When Its Cold Outside - Its Chili

Actually, I love chili anytime of the year, but during cold weather it is especially good, or as the novelist Margaret Cousins said, "Chili is not so much food as it is a state of mind. Addictions to it are formed early in life and the victims never recover. On cold, blue days in October, I get this passionate yearning for a bowl of chili, and I nearly lose my mind."

There are probably thousands of different chili recipes and I enjoy making and eating a variety of chili recipes. For me, it is a great food adventure. And although I may have my personal favorites, such as my version of a traditional chili, I really don't get too excited if someone else has his favorite that is much different than mine.

Some people like it spicy and hot and some prefer it mildly spiced. Some cooks use ground beef while others insist that the beef should be chopped. There are chili recipes that use chicken, turkey, pork, venison or other rather exotic meats. Some chili recipes use beer or meat stocks as part or all of the cooking liquid.

There are many vegetarian versions of chili as well. The use of vegetable stock and/or tomatoes eliminates the need for meat.

What kinds of beans, if any, should be in a chili? Here, too, you'll find a vast range of preferences. Pinto beans, red beans, kidney beans, black beans or white beans - there are recipes that use each or them or even a combination of several, such as the Three Bean Enchilada Recipe on the website. But you should also know that there were no beans in chili originally!

What kind of chile peppers or chili seasoning should be used and how much? With this the great chili debate really heats up - so to speak. ( Chile refers to the pepper pod. Chili to the creation. )

And the great chili debate is not limited to what chili or chili recipe is best. Some people are so passionate about where the first bowl was made and who made it that they nearly come to blows.

In America, chili is something many people love to cook and eat, and some love to argue about. My Texas friends will undoubtedly defend their chili as the best ( and maybe the only true chili) in the world.

In his book, "Simple Cooking," John Thorpe wrote, "It can only truly be Texas red if it walks the thin line just this side of indigestibility: Damning the mouth that eats it and defying the stomach to digest it, the ingredients are hardly willing to lie in the same pot together."

What is amazing to me, however, is that even among residents of Texas there is disagreement as to the single best chili recipe. That has helped keep "chili cookoffs" alive and well, not only in Texas, but in a number of areas throughout the country. I have never desired to be a chili judge. If their life isn't in jeopardy, their digestive systems may be. When my husband once thought about accepting an invitation to judge such a contest I told him he'd sleep outside that night if he did. He declined the invitation to be a judge, thank goodness.

Is there such a thing as "the original Texas chili?" The history of chili is very unclear about this. There is a recipe that is at least traceable to a cattle range cook, or perhaps it was from the combined offerings of several old cowboys straddled up to a Texas bar. Nobody will swear that this is the first true Texas chili recipe, but most say it seems pretty close. Notice ...no beans.

Chili con Carne Recipe
An "Original" Chili Recipe
  • Cut up as much meat as you think you will need (any kind will do, but beef is probably best) in pieces about the size of a pecan
  • Put it in a pot, along with some suet (fat) enough so as the meat won't stick to the sides of the pot
  • Cook it with about the same amount of wild onions, garlic, oregano, and chiles as you have got meat
  • Put in some salt
  • Stir it from time to time and cook it until the meat is as tender as you think it's going to get

    Some chili recipes today are rather "tame" or mild because that is the way some people like it. But the history of chili is pretty clear that there never was anything really mild about chili and there was a very good reason.

    Think about it. Even if chili did not originate in Texas, the cattle drives and range cooks certainly helped popularize it.

    On the trail, the cook used what meat he had available. If if wasn't fresh-killed beef or buffalo or deer then it was likely jackrabbit or rattlesnake. The range cook certainly feared his own lynching if he tried to feed the cow hands freshly killed beef or buffalo without aging the meat. Out of necessity he had to attempt to disguise the meat's flavor and for this he used what he had on hand: onions, garlic, salt and chile peppers. The range cook also knew that spices helped keep the meat from spoiling. Chili became the meal of the day. And the term "Chili con Carne" is Spanish for "peppers and meat." (See, no beans.)

    Some food experts and historians say that San Antonio should be given credit for popularizing chili because it was there that women called "Chili Queens" occupied parts of the Military Plaza and sold their highly seasoned stews called "chili" from small carts. Although these ladies sold chili from carts for many years, it became very popular by 1880. In fact the plaza became known as "La Plaza del Chile con Carne."

    And it was then that the "Queens" began to refine and add sophistication to the dish they were selling. They brought it somewhere near todays stage because each one was constantly striving to improve her chili recipe, simply to attract more customers than any of the competition. The desire to cook up the best bowl of chili in the world is at least that old. Apparently chili cookoffs were born.

    Here is an example of a Chili Queen's recipe: (Again, no beans)
    Chili Queen's Recipe
    Original San Antonio Chili

  • 2 pounds beef shoulder, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1 pound pork shoulder, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1/2 cup suet (fat from meat, 1/4 cup beef fat, 1/4 cup pork fat)
  • 3 medium-sized onions, chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 quart water
  • 4 ancho chiles
  • 1 serrano chile
  • 6 dried red chiles
  • 1 tablespoon comino seeds, freshly ground (cumin)
  • 2 tablespoons Mexican oregano
  • Salt to taste

  • Place lightly floured beef and pork cubes in the pork and beef fat in a heavy chili pot and cook quickly, stirring often.
  • Add onions and garlic and cook until they are tender and limp
  • Add water to mixture and simmer slowly while preparing chiles
  • Remove stems and seeds from chiles and chop very finely
  • Grind chiles in molcajete and add oregano with salt to mixture
  • Simmer another 2 hours
  • Remove fat pieces and skim off some fat
  • Never cook frijoles with chiles and meat
  • Serve as separate dish.
    (Institute of Texan Cultures)

    So where was chili invented? Again the history of chili simply indicates there may not be an answer. We know that peppers and spices have existed since the beginning of time. Chile peppers show up in the ancient foods of China, India, Indonesia, Italy, the Caribbean, France, and the Arab states. The green chile pepper was brought to what is now New Mexico in 1598. And strangely enough, Canary Islanders who came to San Antonio as early as 1723 used local peppers, wild onions, garlic, and other spices to cook pungent meat dishes somewhat like the ones they prepared in their native land.

    But it is reasonably clear how chili was popularized. The credit must go to the cattle trail cooks and certainly to the Chili Queens of San Antonio.

    As a food, how important is chili to certain parts of American life and culture? The famous mountain man, Kit Carson, thought of chili when he supposedly uttered his dying words: "Wish I had time for just one more bowl of chili."

    Will we ever be able to crown one single recipe as the best? I don't believe so, and that's fine with me. I think everyone has great fun trying to do so.

    The history of chili and its development makes me believe the great chili debate is destined to continue forever.

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    About The Author, Donna Hager
    Donna Hager has owned and operated an American-style restaurant for over two decades. More articles and hundreds of recipes can be found on her website that features real restaurant recipes, menus, cooking tips, and much more at Real Restaurant Recipes

    Donna is also the author of the new e-cookbook, "Real Restaurant Recipes: Food That Built a Business"