Sunday, January 29, 2012

Chiligula reigns over Jim Lewis Expressway

44 Contestants crowd Tokio Store lot

Tokio – Heady aromas of chili wafted over the county road right of way that doubles as a parking lot for the Tokio Store as numerous contestants and more than a 100 bar patrons celebrated one of the preliminary cook-off events that leads to the grand finale kingfish of chili head afficionados at Terlingua.

According to its chili-headed co-founders, Mssrs. F.X. Tolbert of “The Dallas Morning News” and Wick Fowler of the “Austin American-Statesman,” the annual blowout on the hell country stretch of the Big Bend border in the old cinnabar mining ghost town was really named “The Carey Nation, Cleanliness is Next To Godliness, Nearer My God To Thee, All Day Singing and Dinner On The Grounds Annual Chili Cook-Off At Terlingua, Texas.”

Held on the first Saturday in November, observed with all the pomp and circumstance needed to draw chili heads from near and far – mostly far, since Terlingua is located out back of the beyond of never never, as the Aussies would say - one of the grand daddies of media non-events to end all such media non-events, photo opportunities and fluffy flack-inspired hootenannies that dot the American calendar, it is preceded by dozens of such venues such as that observed at The Tokio Store Saturday, all of which lead to the ultimate challenge, the gathering of the tribes on the slopes below the old mine and refinery where so many lost immigrant European souls became totally insane and out of their minds due to the toxic effects of the mineral they labored so diligently for greenback dollars to extract from the bedrock strata situated below the Texas sands.

As such, at each such royal nonesuch, the excitement builds, wave upon wave after wave of hoo-raw, until the chili heads are fit to burst with beer, bloated with chili, raving for more, raring to go – ah, well, you know – f-u-r-t-h-e-r.

At each such venue, naturally, the local lore both historical and political is el topico numero uno and considered fair game for those with true chili afficion, the atmosphere of Chiligula – that is, cold beer, hot air, and the talk it usually generates.

Gazing out over the crowded parking lot forged from a road right of way in hot dispute at the McLennan County Courthouse for many years, Mrs. Charles Kirkpatrick – Deborah – wife of the owner of the property, gave The Legendary are very frank and no-nonsense interview concerning the true nature of the recognition she and her husband's leaseholder, Alfons Cinek of West, have received from black t-shirted outlaw bikers throughout the Republic of Texas.

It seems those liberty-loving sons of the open road just can't resist basking in the glory of a common, ordinary pair of Navy seamen standing up to the authority of the full weight and majesty of the People of the State of Texas.

Mr. Kirkpatrick, you see, was an assault coxswain turned Seabee equipment operator. Mr. Cinek was a weapons specialist who served at a Naval Weapons Station located in the swamps near Charleston, South Carolina.

There are a number of others, including ship fitters, electricians, cannon cockers, anchor clankers, skivvie wavers, boiler tenders and other snipes, cooks, bakers, office pinkies, Quartermasters, radio operators and other seafarers clustered at Tokio.

It's a Navy hooch, so to speak.

Getting back to the chili. Panels of 20 judges judge sample batches of 20 entries each, each identified only by a number.

Competition chili is judged for its aroma, consistency, flavor, after taste and the showmanship of the contestant teams doing the cooking, either on the main row, or back of the store.

Back of the store. We won't go there. It's an ugly old story about a revolt led by the ever-resourceful Mr. Francis Xavier Tolbert and friends against the encroaching world of rules and regulations that came along with success and the formation of C.A.S.I.

Competition chili has no beans, no onions, no peppers, no tomatoes stewed or otherwise, no bulk, no nothing but chilipowder, onions sliced, diced, dried and powdered, garlic done the same way, and meat treated to the tender ministrations of the whetted blade, then cooked and reduced, further cooked and reduced until its consistency is that of a fine, Texas Red gravy.

That's competition chili, whether it's made with goat meat, rattlesnake flesh, the finest beef, venison - or whatever.

Personally, The Legendary has never sampled, nor heard of any prepared with crocodile or alligator meat – but I ain't all that proud. Besides, it's considered bad form to discuss the type of meat contained in a bowl of red – unless the cook is bragging. I would brag if I found a way to get some gator meat in my red, to tell you the truth. I would.

