Monday, November 28, 2011

On zombies and chili.

I'd like to tell you about my experience at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, but first I need to explore America's current love affair with the brain-eating undead known as zombies.

Zombies: your loved ones back one last time to make that one horrible Thanksgiving in '83 that lives in family infamy look like game night in the church basement. 

There are two sides to the zombie narrative, if you will. The zombie side: the mindless, gore-fueled grossness of something that was once beautiful, now rotten. And the human-running-for-one's-life side: the side that must grab a sawed-off shotgun or a Waterford crystal paper weight, whatever's convenient, and send those mofos back to whatever netherworld first summoned them. The human side definitely has a pissed-off air about it, doesn't it? And that's where I begin.

We're at the end of 2011 here. The sun spots are going nuts (confirmed by a lovely tour of the McDonald observatory telescopes the other weekend- everyone should go!), people are out of work and protesting and being pepper sprayed for it (which makes them more pissed-off), and to top it off, we're going into an election year. But not just any election year, oh no! This election year has once-dead politicians and/or unnaturally immortal individuals (Newt, Perry et al.) grabbing headlines. Meanwhile the image of the Shepard Fairy "Hope" poster seems to be tattered and torn on a building's plywood facade somewhere on the wrong side of tracks of Detroit, just after the apocalypse hit town. No one's buying a cool graphic design of change this time around. Shit's about to go down, y'all. 

I'm just saying people are angry and they're not going to take it anymore. 

Which leads me to the Terlingua Chili Cookoff. 

So, in the zombie equation, when it comes to politics and protests and law and order, I think most people would imagine themselves on the side of the humans-- the ones fighting the brain-eating zombies. Makes sense, right?

Down at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff, I'd say the folks there would find themselves having more in common with the undead numbskulls emerging from the dirt. 

Things I saw at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff: a modified Astrovan, it's top removed to resemble a driving boat with the words "SHOW US YOUR TIT" spray-painted on the back (just the one?); a sleepy-eyed drunk guy named Manny driving a Hummer in a circle handing out mini-beers; someone's great-grandma topless, fat oozing down and around her flaccid boobs, dancing and posing for photographs with strangers like it was baby's first day at school.

Thing I didn't see at the Terlingua Chili Cookoff: Even one bowl of chili.

Let me try to explain, if I can get this right, how this whole cookoff fiasco started and maybe then I can paint the picture of how it became, in my own words, the world's foremost "Skankapalooza."

So the Terlingua Chili Cookoff has an illustrious history. At least if you are a Phelps kid from Dallas, HOME OF THE WORLD'S FIRST CHILI'S RESTAURANT! (which was located IN LAKE HIGHLANDS. A point of pride for Lake Highland-ites), and you frequented Chili's as often as we did (mostly because they allowed gaggles of teens and pre-teens to pile into hunter green booths under faux Tiffany lamps and get free refills on soda all night, and because IT WAS IN LAKE HIGHLANDS, parents didn't have to go to far to pick up said teens to make curfew). There in that WORLD'S FIRST CHILI'S was row upon row of what may now be referred to as, but at the time was revolutionary, "flair," most of which had to do with this weird chili cookoff out in the desert of East Jesus.

The real story is that a humorist H. Allen Smith challenged a chili aficionado, Wick Fowler, to a chili cookoff in the desert of Terlingua in 1968. The two wacky guys were having fun! And it just happened to get covered in a major magazine.

From a chili website: "The results of the first cookoff were reported by Gary Cartwright in an article in Sports Illustrated, February, 1968. According to the legend, there were three judges. One declared in favor of Smith, one declared in favor of Fowler, and the third judge declared it a tie and required everyone to return a year later to repeat the contest."

Oh, ho ho ho! Hilarity and hi-jinx! Nothing to see here, officer! It's all perfectly silly and tame fun with chili... or so you would think. 

It's just, I'm pretty sure no one was prepared for the reckoning of Krazy Flats.

First of all, of course it's "Krazy" Flats, right? Because the "C" in crazy makes it NOT CRAZY ENOUGH. I wish it were "Krazee" just to fuck with me. Like it wanted to pick a fight. Bring it, Krazee. Bring. It. 

But anyway, Krazy Flats. 

