Chili Con Carne (Spanish for “chili with meat”) is a classic dish enjoyed all over the world.
Once considered a very exotic meal by Americans, it is now right at home within our cuisine, often credited as the dish that gave rise to Tex-Mex cuisine. It consequently enjoys special status as the official state dish of Texas (not barbecue, as many think). But where did it all begin for this simple fiery concoction?
In its classic form, chili con carne is a spicy stew containing chili peppers (sometimes as a powder), beef, and tomatoes, with or without beans. The origins and true history of the dish are not particularly clear. There are many different theories, tales, and stories about chili con carne.
One thing we know for sure is that chili is not Mexican, but its history is complicated. Chili is Texas-Mexican, one of the country’s oldest regional cuisines. The term Tex-Mex first appeared in the culinary lexicon in 1972 when English-born cookbook author Diana Kennedy made a clear distinction between the food served in Mexico and everything served north of the border. By doing so she inadvertently defined a centuries old cuisine: one that’s heavy on meat and cheese, features flour tortillas over corn, and highlights cumin, a spice not commonly used in central Mexico.
There Are Several Stories about the Origin of Chili
The oldest story takes place in the 17th century. It is said that a nun, Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain, fell into a trance and was spiritually transported to what is now the southwest corner of the United States. There she was seen as La Dama de Azul (The Lady in Blue). She preached the Gospel message to the native people and, in return, they gave her a recipe for a spicy stew composed of venison or antelope meat, onions, tomatoes, and chili peppers. We are told she wrote down the recipe…and the rest is history (but no such writing has actually been found).
Texas food historian Robb Walsh subscribes to the theory that the recipe originated with San Antonio’s Canary Islander population. As a bulwark against possible French expansion in Texas, the Islenos, as they were known, were encouraged to move to San Antonio with the promise of becoming hidalgos (literally “sons of something”), basically minor Spanish nobles. In 1731, sixteen Canarian families (a total of 56 people) took up residence in the new town, joining a mixed population of clergy, soldiers, and mission Indians. Almost immediately, the Canarians became the city’s business and political elite and also, according to Walsh, gave us chili.
He believes that the slow-simmered melange of meat, garlic, chili peppers, with onions and cumin betrays the Moroccan (specially Berber) influences prevalent in the Canary Islands. However, cumin had been on hand in San Antonio spice cabinets before their arrival. Walsh has written that Canarian cooks were very heavy-handed with dried cumin (comino molido), the signature ingredient in what we know today as chili.
Some Spanish priests were said to be wary of the passion inspired by chili 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 priests’ warnings probably contributed to the dish’s popularity.
Records were found by Everette De Golyer (1886-1956), a Texas millionaire and a lover of chili, indicating that the first chili mix was concocted around 1850 by Texas adventurers traveling to the California gold fields in and around Texas. Needing hot grub, the trace cooks came up with a sort of stew. They pounded dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and the chili peppers 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. De Golyer 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.”
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 was a stew of the cheapest available ingredients (tough beef that was hacked fine and chiles and spices that were boiled in water to an edible consistency). The “prisoner’s plight” became a status symbol of the Texas prisons and inmates used to rate jails on the quality of the chili. The Texas prison systems 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.”
The Rise of the Chili Queens
In 1877, when the Texas Mexican Railway began operating through the southwest, Anglo tourists, curious about the country’s new frontier, began flocking to San Antonio. Many decided to settle there permanently, pushing the Tejanos, those of Mexican descent who had been living in the area for over three centuries, out of the city center and into segregated barrios.
Although the Tejanos suddenly found themselves marginalized, tourists found their food alluring, especially the chili con carne that had been prepared since the end of the Civil War by the legendary “chili queens” in an effort to supplement their family’s income. These hardworking San Antonio business women had become the dish’s original purveyors. Their namesake stew was initially called carne con chili (meat with chili), a moniker then Anglicized by the same visitors who bestowed the chili queen title.
