con carne is the national dish of Texas.
It was invented in Texas by Texas natives-literally-and it's made
right only in Texas.
Chili was born in San Antonio
in the mid-18th Century. Christianized Indians at the missions and
private soldiers at Presidio San Antonio de Bejár didn't get
the best cuts of meat. Those went to the presidial officers and the
priests and 'puros españoles' in the hamlet of San Fernando
de Bejár that was growing up around the presidio and closer missions.
What the 'po' folks' got was, mostly, poor doe and old goat. Poor
doe is an old, tough deer-female-and her meat is tough as a boot.
Meat from old goats is not only tough, but it tastes terrible. Something
had to be done both to tenderize the meat and to kill the taste.
The solution was to stew the meat with spices until it was tenderized
and tasted only of the spices, their taste completely masking any
taste the meat itself might have. Oregano, garlic, the native chiles
that grew wild in the area, cumin, and perhaps a dozen other spices
were used to kill the taste of meat from an old goat. Stewing the
meat for hours on end tenderized it.
Chili, as it is called today is properly chiles con carne-peppers
with meat. Notice there is no mention of frijoles-beans here, nor
of spaghetti, nor of macaroni, nor of any of the many things outsiders
have added to chili. A proper bowl of chili is meat and the spices
necessary to turn it into chili, nothing more.
Chili stands in
front of San Antonio's old post office building3
Postcard courtesy rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
|The first commercial
bowls of chili ever sold were sold on the streets of downtown San
Antonio, beginning in the early 1880s. San Antonio's Chili Queens
were a fixture in downtown until 1943, when health concerns-mainly
on the part of Army medical personnel-shut them down.
A Chili Queen was a young, attractive Hispanic girl who served as
the draw. There was a cast-iron pot of chili on a bed of coals and
sand in the back of a mule drawn wagon or later Model T truck, and
a supply of bowls and spoons. For a nickel or later a dime, you could
buy a bowl of chili, which would be ladled out of the open-top pot
into a crockery bowl and handed to you by the Chili Queen. There was,
admittedly, little in the way of sanitation in Chili Queen chili.
Other towns, most notably Austin
and Athens, had tamale
vendors, but only San Antonio
seems to have had the Chili Queens.
There is very little similarity between the chili made by the mission
Indians and Chili Queens and what is served as 'chili con carne'
by restaurants that serve true chili. The best chili, however, is
home made. This is how to make it.
start with good meat. Forget hamburger, ground round, or even 'chili
grind.' Buy a couple of pounds of beef stew meat. Trim the fat and
sinew off the stew meat and cut it into chunks about the size of the
end of a large man's thumb. This is the carne-the meat. From
here on you turn it into chiles con carne-peppers with meat.
Put just enough olive oil-or lard if you choose-into a heavy skillet
so that you'll coat the bottom of the skillet. Tear up an ancho
pepper-the big, dry, dark red one-and add the skin but not the seeds
to the pan. Then take about half a tablespoon of whole comino-cumin
seeds-not ground cumin, and crush them by rubbing them between
your hands over the skillet, letting the broken and crushed seeds
fall into the skillet. Turn on medium heat beneath the skillet and
add the meat, stirring and turning it to get all parts of it into
the oil you've seasoned with ancho pepper skin and crushed
Into a large cast iron pot-or a slow cooker, they work too-put about
4 ounces of prepared chili powder-Bolner's, of San Antonio, is best,
Gebhardt's a close second, and brand-name chili powders go downhill
from there. Add another torn-up ancho-skin only-and another
tablespoon or so of crushed comino. Chop a medium onion and
put it in the pot. You can add a couple of cloves of crushed garlic
if you choose, an extra teaspoon or so of oregano. The beauty of chili
is it's an individual's dish, and as long as the very basics are adhered
to, it's possible to add spices to individual tastes.
Last comes the liquid. Some people use a can of tomato sauce, some
a couple of small cans of tomato paste and additional liquid, some
diced tomatoes. My personal preference is for RoTel diced tomatoes
with green chiles, but not the kind with added cilantro and lime juice.
