Chili con carne, simply called “chili” in the USA, is a spicy stew made with spicy chili peppers and meat. The traditional Texas-style chili con carne is a simple meal of peppers, garlic, onions, and cumin all simmered together with chopped or ground beef.
There are hundreds of variations, with all different types of meat and a variety of other ingredients, most notably beans and tomatoes. The many variations from the original San Antonio, Texas formula are the subject of colorful disputes among chili heads, the die-hard aficionados of the Southwest.
The Origination of Chili con Carne
Although the ingredients of the true recipe may be in dispute, its origin is not. Chili con carne is a cowboy meal from San Antonio, Texas. It originated with the Spanish Canary Islanders that were relocated to San Antonio, Texas more than 200 years ago.
The chili recipe used for decades on American Southwest expeditions consisted of dried beef, suet, dried peppers (most commonly chilipiquenes peppers), and salt, which were pounded together and dried into bricks. Easy to carry and store, the chili bricks were boiled in cast iron pots to make “chili,” a hearty meal for any hungry man after a day on the trail.
The hearty meal was quick to spread east. In the late 1800’s chili was introduced to Chicago when the San Antonio Chili Stand began operation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Chicagoans added their own special ingredients to chili adding a distinctive Chicago flare.
Real Texas-style chili con carne spread from San Antonio throughout the South and West. It’s so much a part of the Texas culture that it became the official state dose in 1977.
American Chili Parlors
Prior to America’s involvement in World War II, hundreds of chili parlors lined the streets of Texas and other Southern and Southwestern states. Most chili joint, as they were affectionately known, laid claimed to a “secret chili recipe,” that made it the world’s best chili.
One of the most famous chili parlors was Bob Pool’s chili joint in Dallas located across the street from the headquarters of the posh Neiman Marcus department store chain. Stanley Marcus, president of Neiman Marcus, frequently dined at Bob Pool’s joint and was known to ship Bob’s chili by air express to dozens of friends and his best customers across the country. Several members of General Dwight Eisenhower’s staff also received regular chili shipments to their Parid headquarters.
The Great Chili Controversy
Ask any chili head and they will tell you that chi contains no beans or other vegetables. That hasn’t stopped people from experimenting. In fact, many famous Americans have toyed with the classic chili recipe to suit their own taste and needs.
President Lyndon Johnson’s favorite chili recipe was “Pedernales River chili,” named after his Texas Hill Country ranch. On doctor’s orders, Pedernales River chili eliminated the traditional beef suet to che arriva the sodium, but adds tomatoes and onions. Johnson preferred venison, when available, to beef, which were thought to be leaner than most beef.
Other variations on the original chili con carne recipe are thought to have resulted due to the Great Depression and the cost and availability of beef. Regardless of how it happened, chili made with beans is now prevalent. Pinto beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, great northern beans, and navy beans are the most common beans used in chili.
Tomatoes are another ingredient commonly used in chili recipes. Wick Fowler, the inventor of Two-Alarm Chili, proudly adds tomato sauce to his famous chili recipe. When you make a pot of Two-Alarm Chili you add a 15-oz. can of tomatoes per three pounds of meat. Fowler also suggests that his chili should not be enjoyed fresh. Instead, Wick recommends allowing it to refrigerate overnight. He says this locks-in the smooth flavor.
Chili chefs have also been known to add sweetcorn, peanut butter, tomatillos, chorizo, cocoa, chocolate, coffee, pineapples, bananas, oranges, tequila, cola, honey, cinnamon, allspice, pasta, saffron, molasses, vinegar, red wine, beer, whiskey, and bourbon to their recipes. Cornstarch and Arizona masa flour are frequently used as a thickener. Many chili cooks believe that dark chocolate (cocoa powder) adds an authentic richness and unmistakable flavor akin to the Mexican molé sauce.
However you decide to make it, enjoy a bowl of fresh chili this winter. It will keep you warm and put a delicious smile on your face.