cuisine and Una Señorita Gourmet, a private, in-home culinary service. She writes a column on Mexican cuisine for the and a blog on food in San Francisco’s Mission district, My Mission: Tastes of San Francisco. A single mother of three children, she also volunteers at International High School of San Francisco, working on diversity and social justice issues. She is building a small hotel and cooking school in Tenango de Valle, Mexico, called Casa La Tia that she hopes to open in the summer of 2016.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Gina: What are the roots of your passion for Mexican cuisine and how did you learn to cook it?


Andrea: My passion for Mexican cuisine really comes from my passion for Mexico, its people who are just so hospitable, noble, and humble at the same time and value the land and their traditions in a way that I think we have forgotten here. The cuisine is such a natural extension of all this that I actually had a yearning to become immersed in the cuisine as I became more and more immersed in Mexican culture. It really drew me in.


Gina: How did Celebracions Mexicanas come to be and how long did it take? Had you written much before?


Andrea: I had been writing a column for the for several years on Mexican food and Mexican restaurants. I had planned to write a book when I moved to Mexico; I wasn’t sure what exactly it would be about, but as I tracked the interest in my columns I found that whenever I wrote about Mexican food for a specific Mexican holiday, I attracted the most readers. So it came to me that I had the topic for my book, but I still planned to write it when I moved to Mexico (which will be in 2016).


Then I received an email from Ken Albala, who was to become my editor— he was looking for a writer for a book on Chinese cuisine. I never let an email go unanswered, so I replied, almost as a joke “I actually don’t know enough about Chinese cuisine to take on your project (even though I did own a Chinese restaurant in NYC…but I was the frontend person, not in the kitchen), but if you ever want to do a book on Mexican cuisine, I’m your gal.” He replied that I should submit a book proposal. I had never done one before. The rest, as they say, is history! I had NO idea that my book was the first of its kind until I read the description on Amazon: “the first book to bring the richness and authenticity of the foods of Mexico’s main holidays and celebrations to the American home cook.” I couldn’t believe it!


Stuffed Squash Blossoms

Gina: How did your collaboration with Adriana work?


Andrea: As soon as I got Ken’s email, I knew I needed a collaborator to provide recipes. I am well-versed in Mexican cooking, but I wanted someone’s family recipes. All my Mexican friends, well, at least the women, have notebooks of their mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. I met Adriana and (several other amazing Latina ladies who cook) when I interviewed her for a piece I wrote for my column on La Cocina, the business incubator that gave her her start. Of all the women I had met for my article, Adriana was the first to come to mind. When I approached her, she said, “I have been waiting my whole life to write a cookbook!”


Almazán Family Cookbook

Gina: What did your research for the book entail?


Andrea: I began by locating original texts. Fortunately, there are several really wonderful sources, starting with Bernardino de Sahagun’s Florentine Codex, recorded between 1545 and 1590, when he first met the Aztecs right after the Spanish landed. There has been lots of scholarship on the subject, so many of the more important texts, like the Florentine Codex, have even been translated into English. My Spanish is good, but reading Spanish as it appeared in the colonial era is a bit of a stretch for me. There are wonderful texts from the height of the Spanish occupation, written by women with a great eye for detail, and these are widely quoted in the book. Fascinating material! And in December of last year, Adriana went to Mexico and was able to go to several libraries…that was invaluable.


Chile en Nogada

Gina: How did you source the photos?


Andrea: Everything about this project was blessed! First, Adriana not only had the culinary education and recipes to make the book really shine, she also minored in photography at the University in Mexico City, and is an excellent food photographer and stylist. I also have a food styling background from a previous career as a creative director (something I never imagined I would be tapping into again).

As for the amazing in-country photos of Mexico’s indigenous people, Jorge Ontiveros, our photographer, has a passion for this and was excited about the opportunity to share his work in this country, where it had never been seen before. Many of the photographs in the book were from a collection he already had, and he was able to take other photos we needed for the book, for specific holidays.