One of the 10oz cans is perfect, though more liquid will be needed.
Now you decide how hot your chili's going to be. The RoTel tomatoes
will give it a base of chemical heat, and that may be enough for some
people. The idea is to make the chili hot enough that you feel the
heat about halfway down your esophagus, but it doesn't burn your mouth.
If it burns your mouth, you've overdone it. In my chili, I add-sparingly-dried
chiles pequeños or chilipitines, as they are often called.
A half-dozen or so, broken and added to the ingredients, is about
right. If you don't have chilipitines growing in your yard
and you can't find the dried ones on the grocery shelf, about half
a teaspoon of cayenne pepper will be enough.
Once the meat is brown on all sides, add it to the pot or cooker.
Check to see how thick the mix is once you've stirred it. A large
spoon should stand at first, then slowly topple if it's thick enough.
If it's too thick and the spoon doesn't topple, add about half a tomato
can of either water or beer. Cover the pot or slow cooker and put
the on a back burner with a very low heat under it or turn the slow
cooker to low. You'll have to watch the pot fairly closely over the
next four or five hours, but if you're using a slow cooker just forget
about it for about 12 hours. The slow cooker's not going to burn the
stuff, but if enough liquid escapes the cast-iron pot over a fire
or electric element, the stuff inside will burn. If, after you remove
the chili from the fire, it seems a little thin, there's a right way
and a wrong way to thicken it. The right way is to take masa-either
corn or harina (wheat), though masa de maize works best-add
enough water to it to make a thick but flowable mixture, and add that
to the chili, stirring it in thoroughly. Then put the chili back on
the heat for another half hour or so.
It's twelve hours later and you've turned off the slow cooker. Now
it's time to eat the chili, right? WRONG! This is where all
chili-cookoff chili and 99 out of every hundred pots of home-made
chili are not exactly ruined, but are denied the opportunity to taste
as good as they can taste. Don't eat that chili yet! Let the iron
pot or slow-cooker liner cool, then put it in the refrigerator for
about 24 hours. This sets the spices and allows the full flavor of
the chili to develop. Then reheat it and serve it. The only additions
to the chili are the traditional one-saltine crackers, crumbled and
stirred in-and a non-traditional but popular one. That's Fritos corn
chips, crumbled and stirred in.
did the idea of putting beans in chili get started? Probably during
the First World War. There were 'meatless' days-usually Tuesdays-during
WW I, and somehow the fact that people at home weren't eating meat
was supposed to help the war effort. Beans are, sometimes, a mediocre
substitute for meat. It's entirely possible that, even in San Antonio,
when meat was in short supply, pinto beans were substituted for meat
in a chili-seasoned dish, or even that the meat supply for the chili
was stretched by adding beans. However, this was only a temporary,
stopgap measure until meat was again available. It is possible that
some servicemen from the North got hold of chili that had its meat
supply 'stretched' with beans and thought that was the way chili was
supposed to be made. This would certainly have taken the idea of chili
with beans in it to the North, from which it would return to Texas
many years later.
What about the other 'additives'-in particular macaroni and spaghetti?
These seem to be strictly a Yankee invention. It's pretty much certain
that the inventors of chili, the mission Indians and poor soldiers
of the presidio, had no idea what either was. During the Chili Queen
period macaroni was mostly 'macaroni and cheese,' served in homes.
Spaghetti was found only in Italian restaurants, of which there weren't
a lot in Texas in the period. Northern-born soldiers, having served
in San Antonio and at other South Texas bases often fell in love with
chili. It's by no means impossible that they took ingredients for
chili back home, gave them to Mama Italiana, and said "Can you make
stuff with this?" Mama Italiana, being Mama Italiana, is going to
add either spaghetti or macaroni to the concoction, both to stretch
the meat supply and because spaghetti and macaroni were and are staples
in Italian homes. It wouldn't be a far step from that for the same
stuff to show up in Papa Italiano's corner café, at which point Northerners
are going to get the idea that chili is supposed to have macaroni
or spaghetti in it.