The only thing certain about the origin of chili is that it did not originate in Mexico. Charles Ramsdell, a writer from San Antonio in an article called San Antonio: An Historical and Pictorial Guide, wrote: “Chili, as we know it in the U.S., cannot be found in Mexico today except in a few spots which cater to tourists. If chili had come from Mexico, it would still be there. For Mexicans, especially those of Indian ancestry, do not change their culinary customs from one generation, or even from one century, to another.”
Chili in the 16th Century
1598 – Don Juan de Onate entered what is now New Mexico in 1598 and brought with him the green chile pepper. It has grown there for over four hundred years.
Chili in the 17th Century
1618 – 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 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 or The Lady in Blue. Sister Mary would go into trances while her body laid lifeless for days. When she awoke, she said her spirit had traveled to a faraway land where she preached Christianity to savages and counseled them to seek out Spanish missionaries. It is important to note that Sister Mary never physically left Spain. Spanish missionaries and King Philip IV of Spain believed that she was the ghostly La Dama de Azul or The Lady in Blue of Indian Legend. It is said that sister Mary wrote down the recipe for chili which called for venison or antelope meat, onions, tomatoes, and chile peppers.
Chili in the 18th Century
1731 – On March 9, 1731, a group of sixteen families (fifty-six people) arrived from the Canary Islands at Bexar, the villa of San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio). They 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.
Chili in 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.
1850 – Papers found by Everrette DeGolyer (1886-1956), a Dallas millionaire and a lover of chili, recorded 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 grub, the trail cooks came up with a sort of stew. They pounded dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and the chile peppers together. 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.
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.
1880s – San Antonio was a wide-open town cattle, rail and soldiers. and by day a municipal food market and by night a wild and open place. An authoritative early account is provided in an article published in the July 1927 issue of Frontier Times. In this article, Frank H. Bushick, San Antonio Commissioner of Taxation, reminisces about the Chili Queens and their origin at Military Plaza before they were moved to Market Square in 1887. According to Bushick: “The chili stand and chili queens are peculiarities, or unique institutions, of the Alamo City. They started away back there when the Spanish army camped on the plaza. They were started to feed the soldiers. Every class of people in every station of life patronized them in the old days. Some were attracted by the novelty of it, some by the cheapness. A big plate of chili and beans, with a tortilla on the side, cost a dime. A Mexican bootblack and a silk-hatted tourist would line up and eat side by side, unconscious or oblivious of the other.”
Latino women nicknamed “Chili Queens” sold stew they called “chili” made with dried red chiles and beef from open-air stalls at the Military Plaza Mercado. They made their chili at home, loaded it onto colorful chili wagons, and transported the wagons and chili to the plaza. They build mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm, lighted their wagons with colored lanterns, and squatted on the ground beside the cart, dishing out chili to customers who sat on wooden stools to eat their fiery stew. In those days, the world “chili” referred strictly to the pepper. They served a variation of simple, chile-spiked dishes (tamales, tortillas, chili con carne, and enchiladas). A night was not considered complete without a visit to one of these “chili queens.” In 1937 they were put out of business due to their inability to conform to sanitary standards enforced in the town’s restaurants (public officials objected to flies and poorly washed dishes).
The following is reprinted from the San Antonio Light of September 12, 1937: “Recent action of the city health department in ordering removal from Haymarket square of the chili queens and their stands brought an end to a 200-year-old tradition. The chili queens made their first appearance a couple of centuries back after a group of Spanish soldiers camped on what is now the city hall site and gave the place the name, Military Plaza. At one time the chili queens had stands on Military, Haymarket and Alamo plazas but years ago the city confined them to Haymarket plaza. According to Tax Commissioner Frank Bushick, a contemporary and a historian of those times, the greatest of all the queens was no Mexican but an American named Sadie. Another famous queen was a senorita named Martha who later went on the stage. Writing men like Stephen Crane and O. Henry were impressed enough to immortalize the queens in their writings. With the disappearance from the plaza of the chili stands, the troubadors who roamed the plaza for years also have disappeared into the night. Some of the chili queens have simply gone out of business. Others, like Mrs. Eufemia Lopez and her daughters, Juanita and Esperanza Garcia, have opened indoor cafes elsewhere. But henceforth the San Antonio visitor must forego his dining on chili al fresco.”
