Texas book review: The Great Chili Confrontation

Granny’s house was full of books like this. Great rows of octavo books with colorful, urgent dust jackets — usually showing signs of repeated readings — from the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these were filled with wry "comic" observations that were reduced to dry wheezes when boredom and curiosity had me sifting through them in the 1980s.

H. Allen Smith’s “The Great Chili Confrontation” would not have been out of place.

(I’m not dissing Granny’s library entirely. Among the books was “Johnny Got His Gun.” As a Metallica fan during these 1980s years that I’m referencing, this impressed me.)

Smith has been a background name for me since I learned about the Terlingua Chili Cookoff(s) in the mid-1990s, but I learned a bit more last year when I created a video about the history of the event.

I had already read Smith's self-indulgent magazine article that preceded the cookoff, but somehow, I was hoping that his book would offer a little more history and quite a bit less narcissistic blathering.


This book could have been like having a know-it-all blowhard uncle who talks nonstop about everything and is usually a little much, but, hey, you have a few drinks and he takes it down a notch and you step it up a notch and all of the sudden you’re having fun together.

Instead, it’s that know-it-all uncle with a drinking problem and a Facebook account. And he is absolutely sure that he is the funniest person who ever lived and he wants you to know it at EVERY GODDAMN MOMENT.

Smith knows how to use the language, I’ll give him that. But — in the same way that you can start a chapter in a Kinky Friedman book laughing and end that chapter a few pages later ready to punch him in the face — Smith isn’t so much caressing the words as he is molesting them.

It gets worse. It’s not just the masturbatory prose, but his favorite subject that is hard to stomach: H. Allen Smith, himself.

Ah, the Yankee humorist in the mid-20th century. Do you have a way with words? Good, then be a dick nonstop to everyone and write tirelessly about your dickishness, either explicitly or by mocking everyone around you.

Not willing to commit the effort to writing a whole book about the Terlingua cookoff (though, that’s what the title suggests we’re getting), Smith meanders through half a book’s worth of “digressions,” none so painful as the tale of his Cantonese friend Sou Chan.

Sou Chan, as you might be guessing, tells people to “go fry a kite.” He has witnessed a “terrible exprosion.” His home has a “utirrity room.” There’s no context for any of this, of course. Smith just lists these “facile phrases” to … you know … wheeze.

And nothing gets me going quite like the Yankee writer who writes wide swaths of gibberish in the aim of sharing the Texan dialect. Seriously, fuck that guy. You can pepper in a word here and there to get the point across, but I don’t need your condescending bullshit.

The parts about the cookoff? There's nothing of value between the self-aggrandizing and the Texan-trashing. You could get more history from a poster.

“The Great Chili Confrontation” made quick and breezy Christmas-distracted reading. I’m glad I didn’t spend any serious garage time on it.

Upon completion, I felt the need to cleanse myself, so I went to the display bookshelf and found “A Bowl of Red,” by Smith’s rival Frank X. Tolbert. Tolbert was a newspaper columnist and his writing is as good as his subject matter. Sometimes it's an awesome character study. Sometimes the staccato chapters read like he was aiming to beat a deadline or greet a happy hour. But the book offers history and accuracy ... and it makes me happy.

Overall rating: 3 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 6 out of 10.

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: I didn’t learn a damn thing, except to trust my gut when it comes to Yankee humorists.

Will it make the bookshelf? This'll get me a quarter at Half Price Books. I'll be glad to make the exchange.