My first home-cooked meal in my new home was more or less decided for me when I cut a little too deeply when slicing open a box of dried-goods to go into my pantry. My knife sliced through the front of a chili spice packet, opening a pouch of chili powder. So I shrugged, set the packet aside, and went out and purchased two pounds of hamburger the next day.
As I started making the chili, along with some microwave rice and a pan of unsweet cornbread from an old family recipe, my thoughts turned, as they often do, to the chili’s literary connection. You see, this particular chili kit was “Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili,” invented by Texas newspaperman Wick Fowler a few decades ago. And both Wick Fowler and his chili feature in a book by 20th-century humorist H. Allen Smith called The Great Chili Confrontation.
The book tells the story of a chili cook-off between Smith and Fowler, at which each did his best to craft the ultimate bowl of chili. The contest effectively ended in a draw, though it should be noted that Fowler is the one whose name is still printed on chili spice kits to this very day, whereas Smith’s chili is only remembered through that largely-forgotten book. Fowler is also mentioned on the International Chili Society’s chili cookoff page, and he even gets a name check in the Wikipedia page about chili, for his contention that chili should be refrigerated overnight before eating to let the full flavor come out. (Given that his chili mix requires 2 lbs of meat, and I’m just one person, needless to say I’ll be following his advice for the majority of it!)
In the book, Smith described Fowler’s recipe in loving detail as a particularly noxious brew, though of course that was largely exaggeration for comic effect. This isn’t the first time I’ve made Fowler’s chili, and I’ve enjoyed it every time. And for all the animosity on display, I strongly suspect that Smith and Fowler were actually good friends and not nearly the rivals Smith wrote about. As my decision to make the chili brought the book to mind, naturally I went looking for it. I thought it would be interesting to read it, or at least skim over certain passages.
But how to obtain the book? My first stop, Amazon, had it listed for one cent plus $3.99 shipping, but it wasn’t available as an ebook. I looked further, and didn’t find an ebook version of it available anywhere—except, strangely enough, on Kobo. The weirdest thing was, it was listed there about a dozen times. But when I actually tried adding the books to my library, I found they were completely-unrelated works that had somehow gotten tagged with the title of Smith’s book. One was Satanstoe by James Fenimore Cooper; another was some title in German, and so forth.
I’m not sure exactly how or why they ended up mistagged in Kobo’s catalog, but I noticed that when I downloaded the works, it was via a redirect to Archive.org—and when I looked at the PDF versions, they were products of the Google Books archival scanning process. Google Books has two listings for The Great Chili Confrontation, but no related ebook, since as it was publishd in 1970 it’s still under copyright—though one of those listings bears the pre-1923 book boilerplate. So I suppose some sort of public-domain-ebook retrieval glitch is probably responsible for the Kobo listings.
All this is a fairly long-winded way of saying that The Great Chili Confrontation seems to be a textbook “orphan work”—an out-of-print book whose author is dead, and which doesn’t seem to be of sufficient interest to anyone to merit republication, even only as an ebook. It can be had for four bucks in print, but it can’t be had electronically for love or money. So if I want to read it, I have to wait a few days—and so does anyone I’d like to recommend it to.
Yes, I know, there’s no requirement that any book I want should have to be available to me in electronic format. And the nature of our copyright laws and publisher contracts get in the way. It’s just so aggravating to me when I run across a title like this, because if it weren’t for all the red tape it could very easily be made available electronically. The technology is there, and the book’s even been scanned by Google already. I’d be happy to pay a reasonable amount of money, if the appropriate share of it could be passed on to Smith’s heirs. But as it stands right now, Smith’s heirs would have to make the decision to publish it electronically before it could even be made available—and every other owner of every other out-of-print book would have to do the same for their orphan works.
At one point, the Authors Guild actually wanted to make those books available as part of its settlement with Google, holding the money in escrow against the owner of the work showing up, but the judge in the Google Books case quite justifiably found that the Authors Guild settlement significantly overreached under current copyright law. Unfortunately, due to the way those laws are set up, anyone trying to do something similar would likewise overreach, unless someone got an act of Congress passed to change it. And given how many other things are on Congress’s plate, it’s unlikely to devote any significant attention to the question of making all print books available electronically any time soon.
I suppose if I really want the book available electronically, I could buy it for $4, and set up that Czurtek scanner David Rothman sent me that I still need to get around to trying out. That would give me a handy reference copy to keep against need, at the least. But it won’t do anything about giving me the instant gratification of having the ebook available now. Nor will it help me next time I run into some other orphan work I’d like to read right away.
In any event, as I often do when I make this chili, I find it interesting to reflect that this one obscure connection to a long-out-of-print book by a long-dead humorist continues to be available in supermarkets for the benefit of people who like chili, even if they have no idea of the origins of the spice packets they mix into their meat. It’s only too bad the out-of-print book itself isn’t so easy to obtain anymore.