These women made chili at home, loaded it on wagons, and transported it to public plazas where it was then sold to soldiers, tourists, cattlemen, and troubadours during evening hours. Although the slow-simmered chili was their best known offering, enchiladas, tamales, beans, flour tortillas, and coffee were also served. A combo plate cost a dime at the time. Traditionally, the matron of the household cooked while her daughters worked as hostesses and servers. Known for their wit and charm as much as for their food, these entrepreneurial women joked, bantered, and flirted with their customers. They were said to be adept at rolling their own cigarettes with cornhusks and black tobacco. Some even played the guitar and sang.
In 1882, Goulds Guide to San Antonio wrote of their allure,
”Those who delight in the Mexican luxuries of tomatoes, chili con carne, and enchiladas, can find them here cooked in the open air in the rear of the tables, and served by the lineal descendants of the ancient Aztecs.”
By creating the mystique of the bewitching Mexican senorita, they became mythological sirens in the Anglo imagination.
However, not all reviews were kind. Some compared the first bite of chili to the bite of a serpent. In 1895, Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage likened the chili queens’ food to “five bricks from Hades.” Some upper-class citizens of San Antonio saw their food as a threat to white workers who claimed that these dishes undermined the nation’s standard of living.
And while the chili queens were a vibrant face in the Alamo City’s economy, in 1937 their stands were deemed unsanitary and they were eventually banned from the public plazas. By 1943, the charm of being served a bowl of chili by an enchanting chili queen under a starry Texas sky was a spicy memory.
Still, the notoriety of the chili queens traveled well beyond San Antonio. For decades they were a vibrant face in the city’s economic and social history, luring tourists to the area. They also introduced their foods to an even wider public with a booth at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
For many Americans, the chili queens namesake dish and the type of home cooking prepared in San Antonio was their first introduction to Mexican food. While working diligently to feed their families, the chili queens established a reputation for Mexican food within the United States, and their image helped legitimize the Mexican presence within the country’s multicultural mosaic. In 1977, the Texas legislature proclaimed chili con carne the official state dish.
A Guide to Regional Chili Styles
Whether your mom mastered a multigenerational recipe, your community held chili cook offs, or you frequented the Wendy’s drive-thru, your idea of chili probably stems from the version you grew up on.
Most of us have a similar mental image of what a bowl of chili should look like. Ground beef with cumin and chili powder spices in a thick sauce, jazzed up with kidney beans and chunks of tomato with add ons like shredded cheese, sour cream, onions, and jalapenos on the top. However, in certain parts of the country the word has a whole other meaning.
We’re not just talking about variations like white bean chili or vegetarian chili here. Some regional variations contain no beans, some are more like sauce, some resemble a beef or pork stew more than a bowl of chili, and some are served with a pool of beef fat on top.
Let’s take a look.
Texans are famously very protective of their state’s signature chili style, which is strikingly different then what most non-Texans are accustomed to. In Texas a serving is affectionately dubbed a “bowl of red.” Purists will tell you that true Texas chili con carne is made with chunks of stew beef (or occasionally ground chuck) slow cooked in a rich and spicy sauce made from a variety of whole dried chilis, beef broth, onion, garlic, cumin, and some masa harina to tighten it up. No tomatoes and definitely no beans. (Any true Texan knows that.)
Skyline Chili – Cincinnati
Skyline-style chili is one of the most unusual regional styles, but beloved by Cincinnati natives. The recipe was perfected by the popular restaurant chain, Skyline Chili, but the style has been mimicked across Ohio. It is more of a beef-based sauce than a stew made with ground beef. It includes tomato sauce, onions, a little cocoa and spices including cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, cloves, and allspice. It can certainly be eaten in a bowl but almost no one in the region does that.
It’s usually served with a heaping pile of shredded cheddar cheese and is best enjoyed atop spaghetti or a hot dog with additional toppings including onions and beans. While this dish may seem crazy, it’s one of the Midwest’s signature dishes.
