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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

The National Dish of Texas

by C. F. Eckhardt
Chili 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.

San Antonio Texas chili stand, old post card
Chili stands in front of San Antonio's old post office building
Postcard courtesy www.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.

First, 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 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.

OK. 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.

Now-where 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.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
June 7, 2006 column

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