To take the chill off my bones, I cooked a big pot of chili this week. As I stirred up the meaty, beany, spicy stew, it occurred to me that I’d not blogged recently about one of America’s favorite comfort foods. Yes, we love our chili served in bowls, atop hot dogs or Fritos, or sloshed onto cornbread, fries, rice or noodles. When I delved into the history of what was once known as chili con carne, I found the dish has quite a peppery past.
Where Did Chili Come From?
As we all know, chili is a Texas thing. It’s their official state dish. Even so, there’s much disagreement as to its beginnings. The Spanish as well as the Aztecs were flavoring their meat with spicy peppers centuries ago. The heat helped to punch up the blandness of un-aged meat and mask the shortcomings of less than fresh cuts.
Cowboys working cattle drives welcomed a hearty “bowl of red” at the end of the day. To assure a steady supply of seasonings, cooks would often plant herbs and peppers alongside the trail. On return trips, they’d harvest the plants and hang them to dry on the side of the chuck wagon.
Reign of the Chili Queens
In the late 19th century, chili moved onto the plazas of St. Antonio, where bowls were served from painted carts by ornately dressed women known as Chili Queens.
A recipe from the era shows the concoction contained chunks of beef and pork shoulder, suet, onions, several varieties of chilies, spices and water. The meal-in-a-bowl sold for 10 cents and came with a slab or bread and a place to sit at make-shift tables.
After the dish was served at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, chili parlors began to pop up all over the West.
Beans or No Beans?
There’s always been some disagreement as to what constitutes a “bowl of red.” A national uproar occurred in the 1960s when a New York journalist for Holiday magazine, wrote that it flouted the law of nature to cook chili without beans in the pot or to the side. Texans got the last word with a song that ended with the phrase, “If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain’t got no beans.”
A Boost from Lady Bird Johnson
Chili got a presidential shout out when Texan Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. Lady Bird’s recipe for Pedernales River Chili was featured in nearly every church and civic cookbook in the nation. The recipe was especially popular because it was so simple to make. True to the tradition of the Lone Star State, it contained no beans, but lots of beef.
My Favorite Chili Recipe
I’ve been making this recipe for years. A family member once subbed ground venison for the beef and entered it in a school chili contest. He claims he was about to win, but was denied the blue ribbon because of the Bambi factor.
Recently I came upon an old-fashioned Texas recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. It uses an arm chuck roast that you cut into inch-size pieces—like those chuck wagon cooks might’ve done. No beans, of course.
One twist on the version from the Test Kitchen calls for a thickener made from a spoonful of Jiffy cornmeal mix (not plain cornmeal). The mix is combined with a bit of the chili and then warmed for a while in the microwave before being added back to the pot. Some bone-chilling evening, I’ll give this one a try and report back.