During the 1980s, San Antonio began staging what they call “historic re-enactments” of the chili queens. As an tribute to chili, the state dish, the city of San Antonio holds an annual “Return of the Chili Queens Festival” in Market Square during the Memorial Day celebrations in May, sponsored by the El Mercado Merchants.
1881 – William Gerard Tobin (1833-1884), former Texas Ranger, hotel proprietor, and an advocate of Texas-type Mexican food, negotiated with the United States government to sell canned chili to the army and navy. In 1884, he organized a venture with the Range Canning Company at Fort McKavett, Texas to make chili from goat meat. Tobin’s death, a few days after the canning operation had started, ended further developemnt and the venture failed.
1890 – Chili historians are not exactly certain who first “invented” chili powder. Fort Worth chili buffs give credit to DeWitt Clinton Pendery who arrived in Fort Worth, Texas in 1870. It is said that local cowboys jeered his elegant appearance (he was wearing a long frock coat and a tall silk hat) as he stepped onto the dusty street. It is also said that he was initiated into the town by a bullet whipping through his coat. He casually collected his belongings and continued on his way, earning immediate popular respect. By 1890, after his grocery store burned down, he started selling his own unique blend of chiles to cafes, hotels, and citizens under the name of Mexican Chili Supply Company. Pendery’s products are still sold today by members of his family. Pendery wrote of the medicinal benefits of his condiments and its acclamation from physicians: “The health giving properties of hot chile peppers have no equal. They give tone to the alimentary canal regulating the functions, giving a natural appetite and promoting health by action of the kidneys, skin and lymphatics.”
San Antonio buffs swear that chili powder was invented by William Gebhardt, a German immigrant in New Braunfels, Texas (now a suburb of San Antonio) around 1890. Since chiles were only available after the summer harvest, chili was only a seasonal food during that era. Gebhardt solved the problem by importing Mexican ancho chiles so that he could serve the dish year-round. At first he called the product “Tampico Dust.” In 1896, he changed the name to Eagle Brand Chili Powder and registered his trademark, making it one of the oldest in the United States. In 1960, it was acquired by Beatrice Foods and is now known as Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company. The blend today is unchanged and is still one of the most popular brands used.
1893 – The Texas chili went national when Texas set up a San Antonio Chili Stand at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Chili in the 20th Century
Around the turn of the century, chili joints appeared in Texas. By the 1920s, they were familiar all over the West, and by the depression years, there was hardly a town that didn’t have a chili parlor. The chili joints were usually no more than a shed or a room with a counter and some stools. Usually a blanket was hung up to separate the kitchen. By the depression years, the chili joints meant the difference between starvation and staying alive. Chili was cheap and crackers were free. At the time, chili was said to have saved more people from starvation than the Red Cross. The Dictionary of American Regional English describes chili joints as: “A small cheap restaurant, particularly one that served poor quality food.”
1908 – Willie Gebhardt, originally of New Braunfels, Texas and later of San Antonio, produces the first canned chili.
1936-2000 – Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood, California probably made the most famous chili. The owner of the restaurant, Dave Chasen (1899-1973), ex-vaudeville performer, kept the recipe a secret, entrusting it to no one. For years, he came to the restaurant every Sunday to privately cook up a batch, which he would freeze for the week, believing that the chili was best when reheated. “It is a kind of bastard chili” was all that Dave Chasen would divulge.
Chauffeurs and studio people, actors and actresses would come to the back door of Chasen’s to buy and pick up the chili by the quart. Other famous people craved this chili such as comedian and actor Jack Benny (1894-1974) who ordered it by the quart. J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who considered it the best chili in the world, and Eleanor Roosevelt (1894-1962) wife of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, sought the recipe but was refused (a complimentary order was dispatched to her instead). It is said that Chasen’s also send chili to movie actor Clark Gable (1901-1960), when he was in the hospital (he reportedly had it for dinner the night he died). During the filming of the movie Cleopatra in Rome, Italy, famous movie star, Elizabeth Taylor, had Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood, California send 10 quarts of their famous chili to her. She supposedly paid $200 to have it shipped to her in Rome.
