National Dish of Texas
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.
stands in front of San Antonio's old post office building
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
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 comino.
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.