The Chili Bee and Round Top, Texas – A Little Tale of Community, Chili and Small-Town Magic

Facebook reminded me today of an event from four years ago that still brings me joy.  It’s a tale of a chili cook-off fundraiser in a tiny Texas town, two friends, five gallons of spilled chili in an SUV, dozens of very kind people and a chance meeting with the state’s governor.  Just another January Saturday in Texas…

In January of 2013, my friend Theresa and I decided to enter the Round Top Chili Cookoff.  It’s a great event that benefits the public library in this most picturesque of small Texas Hill Country towns.  They have braggin’ rights, too:  Round Top is the smallest town in Texas with a full service public library, and they aim to keep it that way (small and book-lovin’).

Round Top Daytime.jpg
The January sky over Round Top, a most picturesque little town

We started planning our cook-off participation by email, first by picking a name.  It had to be something special, something that reflected our long friendship rooted in family and food and stories and support…so we chose “The Chili Bee,” a riff on the old quilting bees where ladies got together to talk and solve the mysteries of life while making beautiful quilts.  We played around and created a logo and I had a sign made.Chili Bee Final.jpg

Over the next week, we negotiated over the recipe (no beans, she won), did the shopping, and then met up at my house on Friday after work to roll up our sleeves and produce the world’s best chili.  We stayed up until the wee hours – chopping, sautéing, simmering, tasting and telling stories, and set out for Round Top on Saturday morning with our 5 gallons of chili in her car and the propane cooker, table, chairs and tent in mine.

igloo

Our preparations that lovely January Saturday morning included reheating the massive pot of chili and transferring it into a 5-gallon Igloo, where it would stay plenty hot during the 90-minute trip and be ready for the high noon judging.  While only a quart was necessary for the judges, contestants had to bring at least 4 gallons to enter.

Well, there was a “problem-ation” on our journey.  I was leading our 2-car caravan on US Highway 290 and lost Theresa at the cloverleaf intersection with Texas Highway 36.  You have to take a very sudden, sharp and tight turn to stay on 290 on the outskirts of Brenham –  drivers in this part of Texas will know what I’m talking about – and that little cloverleaf was our Chili Waterloo.  I looked in the rearview mirror, and Theresa just wasn’t there any more.  I pulled over, and called her, and called again – no answer.  Finally, I could see her in the distance, and then she drove slowly by me, motioned for me to follow, and pulled into a convenience store about a mile up the road.

The Igloo wasn’t secured in the car and toppled over when Theresa careened around the cloverleaf turn…and apparently, we didn’t have the lid on tight.  It was bad.  Oh boy, was it bad.  There was a chili explosion.  It was all over her, all over the car, all over everything.  Chili drops were on the rearview mirror, the headliner, in Theresa’s purse.  It was a chili-apocalypse.

And imagine…5 gallons of steaming hot chili, 2 inches deep in the backseat floorboard of Theresa’s Nissan Pathfinder, and then think what would happen if you opened the door…chili pouring out all over the convenience store parking lot!  It was actually an amazing sight – a volcanic flow of chili! – and I really, really wanted to take a picture, but I couldn’t because of the look on Theresa’s face.  She was completely deflated, more sad about not being able to participate in the cook-off than upset about her car or her clothes.  We knew the rules:  you had to have four gallons to enter, and we figured there was only about 1 gallon left in our  toppled Igloo.  Her disappointment broke my heart, because she’d been struggling with the after-effects of chemotherapy and was finally feeling frisky again, so she really needed and deserved this open-air Texas good time we were planning.

It wasn’t about winning the cook-off.  It was about living.

We called the event organizer, a marvelous woman named Betsy who is the piledriving personality behind tiny Round Top keeping its public library and the rockin’ good time that is the annual chili cook-off.  Betsy wouldn’t hear of us turning back, even though we didn’t have enough chili to enter.  Betsy went into Save the Day Mode, in the way that some ladies are so incredibly good at:

  • She said that each of the other participants would be happy to give us some of their chili, that it would be a true Chili Bee, with our entry a melting pot of all the chilis.
  • She said she’d have a sheriff there to meet us and ensure we got a parking spot at the front, since we were now running late.
  • She told us to take a back road, ’cause we’d get there quicker.
  • She further said that there was no need for us to stop at the local Wal-Mart for clothes for Theresa, because someone would help out with that, too, even if she had to go home and get something out of her own closet.

In other words, Betsy would not accept us turning tail and running back to Houston, licking our chili wounds.

OK! After three rolls of paper towels and five minutes wrangling the convenience store’s water hose, we were on the road again, still in two cars.  Hers, all bedraggled and chili-smelling, mine still toting the rest of the gear.  The back road that Betsy told us to take was Texas Farm Road 389, and it was gorgeous.  I started to feel pretty good about Betsy’s Save the Day plan, Theresa’s well-deserved good time being salvaged, and the story that was evolving from our day.  So I spent the rest of the drive trying to write a limerick about it in my head.

t-chili-bee
Theresa in her borrowed apron

When we arrived in the tiny center of Round Top, it was clear that Betsy had sprung into action and publicized our plight:  the sheriff was indeed waiting to direct us to our primo parking spot, the mayor was also there to greet us, there was a borrowed apron for Theresa to wear, and the judges were waiting to get our remnant quart of chili before starting the judging.  The local radio station was broadcasting from the event and Betsy was so tickled by my limerick that she had me go on stage read it on the air.

Our chili took a tumble
But we’ve no cause to grumble
The town rallied ’round
– it’s a heck of a town –
Round Top, we’re ready to rumble!