1952 – Most present day historians write that the first World’s Chili Championship was the 1967 cook-off in Terlingua, Texas. Ranger Bob Ritchey of Texas proved this theory wrong. He researched and found several newspaper articles about the 1952 Texas State Fair Chili Championship. On October 5, 1952, headlines of The Daily Times Herald of Dallas, Texas said “Woman Wins But Men Do Well in Chili Event.”
On October 5, 1952 at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, Texas. Mrs. F. G. Ventura of Dallas won the Texas State Fair contest and her recipe was declared the “Official State Fair of Texas Chili Recipe” and first ever “World Champion Chili Cook.” Mrs. Ventura held her title as World Champions Chili Cook for fifteen years. The event was planned by Joe. E. Cooper (1895-1952), ex-newspaper man, to help promote his newly published book on chili called With or Without Beans – An Informal Biography of Chili. It was a no-holds-barred affair as to ingredients, except that beans could not be used. The contestants numbered fifty-five with five judges. Joe E. Cooper is quoted as saying: “Besides that, it’ll take a lot of judges because after the first two or three spoonfuls of good, hot Texas-style chili, the fine edge wears off even an expert chili judge’s taste buds… It’ll be a hot job but one that no true Texan will shirk.”
1967 – The most famous and well known chili cook-off took place in 1967 in Terlingua, Texas. Terlingua was once a thriving mercury-mining town of 5,000 people and it is the most remote site your can choose as it is not close to any major city and the nearest commercial airport is almost 279 miles away. Just getting to Terlingua requires a major effort. It was a two-man cook-off between Texas chili champ Homer “Wick” Fowler (1909-1972), a Dallas and Denton newspaper reporter, and H. Allen Smith (1906-1976), New York humorist and author, which ended in a tie.
The cook-off challenge started when H. Allen Smith wrote a story for the August 1967 Holiday Magazine titled Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do, which claimed that no one in Texas could make proper chili. Smith contended that “. . . no living man, I repeat, can put together a pot of chili as ambrosial, as delicately and zestfully flavorful, as the chili I make.” His article included his recipe for chili that included beans.
Of course, this offended many Texans who would never consider adding beans to their chili. When Frank Tolbert (1912-1984), famous journalist and author of A Bowl of Red, saw Smith’s article, he started open warfare in the press with a column he wrote for the Dallas News. A reader suggested that Fowler answer the challenge, which he did. The cook-off competition ended in a tie vote when the tie-breaker judge, Dave Witts, a Dallas lawyer and self-proclaimed mayor of Terlingua, spat out his chili, declaring that his taste buds were “ruint,” and said they would have to do the whole thing over again next year.
1977 – The chili manufacturers of the state of Texas, successfully lobbied the Texas legislature to have chili proclaimed the official “state food” of Texas “in recognition of the fact that the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.”
Famous Quotes about Chili
“Next to music there is nothing that lifts the spirits and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili.”
Harry James (1916-1983) band leader and trumpeter
“Wish I had time for just one more bowl of chili.”
Alleged dying words of Kit Carson (1809-1868), Frontiers Man and Mountain Man
“Chili is much improved by having had a day to contemplate its fate.”
John Steele Gordon
“Chili is not so much food as a state of mind. Addictions to it are formed early in life and the victims never recover. On blue days in October, I get this passionate yearning for a bowl of chili, and I nearly lose my mind.”
Margaret Cousins, novelist
“The aroma of good chili should generate rapture akin to a lover’s kiss.”
Motto of the Chili Appreciation Society International
“Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the United States
“Whenever I meet someone who does not consider chili a favorite dish, then I’ve usually found someone who has never tasted good chili.
Jan Butel, author of Chili Madness
Linda Stradley / What’s Cooking America (www.whatscookingamerica.net)