Chili con carne, usually just called “chili” around these parts, may have a Spanish name but it’s an undeniably American dish—with more than one group of people claiming some form of ownership. The earliest written description of chili came from J.C. Clopper of Houston, Texas. In his writings about a visit to San Antonio in 1828, he described a dish, made by the poorest of San Antonio’s residents, that closely matches our definition of chili. “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.” Listen to more about chili in San Antonio at Fugitive Waves: Chili Queens of San Antonio.
There is evidence indicating that the first chili mix was created around 1850 by cowboys and explorers looking for an easily packaged trail meal. Cooks would pound dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and chili peppers into rectangles that they could rehydrate in boiling water. These “chili bricks” were easy to pack and could be made at just about any trail stop. Around 1860, prisoners of Texas state penitentiaries also claimed to be the creators of their own version of chili—made from the tough beef they were given as meal staples, chopped into tiny pieces and mixed with chili peppers and spices, then boiled until it was suitable for eating. Supposedly, inmates used to rate jails across the state by the quality of their chili.
The San Antonio Chili Stand set up operations at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and officially presented the dish to those outside of Texas for the first time. Eventually, San Antonio itself became a tourist destination and an increasing number of Americans were introduced to chili, firsthand. In the late 1800s, chili stands serving “bowls of red” began to appear on plazas around the city, run by women known as “chili queens”. These women served chili con carne and other Mexican-American foods from dusk until dawn, setting up their own tables, benches, and pots of food over open fires. Author O. Henry wrote a description of the setting in his short story, “The Enchanted Kiss”: “the nightly encampments upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land… Drawn by the coquettish senoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night.” The city unsuccessfully tried to get the stands shut down for decades, eventually succeeding in the 1940s with help from the city Health Department.
As families moved from Texas to other areas across America, they took their chili recipes and traditions with them. In the early 1900s, family-run chili parlors began to pop up in cities across the country, offering other regions an introduction to traditional Texas fare. These spots became trendy and soon most notable cities had their own famed chili joint and preferred recipe. Cincinnati Chili is a well-known regional dish created in 1922 by a Macedonian immigrant, Tom Kiradjieff, who created a chili using Middle Eastern spices. His famous “five way” is a dish of spaghetti topped with chili, chopped onion, red kidney beans, shredded cheese, and served with cheese-covered hot dogs. Springfield, Illinois, has its own unique chili culture and spelling; in 1993, the Illinois state legislature passed a resolution proclaiming Illinois to be the “Chilli Capital of the Civilized World” and recognized the official spelling to include two letter Ls. (You can imagine how well this was received in Texas.)
Chili consumption spiked in the U.S. during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. His favorite version became known as Pedernales River Chili, named after his Texas ranch. Lady Bird Johnson published the recipe in the Washington Post in 1961 and the White House printed up recipe cards to mail out, as they received many requests for the recipe each day. Johnson, like any Texan, would tell you that real, original chili has no beans. This bean-free chili is the official state food of Texas, “in recognition of the fact that the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.”
Of course, there are now dozens of varieties of chili—both with beans and without. Vegetarian chili, chili verde, white bean chili—all have their own devoted followings. This week, in honor of National Chili Day (traditionally on the 4th Thursday in February), the café will be serving our version of vegetarian chili, from February 27 – March 4. I’m certain there will be chili cook-offs across the country this week where you can enter or support your preferred version—and you can share your favorite version with us as well. Please stop by and say hello and enjoy a bowl (or two).