Chili. A word that can stir up passions usually reserved for first love or politics.
There are as many recipes for chili as there are families in the Southwestern US. In Texas, we make “Chili Con Carne” – basically a spicy meat stew with chiles, spices, lots of meat, and maybe some tomato. But no beans. That would be sacrilege. In New Mexico and California, you can find green chili, “Chili Verde”, usually made with chicken or pork. If one would like beans in their chili, you can go vegetarian.
The other well-known of chilis are:
a) “Cincinnati Chili”: made with a variety of Greek and Middle Eastern spices. It was invented by a Greek Immigrant, Tom (Athanas) Kiradjieff, in 1922. He originally used the chili at his hot dog stand. When that didn’t work, he started to use it as a type of spaghetti sauce. It is now one of Ohio’s most beloved foods.
b) “Springfield Style Chilli”: This Southern Illinois style ground-meat, with beans, is very different from Texas chili. The spelling supposedly comes from a disagreement between the owner of the Dew Chilli Parlor, Dew Brockman, and his sign painter. Another legend has the spelling mimics the first four letters of “Illinois”.
c) “Chasen’s Chili” The owner of Chasens, Dave Chasen, made probably the most famous chili in California. He kept the recipe a secret, trusting it to no one. He always made it a week in advance and froze it, feeling that would make a better chili when it was reheated. The original Chasen’s opened in 1936 and closed in 1995. The second version of Chasen’s closed permanently in 2000.
Like many other dishes that become loved over time, it was a dish made out of desperation and necessity. There are many legends and stories about where chili originated and it is generally thought, by most historians, that the earliest versions of chili were made by the very poorest people.
“When they have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for a family; this is generally into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat – this is all stewed together.” – C.J. Clopper, remarking on San Antonio Chili, 1926.
According to an old Southwestern American Indian legend and tale. It is said that the first recipe for chili con carne was put on paper in the 17th century by a beautiful nun, Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain. She was mysteriously known to the Indians of the Southwest United States as “La Dama de Azul,” the lady in blue. It is said that sister Mary wrote down the recipe for chili which called for venison or antelope meat, onions, tomatoes, and chile peppers.
On March 9, 1731, a group of sixteen families (56 persons) arrived from the Canary Islands at Bexar, the villa of San Fernando de Béxar (now know as the city of San Antonio). They had emigrated to Texas from the Spanish Canary Islands by order of King Philip V. of Spain. The King of Spain felt that colonization would help cement Spanish claims to the region and block France’s westward expansion from Louisiana. These families founded San Antonio’s first civil government which became the first municipality in the Spanish province of Texas. According to historians, the women made a spicy “Spanish” stew that is similar to chili.
By the 19th Century, some Spanish priests were said to be wary of the passion inspired by chile peppers, assuming they were aphrodisiacs. A few preached sermons against indulgence in a food which they said was almost as “hot as hell’s brimstone” and “Soup of the Devil.” The priest’s warning probably contributed to the dish’s popularity.
In 1850, records were found by Everrette DeGolyer (1886-1956), a Dallas millionaire and a lover of chili, indicating that the first chili mix was concocted around 1850 by Texan adventurers and cowboys as a staple for hard times when traveling to and in the California gold fields and around Texas. Needing hot food, the trail cooks came up with a sort of stew. They pounded dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and the chile peppers together into stackable rectangles which could be easily rehydrated with boiling water. This amounted to “brick chili” or “chili bricks” that could be boiled in pots along the trail. DeGolyer said that chili should be called “chili a la Americano” because the term chili is generic in Mexico and simply means a hot pepper. He believed that chili con carne began as the “pemmican of the Southwest.”
It is said that some trail cooks planted pepper seeds, oregano, and onions in mesquite patches (to protect them from foraging cattle) to use on future trail drives. It is thought that the chile peppers used in the earliest dishes were probably chilipiquín0, which grow wild on bushes in Texas, particularly the southern part of the state.
There was another group of Texans known as “Lavanderas,” or “Washerwoman,” that followed around the 19th-century armies of Texas making a stew of goat meat or venison, wild marjoram and chile peppers.
By 1860, residents of the Texas prisons in the mid to late 1800s also lay claim to the creation of chili. They say that the Texas version of bread and water (or gruel) was a stew of the cheapest available ingredients (tough beef that was hacked fine and chiles and spices that was boiled in water to an edible consistency). The “prisoner’s plight” became a status symbol of the Texas prisons and the inmates used to rate jails on the quality of their chili. The Texas prison system made such good chili that freed inmates often wrote for the recipe, saying what they missed most after leaving was a really good bowl of chili.
