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Lesson learned: Don’t mess with Texas Tavern
Sunday, February 10, 2013
The world-famous Texas Tavern turns 83 Wednesday. Normally this is a cause for the kind of celebration that marks the end of a world war. You probably have no idea how fitting that analogy is this time around.
Because behind the scenes, 2012 was a rough year for owner Matt Bullington. The geopolitical pressures swirling around the tiny diner on Church Avenue would have done in any lesser eatery. But once again the TT survived, and I can finally bring you the story.
It all revolved around its trademark dish, “chile.” That controversial stew is handcrafted from ground beef, pinto beans, corn starch and a list of exotic spices that’s more closely guarded than the secret flavoring for Coke.
The problem was the distinctive spelling of the menu item. I’ve written at least three columns about that. One in 2011 extolled it as the greatest chile in the Western Hemisphere. Last February, I broke the story about how Elvis ordered it for his last meal.
Those made it all the way to Washington, D.C., where they caught the attention of the ambassador of the South American country that bears the same name. He was not pleased.
“We got the call in March, it was really strange,” Bullington recalled. “This guy with an accent was on the phone. He wanted a quart, delivered to Washington that evening.
“Fortunately, my dad Jim was heading up there to give some cooking lessons to the White House chef.
“So I told the caller dad would drop it off at the Chilean embassy around 5 o’clock. The guy also wanted a takeout menu. I stuck it in the bag with the Styrofoam container and thought that was the end of it.”
He could not have been more wrong.
Turns out, the wily ambassador couldn’t care less about the chile — he was after the takeout menu. He wanted to see how the TT spelled chile. Once he confirmed it ended with an “e” all hell broke loose.
“The guy called back that night,” Matt Bullington continued. “He demanded we remove the word “Chile” from the menus, all the signage, our website, and any and all advertising we do.
“ ‘Buddy, are you kidding?’ I asked him. ‘We’ve been selling that stuff since 1930.’ ”
“He said, ‘Your chile may be 83 years old, but my country is 194 years old. We will not let this outrage stand. It’s a matter of national honor!’ ”
Bullington couldn’t believe the guy was serious. It reminded him of Virginia Tech’s silly lawsuit against Hokie Real Estate, taken to a new, international extreme. He’d never heard of a country suing a diner before.
That’s understandable. After all, France isn’t going around suing every hamburger stand that sells fries. If that was a righteous beef, think of the havoc the nation of Turkey could cause for Thanksgiving Day.
But the Chilean ambassador was determined. He hired a silk-stocking law firm from Atlanta, which filed a worldwide trademark infringement lawsuit in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
Bullington hired Keith Finch, the wily Blacksburg barrister who beat Virginia Tech’s four law firms like a dusty rug in the Hokie Real Estate scandal. Depositions were taken in Santiago, Amsterdam and here in Roanoke.
The case dragged on for months. The biggest problem was Bullington’s dad, Jim, the former owner whose legendary temper has been compared to the Krakatau volcano. In July, the Secret Service declared him a security risk and banned him from the White House kitchen.
So the elder Bullington burned up the phone lines between Roanoke and Washington. He called every lawmaker he could, demanding the United States declare war on all of South America.
“I got one of those calls,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County. “Jim raved, ‘I want the Marines, and the Navy SEALs! And the Green Berets! The honor of the best grub in all the West is at stake!’
“Jim also wanted us to bomb the U.N. in New York City,” Goodlatte confided. “He was mad at Holland, too.”
During all of this, I spoke to Jim Bullington — off the record, of course. He said: “You know me. I don’t tiptoe through tulips. By the time I’m done with the Netherlands, they’ll be humming ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ”
The CIA got so concerned it sent two of its top operatives to Roanoke. One was then-director David Petraeus, the former general. The other was Paula Broadwell, a grad student from Charlotte. Their cover story was that she was working on a book.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also got involved, and flew to South America for high-level talks. It became a secret agenda item at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, last year.
Both Washington and Santiago were so frantic word might leak out that they created a smokescreen for the press.
Remember the Secret Service prostitution scandal? None of that was true.
All of this, over $1.70 bowls of chile in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hard to believe, eh?
A deal was finally brokered in October, and it hinged on the outcome of the presidential election.
According to the top-secret agreement, if Mitt Romney won, Texas Tavern would change the name of its trademark dish to “chili,” the way every other restaurant in the world spells it. If President Obama won, the country would change its name, and Texas Tavern could keep its menu the same.
The Chilean negotiators did high fives after they struck that bargain, because everyone knew Romney was going to win.
But it made Election Day a source of great heartburn for Jim Bullington, who’s no Obama fan. He still won’t say how he voted. But we know how the election turned out.
Chile is scheduled to make the name change on April 1. Jim Bullington is waiting and watching closely.
“Those South Americans had no idea what they were in for when they picked this fight,” he told me. “You don’t mess with the Texas Tavern.”
That’s a lesson I learned years ago. Almost all the rest of this is fiction, though.
Happy birthday, TT.
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