Kiwanis Chili Cook Off to Heat up Alameda Point

Courtesy National Cowboy Museum    On long cattle drives from Montana to Chicago, for example, trail bosses needed strong cooks manning the chuck wagons to keep the whole operation moving. In this type of high-stress environment, the American culinary mainstay, chili, was born.

It’s chili season in Alameda, inspired by the 2019 20th annual Kiwanis Chili Cookoff, taking place this Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Al Dewitt O’Club on Alameda Point. It’s the event where Alameda’s finest chefs compete for the title of best chili in various categories.

Learning from Chili History
Chili season is a great time for culinary chronologists, as chili history is brimming with spicy characters. These include author Frank X. Tolbert, (A Bowl Of Red) as well as restaurateurs like “Ptomaine Tommy” Deforest who invented the “chili size” and Dave Chasen, whose chili was frozen and shipped to adoring actors worldwide. 

New additions to this elite group are James “Fatback” Callahan and his sidekick, Mathew “Gut-wrench” Taylor, two cattle drive “belly-cheaters” or cooks. Their chili exploits are vividly chronicled in a new book, Cattle-Drive Cooking by Houston native Bree Callahan-Rodgers, Fatback Callahan’s great-great granddaughter. 

Callahan-Rodgers’ hilarious scenarios describe how Fatback and Gut-wrench, two impoverished former Confederate army cooks, gladly signed on with trail boss Harry Carter in 1866, as he drove his 3,000-head cattle herds across Texas on the 700-mile Sedalia-Missouri trail. 

Trail bosses needed cooks with good reputations on their drives. This made it easier to recruit “drovers” (cowboys). In their short 20-year careers, Fatback and Gut-wrench built fine reputations. As Callahan-Rodgers writes, Gut-wrench’s strong, freshly ground coffee was legendary. One cup was powerful enough to keep a drover alert all day, and some drovers claimed that the sun rose in the morning to escape from the fumes. The dregs were sprinkled around bedrolls at night to repel scorpions and rattlers. 

The greatest Gut-wrench coffee tale is the “Fish Supper” story. One morning, after breakfast, Fatback told Gut- wrench to “take them coffee pots down to yonder crick and wash em’ out. They’s a’ gittin’ plumb stanky.” Gut-wrench did as he was told, but soon was yelling, “Fatback! Come a’ runnin’! And bring a bucket!” Fatback grabbed a bucket, ran to the creek and was astonished to see dozens of plump brown trout flopping on the bank. The fish had jumped from the water to escape the toxic plumes from the coffee pots. Fatback and Gut-wrench gathered them up, carried them to camp, and for supper that night, the crew was treated to pan-fried trout, fried taters, fresh sourdough biscuits and coffee made in clean pots. Fatback and Gut-wrench never revealed how they caught the fish, but that didn’t stop their grateful trail-boss, Carter, from standing and saying, “Fellers, I don’t know how ya’ll done it, but I reckon them was the finest vittles I’ve ever ett!”

The fish supper story spread throughout the drover community, and trail-boss Carter soon had cowboys begging to ride for him. 

However, the story that cemented Fatback and Gut-wrench’s culinary legend status was the tale of “Resurrection Chili.” Chili was a staple on the cattle drives, as the braising used to cook it and the spices used to season it disguised the less than pristine quality of the beef. Fatback had sources for stuff like dried oregano, chili powder and cumin. He always added the wild Texas chile pequins and tomatillos he found on the trail, so his chili was a savory, spicy treat. 
He had a batch simmering in a big cast-iron pot over a cook fire, and ordered Gut-wrench to “toss in a few a’ them pequins.” “Few” is a relative term. Fatback’s few was three, while Gut-wrench’s was 20, so his chili was extremely hot. 

Suddenly, a drover came in with bad news. A cowboy had been thrown from his horse, broken his neck and died. Since trail drive cooks were also expected to be doctors, surgeons, preachers and undertakers, Fatback told the drover to “haul him in! We’ll clean him up, say a prayer and plant him before he gits ripe.” 

The body was soon lying near the camp, and Fatback poured a bucket of water over it. Just then, he remembered the chili. He yelled, “Gut-wrench, stir that slop!” Gut-wrench lifted the lid, stirred, had a taste and yelled, “Ooh wee, Fatback, that’s right nippy!” Fatback answered, “then cripple it with a little coffee!” When Gut-wrench poured the coffee, a thick cloud of vapor formed and drifted over near the body. Fatback watched as the body twitched, sat up and said “Mr. Fatback! What ya’ll a’ cookin?” It smells plumb delicious!”

The story ends with the resurrected cowboy eating a bowl of chili and riding back to his job with the herd, good as new. Fatback’s chili became legendary as a cure-all, and the recipe was kept secret, until now. 

Resurrection Chili
½ cup beef suet or bacon fat
2 large yellow onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 lbs. fatty beef chuck, cubed
6 tomatillos, diced, or 
   1 cup chile verde salsa
3 dried chile pequins, 
   chopped, or 
   2 tbps Cholula hot sauce
3 tbps chili powder
   (Gephardt’s preferred)
1 tbps cumin powder
1 tbps dried oregano
Salt and black pepper
½ cup strong-brewed coffee
Water, as needed

In a cast-iron pot over medium heat, melt beef suet or bacon fat. Add onions, cook until clear. Add garlic, cook four minutes. Add beef, cook until brown. Add tomatillos. Add chiles. Stir in chili powder, cumin powder and oregano. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Turn heat to low, cover and simmer for three hours. Stir in coffee, cover and cook one hour longer. Add water if too thick.