Gina: How did you find a publisher? Did an editor there help shape the development of the book?


Andrea: Our editor, Ken Albala, already had a series with Alta Mira Press, the Food Studies and Gastronomy arm of Rowman & Littlefield. He presented the proposal to the publisher for us. He was also invaluable in guiding me in terms of voice for the book, recommending sources, and across the board. We were just so lucky…we couldn’t have wished for an editor more versed in our topic!


Gina: What’s your favorite Mexican celebration and why? Please share a related recipe.


Andrea: My favorite time of year to be in Mexico is for Dia de Los Muertos, as the altars start to appear in the pueblos and the puestos (market stalls) sell special chocolates and alfreniques (sugar skulls). I love Adriana’s recipe for pumpkin mole, made with chiles, chocolate, and pumpkin purée, but my favorite from our chapter on Day of the Dead is for Marigold Patties in Tomato Stew, because this is not something we really cook with here, marigold petals (cempazuchil), the traditional Day of the Dead flowers. Their bright orange-yellow color represents the brightness of the sun, and their aroma is believed to attract the souls of the dead to the altars prepared in their honor.


Marigold Patties in Tomato Stew

Tortitas de Cempazuchil en Caldillo

(SERVES 6–8)


1 lb chicken breast, cooked and shredded (see recipe below)

1 egg white

10 cempazuchitl flowers, petals only (edible marigolds, should be organic)

1/2 cup Mexican sour cream

1 sprig epazote

1/2 tbsp Mexican oregano

Salt to taste

White pepper to taste

2 cups of Tomato Caldillo (See recipe below)

2–6 tbsp oil

MIX shredded chicken with egg whites and the petals of 4 flowers, finely chopped. Add cream, epazote, oregano, salt, and pepper; mix well. Form 2-inch patties. Chop the remaining flower petals and cover patties with the petals. Prepare Tomato Caldillo.

Add oil to a sauté pan and fry patties (you will need to continue adding oil, 2 tbsp at a time, as you remove cooked patties and add new ones to the sauté pan). Cook 2 minutes on each side. Drain well on a paper towel and add to Tomato Caldillo. Serve with rice, beans, and warm tortillas.


Chicken Stock, plus Shredded Chicken



1 ½ gallons water

6 chicken legs and 6 chicken thighs, with skin and bones (about 4–6 pounds)

1 head garlic, roasted

½ onion

½ tsp whole black peppercorns (or 1/3 teaspoon ground black pepper)

2 carrots, peeled

1 celery stalk

1 sprig fresh cilantro

1 bay leaf

1–2 tbsp salt

If time allows, first roast chicken in a pan in the oven at 350° for 30–45 minutes to get a stronger flavor. Bring the water to a boil and add the chicken. As it returns to a boil, skim the foam and particles that rise to the top with a slotted spoon and discard. Add the garlic, onion, peppercorns, carrots, celery, cilantro, bay leaf, and salt. Lower heat to medium and simmer for 30–45 minutes or until the chicken is tender. (If chicken has been previously roasted, remove after 30 minutes.) Remove the chicken and cool. Strain the stock and reserve. It will keep for 2–3 days in the refrigerator, up to 3 months in the freezer. For convenience, you may want to reduce stock and freeze.

When cool enough to handle, shred the chicken by hand—not with a knife. The meat should not be too finely shredded.


Tomato Stock / Caldillo de Tomate 



¼ cup minced onion

1 garlic clove, puréed

2 tbsp olive oil

1 cup tomato purée (see below)

3 cups chicken stock (see above)

1 large sprig of cilantro

1 large bay leaf

Salt to taste

Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil, add tomato purée, and cook for 12–15 minutes on medium high until it changes color and volume is reduced by half. Add chicken stock, cilantro, bay leaf, and salt. Allow to boil for at least 10 more minutes to season well. Your stock is ready to be used in any recipe. Use it within 48 hours or freeze for up to 3 months


Fresh Tomato Purée



3 small tomatoes

2 garlic cloves

½ onion

Blend all ingredients until smooth; strain and reserve. Use immediately or within a day. Or keep refrigerated for 2 days. You can also freeze for up to 1 month

Gina: I understand you’re building a home in Mexico. Please tell me about it. How far along are you? What are your hopes for the property?


