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Sunday, January 01, 2012

In Search of H. Allen Smith

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: One of the stops my wife and I made during our 1989 cross-country journey was in Alpine, Texas, so that I could find the home of one of my literary heroes, H. Allen Smith. Cold weather has me thinking about hot chili, so here's a piece I wrote about the experience along with a recipe.


What would make a successful writer living in Westchester County suddenly pull up stakes and move to a remote town in Texas?

Chili con carne.

With the spirit of a Texas braggart, northerner H. Allen Smith wrote an essay 30 years ago for Holiday magazine in which he claimed to make the best chili, period. He was challenged to prove this claim by Texan Wick Fowler. The result was a cookoff that became the first of many, and the tradition continues today.

Smith was an old-school newspaperman who worked his way from Denver to New York in the 20s and 30s. In the early 1940s he collected a series of humorous writings in a pair of books titled Low Man on the Totem Pole and Life in a Putty Knife Factory which revealed him as skilled humorist in the style of his own hero, Mark Twain – but with a more contemporary perspective.

He left the newspaper business and moved to Mount Kisco, NY, although he travelled extensively, always sharing news of those travels in books and occasional pieces.

Then the chili event took place. Smith tells the tale in his book The Great Chili Confrontation, now long out of print. And you won't find a copy of it anywhere in Alpine. In fact, in this, the last place Smith called home, you'd be hard pressed to find any of his books.

All because of chili.

Let's begin by establishing that the northeast is utterly ignorant of the glory of this dish. It's all about peppers, hot ones, and northerners don't have much of a taste for heat.

In New Mexico, a bowl of chili is just that: a stew of the peppers, red or green (depending on your preferred intensity). Texas adds meat, good meat, preferably chunks of tenderloin. And peppers. Maybe some corn flour and beer. Certainly you need oregano and garlic and lots of cumin, which is not pronounced to rhyme with “human,” by the way.

Fowler and Smith decided to meet on neutral ground, so why they chose the ghost town of Terlingua, 80 miles south of already-remote Alpine, is a mystery. The annual cookoff was born, and Smith decided to pull up his northeastern stakes and build a house in Alpine.

“H. Allen Smith? No, I've never heard of him.” The Chamber of Commerce lady is herself a former newspaper reporter who tired of the New Orleans beat. “I hated all that Mardi Gras stuff,” she said, and the ongoing once-a-year chili event also drives her crazy. But she didn't know Smith started it or that he moved to Alpine.

A man working in the True Value hardware store struggled to recognize the name. “Nope. Only been here about five years m'self,” he said with a smile. You could see that he wanted to help, which is characteristic of Texans. But he arrived here after Smith's time. The writer died in 1976.

“I don't have any of his books here,” a bookseller at the Hallmark store told me. “I think they're all pretty much out of print. 'Course, I have some at home.” I didn't realize at that moment the significance of her remark, and anyway had no chance to think about it as the woman launched into a heartfelt panegyric about the greater Alpine area.

It's located down toward the southern tip of the state, in a mountainous area known as the Texas Alps. In it are combined the best aspects of desert and hillside. Sul Ross State College sits on a hill just outside of town, and historic Fort Davis is just a few miles away in Jeff Davis County.

A shop selling used books and antique odds and ends was just closing up this Saturday afternoon, but I caught the proprietor in a Texas-friendly mood. “I wish I could help you,” she said, “but I haven't heard of him. You know who you might try, though – try the woman at Apache Trading Post. She has a lot of books in there, and she might have what you're looking for.”

“Don't have any of his books,” the woman said, emphasis on the pronoun. “Don't think anybody around here does.”

Did you know him?

“Oh, sure.” She chuckled to herself. “I knew 'im.”

When a Texan wants to talk, you learn the meaning of volubility. But Texans also want to be unfailingly complimentary. At least to foreign (non-Texan) ears. Anything uncomplimentary at least should be softened by humor.

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot funny about the period of residence of a humorist named H. Allen Smith. “I'm getting the feeling he wasn't liked a whole lot around here,” I ventured.

“Well . . . ” It's the classic drawl, a paragraph in itself. “I don't think ole H. Allen knew what he was getting hisself into. I mean, he come in here and built that big ole house up on top of the hill. We called it the band-aid, it was so big and all covered in white stucco. And then . . . I guess there were some people in town thought they could take advantage of him, him being from the north and all . . . ”

She was clearly not about to go into any more detail. This happend more than two decades ago. Alpine has gone on. She told me that she was working for the local newspaper when Smith arrived, so she probably knew plenty about the goings-on.

“But then he wrote that book,” she said with finality. “And that did it.”

That book?

“He set it in Texas. He didn't call the town Alpine, but we all knew what he was writing about. He went after everybody in that book, and it made him even less popular. Everybody read it. I can't remember what it was called.”

I doubt that, but I didn't press her. Besides, she came up with what has to be the correct analysis of the problem: “You see, his sense of humor was all wrong for this area. We don't go in for that kind of satire and stuff. That may be all right for New York but it's too harsh for around here.”

What became of his house? I asked the pharmacist at the local Rexall. Pharmacists tend to stay in one place, and this man has been here for a decade. Not long enough to have known Smith, but long enough to have known about him. “Oh, sure, he built that big white place up on the Loop. Right?” He appealed to a grey-haired customer beside me.

The old man grinned and nodded. “Yup. Billy Webb lives there. 'Course, it's all built up around there now, but there wasn't nothin' up there when Smith put his house in. So we all asked him: `Where you gonna put your garbage?' `In my books,' he says.”

So you knew him?

“I knew him. To put it bluntly, he was ob-noxious.”

Schenectady Daily Gazette, March 3, 1990


2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
4 pounds beef sirloin or tenderloin, coarse ground
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
4 cups water
3 medium onions, chopped coarse
1 bell pepper, chopped coarse
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 T hot red ground chile
1 T dried Mexican oregano
1/2 t basil
1 T ground cumin or cumin seed

Heat the oil or butter in a heavy 4-quart pot over medium heat. Saute the onions and garlic until translucent. Add the meat, stirring to break up lumps, until it is evenly browned.

Add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then simmer, uncovered for two or three hours. Add more water if necessary. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

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