Lockhart to host State Chili Championships, March 18-19
By LPR Staff
At first blush, it seems like a different world. Recreational vehicles, tents, camp stoves scatter for acres on end. The scents of smoke and spices fill the air, punctuated by the sounds of music, laughter and competitive banter.
It’s a chili cookoff, and to the untrained observer, it might seem a little daunting.
After all, chili is a lifestyle to these people. They spend weeks, months – and sometimes even years – perfecting their recipes, stirring and spicing, tasting and testing. Week after week, they travel across Texas, sometimes across the country, cooking, competing and calling one another out. To the untrained observer, it looks like a giant party, in an almost impenetrable circle of friends and family, brought together by a common love for cayenne and competition.
But an inch beneath the surface, it’s so much more.
“We do this because we love to cook, sure,” said Dwight Hamilton, the new “father figure” of the Central Texas Tolbert Chili Group, which will host the Texas State Chili Championships in Lockhart State Park this weekend. “Over the years, we’ve raised thousands of dollars for a bunch of different charities, and when you get right down to it, that’s why we do this.”
Hamilton slid into his leadership position in the group last year, after the sudden death of Mike “BB” Hughes in November rocked the chili community statewide. A longtime Lockhart resident and avid chili cook who three years ago took top honors at the granddaddy of all cookoffs, the Tolbert-Terlingua International Chili Championships, Hughes parlayed his love of chili – and his love of chili cooks – into a community event that his friends, including Hamilton, were determined to keep going.
“Several years ago, Al Hopkins, who had run the state championships in Corsicana, said that he couldn’t do it anymore,” Hamilton said last week. “Al was BB’s mentor, so to speak, and when he couldn’t do it BB decided that we should.”
Thus, a springtime tradition in Lockhart was born.
On Friday, chili cooks from across the state will gather at Lockhart City Park to try their hand at the state championships, earning not only bragging rights but an automatic entry into this year’s Terlingua International event. However, the event is open not only to experienced cooks and groups. Newcomers are not only welcome, they are encouraged.
“I know it looks like we’re kind of closed off and competitive, but really, we’re not,” said Tom Stephens, who started cooking chili nearly five years ago. “We want people to get started, we want people to get involved, and we’ll even help with recipes and equipment, whatever someone needs to get going.”
It’s a habit, Stephens said, that started locally with Hughes.
“He knew that if he helped people get comfortable cooking chili, that would be one more person that attended the cookoffs, paid their fees and earned more money for charity,” Stephens said of Hughes. “And for him, that was what this is all about. On the one hand, we’re a family and we’re all about helping each other. But more than that, we want to help other people, because we’re so lucky to be able to travel around the state, go to these cookoffs, and do something that we love.”
The cookoff atmosphere, though competitive, is all about that friendship and comraderie. Over the years, according to Hamilton, the Central Texas Tolbert Chili Group has raised nearly $250,000 for a wide variety of charities, including Special Olympics, local and statewide scholarships and toward ALS (Lou Gherig’s Disease) research. This weekend’s Texas State Chili Championship is the group’s chief fundraiser. Although a specific charity has not been designated for the cookoff proceeds, the funds will help allow the Central Texas Tolbert Chili Group to continue that work.
“I first got involved when I traveled out to Terlingua a few years ago with the group,” said Terry Wright. “I wasn’t even cooking at the time, and had never cooked chili. But I went out there, and got to know these people and saw what they’re all about, and I was hooked.”
Before his first competition, Wright said, Hughes shared a recipe with him, “forgetting” to share only one or two secret ingredients from his award-winning recipe.
Wright passed the sharing along, soon having his wife, Peggy involved with the cookouts, as well.
“It’s something we like to do as a family, because it really is a family atmosphere around a cookoff,” Wright said. “And that’s important to us. Yes, there are people at the cookoffs drinking beer and yes, after judging we might share a shot of tequila to celebrate – or commiserate. But we really want our neighbors and the community to know there’s so much more to it than that.”
Wright said Hughes decided that Lockhart was the perfect location for the Texas State Chili Championships because of the giving nature so prevalent in the community, and Hamilton agreed.
“When [Hopkins] said that he couldn’t run it anymore, BB thought about it, and really didn’t blink an eye before he took over,” Hamilton said. “He wanted to make sure that it went on, and kept bringing people together and bringing attention to our causes. He also looked around Lockhart, where he, his friends and neighbors live, and decided that in addition to being a central location in Texas, it was an open, giving community and someplace where we could grow this thing to be even bigger and more successful.”
Much like Hughes had, Hamilton didn’t bat an eye when he was asked to take the reins of the Texas State Chili Championships.
“BB worked so hard to make this thing go, and he wanted to make Lockhart not only the Barbecue Capital, but the Chili Capital, at least of Central Texas,” he said. “And the last thing I could do was not take over…”
He credits the membership of the Central Texas Tolbert Chili Group, including Wright, Stephens, Jill Burrows and Janet Matthews, for helping him take the reins. He also gives credit to the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce for their promotional assistance, as well as helping schedule this year’s event.
The fifth annual Tolbert Texas State Chili Championships kick off on Friday afternoon, March 18, at Lockhart State Park. For the first time this year, the event will be held in conjunction with the City of Lockhart’s KidFish fishing event in the City Pond, and will include food and drink booths, music and vendor booths.
The State Championships are open to any cook who wants to participate. Registration begins on Saturday morning at 8 a.m., followed by a cook’s meeting at 10 a.m. In addition, volunteers are still being accepted, and will be recruited until turn-in time, for judges for chili, beans and a variety of other cookoff fare.
For information or to register, contact Hamilton at (512) 507-4948, call the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce at (512) 398-2818, or visit the Central Texas Tolbert Chili Group online at www.centraltexaschili.com.