Andrea: Yes, about seven or eight years ago, I went to visit friends in Tenango de Valle, in the state of Mexico, about half an hour from Toluca. I arrived at the Mexico City airport and we drove through an area known as La Marquesa on our way to Tenango and I instantly had this feeling of familiarity—that I was taking a trip that I had been preparing for all my life. When I arrived, I knew this was where I wanted to live.


Casa La Tia Kitchen

The idea of opening a casa de huesperas or guest house, and cooking school came later, as I thought about how I would earn a living in Mexico. This also seemed like a great way to share my love of Mexico and Mexican cuisine with many of my friends here in the U.S. The area where my house is doesn’t have a significant American population, at all. I like to say that if you ask where “la gabacha” (the foreigner) lives, people just point to my neighborhood. I began construction of Casa La Tia in what was just a cornfield five years ago, and now we have plumbing, electricity, and the house is almost complete. All five bedrooms and four bathrooms are done, as is the kitchen, which is colonial style and has a parilla instead of a traditional stove. The entire kitchen is covered with hand-cut hand-painted Talavera tile produced in Metepec, about a half an hour away.


Gina: Do you plan to write another book?


Andrea: Yes, I am working on the proposal as I write this. It’s a book more specific to sustainability and using all the parts of the plant, animal, or even seeds in some cases, but through the lens of Mexican cuisine. The topic was actually recommended to me by one of my readers! I think the timing is perfect, and there should be a lot of interest!

United Bank Team’s Wild and Wonderful Game Chili

In researching Chili Cook-off in a Box, I’ve been struck by how chili’s appeal transcends politics. Republican golfers love it and anarchist vegans do, too.  Here is a game-based chili recipe that United Bank employees cooked up to win the Chamber of Commerce of the Mid-Ohio Valley‘s Great Bowls of Fire Chili Cook-off in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Commercial loan officer  Lindsey Anderson kindly gave me the scoop.

United Bank employees Lindsey Anderson, Rita Dotson, and Chad Mildren

Gina: Who were the members of the team and what are their jobs at the bank?

Lindsey: [Me, plus] Rita Dotson (loan document specialist), Chad Mildren (regional president), Stewart Powderly (commercial credit analyst), and Bonnie Rice (external accountant).

Gina: How did the team go about deciding on the recipe?

Lindsey: The recipe was Rita Dotson’s with a little twist.

Gina: I understand that someone at the bank hunted for some of the ingredients. Please tell me that story. 

Lindsey: Chad Mildren took the deer last October with his bow on his farm in Ohio. It was an 8-point that field dressed at 190 pounds. He took the front roast to the butcher who mixed in some cow and pork fat into it as he ran it thru the grinder. [The deer] had soybeans, clover, turnips, acorns, and browse for his main diet. Chad always hangs his deer at 36 degree temperature for 7 to 10 days in a cooler before cutting up. This makes the meat tender and takes the game taste out of it.

Gina: How many chili cook-offs have your team members entered and won?

Lindsey: This was our first cook-off.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off competitors?

Lindsey: If you operating in a team, choose your strongest chef, and stick to one recipe.  However, do not be afraid to make some small adjustments to the recipe.

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

Lindsey: When the heat from spices doesn’t overwhelm the flavor and let it set overnight so the ingredients will blend. If someone wants it so hot it will bring tears, then have a side bowl of jalapenos, habaneros, and a bottle hot sauce or red pepper flakes.

Gina: Lastly, can you say why you love chili?

Lindsey: It warms you up and is a GREAT comfort food served with oyster crackers and sides of peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwiches.

