As soon as there’s a nip in the air, I know it’s chili season. When I worked in an office , every fall we would have a chili cookoff, which was great fun. I even won third prize once, a gift card to Chili’s restaurant! But aside from having several delicious recipes, what do I actually know about chili? I needed to do some sleuthing before writing.
Just for fun, I checked the 1991 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia that we bought when our kids were in school and still takes up an inordinate amount of space on our bookshelves. It has this illuminating entry: Chili con carne is a Mexican dish that consists of minced red chilies and meat. Cooks often add kidney beans to this highly seasoned dish. The Spanish word chili means red pepper. Con carne means with meat.
Less than enlightening.
Internet to the rescue
Now, thanks to the Internet, just a few clicks of my mouse brought me many interesting and useful tidbits so that I can write this piece without having to take myself to a library and search through the stacks.
From Wikipedia I learned that the word chili comes from a Nahuatl word, and that the very first chili con carne consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chile peppers and salt, which were pounded together, formed into bricks and dried, a great way to preserve meat in the days before refrigeration. Cowboys took them out on the trail and boiled them up in pots.
From the International Chili Society’s website, I learned some other nifty facts:
- The mixture of meat, beans, peppers, and herbs was known to the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayan Indians long before Columbus and the conquistadores.
- Chile peppers were used in Cervantes’s Spain and show up in the great ancient cuisines of China, India, Indonesia, Italy, the Caribbean, France, and the Arab states.
- Don Juan de Onate entered what is now New Mexico in 1598 and brought with him the green chile pepper. It has grown there ever since.
- Canary Islanders, transplanted in San Antonio as early as 1723, used local peppers, wild onions, garlic, and other spices to concoct pungent meat dishes – improvising upon ones they had cooked for generations in their native land, where the chile pepper also grew.
There’s a ongoing question about whether chili is a Mexican dish or a Texan (Tex-Mex) dish. Many Mexicans foodies indignantly deny any responsibility for it. Though there’s no documentation, chili as we now know it probably originated in San Antonio around 1880.
The Chili Queens of San Antonio
A group of Mexican-American women sold highly seasoned concoctions called “chili” from carts on San Antonio’s Military Plaza. The vendors became known as the Chili Queens. With dozens of “Queens” on the plaza, competition led to refinement of the recipes.
The Queens made their chili at home and then loaded it onto colorful little wagons to transport it to the plaza, along with pots, crockery, and all the other gear necessary to feed the hungry night people. They built mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm. All this went on from nightfall until just before sunrise, when vegetable vendors came along with their carts to occupy Military Plaza, which had become known as “La Plaza del Chile con Carne.” Chili became so associated with San Antonio what there was a “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
The Chili Queens kept the chili stands going until the late 1930s, when the health department shut them down.
Meanwhile, travelers were taking chili beyond Texas. As early as 1904, “chili parlors” were opening in other states.
There’s much controversy about what exactly defines chili. Some recipes use beef chopped into small cubes, some use ground beef or even ground turkey; some use beans, some don’t; some use tomatoes, some don’t. It can be topped with chopped onions, cheese or sour cream – or not. These days it’s easy to find vegetarian chili recipes, like the one below.
The only constant seems to be the red chile pepper (except for “chili verde,” which uses green hot peppers). Often ground chiles (also called cayenne pepper) are combined with other spices, such as paprika, oregano and garlic, and sold as “chili powder,” though many cooks prefer to prepare their own blends.
Greek immigrants in Cincinnati developed something completely different, using Mediterranean spices,that came to be called “Cincinnati style chili.” It’s usually served over spaghetti or atop hot dogs.
(We in Detroit are quite familiar with “Coney dogs” – hotdogs topped with bean-free chili meat sauce, mustard, onions and sometimes cheese – made popular by restaurants called Coney Islands run by Greek immigrants and their descendants. They have nothing to do with Brooklyn’s Coney Island, except that the original Coney Island was where the hotdog was born.)
My favorite vegetarian chili recipe has a list of ingredients about a page long, and it makes an enormous amount, so I’m not featuring that one today. Instead I offer this lovely recipe that uses a variety of beans and butternut squash. I got the recipe from a friend, who adapted it from one she found in Cooking Light magazine.