Chili: More American than Apple Pie

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

Photo 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.

11/19/2020 10:43:28 PM

I hope in the future the Latino misnomer fades away as it has caused more alienation and confusion mostly engendered by census classifications. If these matriarchs in the 1860's were selling their "stews", they were Mexican, as they would have been born in Mexico, now Texas and USA territory. I understand the distancing from anything of Tex-Mex allure only because Mexico is proud of their cuisine and it is often tied to the herbs and foods available in the region, again a region that did not belong to Mexico anymore. Chili may be more American than apple pie but it is also as Mexican in origin as tomato, corn and chile or chili, as is the cowboy culture which originated in Mexico, vaquero turned buckaroo. I'd even argue the Mexican flag which flew for decades in some of the homes of the new Texas republic is part of Americana. It is often part of the culture because of lack of opportunities to turn to the cuisine to survive. These women from the 1800's probably didn't have much choice. There's is lot of community in a good bowl of chili. Thank you for the article.



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