Bonnie Rice and Stewart Powderly at the Great Bowls of Fire Chili Cook-off in Parkersberg, West Virginia (photo by Jill Parsons)

United Bank Team’s Wild and Wonderful Chili

By Rita Dotson

7 pounds elk and deer blend with 1 pound pork

5 pounds ground chuck

3 very large onions (chopped)

4 large green peppers (chopped)

5 tablespoons Tone’s Chili Powder

5 tablespoons Kroger Dark Chili Powder

1 package Mesquite chili seasoning

1 tablespoon pepper

1/4 cup sugar

3  6-pound cans tomato sauce

4  28-ounce cans petite diced tomatoes

5 – 10-ounce cans RO-TEL Original

4 – 52-ounce cans light red kidney beans


This recipe makes approximately  7 to 8 gallons. Use two (2) roasters. Put half of everything in each roaster.

Fry meat until almost done, then add onions and green peppers. Onions will become translucent, at this point add seasonings.

Salt to taste after all ingredients are added and has simmered for a short time. If you want more spices, add more to your taste. Some people like mushrooms added.

Lindsey says, “This is a recipe you can ‘have it your way,’ but this way is a WINNER.”

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.

Chili Interview: International Chili Society President/CEO Carol Hancock

Carol Hancok

Carol Hancock is president/CEO of the International Chili Society (ICS). Founded in 1967, the ICS is a non-profit organization that sanctions chili cookoffs with judging and cooking rules and regulations. It is one of the largest food contest festival organization in the world, having sanctioned 200 cookoffs world wide with over one million people tasting, cooking, judging, and having a great time while raising over 91 million dollars for charities. All winners of ICS sanctioned cookoffs qualify to compete for cash prizes and awards at the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff held each year in October.

I am delighted to announce that John Jepson, who won this year’s $25,000 grand prize for his traditional red chili, has agreed to share his winning recipe and cookoff tips in my Chili Cookoff in a Box to be published by Andrews McMeel next summer.

Gina: What are the benefits of holding an ICS-sanctioned chili cookoff?

Carol: The biggest advantage to an ICS-sanctioned event is the opportunity to compete at the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff.  ALL competitors are pre-qualified by being a first-place winner in whichever category they pursue.  ALL sanctioned events are held for charity.  Upon approval by the ICS to hold a sanctioned event (this is done by application and our personal approval), the ICS provides absolutely everything a cookoff chairman needs to hold the event (i.e. ballot sheets, ICS logo judging cups, tips for advertising, acquiring sponsors, etc., a Chief Judge, Chief Scorekeeper, Certified Chili Judges, timing, etc.) This can all be accessed through our website if you need more information.  From a members’ point of view, they enjoy being part of the huge ICS chili family and are proud of the charity dollars that they help acquire.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cookoff contestants?

Carol: Follow the rules of the ICS, use the freshest ingredients and high-quality meat and have fun!  If you win, don’t change the recipe that you used to win!  Don’t make the mistake of “sprinkling” powders or adding ingredients without taking note of the changes.  How will you win the WCCC with the same “winning recipe” unless you remember what it was?

Gina: How do you choose your chili cookoff judges?

Carol: Judges are usually invited by the cookoff chairmen – sometimes city officials, restaurant chefs, mayor, etc. It’s always good to have seasoned judges that have participated in other events – they will generally make themselves known.  The ICS is currently offering classes in our new Certified Chili Judges (CCJ) classes.  At some point in the future, CCJ’s will be given preferential position to judge ICS events over non-certified people.  ICS will always accept VIPs, local choices of judges by the organizers, sponsors who want to judge, etc.

Gina: Do you have any advice for chili cookoff judges? How best to pace themselves and what criteria should they use to evaluate the chili?

Carol: Taste is the number one consideration.  We advise a small taste to start, taste as many times as necessary to arrive at your choices and clear your palate between chilies.  Our website clearly defines the judging criteria and details are taught in the CCJ classes.

2011 World's Chili Champion John Jepson

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

Carol: The spices and high-quality meat.