Springfield Chilli – Illinois
The town of Springfield, Illinois is famous for its chili, or ”chilli,” as it’s spelled there. In fact, the town is absolutely loaded with chilli parlors, so much so that in 1993, the Illinois government dubbed it “The Chilli Capital of the World.” Springfield chilli differentiates itself with the use of beef suet (fat from around the kidneys). It also contains ground beef, tomato sauce, vegetables, pinto beans (upon request), and chili powder.
Cooking chilli with beef suet yields a layer of grease at the top of the pot. Locals don’t ditch the grease (dubbed oleo oil), but instead dip oyster crackers in it.
Hoosier Chili – Indiana
Hoosier style chili looks like your standard beef and bean chili but with a few key differences. It usually contains tomato or V8 juice along with a little brown sugar, which makes it sweeter. Most importantly, this chili contains pasta, usually broken spaghetti or elbow macaroni, and its consistency resembles soup.
Kansas City Chili – Missouri
Kansas City is a barbecue town so don’t be surprised to find pulled pork, burnt ends, and chopped brisket in your chili. For recipes with ground beef, some cooks add oomph with a squirt of barbecue sauce.
It’s also usually served DIY-style like at Dixon’s Famous Chili where customers are offered the option of extra meat juice or extra bean broth. Here ketchup, pepper-infused vinegar, and spicy mustard are toppings as acceptable as shredded cheese. With Missouri native President Harry S. Truman as a former patron, Dixon’s chili has surely inspired many home cooks.
Chili is big in Oklahoma, with just about every regional style openly welcomed. There may not be one specific style native to Oklahoma, but if you had to pin down “Oklahoma style chili” it would mostly be chunks of beef in a light red sauce taking inspiration from both Midwestern and Texas traditions.
When in the Detroit or Flint area, the only way to eat your chili is over a Coney Island hot dog, slathered in mustard and chunks of white onion.
Like Cincinnati chili, Detroit-style chili is also more of a sauce, but this version is Greek-inspired with paprika and dried oregano and it is usually made with a roux and ground beef heart giving it a gravy-like consistency.
Chili Verde – New Mexico
Though chili verde hails from northern Mexico, there’s a sense of ownership of the dish across the border, too. In the southern New Mexico town of Hatch grows a green chili, the Hatch chili, that lends chile verde its spice and signature green color. It features pork shoulder marinated in a chili verde sauce made from tomatillos and jalapenos, and some lime all thickened with white potatoes.
Frito Pie – Southern and Southwestern United States
Simply whip up a mixture of chili powder, marinated beans, ground beef, and tomato sauce with seasonings, pour it over an opened bag of Frito chips, and top it with shredded cheese.
The Great Debate
Chili con carne is a culinary battleground where people fiercely guard secret recipes, compete in chili cookoffs, and argue over what actually goes into this hearty dish.
And as we have seen, if you hail from one of those chili loving locations (Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Missouri, or New Mexico), your ideal chili likely looks different than your neighbor in other states.
Chili tastes are highly personal, often inflexible, and loaded with preconceptions: the political parties of culinary offerings. For some people raised in Texas, the notion of beans is dismissed with derision as filler. Some chili cooks believe flavor rises and falls on cumin levels, others say the story begins and ends with dried chiles. Some like a rich beefy stock, and there are those who extol the addition of bacon.
At The Food We Know…
Our chili journey is about taste and what we have come to know and love over the years. Just as one friend can never cater to all of one’s emotional needs, so too have chili recipes appealed on different levels. We have tossed in cocoa and cloves for complexity and barbecue sauce for kick and yes, beans. Because we are bean lovers.
Remember, as long as you enjoy the dish you make for your family and friends, that’s enough in and of itself. We all know that chili is hardly ever eaten alone. It’s a communal meal and always made in a big pot.
So get that big pot of chili cooking to warm the hearts of your loved ones.