With cooler weather, Texans thoughts turn to chili. Anticipating the first cool snap, Jordan told Christian she wanted chili for supper. His reply? “It’s still ninety outside. I am not cooking chili.” But the next day when temperatures plunged, we had chili for supper.
No, we did not steal chili from the Mexicans. A mid-twentieth-century Mexican dictionary describes it as “a detestable dish sold from Texas to New York City and erroneously described as Mexican.” Evidence shows that Native Americans in the Southwest cooked with chili, beans, and peppers—today’s chili bears some resemblance to the native pemmican. But chili as we know it probably originated at a cowboy chuckwagon in the mid-nineteenth century. It had no vegetables, no peppers, tomatoes or onions, but was simply coarsely ground meat with suet (beef fat), the pulp of chile peppers, garlic, and spices such as oregano and cumin.
A distinction: chile is the pepper; chili is the dish we eat.
Chili probably first publicly appeared in the plazas of San Antonio where chili queens, closely chaperoned young girls, set up booths and offered their wares at night. For ten cents a man could get a huge bowl of chili with tortillas, beans, and coffee (somehow women rarely frequented the chili queens’ booths, perhaps because they served at night, perhaps because they attracted men of all classes). The city booteed the chili queens from the plazas by 1950.
Today, chili is big business, with small cook-offs held throughout the year in various locations. Winners who earn enough points are eligible for one of the two annual cook-offs held each fall in remote Terlingua. Rules for cook-offs are strict—no fillers such as beans, pasta, rice, or hominy; chili must be cooked “from scratch” in the open; commercial chili mixes are not permitted, though commercial chili powder is. Entries are judged on taste, appearance, consistency, and aroma. Men were the traditional winners for years, but in recent times they have been edged out by the women.
The first chili cook-off was a publicity stunt by Frank Tolbert, considered the grandfather of Texas chili. He came up with the idea to publicize his book, A Bowl of Red, and he chose Terlingua because of his love of the Big Bend area. Thereafter, what started as a lark, grew into serious competitions. Somewhere along the way, a rival group split off and held its own cook-off. Thus, today there are two simultaneous cook-offs in the tiny, almost-deserted town of Terlingua.
Some years back I wrote a book titled, Texas is Chili Country, (Texas Tech University Press), which traced the lore and history behind the dish and then offered a whole lot of recipes that illustrate the diversity of that dish we call chili, from Tolbert’s original recipe to vegan chili and everything in between—chili made with chicken, turkey, lamb or venison; low-fat or greaseless chili, which seems a sacrilege; infamous Cincinnati chili, which incorporates pasta. There’s even a complicated recipe with thirty ingredients, including sour-mash whiskey and soy sauce. Chili appears in alternate forms too—Frito pie, chili dogs, chili biscuits, taco salad, and so on. Can you hear the traditionalists screaming in agony?
In our compound household, Christian is the chili chef, and he tries a new recipe every time. Soon, he’ll work his way through the entire cookbook. I love what he produces, but this fall I’m going to sneak in a batch of my chili. My neighbor, a sometime Terlingua judge and chili purist, says this is not chili but stew. Nonetheless, my kids grew up on it.
Judy’s mild and tentative chili
1 lb. ground beef
Enough oil to sauté onion, garlic and beef
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 cup beer—or throw in the whole beer, but don’t make your chili soupy or sloppy
4 tsp. chili powder or to taste
2 tsp. salt
2 c. beans (I use canned pintos)
Brown onion and garlic; add hamburger and cook until all pink is gone.
Add everything else except beans and simmer for 60 to 90 minutes. Stir occasionally and add more beer as needed (you’ve got that open warm beer anyway). Taste and add more chili powder as needed. Add beans and heat just before serving.
My family likes to top it with chopped purple onion, grated cheddar, and sour cream.