Enjoy all your local news and sports for less than 5¢ per day.

Subscribe Now

Howdy-Roo to-do: Chili cook-off is a favorite of competitors

Carrie and Larry 'Doc' Kinnison

Dressed in their chili cooking outfits, Larry and Carrie Kinnison chomp down on their corncob pipes in front of their trinket tree in the backyard of their Northwood Acres home in Marble Falls. The pipes were a gift from a fellow Howdy-Roo cook and represent the one used by the Howdy-Roo hayseed mascot seen leaning on a fence on Doc’s purple shirt. The Kinnisons are holding their third- and fourth-place trophies from the 2012 Terlingua International Chili Championship. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Every competition chili cook has a bucket list, and while getting an invite to the Terlingua International Chili Championship at Rancho CASI de los Chisos might be at the top of most, participating in Howdy-Roo in Marble Falls is a very close second, if not a first, for many. 

“We hear it over and over again when a new cook comes to town for the first time,” said Larry “Doc” Kinnison, a former Great Pepper of the Highland Lakes Chili Pod of the Chili Appreciation Society International, which hosts Howdy-Roo. “They say, ‘We’ve gone all over the country and never seen a cook-off this large run so smoothly, had this much fun, and felt so welcome.’ That’s why they come back.”

This year’s Howdy-Roo is Friday-Saturday, May 5-6, at Lakeside Pavilion, 305 Buena Vista Drive in Marble Falls. It has a variety of cook-off categories, including beans and barbecue, but the biggest draws are the Backbone Creek Chili Cook-off on Friday night and the Regional Championship on Saturday. This year for the first time, the Backbone Creek cook-off, which is the local chili pod event, will be held on Friday rather than Sunday. 

Around 150 cooks are expected to set up camp along the banks of Backbone Creek to cook for a chance to compete at the CASI championship Nov. 1-4 in Terlingua.

The Frank Tolbert-Wick Fowler Chili Cook-off is held behind the general store in Terlingua at the same time as the CASI event just 5 miles away, but that’s a different story for another day. 

“I’ve never cooked behind the store,” said Craig Schlicke, Great Pepper of the Highland Lakes Chili Pod, one of 54 CASI pods (local chapters) in Texas. The Great Pepper is a pod’s president.

As of April 4, Schlicke was already halfway to earning the 12 points necessary to qualify for Terlingua, with quite a few more cook-offs to go between now and then. 

“I’ll go either way,” he said of the final event. “I just like going.” 

Schlicke and many other cooks, including Kinnison and his wife, Carrie, spend one to two weeks in Terlingua to hang out with their chili family. Schlicke plays dominos and cards while keeping his margarita machine churning. The Kinnisons, both former Great Peppers from Marble Falls, visit with good friends. 

“We’re probably closer to our chili family than our own family,” said Carrie during an interview in the Kinnisons’ Marble Falls home, which is decorated with numerous chili trophies from past wins. Doc and Carrie, who are 83 and 76 respectively, were preparing for a cook-off the coming weekend in Lewisville when they met with this reporter. 

“It’s a very close-knit group,” Doc agreed, jumping up from his chair and raising his right arm in the air to demonstrate the group toast at the cooks’ dinner that begins each event 

“We gather in a circle and say this toast,” he continued, articulating the following words slowly. “‘Here we are together. We know not why. Here we are together. We CARE not why. And that’s why!’” 

Doc holds out his imaginary shot glass and, with a twinkle in his eye, continues with an aside.

“You know, tequila is the first ingredient in chili,” he said. “It doesn’t go in the pot, it goes in the cook.” 

What goes in the pot varies based on the cook-off’s location. Different parts of the state and country have different tastes, and chili cooks play to local judges’ preferences. For example, at Tennessee cook-offs, the Kinnisons add a dab of ketchup to their tasting cups. 

“They like it sweet in Tennessee,” Doc said.

A chili cook’s competitive future depends on which cups of chili make it to the last table, where each one falls in the tasting order, and the judges’ tastes. While some like it hot, most do not, according to Schlicke and the Kinnisons.

The heat index for Howdy-Roo is usually a three out of five, with five being the hottest. 

“You want it flavorful, but if you get it too hot, the judges burn their mouths,” Doc said. 

That can affect the outcome, which, no matter how hard you try, is usually “the luck of the draw.” 

“If you follow really salty chili, it’ll hurt your chances,” Doc continued. 

“A real hot chili hurts the judges’ mouths and that can affect the next chili they taste.” 

