Most of us would agree, chili is a meal we all crave when the weather gets a bit cooler. The term chili is a loose one – everyone has their own favorite recipe – but it usually includes some ratio of meat, tomatoes, beans, onions and spices. It’s a hardy meal that will warm us up and keep us full. It’s the stew that makes a rambler happy to be home. And it can conveniently be an all-in-one meal that will easily heat up over the fire. While it’s not usually on menus of five-star foodie spots or the sophisticated dish that we make for at-home date nights (but honestly, why couldn’t it be?), chili has a history that is genuinely fascinating and unexpected. While the roots of chili take us to the American south, the qualities of what makes chili, well… chili, have morphed and changed and spread to have a nationwide standard. What really is chili? And, what makes good chili?
The origin story
Much about the origins of chili are wrapped up in legend, most of which is set in Texas. Wherever you look for the history of this hardy stew, you will always come across the story of the Lady in Blue. The very first notion of chili comes from the indigenous peoples of what is now modern day West Texas and a Spanish nun. The nun’s name was “Sister Mary of Agreda.” She lived in Spain in the 1600s, and while never physically leaving the country she would talk of going into spiritual trances that gave her out-of-body experiences of doing mission work with native peoples in America. Across the ocean in a desert, a group of about 50 individuals making up a Jumano tribe spoke of a ghostly “La Dama de Azul” (Lady in Blue) that taught them about God and baptized them. They also spoke about a stew she had given them the recipe for. It was a “fiery soup” made of venison, tomatoes, onions and chili peppers. While this story is wildly esoteric, it’s unexplained why this group of Native Americans would have a legend like this or would become baptized at a time and place where no missionaries were known to be.
The devil, some bricks, and the penitentiary
Spanish colonization and religious work, like the spread of missionaries around Texas, also contributed to the mystique and proliferation of chili. The heat of the chili peppers in the dish created suspicion and fear amongst secular groups that had preachers labeling it a “soup of the devil.” Most say that it’s condemnation only added to the popularity. All press is good press, am I right?
Fast forward to the days of the gold rush when folks, often men, would make the journey from Texas to California in search of good fortune. Being on the trails for weeks and yearning for a warm meal, chuckwagon cooks created “chili bricks” which gave westbound adventurers what they were looking for. Created as a meal that could easily be rehydrated, chili bricks were made of dehydrated meat, fat, salt, pepper, and chili peppers that were all pounded together into a portable rectangular form. They could be reconstituted into a stew-like dinner over the campfire just by adding boiling water.
Inmates in Texas prisons have their own stake in the chili game. They say that the Texas version of prison gruel was the cheap cuts of beef that had to be cut down and boiled with chilis and spices in order to be edible. No matter how unappealing it sounds, the meal became a staple and must have improved along the way. Prisoners understood this was a meal of the system and would actually rate different jails based on the quality of the chili. Legend has it that prison chili was so good, ex cons would write to inmates in an effort to try to get the recipe because they missed it that much.
The Chili Queens
San Antonio, Texas was home to the Chili Queens: Latina women who stewed beef with dried chilis and brought it to the city’s open-air plazas to sell it by the bowlful from their wagons. The Chili Queens, who got their name for being slingers of the dish day in and day out, called the dish “chili con carne” (translation: chili with meat) while other Texans gave it the name “bowl of red.” Chili Queens sold a plate with chili, beans, and a tortilla for only a dime. The affordability and novelty of the dish made it extremely popular and a staple for people in San Antonio. With the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s, tourists could now visit San Antonio and get a taste of what the Chili Queens were serving. In fact, the plaza chili wagons became such and popular attraction for the city that the 1893 Worlds Fair in Chicago featured a “San Antonio Chili Stand.”
A societal shift to indoor cafes and markets along with new sanitation guidelines for how food should be served to the masses led to the disappearance of chili queens and their chili wagons. However, the city of San Antonio holds an annual “Return of the Chili Queens” festival to celebrate the dish, the history, and the significance it holds for Texas.
San Antonio also claims the invention of chili powder by one of its residents. However, there are conflicting stories on who actually invented chili powder and where they were located. No matter who created it, chili powder can be credited for the far and wide spread of a once seasonal dish that was now available all year long. “Chile joints” began popping up in almost every town in the west. The food joints were no more than a shed with a counter and a few stools that were known to be the place for a cheap (albeit low quality) meal. The popularity of chili and chili joints took on particular significance during the Great Depression when, at the time, it was said chili saved more people from starvation than the Red Cross.
For being of such humble beginnings, chili is loved by all. In 1882, the Secretary General ordered the ingredients for chili con carne to be on the army supply list. It was recommended by army officers who thought it was “a most valuable diet” and noted it to have “anti scurvy” properties. In 1963, a boy from Stonewall, Texas named Lyndon Johnson became president and would often talk of his fondness for a bowl of red. His wife, Ladybird Johnson, had cards printed with his “Pedernales River Chili Recipe” which became wildly popular amongst the American people.
Throughout the years, with all the legends and stories, there are few things concerning chili we can be absolutely certain of. Yet, here are two things we can confirm. For starters, chili is not a Mexican dish but instead born in the Lone Star state. Secondly, and especially important if in tune with Texas tradition, it definitely doesn’t have beans. But what else can we agree on? And why the bean debate?
For obvious reasons, chili purists can look at the long history we just went over and know that there weren’t beans in any of the early forms. It’s fair to say this stance is strong among most Texans who have a saying that goes, “If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain’t got no beans.” And no one takes chili more seriously than Texans. Chili cook-offs began in 1952 at Texas State Fairs so people from all walks of life, all of whom had their own favorite chili recipe, could cook, taste, and judge what stew was the best. This is a tradition that has grown to be a common competition throughout America of local and nationwide scale.
Being that Texas has been the authority on chili for so long, when and why were beans ever added? Well, going in step with the rest of chili history, it’s all wrapped up in different stories.
Some say that with the popularity of chili joints across the country in the early 1900s, beans began to be added as a way to stretch the yield. This most likely started during the Great Depression when beans, being low cost and widely available, started to become the base of many meals.
Another theory goes back to the Chili Queens. They served their chili con carne with a side of beans and a tortilla. It’s not a far stretch to assume people mixed the beans in with their chili. The exposure of San Antonio chili wagons at the Chicago World’s Fair gave so many more people an introduction to this dish. These individuals likely wanted to recreate the dish on their own and, not being from Texas and privy to the traditions of chili, added beans as a part of the stew itself.
We begin to see beans popping up in cookbook recipes for chili as early as the 1920s which gives us insight to how early on adaptations of the dish started. As for everything else? Well, there are about as many chili recipes as there are cacti in the desert and not one of them is necessarily right or wrong (unless it contains beans and you’re talking to a Texan). Take this as an opportunity to experiment with traditionalism or leniency when you stew your next pot. Hopefully you find a version that you love enough to pass on to a neighbor, a friend, and one day the next generation. After all, as long as we continue to serve this Americana classic, the legend and legacy of chili will continue.