Chili: More American than Apple Pie

Chili has a long history in American cooking and Southwestern culinary tradition, with simple ingredients and broad appeal.

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by Getty Images/BHOFACK2

“As American as apple pie” is an interesting phrase when you consider that apples, pie, and the combination of the two originated in Central Asia, Egypt, and England, respectively. And it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of foods that did originate in the United States — hot dogs, cheeseburgers, chocolate chip cookies, lobster rolls, s’mores, fortune cookies, peanut butter, and potato chips among them. In addition, the entire range of Tex-Mex dishes originated in the U.S., including fajitas, nachos, chimichangas, and chili con carne. The final dish on that list, which means “chili with meat,” is often shortened to just “chili.” Unlike apple pie, chili is undeniably American.

Texas Origins

The earliest mention of a chili-type recipe may be J. C. Clopper’s 1928 description of a beef stew made by poor families in San Antonio, Texas, consisting of “a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat.” A trail food far predates this reference, however. In the 1850s, Texas cowboys would pound a mixture of dried beef, suet, chile peppers, salt, and pepper into rectangular “chili bricks” that would be dried for preservation and then later boiled in water to make a spicy beef stew on the cattle trail. The modern-day American favorite developed from both variations.

By the 1860s, the dish had become so popular in San Antonio that the city was known for its “chili queens.” Stands selling chili, tamales, and other Tex-Mex dishes proliferated at the Military Plaza — and later, the Alamo and Haymarket Plazas. Families, often Latino and usually led by matriarchs, would arrive in the morning, set up tents, and serve customers from pots of chili they’d prepared at home. Some vendors would also feed musicians, who would then perform in front of the chili stand to attract customers. The cheap food and festive atmosphere drew people from all walks of life. At dusk, each family would pack up its stall and take it home, repeating the process the next day.

Originally, only a few women were designated chili queens, most notably Sadie Thornhill and Martha Garcia, who were particularly well-known chili vendors from the beginnings of these outdoor gatherings. Gradually, however, tourists began to refer to any female chili vendor as a chili queen, while the vendors themselves reserved the term for those who sold the most chili in a night. In later years, the term came to refer to the vendors’ often-teenaged daughters who served the chili. The cheap food and wandering musicians attracted San Antonio residents, soldiers stationed in the area, and tourists alike. The number of vendors swelled into the hundreds, while, on a good day, customers amounted to the thousands.

Chili Goes National

Chili eventually began to attract national attention. The 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. Amid full-sized replicas of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria; new product introductions; and performances of every stripe was the San Antonio Chili Stand set up by the state of Texas. Americans from all over got a taste of the spicy dish from Texas, and not long after, chili parlors popped up in cities outside the Lone Star State.

Surprisingly, chili didn’t catch on in Mexico. Although some U.S. citizens still think of chili as “Mexican food,” residents of Mexico were, and are, quick to point out its true origins and to disavow any connection to the dish. In fact, the 1898 Diccionario de Mejicanismos describes chili as “a detestable dish sold from Texas to New York City and erroneously described as Mexican.”

bunches of red and green peppers hanging on the edge of a spice stall

The chile peppers and other spices required to make chili weren’t readily available in many northern towns in the early 1900s. This is still true today. In 1895, Lyman Davis — a rancher from Corsicana, Texas — introduced his canned Wolf Brand Chili to the nation. In 1908, Willie Gebhardt of New Braunfels, Texas, also began canning chili. Gebhardt’s biggest contribution to the dish’s popularity, however, was in the creation of chili powder — a pre-mixed blend of chili spices. Gebhardt Chili Powder is still available and highly regarded by most chili cooks. Wolf’s chili is also still available, the brand having passed through several corporate owners. Wolf, along with other chili manufacturers, successfully lobbied the Texas legislature to name chili the official food of Texas in 1977.

a green postcard with blue handwriting and a building with tables out front

Chili was big business by the mid-1900s, and several white Americans were cashing in on the dish. At the same time, descendants of its mostly Latino originators were being run out of business by the mostly white politicians of San Antonio. The city’s health department closed the chili stands sporadically throughout the 1930s, and permanently in the early 1940s, ostensibly for unsanitary conditions. Some modern historians speculate that racist perceptions played a larger role in the closures than actual issues of sanitation.

Making Chili: The Basics

You don’t need canned chili or prepackaged chili powder to make chili. Here’s a simple recipe: Coarsely grind or cut some beef into small pieces. For every pound of meat, add 3 to 5 chile peppers. Use guajillo, jalapeño, serrano, chile de árbol, pequín, or any other pepper or mix of peppers. Add water to make a thick stew, and simmer until the meat is tender, between 1 and 5 hours. Add salt to taste. The end. According to some chili purists, if you add more, you’re no longer making chili.