Competition chili is stout, Carrie said, and the meat can’t be mushy. The Kinnisons form 4 pounds of meat into eight compact, fist-sized balls and freeze them together so they can be easily broken apart. Each competition requires 2 pounds of meat, so 4 pounds get them through the weekend. 

Carrie browns the balls of meat, cutting them down with scissors as they cook. Like most other competitors, the Kinnisons rely on ground spices and tomato sauce for flavoring and gravy. Fresh ingredients can’t be trusted.

“You want your chili to be consistent,” Doc said. “Fresh vegetables are not consistent.”

Cooks let their creative juices flow when it comes to the chili spices, the heat. Schlicke buys from Lone Star Spices. 

“I don’t use nothing that you chop up,” he said. “It’s all powder. I use garlic and onion granules, ground cumin, and four different kinds of chili powder.” 

Another top cooking technique is to drop in the spice mix in what they call “dumps.” Schlicke does two carefully timed dumps. The first is immediately after the meat is cooked but before it is drained. He lets the meat and spices sit for an hour, drains the grease, and adds broth, either chicken or beef. The mixture then sits for another hour. 

“When you turn it back on, you put in the second dump and then taste it,” Schlicke said. “It’s best to leave it alone after that, but I get impatient and sometimes mess it up.” 

None of them — and this is important — add any filler, particularly beans. At least not in Texas, where chili is the official state dish. 

“When you put beans in chili, you either ruin a good pot of beans or a good pot of chili,” Doc said. He then admitted that when serving chili at family gatherings, they often add beans, but never in a competition. 

Chili is a lifestyle for the 170 members of the Highland Lakes Chili Pod, but it’s not all about the chili or the friends. 

“Howdy-Roo is foremost a fundraiser, and not for the chili pod (but) for local groups and charities,” Carrie said.

For the last several years, the local pod has raised and donated $15,000 a year — $5,000 each — to three groups: the Marble Falls Area Volunteer Fire Department, the Marble Falls High School Band Boosters, and Marble Falls Boy Scout Troop 284. 

The three groups also help put on the event. The VFD runs the concession stands and sells chili-tasting cups, water, and bags of chili at the end of the day. The band boosters handle the pick-and-draw-style silent auction (you drop purchased tickets into a container of the item you want; the ticket pulled out wins). The Boy Scouts sell raffle and 50/50 giveaway tickets.

“It’s a passion for us,” said Carrie, explaining that all chili cook-offs donate the money raised to charities. “We (CASI) do a lot of good all over the world. We cook for chili, charity, and fun.” 

Howdy-Roo fun facts

  • The first Howdy-Roo was held in 1972 on the grounds of Marble Falls Elementary School.
  • The name came from a contest. Howdy-Roo was the only entry, and it was from Bill Kennon, the very first event chair known as the Head Honcheroo.
  • The Highland Lakes Chili Pod of the Chili Appreciation Society International was formed in 1977 with Clyde Griffin as the Great Pepper.
  • What was known as the Howdy-Roo Festival split in 1990 and became two events: SpringFest, run by the local chamber of commerce, and Howdy-Roo, organized by the Highland Lakes Chili Pod. 
  • SpringFest became MayFest. It and Howdy-Roo are both held on the first weekend in May.

Calling all judges

Along with a chili competition, Howdy-Roo includes categories for beans and three types of barbecue, so visitors to this free event can eat their way through the day as judges. 

For the regional cook-off on Saturday, judging begins with beans at 10 a.m. followed by barbecue chicken at 11:30 a.m., ribs at 1:30 p.m., and brisket at 3 p.m. Chili judging starts at 2 p.m. with as many as 10 tables and five rounds or more on the way to the final table and the big decision.

A cook-off the size of Howdy-Roo needs around 100 judges, so many of the first tables are judged by other cooks. Only the final table must be judged by non-competitors. Final table judges include local officials and notables and representatives from the event’s sponsors. 

Highland Lakes Chili Pod Great Pepper Craig Schlicke explained a judge’s job this way.

“You look if the color is red, if there’s a good aroma, and if the meat is consistent throughout,” he said. “Then, you see how the meat tastes: Is it tender, tough, whatever? How does it taste at first bite and what kind of aftertaste does it have?” 

Judges are instructed to rate each chili on its own merits, not to compare it with the cups that come before and after. Each sample is given a number from 1-10 with 10 being the best. The chili with the highest number is declared a winner and automatically qualifies for the Terlingua International Chili Championship. At the regional cook-off on Saturday, the top five automatically qualify — another reason Howdy-Roo is so popular with competitors. 

To help determine the winners, find the judging table at the event and tell them you want to be a judge. If you can’t find the table, ask any cook. They’ll show you where to go.