Chili Con Carne - American Classics
Jean AndersonJames Beard cookbook-hall-of-famer Jean Anderson's monthly column features America's great classic recipes. Here she looks at Chili Con Carne.
Is any American classic more controversial than chili? Is any more steeped in myth? Here are just a few of the tales handed down about the origin of chili, some of them still taken as gospel. So what's fiction? What's fact?
• Chili con carne is Mexican -- its name, after all, is Spanish. Fiction! One Mexican dictionary so vehemently denies all ties to Mexico it calls chili "a detestable dish sold from Texas to New York."
• Texas cowboys created chili. Nope. I'd always heard that cowboys rustled up a meal by crumbling the peppery beef pemmican they carried in their saddle bags into a bucket of water, tossing in wild onions and herbs gleaned on the range, and boiling everything up over their campfires. Sounds plausible, but Dave DeWitt, author of The Chili Pepper Encyclopedia, considers the story apocryphal.
• Canary Islanders settling in San Antonio early in the 18th century introduced us to chili. No way.
• Sister Mary of Agreda, the early 17th-century Spanish nun who swore she'd been whisked to the Southwest – in spirit if not in body – to preach among the American Indians picked up a recipe for chili and jotted down its ingredients: chili peppers . . . onions . . . tomatoes . . . venison. Hogwash.
So what's the real story? Chili originated in Texas and though Mexicans reject all claims to it, South-of-the-Border staples are integral to those early chilies – tiny but incendiary chili pequins, onions, beef, oregano, cumin. But in the beginning, culinary historians mostly agree, no beans, no tomatoes.
Early in the 19th century, San Antonio's poorest families would stretch a bit of meat over many mouths by hashing it with chili peppers. Visiting San Antonio in 1828, J.C. Clopper of Houston saw pots of peppery hash simmering on the back streets and remarked on how meat was "cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as pieces of meat" and everything "stewed together." Clopper gives the hash no name but his description may be the first we have of chili -- or rather its peppery precurser.
Around 1880, historian Charles Ramsdell commented on the "rickety chili stands" set up around San Antonio's El Mercado (city market) where "chili queens" sold "bowls o' red" at a dime a pop to all comers, among them such visiting VIPs as O. Henry and William Jennings Bryan. Little more than a decade later (in 1893), one of the Chicago World Fair's hottest attractions was the San Antonio Chili Stand and its bowls o' red.
Today, with chili cook-offs drawing crowds across the U.S., variations on that long-ago bowl o' red abound, some dreamed up by professional chefs, others by hobby cooks. Some contestants tame chili's initial fire and most slip in a secret ingredient or two – some-times beer, sometimes bitter chocolate, sometimes sausage, sometimes, even, soy sauce.
I've judged many a cook-off, I've tasted chilies both whack-o and wonderful. But in the end, I keep coming back to this, my own easy spin on that 19th-century bowl o' red.
Make the chile con carne recipe.