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

Carol: It seems to have established that attitude all by itself.  I’ve never mentioned the ICS without the comment “I love chili!”  Chili is a controversial dish.  There are so many varieties and recipes – hence the very first cookoff in 1967.  Everyone thinks they or someone close to them makes the Best Chili In The World. We invite them to join the ICS and prove it.

Chili Interview: Cookbook Author and Chile Expert Andrea Lynn

Andrea Lynn

Andrea Lynn is a freelance food writer and recipe developer, who spent a couple years as Senior Editor at Chile Pepper magazine, where she developed and tested recipes for the spice-obsessed audience. This spicy expertise landed her on Martha Stewart Radio discussing her recipe for Sriracha Wings and as a bhut jolokia expert on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Also, she wrote weekly blog posts on fiery food for Serious Eats. In addition to still contributing to Chile Pepper, her past gigs have included recipe editing for, plus editorial and corporate recipe development. She is the author of the recently released, The I Love Trader Joe’s College Cookbook.

Gina: Do you have any advice about using chili powder vs. fresh or dried chiles for making chili? Is one better than another?

Andrea: I think it can be a personal preference. I think the average chili competitor knows this but I think it should be pointed out that chili powder purchased in the grocery store isn’t what you’re looking for. It’s a combination of chiles—most of which you may not know the name or are just throwaways. At the end of the day, it just doesn’t have a ton of flavor.

I’m in love with New Mexican Red Chile powder, so I often reach for that if I’m making chile using chili powder. If I have more time for the chili recipe, I’ll most certainly use dried chiles—usually a variety of them—and then remove them after they are hydrated, remove the seeds, add them back into the base, and puree. I think that dried chiles add more of a complexity to the dish. Also, if you toast the chiles prior to using them in the chili, it adds even more of a layer of complexity, which I feel like is what you are after in a bowl of chili. When someone tastes the chili, they know it’s outstanding but can’t pinpoint what makes it so. As for fresh chiles, I’ll use them mostly to garnish the chili – depending on the spice level I want, I might pump it up with fresh chiles to top the chili.

Gina: Can you recommend any good online sources for chile peppers?

Andrea: Penzeys for dried chile powders; Santa Fe School of Cooking for dried, seeds, and powder.

Gina: What tools does one need to create one’s own chile blends?

Andrea: The first step is to know what you like. Taste a blend of spices and figure out what suits your palate. For me, I realized I like a little spiciness to be combined with the smoldering smokiness of spices like smoked paprika or chipotle powder. Experiment until you get a blend you like. Then, toast dried chiles just briefly in a sauté pan to deepen the flavor, and use a spice grinder (also known as a coffee grinder) to make a blend.

Habanero pepper

Gina: If one wanted to make “five alarm” super spicy chili, what would be the best chile peppers to use?

Andrea: Habanero or—if I dared—bhut jolokia powder.

Gina: Please walk me through the steps that you go through as a professional recipe developer when you taste a bowl of chili. What criteria do you use to evaluate it? Do you have a special technique for tasting? Is there a part of the tongue that’s best of tasting spice?

Andrea: As a recipe developer, part of it depends on the criteria of the recipe. Sometimes, it needs to be a bowl of chili made in a hurry or it needs to be under a certain amount of ingredients. But—no matter what the criteria—I always aim to make a bowl of chili that differs from ones I have created previously. It’s the name of the job—I always want to experiment with ingredients that are new to me or different techniques, which translates into eating a bowl of chili unlike what I have tasted or made before.

To evaluate, I think it’s important to keep two things in mind: Cleanse your palate with dairy products so the heat hasn’t built up and you can have an accurate measure of the taste. Secondly, get the feedback of others.

Gina: What are the health hazards of cooking with chile peppers and tasting chili and what precautions and antidotes do you recommend? Can a person die from ingesting too much hot pepper?

Andrea: When dealing with chile peppers, always make sure to wash your hands repeatedly (and, yes, I’ve been guilty of touching my eyes with chile residue on my hand and regretting it very much). If you are dealing with using a large batch of chiles, invest in a box of latex gloves for the kitchen and use them. Also, know your tolerance—both in terms of how much heat you can take and how your stomach reacts to it.