Heavy on the whatever. Whatever it takes is the rule when it comes to chili. It's a survival skill, this cooking of the red on Texas soil – a cultural thing, you might say, nonetheless a mark of distinction to Texas men and women of conscience, possessed of political awareness of a fine degree.

Chili heads are not all that particular about the content or character of the ingredients when it comes to a bowl of red to pour over their enchiladas, tamales, burritos, nachos or chimichangas. They are above all stylists who judge on the basis of aroma, taste, consistency and after taste.

It's pride over ingredients that carries the day – every time, saith the Chili heads, one and all. There is nothing like unity to save the day when the chips are down.

That's why the first-ever C.A.S.I.-sponsored cook-off event at Tokio came as a thunderclap on a sunny January day with wispy clouds trailing out to the northwest over the white spring-loaded PVC stobs McLennan County Judge Jim Lewis required Precinct 3 County Commissioner Joe Mashek to install in an effort to delineate the traveled portion Judge Jim Lewis Expressway – officially named Tokio Loop - from the right of way, which extends right up to the threshold of the front door of the beer joint.

The surveyors made sure.

It's an old story, but one that is worthy of review, this thing of the white plastic stobs, which, according to Mr. Mashek, cost $55 apiece to obtain from the supplier, plus the requisite labor to implant, bring into plumb, and install the spring-loaded bases in the tarmac.

It all started with a tornado, a natural force majeure that literally ripped the structure of the century-old store to shreds, prompting its rebuilding with funds raised in a community benefit held to preserve this cultural hot spot and gathering point since its early days as a general store. According to manager Al Cinek, it was at the weekend benefit party that the seeds of discontent were sown.

With the natural growth of the area's population came an inevitable growth in density of population, a gentrification of the neighborhood with the addition of elegant and sprawling houses and equine barns, and the desire by at least three neighbors to be rid of the music, openly observable beer drinking, revved-up Harleys and the boozy spectacle of bikers standing around with brown bottles of beer in their hands. Some of them reportedly urinated in plain sight.

Then there was the complaint fielded by County Judge Jim Lewis himself concerning parked pickups and motorcycles crowding the right of way and impeding the orderly flow of traffic between Tokio and the S.R. 933 from Waco to Gholson and points north.

He denied Mr. Cinek's license when he applied before the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, something state statutes allow if local authorities wish to challenge the moral, safety record or legal status of a tavern owner's stance with the local g'en d'armes, the neighbors, or the community at large.

Mr. Cinek challenged him before the Commission and when he did not get relief, he sued in District Court before Judge Vicki Menard, where the Judge ruled against Judge Lewis' denial of the permit.

After all, as Mrs. Kirkpatrick says, “There's no law against drinking beer on county property.” Besides, the bikers were drinking brewskis they brought with them.

Mr. Cinek had in the interim made his establishment into a BYOB outfit.

When the matter was remanded to the County Constitutional Court and Judge Lewis again denied his approval for the alcoholic beverage commission to approve the sales permit, Mr. Cinek appealed to District Court, where Judge Ralph T. Strother again remanded the matter to Judge Lewis, who at that point had erred not once, but twice.

Said Mrs. Kirkpatrick, describing the source of her neighbors' chagrin over the music, the brew, the motor scooters and the weekend parties attended by what one man who protested before the alcohol licensing board described as “Wannabe Hell's Angels,” “They were objecting to the fact that they were living in the country and there was nothing they could do to control us and our business...”

When it comes to the true nature of the dispute so adroitly ignored by the Chili Heads, Chiligula, the segment of the beer drinking public which sees the world from their perch astride Milwaukee vibrators, she said, “His (Lewis') role in this was to get Joe Mashek out as a County Commissioner. This was all done to get rid of Joe.”

One of the neighbors had told the TABC back in 2008 that though the store has been selling beer for 100 years, “It's only during the last 10 that this has been going on.”

Mrs. Kirkpatrick's response, all these years later, is that the ingress and egress issues raised by the Judge regarding encroachment on the right of way and the traveled portion of the road was just something made whole out of paper to impress a regulatory agency.

“It's okay until we're successful. They did all this to make Joe Mashek come out here and put a stop to this.”

Mr. Mashek was not seen during the Chili festivities. He must have had other fish to fry.

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