They came from all over the southwest to the small town of Loco Weed, Texas. The contests for the best chili and bar-b-que ribs are taken seriously.
The $500 prize rarely covered the travel expenses for the strangers with pick-up trucks or RV’s which towed special barrels for smoking ribs. They brought a wide variety of different woods, charcoal, and spices to make the perfect cuisine.
The locals practised for weeks trying out different recipes, special enough to win-over the judges. Some used sauces hot enough to make hell seem frigid. Others preferred various seasonings or herbal powders to rub into the ribs. The meats varied—might be pork or beef, young goat, venison, buffalo, some questionable mystery flesh. There were short ribs, some lean but others fatty enough to ensure at least one coronary event before the gluttonous contest ended.
Melba Jean and her best friend and neighbor, Henrietta, became aggressive each year over the contest. Henrietta had won the past two years, something Melba couldn’t tolerate.
As Melba patted her Texas big-hair, she said, accusingly, “I heard from Sally Mae that her mother-in-law’s beautician’s cousin saw you buy store bought sauce last year. Shoulda told the judges to disqualify you.”
“Now Mel, you know dang well no jarred sauce ever entered my cupboards all the years I been here. Those pea-green eyes makin’ you jealous again?”
“Jealous? Harrumph!” snorted Mel, who was five years older than her friend, but would hotly deny this if mentioned. “I done won more contests than anybody in town and beat out them foreigners who come here hopin’ to take the prize. Think they’d learn by now there’s no better bar-b-que and chili on God’s earth than right here in Loco Weed, Texas.”
“No more time for chattin’,” Henrietta said, swigging the last drop of her sweet tea. “My secret sauce is simmerin’ nigh on to six hours. Bout ready by now, I’m thinkin’.”
She held out her hand to wish her friend good luck for tomorrow—first of the three day contest.
Mel pulled her hand away.
“I’ll be shakin’ your hand when my entry wins,” she said, nose in the air.
Now it wasn’t just these two that got aggitated over the contest. Tempers flared and shouting could be heard as the locals toted their grills, mesquite wood for the ribs and cauldrons for simmering the famous Loco Weed chili. No beans in real Texas chili, of course. By the time they’d opened a few ice cold cans of beer, things calmed down a bit and would stay that way until some got drunker n’skunks and mean as sidewiders. That’d arrive in good time as always.
The blazing late-September sun beat down on the contestants. Loco Weed, in southwestern Texas, sprawls across a flat stretch of plains, not close enough to the Gulf of Mexico to catch a cooling breeze.
Day one went fairly well. Men and women braized ribs and stirred pots of chili so hot it made the children run from the smell, coughing and eyes watering. Even the dogs stayed a safe distance from the cooking, torn between the aroma of fresh meat and the stinging bite of hot chilies. People not cooking spent time watching the young ones play organized games, or browzing among the craft booths, jawin’ with friends and speculatin’ on who’d win the cookery showdown this time.
Approximately 300 people had entered this year. By the day’s end, 100 were eliminated by the judging panel of five obese men. Mel and Henrietta were not among the losers.
Day two brought a fierce storm that blew up off the gulf. Entrants ran to cover their grills and pots. They worried the barometric pressure might affect their recipes and the pelting cool rain sour their sauces. It might have, since another 100 were eliminated before the day’s end.
Those who lost were, for the most part, reasonably good-natured, grumbling among themselves as they headed to the coolers for more soothing cold beer. Big Jack did punch out the arrogant Jimmy Joe, but that was expected. It happened every year.
As far as anyone could recall, neither ever won, but the yearly cook off was a good excuse for a brawl, what with the sherif too soused to arrest them.
Henrietta and Melba Jean remained in the game, glaring at each other from their chosen cooking positions.
This was nothing new to their families, but their husbands and kids knew life would be torture for the family of the loser. They hoped both would lose, just to make life easier. A spurned Texas woman was not a pleasure to be around. It’d be weeks before Mel and Henrietta got over it and went back to being best friends.
Day three of the contest was a near perfect day. Yesterday’s storm cooled the plains to merely bearable and the blue skies held enough left over clouds to shade the sun’s assault.