I use dairy products to ease the pain of a chile overload on my tongue—sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt, or milk. As far as I know—no, you can’t die from ingesting too many chiles. I wrote a post on it because I was very curious, but the doctor seemed to say that the worst thing that would happen is your stomach won’t be a happy camper.

Scotch Bonnet peppers

As far as an antidote, once I was using Scotch bonnets and vinegar to make a hot sauce. I had the window opened but I guess cross-ventilation is important because the fire in the air from the chiles was so strong that tears were streaming down my face. And my roommate and her boyfriend ran out of the apartment coughing and wheezing. Yeah, I can’t say they were too thrilled with me at that moment!

Gina: What are the most interesting “secret ingredients” you’ve come across in chili recipes? 

Andrea: Hmmm, I think peanut butter is a weird one that I’ve come across. (Of course, I’m not the biggest pb fan, so that could be why it sounds so odd to me.) Other ones are cocoa powder or chocolate, coffee/espresso, grape jelly (a man I interviewed swore by the grape jelly add-in), cloves, raisins.

Gina: What’s your personal favorite kind of chili?

Andrea: I made a Double Pork Chili (which has both chorizo and pork ribs) with Cornbread Croutons that is one of the favorite chili recipes that I’ve created.

I would say though when I first started working at Chile Pepper, the green chilies were a revelation to me. I had never been exposed to green-based chilies as a kid, and I fell in love with them. Nothing beats the nostalgia of a bowl of red, but green chili comes a pretty close second.

Gina: Why do you think people love spicy food?

Andrea: I think there’s a certain addiction when it comes to spicy food; you’re always striving for spicier, smokier, and/or that nasal-clearing burn. Whether it’s the tingle of a Szechuan pepper or the sting of a habanero, it’s all very crave-worthy.

Gina: So many people are passionate about chili. Why do you think that is?

Andrea: Everyone has a way they make chili—their own special way of doing it, their own blend of meat, the with-or-without beans factor, and a secret ingredient or two. It’s a source of pride—your own original concoction of ingredients that makes your chili the best.

Gina: Why do chili cook-offs matter?

Andrea: Throughout all the interviews I’ve done with chili cook-offs winners, the  things that appeared over and over were passion and camaraderie around the cook-offs. At some level, it became about so much more then just a pot of chili or perfecting a recipe to win, but it was about the friendships that had formed over the years.

Chili Interview: Writer Sharon Hudgins on Why Chili Inspires Passion

I asked McKinney, Texas-based food scholar Sharon Hudgins why she thinks chili inspires such passion. Here is her insightful answer:

Sharon Hudgins

“Chili in its purest—that is, Texas—form is easy and inexpensive to make, but when it’s done well, it has layers of flavors that provide both psychological comfort and gustatory pleasure. The meat protein makes you feel full in the stomach and powered up for whatever comes your way.  The chiles provide the heat that give the dish its capsaicin kick, setting off your endorphins and making you feel good on a higher level than just having a full stomach.

The subject of chili is as controversial as Texas is big.  Even Texans don’t agree about the ‘correct’ composition of this dish.  Those who like to add pinto beans (and even tomatoes) to it are shunned by the purists—but a substantial segment of the population persists in thinking (rightly so) that chili with beans is a pretty good combination, too. The real rub is when Texans are served chili from other places, such as Cincinnati chili with kidney beans (!) and spaghetti (!!).

And don’t even let a true Texan get near a bowl of  California chili, with its effete additions of black olives, avocado slices, shredded cheese, and sour cream.  In my humble opinion, I think this is a really seductive combination of ingredients—but I can’t admit it because I still have to live in Texas.  However, I do think that every time you add another ingredient to the basic recipe of meat, chiles, and onions, you’re diluting those fundamental flavors and creating a dish that’s different from what many Texans consider a true ‘bowl of red.'”


Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning author of four books and more than 700 articles published in magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, and on the Web.  A former editor of CHILE PEPPER magazine, she has written several articles about chili powder and chili-the-dish. Currently she is the food editor of EUROPEAN TRAVELER and the food columnist for GERMAN LIFE magazine, USA. She also lectures on culinary, historical, and ethnographical topics on tours offered by National Geographic Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, and other tour companies. Her travel memoir, THE OTHER SIDE OF RUSSIA: A SLICE OF LIFE IN SIBERIA AND THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST, is now in its third printing, and she is writing a sequel about her further adventures in Russia. So far, she has survived 35,000 miles of travel on the Trans-Siberian railroad and several servings of raw mare’s milk in Mongolian gers.

Chili Interview: Doug Downing, Veteran Chili Cook-off Judge and Creator of Double D's Sauces

Chicago native Doug Downing is the creator of Double D’s Sauces, a line of homemade hot sauces, spices, and salsas. His current products feature the intense heat and smoky sweet flavor of bhut jolokia (or ghost pepper), the hottest pepper in the world.  He has judged more than 10 chili cook-offs, including the Illinois State Cook-off.

Gina: What are your favorite peppers with which to make chili?

Doug: Jalepeño and ghost for my “homestyle” chili, but for competition, your main heat comes from powders, such as hot chili powder, cayenne, and chipotle.  On the competition circuit it is all about repeatability and that is not something you can get from fresh produce.  A good example is a jalepeño pepper–sometimes they are very mild and others can be very, very hot.

Gina: What are the important criteria to consider when judging chili?

Doug: Color, consistency, aroma, and taste.  Chili needs to be a deep red color.  If it is true competition chili, there should be no fillers (beans, rice, etc)–only meat, preferably steak cut into quarter inch cubes. It should have a great fragrance, a hint of cumin, that makes you want to taste it.  Once you do taste the chili, after letting it linger on your tongue, does it have the right heat? Flavor? Not too much cumin, which comes across as bitter.

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

Doug: The right blend of heat and flavor.  Cumin in the right quantity is what makes a competition chili.  You can be first place one month and with the same recipe the next month you might come in dead last.  There are nuances to different regions.  Some like it hot and salty, some with more sweet, almost like BBQ sauce you just have to experiment.

Gina: What does it take to be a good chili judge?

Doug: An open mind and attention to detail.  You have to weigh the color, aroma, and consistency with what you find appealing.  Place even weight on each element so as not to exclude a great looking, smelling and textured chili just because it is a little sweeter than you like.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili judges?

Doug: An open mind and consistency. Consistency brings credibility.

Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off contestants?

Doug: Practice and hold true to your tastes.  It takes a while to figure out how to cube the meat correctly and how to make a nice, deep red gravy (what the liquid is called). You have to make something that tastes good to you, because you cannot make everyone happy. Produce a product you feel is great.

Gina: You’ve participated in a lot of chili contests. What are the logistical details that need to be thought through? What elements make for a great chili cook-off?

Doug: Have a good reliable cassette burner.  You have to bring and prepare everything on site with you (pots, spices, meat, measuring cups, spoons etc.). Be sure to do a run through so you know you can prepare it all with no outside help.  I once forgot olive oil and my wife drove frantically around some small Chicago neighborhoods to find it for me in a nick of time.  You can never be too prepared.

Gina: Why do you love chili?

Doug: It was a staple growing up and brings back great memories of fall days and family gatherings.  We weren’t eating competition chili, but when doing competition chili the other cooks become a small family. It really is fun and relaxing.

Gina: Do you have any favorite chili-related songs?

Doug: I hate to show my age, but anything heavy metal, 80s hair bands really says chili to me.




Chili Interview: John Raven, Chili Expert and Chili Cook-off Daredevil Stuntman

John Raven

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, 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.

John Raven's chili booth was a fixture at Texas chili cook-offs from 1974 through the mid-1980s.

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.

John Raven in his backpack rocket.

The Diabolical Death Machine at Great Luckenbach World Fair circa 1970-something.

John Raven as Daredevil Bad McFad

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.

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