Coarsely ground beef is the best ingredient for a simple chili. “Regular” ground beef is usually 30 percent fat. This makes for a fairly greasy chili. You can skim some of the fat, but capsaicin — the molecule that gives chile peppers their heat — is fat-soluble, so you’ll lose both fat and heat if you do. Ground chuck, ground round, and ground sirloin are progressively less fatty versions of ground beef, typically 20, 15, and 10 percent fat, respectively. Chuck steak is a good choice, being relatively inexpensive but not terribly tough or sinewy. If you start your chili from a big hunk of meat, trim any excess fat before cutting it into small cubes, almost as fine as coarsely ground beef. You don’t have to brown the meat first.

Cooks’ Choice

Of course, most modern chili cooks use a slightly longer ingredients list. Three of the most common additions are tomatoes, onion, and garlic. You can add up to 5 ounces of tomato sauce or whole tomatoes, half an onion, and 1 clove of garlic per pound of meat. Chop fresh or whole tomatoes, onion, and garlic finer than the meat pieces. You can also use onion powder, or halved onions that you’ll remove before serving. The “fire” from the chile peppers (and secondarily from cumin, if used) should dominate the dish.

Cumin is probably the most common spice in modern chili; it works well with peppers and gives the meat a beef-taco-like taste. You can add up to 2 teaspoons of ground cumin per pound of meat. Other popular spices include oregano (especially Mexican oregano), cilantro, coriander, and paprika. Add these in small amounts, and don’t let their flavors dominate.

Chili powder is a pre-made spice blend that typically consists of — in decreasing amounts — paprika, oregano, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and onion powder. Paprika is ground bell pepper, which is the same species as hot chiles, but not spicy. It adds a little pepper flavor and some red color to the dish. You can adjust the balance with the individual spices. I always add more cumin to my chilies, even if chili powder is an ingredient.

Chili powder loses its kick fairly quickly. If your chili powder or other spices are more than 8 months old, get a fresh jar.


Absolutely No Squirrel Recipe

This recipe won the 2018 Austin ZEALOTS Chili Cookoff, despite (or perhaps because of) the total lack of squirrel meat. Yield: 7 servings.

dark brown chili with green chilies in a red and white bowl on a woven pot holder on a table

Directions: If you want to reduce the fat in this recipe, lightly brown the chuck steak (until no longer red on the outside) in a Dutch oven. Remove the chuck pieces, and then lightly brown the ground round. Discard however much fat you want. Return browned beef to Dutch oven, and add tomato sauce, beef broth, lager, and chile peppers. Bring to a boil and then lightly simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Add half the amount of each remaining spice and seasoning, stir thoroughly, and lightly simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Stir every 10 minutes or so. Keep heat low, and check for scorching when you stir.

Add remaining spices and seasoning, stir, and then simmer, covered, for an additional 30 minutes. If needed, thicken with masa harina.

Serve hot.

Ingredients

  • 0 pounds squirrel
  • 1 pound chuck steak, cut into small cubes
  • 2 pounds ground round (85 percent lean)
  • 12 ounces tomato sauce
  • 12 ounces low-sodium beef broth
  • 12 ounces amber lager
  • 11 dried red chile de árbol peppers, torn into 3 or 4 pieces
  • 11 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons Spanish paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons granulated onion
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 cubes beef bouillon
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons sazón seasoning

White Chicken Chili Recipe

This is a chili-inspired chicken and bean stew, rather than a traditional beef-based chili. Yield: 6 servings.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound chicken breast, cut into small cubes or cooked and shredded
  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 1 pound pre-soaked navy beans
  • 12 ounces beer
  • 24 ounces low-sodium chicken broth
  • 9 tomatillos, pulsed in food processor
  • 1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons granulated chicken bouillon
  • 2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 10 serrano peppers, sliced
  • 4 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

white chicken chili with red beans in a white bowl on a dark brown table

Directions: Combine chicken breast, ground chicken, and beans in a Dutch oven or large pot. Stir in beer, chicken broth, tomatillos, and onion. Add water to just cover all ingredients. Add bay leaf, and bring to a simmer.

Blend chicken bouillon, poultry seasoning, and garlic powder, and slowly stir small amounts into chili. Continue adding seasoning mix until you have a savory and slightly salty chicken stew.

Stir in sliced serrano peppers, cumin, and cayenne pepper, and let simmer for an additional 45 to 60 minutes. Stir frequently to keep the tomatillos from scorching. Serve hot.


Chris Colby is a homebrewer, food lover, author of two books, and contributing editor to the Beer and Wine Journal. He lives in Bastrop, Texas, with his wife and their cats.


Stay Warm! A steaming bowl of chili is a welcome remedy for a chilly season! Enjoy other piping hot comfort foods and ways to keep warm, such as how to build a rocket stove in our “Winter Warmth” course at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR ONLINE.