About 65 or so contestants cooked on, hoping to walk away with the coveted prize money. Truth be told, the title and trophy meant much more. It was tense in Loco Weed that day. Tempers flamed, tears flowed from sressed-out, and over-heated cooks. The tasters who would choose the winners seemed considerably heavier in the past two days and rather sluggish. It was questionable if their palates, scorched by hot chili and spiced ribs, could actually tell the difference in taste anymore. No one dared suggest such a thing to a Texas chili and rib tester.
Renewed tension quivered in the western air as the final testing began. Molly, who’d never come so close before, took third place. She sobbed with happiness in her husband, Fat John’s arms, covered as she was with sweat and splattered chili.
The first place winner was called before the judges at last. To the locals’ horror, it was won by an outsider—not even a Texan. The man, minus boots and tall cowboy hat, stood barely five feet six inches tall. He accepted his prize, packed up quickly, anxious to get away from the glowering eyes of the town residents.
“Well, I never!” sputtered old Miz Eller, a spectator since the first contest began so long ago, no one remembered the exact year. “I’m bettin’ his ‘Roadkill Challenge’ was more likely prairie dog and polecats.”
At long last, the judges announced the winner of the best bar-b-qued ribs entry. Rising to his feet, the spokesman for the five samplers cleared his throat and began to speak.
“For the first time in the history of this contest we have a tie. Will Miz Melba Jean Kirby and Miz Henrietta Jones please step up to the podium?”
The two women walked forward, standing as far apart as protocol allowed.
“We’ve given this peculiar situation some serious thought,” the judge said. “Now y’all can split the prize money fair and square or we can have a final cook-off to break the tie. That seem fair ‘nuff to you fine gals?” He smiled, but the crowd knew he quaked in his boots.
“No!” Melba Jean shouted. “My sauce is so good, the angels themselves sneak down for a sample. I think your tastebuds got numbed from so many tastings.”
“Shush your mouth Mel,” Henrietta snapped. “Why can’t you ever just be a good loser?”
“Well now, I surely would be if I were one.” She turned, marched back to her table, picked up a squirt bottle of her special hot sauce and strode right up to the judge. He stepped back a foot or two, nearly fell off the dais.
“I suggest your judgeship, a fair and honorable way to break this here tie. I want a sqirt-out with Henrietta. We’ll stand twenty paces apart, and on your, ‘Go!’ turn and aim at each other with our special sauces. “By the way,” she grinned, turning to the crowd, “I call mine ‘Hotter n’ a Texas whorehouse’.” One of the tasters fell backwards off his chair and had to be helped back up. Continuing on Mel said, “Whoever hits the other first, wins.”
The crowd roared, stood and clapped. There had never been such a thing in Loco Weed history. Their voices overrode the judges’ hesitation in this bizarre show down. Friends placed furtive side bets.
“Henrietta,” the gourmet arbiter asked, after using a shrill whistle to quiet the excited crowd. “Is this okay with you?”
“I ‘spect so, Sir. Melba just ain’t gonna be able to live with herself ‘til one of us wins.”
The sun glared brightly in Loco Weed that afternoon. Each woman had a plastic bottle of secret sauce in her apron pocket. They paced off the twenty feet, and turned. The silent crowd watched. Not even a bird chirped. The wind barely strred.
The judge yelled,”Go!” Steely-eyed and steady-handed, each woman pulled her bottle from an apron pocket and aimed. Neither opponent reached the mark. They fired again, this time getting closer but not making contact with the other. Their bottles, nearly empty, held enough for maybe one last shot. Henrietta squeezed as hard as she could and hot rib sauce hit Melba Jean directly on her mouth. Mel’s squirt missed completely. The crowd rose up, stood, cheering wildly. Melba Jean licked the rib sauce from her lips, slowly savoring its flavor. The crowd and judges grew quiet; apprehensive.
After a long pause, Mel smiled and said, ”Damnation, Henrietta, your sauce is amazin’! Almost as good as mine. It’s proud I be to accept you as winner. Until next year!”
The Loco Weed townspeople never tired of tellin’ the tale of the Texas bar-b-que squirt-out, making it a legend for all time.