According to the Krazy Flats website, (where you will not see any topless senior citizens, which I think is a LIE and MUST BE STOPPED) the Flats are were the spectators of the CASI Cookoff go. (There are 2 cookoffs, 4 miles apart from one another that weekend. CASI is the one I attended.) The actual chili cooks retreat to a place called the Old 320 area by the stage, just beyond the EMS tent. 

The rest of the folks, the ones who are there to take their tops off (only if you are a woman) and drink themselves silly (open to both sexes) retreat to this circle of hell I now know as "Krazy Flats." 

Please keep in mind that as a spectator to the spectators of Krazy Flats, I did not spy any chili, nor did I see anybody else spying anybody else's chili, either. So really the "spectator" moniker is a bit overblown. I think I heard the term "Chili Heads" and I think that suits the crowd I witnessed much better. Like, you know, they love chili and they probably even cook up a batch during the couple days they are there, but they are really more connoisseurs of chili cookoff environment. They are there to espouse the traditions of their fellow chili brethren, with or without a bowl of red nearby. In other words, these are people who like to get drunk, drive around in Mad Max-modified vehicles and tell girls to take their tops off in the desert near Mexico. Chili Heads.

I'd like to say here that no one, not once, violated me in any way and 100% of the people in attendance seemed pretty darn happy about the nuttiness around them. I am obviously a prude, white-bread rookie when it comes to this brand of fun. I'd also like to say that I'm sure there are plenty of respectable, gastronomically-gifted folks who cook chili fully-clothed when they attend each year's cook off, and then retreat to their giant motor home of luxury when the going gets weird. And I'm also sure these same behaved party people also make chili that will knock your socks off and praise Jesus at the same time. I did not see said people. I can only report on what I saw. And what I saw sure did feel pretty rapey to me. 

(Rapey: the atmosphere portrayed in such cinema classics as "The Accused" or "Taxi Driver." At first it just seems seedy, but at any moment it could change and be a nightmare for any women involved. See also: college bars, the creepy West Stacks of SMU's Fondren Library, and wherever Ben Roethlisberger hangs out.) 

One example of this adverb would be the gentleman who assessed (correctly!) my bra size and said I could have a t-shirt if I just took off my current shirt. "Nothing's gonna happen that you don't want to happen, ok? You just go back there and we'll help you get into a t-shirt. My wife takes off her top. It's no big deal. All breasts are beautiful, we like to celebrate them here." 

Or the fact that I was wearing a shirt and refused to take it off caused cat-call after cat-call and so much commotion that at first it was comical, until it just-- it just really wasn't. 

There was also the incident, that I did not personally witness (thank god) but saw later in a photograph, of a young chubby topless woman suckling the breasts of the aforementioned senior citizen topless woman while men stood around and cheered. 

So back to zombies.

You live your life. You do good. You make people laugh and then you leave this world a little better place. Mr. H. Allen Smith and Mr. Wickford Fowler cooked some chili 44 years ago and I'm sure they got rip-roarin' drunk and everyone had a great time! So a tradition begins, innocently. Then it all gets turned around and the next thing you know, people are invoking your name as the reason they must party like the metal cover band talent at a Bat Mitzvah in the wilderness. 

Alas, we do not know how things will permutate through time. 

One year there are guys hootin' and hollerin' about how there's "no woman qualified to cook chili," and the next thing you know, the women have gone done taken off their tops to show you what they're really qualified for! Which leads to the idea that it would be super cool to alter cars for party surfing (put chairs on the roof! make it half a convertible!) and let's get out the ATVs (I cannot trace the timeline on how this evolved, please don't ask me to), which leads to an EMS station where the workers explain that "this year's pretty tame compared to other years. A couple of years ago, two brothers got really drunk and started beating each other with hammers." Then, BLAMMO! You have the chili cookoff of today that resembles very little of its roots and yet remains...alive...somehow.

But really, is this chaos any different than our current reality of arresting journalists, hiding secret bank loans and Congress declaring pizza a vegetable? 

I'm telling y'all, as Kim Catrall's character famously said in "Big Trouble in Little China" when she was being held captive in an underground lair by Chinese mafia-slash-dragon sorcerers, "All is strange."

So zombie lovers, get your fix! Now is the perfect time to indulge in that genre! Because here we are, a nation in the midst of great change with a population on the verge of something if not big, then definitely noteworthy. 

The zombies are HERE, folks!

It's just that some just might be a little less metaphorical than others.