We went around with a big plastic pitcher like Oliver Twist asking for more gruel (but with a much better reception) and collected a bit of chili from most of the other contestants, fired up our propane heater and served that Chili Bee / chili quilt concoction to lots of happy attendees.  They loved it and we ran out.  Everyone there knew our story because the radio station MC had made a big deal of it before we arrived.  It was a wonderful, life-affirming experience and I will never forget the sense of support and community that Betsy and Round Top gave us.

1-chili-bee
What a wonderful day we had in Round Top

royers1But that wasn’t all!  We had been joined by Theresa’s son Nick, who was going to college in not-too-far-away San Marcos, and after we ran out of chili, we closed up shop and walked across the street to Royer’s Round Top Café, a local restaurant that really is The Bomb.  Especially their pies…heavenly.  We laughed, we talked, we practiced and honed the story we’d be telling everyone about our day…and we realized what an incredible blessing it was to have had this remarkable experience.

And then we met the governor.  It was that kind of day.

governor-and-us
Texas Governor Rick Perry was also enjoying the fine food at Royer’s that beautiful January Saturday in 2013; he was extremely gracious and didn’t even ask if we had voted for him (which I will not comment on since this is not and will never be a political blog)

In the evening, we met up with Betsy and other Round Top locals at the Stone Cellar Winery. (The Stone Cellar bartender had been the donor of the apron that covered the huge chili stain in Theresa’s lap.) We relived the day, giggled over our new name, The Chili Spillers, reveled in the fact that the cook-off had raised a ton of money for the library (even though we didn’t win!) and figured that life would be simpler if there were more chili cook-offs and backroads and less freeways.


January 21, 2013 (email)

Hello Betsy,

Thank you so much for your encouragement and support in the face of our “chili-mergency”. We had such a marvelous day in spite of our chili spill and will definitely be back next year with a crowd. You are running a delightful and fun event and it is great to know that we are doing our small part to support reading and the library. We promised to send our pictures, and the best few are attached, including the one with our famous / infamous governor. I have also included the limerick I wrote in my head as we were driving along that beautiful back road you told us to take. It has several variations (because there are so many rhymes for “umble”).

Version 1

Our chili took a tumble
But we’ve no cause to grumble
The town rallied ’round
– it’s a heck of a town –
Round Top, we’re ready to rumble!

Version 2

Our chili took a tumble
But it didn’t cause a fumble
The town rallied ’round
– it’s a hell of a town –
Round Top, we’re ready for your rumble!

Version 3

Our chili took a tumble
But we’ve no cause to grumble
Round Top rallied ’round
– it’s a hell of a town –
Their kindness leaves us humbled

And finally, for your personal archives, here’s the 1-minute version of the day that we posted on Facebook. I think every friend we have from the Houston area will be there next year.

“The Chili Cookoff story must be told in person to get the full impact, but here’s a brief synopsis: 4 of our 5 gallons of chili spilled in the car, the Round Top folks rallied and told us to come anyway and they would share their chili so we could still enter with our one gallon that was left (the rules state that you have to bring at least 4 gallons), our story of chili disaster and perseverance was told on the radio and the mayor greeted us when we got there (late), a constable on duty at the cookoff came by and told us he had seen the results of our chili spill as we were parked on the side of the highway (he said, “I thought that was a bad place to park, but when you opened the door and the chili came out, I knew where you were headed”), everyone at the cookoff knew who we were and treated us like we were special, we met and took a picture with the governor, and made tons of new friends. Round Top is a marvelous, welcoming town, and a great place to have a good time. Are we going back next year? Heck yeah!”

Looking forward to next year – but how could it possibly top this year?

Kim and Theresa, The Chili Bee


Betsy sent an enthusiastic response (“you’re famous!”), shared our photos with the local newspaper, and they published our Posing with the Governor photo. She checked in with us at the beginning of 2014 to urge us to enter the cook-off again, but by then, Theresa was too ill.

In 2015, Betsy contacted all of the previous cook-off contestants with this beautiful note, and that’s when I found out that something else very special had happened in Round Top that day, after we’d run out of chili and started hanging out with the governor.


Feb. 7, 2015 (email)

Everyone–I wanted to share this poem that Barbara Smith sent me. We all remember how the 2013 Chili Cook Off came to a standstill when a funeral procession passed. The family was very touched, as is evidenced by a poem one of the family members wrote and shared. Yes, we are a caring community and that’s why I love living here. Please pass this on to any and all you think would have been there.

Betsy

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-7-19-29-pm


Feb. 7, 2015 (email)

Dear Betsy –

Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful poem. My friend Theresa and I participated in the cook off in 2013 as The Chili Bee, although perhaps we are best remembered as the “chili spillers”. You and the rest of Round Top’s finest were very good to us after our chili catastrophe which left a flood of 4 gallons of it in Theresa’s car. She was between chemotherapy treatments that beautiful January day, and with our remaining chili and a positive attitude, we soaked up the sunlight, the local color and a beer or two. We even met the governor in the late afternoon at Royer’s. What a great day.

That 2013 Roundtop Chili Cookoff was the last good time for Theresa and me. She battled her cancer over the next year, even while still doing some caterings with her husband and business partner. She wanted to sign us up for the 2014 Cookoff, but just felt a little too feeble. She left us for good on a beautiful day in May last year, and the memory of our adventure in Roundtop is one that I will always treasure. The poem that you sent makes it even more special. God bless small town folks, and God bless you.

Kim


The Round Top Chili Cook-off is this Saturday, January 21.  If you happen to be in Texas, you might just want to stop by for a little small-town magic.

round-top-at-nightround-top-daytime-sky

  • For another story about my inimitable friend Theresa, click here.
  • For my chili recipe (with beans!), click here.

Copyright 2017 Glover Gardens Cookbook

(except the David Markwardt poem and Royer’s photo)

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