In 1893, Texas chili went national when Texas set up a San Antonio Chili Stand at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
In 1895, Lyman T. Davis of Corsicana, Texas made chili that he sold from the back of a wagon for five cents a bowl with all the crackers you wanted. He later opened a meat market where he sold his chili in brick form, using the brand name of Lyman’s Famous Home Made Chili. In 1921, he started to can chili in the back of his market and named it after his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill and called it Wolf Brand Chili (a picture of the wolf is still used on the label today).
By the 1880’s, San Antonio was a wide-open cattle, army, and railroad town. At the center of all the activity were the “Chili Queens” selling their wares on the Plaza, feeding the cowboys, soldiers, and railway workers. Even the tourists enjoyed the novelty of the Chili Queens. It was a delicious, slightly exotic, homemade, cheap meal served from colorful carts for a dime. By 1937, however, the era of the Chili Queens was over when the San Antonio Department of Health decreed that outside food stands had to be held to the same sanitation standards as restaurants. The Chili Queens disappeared overnight.
(All historical references come from http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Chili/ChiliHistory.htm. Text by Linda Stradley.)
There are many chili cook-offs all over the country (http://www.chilicookoff.com/). The oldest and biggest of these is held in Terlingua, Texas every first weekend of November. This year will be 46th annual. It’s a wonderful mix of carnival, party, and really good food.
They type of chili made in cook-offs are quite different from chilis made at home. In competition, a chili has to make a quick and lasting impression on judges who might be tasting dozens of chilis in a sitting. They tend to be more highly spiced, hotter, and saltier. Chili made at home tends to be quite a bit milder. Depending on the recipe and cook.
The main component in chili, besides meat, is chili powder. Legend is that two different men, DeWitt Clinton Pendry in Fort Worth and William Gebhardt in San Antonio, invented spice blends to sell to restaurants, and later to consumers. This was a way to make chiles available year-round by drying and grinding them as opposed to them being available only seasonally. There are dozens of different types of blended chili powders on the market. You can also find single-ingredient chile powders, like Ancho or Chipotle.
Also, chili as we know it is not known in Mexico. The recipe may have originated with the Spanish and been brought to Texas by the Mexican people already living here, but it is a purely American dish. In effect, one of the original Tex-Mex recipes. In Mexico, chili is defined as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the US from Texas to New York”.
Now, to the recipe.
This is my own. It came over many attempts of trial and error. It is a traditional Texas-style chili. No beans.
Sahar’s Bowl of Red
3 lbs. beef chuck roast , cut into 1″ pieces -or- 3 lbs. beef chili grind
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 med. onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tbsp. tomato paste
2 tbsp. chili powder (My preference is for San Antonio blend. But, use any style you like)
1 tbsp. ancho chile powder
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. Mexican oregano
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. salt (use kosher or sea salt)
2 tsp. ground black pepper
2 tbsp. paprika
2 tbsp. light brown sugar
Beef Broth, as needed
1 15-oz. can tomatoes (I like Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Tomatoes)
2 tbsp. masa mixed with 2 tbsp. broth or water to make a slurry
1. Heat the oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the meat and cook, stirring frequently, until it is no longer pink.
Add the onion & garlic and continue cooking until the onions are soft.
2. Add the tomato paste and cook until it is well blended with the meat, onions and garlic.
3. Add the spices and mix in with the meat, onions, and garlic. Cook until the spices begin to have a scent, about 1 – 2 minutes.
4. Mix in the can of tomatoes, with their juice, and just enough beef broth to cover the meat. Cover and bring to a boil.
5. Once the chili comes to a boil, uncover the pot, turn the heat down to low and simmer, stirring occasionally. Cook until the meat is tender, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours.
6. At the end if the cooking time, add the masa slurry to the chili and blend in thoroughly. Cook for about 5 more minutes to let the chili thicken slightly. Taste for seasoning.
7. Serve with cornbread or corn tortillas. If you want to sprinkle a few onions on top, go ahead. But, no cheese. Also, to make this as authentic as possible, DO NOT serve this with beans or rice. If you do, don’t tell me about it.
Chili, like most other soups and stews, is always better the next day. This freezes well, too.