History of Chili

From the time the second person on earth mixed some chile peppers with meat and cooked them, the great chili debate was on; more of a war, in fact. The desire to brew up the best bowl of chili in the world is exactly that old.

Perhaps it is the effect of Capisicum spices upon man's mind; for, in the immortal words of Joe DeFrates, the only man ever to win the National and the World Chili Championships, "Chili powder makes you crazy." That may say it all. To keep things straight, chile refers to the pepper pod, and chili to the concoction. The e and the i of it all.

The great debate, it seems, is not limited to whose chili is best. Even more heated is the argument over where the first bowl was made; and by whom. Estimates range from "somewhere west of Laramie," in the early nineteenth century - being a product of a Texas trail drive - to a grisly tale of enraged Aztecs, who cut up invading Spanish conquistadors, seasoned chunks of them with a passel of chile peppers, and ate them.

Never has there been anything mild about chili.

Our travels through Texas, New Mexico, and California, and even Mexico, over the years have failed to turn up the elusive "best bowl of chili." Every state lays claim to the title, and certainly no Texan worth his comino (cumin) would think, even for a moment, that it rests anywhere else but in the Lone Star State - and probably right in his own blackened and battered chili pot.

There may not be an answer. There are, however, certain facts that one cannot overlook. The mixture of meat, beans, peppers, and herbs was known to the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayan Indians long before Columbus and the conquistadores.

Fact: Chile peppers were used in Cervantes's Spain and show up in great ancient cuisines of China, India, Indonesia, Italy, the Caribbean, France, and the Arab states.

Fact: Don Juan de Onate entered what is now New Mexico in 1598 and brought with him the green chile pepper. It has grown there for the nearly four hundred years since.

Fact: Canary Islanders, transplanted in San Antonio as early as 1723, used local peppers, wild onions, garlic, and other spices to concoct pungent meat dishes - improvising upon ones they had cooked for generations in their native land, where the chile pepper also grew.

Exit fact, enter conjecture.

There is little doubt that cattle drivers and trail hands did more to popularize the dish throughout the Southwest than anybody else, and there is a tale that we heard one frosty night in a Texican bar in Marfa, Texas, about a range cook who made chili along all the great cattle trails of Texas. He collected wild oregano, chile peppers, wild garlic, and onions and mixed it all with the fresh-killed beef or buffalo - or jackrabbit, armadillo, rattlesnake, or whatever he had at hand - and the cowhands ate it like ambrosia. And to make sure he had an ample supply of native spices wherever he went, he planted gardens along the paths of the cattle drives - mostly in patches of mesquite - to protect them from the hooves of the marauding cattle. The next time the drive went by there, he found his garden and harvested the crop, hanging the peppers and onions and oregano to dry on the side of the chuck wagon. The cook blazed a trail across Texas with tiny, spicy gardens.

As cattle trail chili grew in popularity throughout the tiny Texas trail towns, so too, did its devotees. Frank and Jesse James fell prey to its taste and are said to have eaten a few bowls of "red" before pulling many of their bank jobs. At least one town, it is noted, was spared from their shooting and looting by the local chili parlor. Fort Worth had a chili joint just north of town, and the James boys rode in there just for the chili, vowing never to rob their bank because "anyplace that has a chili joint like this just oughta' be treated better."

And Pat Garrett is supposed to have said of William Bonney - Billy the Kid: "Anybody that eats chili cant' be all bad."

Chili cooks are probably as creative with their stories as they are with their broth, but what can you expect when you go through Texas asking questions about chili? It's the home of the tall tale.

In case you ever want to brew up a batch of "original Texas chili," here is a version we got that night in Marfa - well, at least, a composite from a few of the old-timers at the bar; their account of what they remember the first recipe to be. There is a little of the influence of each side of the Rio Grande because there was a mixture there, and if you get right down to it, that probably describes the heritage of chili about as well as anything. This "original" recipe may be traced back to that same range cook who planted his gardens across Texas in the early 1800s. And it may well have been the granddaddy of the blend that Frank and Jesse were addicted to. Nobody will swear that it was the first true Texas chili recipe, but they all say it was close to it:

Chili Con Carne

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 (enough so as the meat won't stick to the sides of the pot), and 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.


The entire chili exercise, at that point in history, was undoubtedly out of necessity. If you have ever tasted fresh-killed beef, you know how much a lot of spices would help the flavor. The range cooks, too knew this. They also knew the cowpokes would have strung them up right on the spot for serving plain beef in that unaged state. There also is no question that the spices helped preserve the meat and often masked the flavor of meat that was near spoiling; so the trail cook frequently brewed up chile con carne, which is simply the Spanish way of saying j" peppers and meat." The name, incidentally, is as close as any self-respecting Mexican cares to get in claiming the dish's place of origin.

By the time we had finished writing down the recipe, the number of Tex-Mex patrons in the tiny bar had grown considerably, and each had his own version of cattle drive chili stories - each one becoming more embellished as the cerveza flowed. Then one hauled out a yellowed clipping from his wallet. He didn't remember what newspaper it had come from, or even when. He just knew he had had it a long time. It was a prayer - something an old black range cook had prayed once. His name, euphonically, was Bones Hook, and the prayer went:

Lord, God, you know us old cowhands is forgetful. Sometimes, I can't even recollect what happened yesterday. We is forgetful. We just know daylight from dark, summer, fall, winter, and spring. But I sure hope we don't never forget to thank you before we eat a mess of good chili.

We don't know why, in your wisdom, you been so doggone good to us. The heathen Chinese don't have no chili, never. The Frenchmen is left out. The Russians don't know no more about chili than a hog knows about a sidesaddle. Even the Mexicans don't get a good whiff of chili unless they live around here.

Chili-eaters is some of your chosen people, Lord. We don't know why you're so doggone good to us. But, Lord God, don't never think we ain't grateful for this chili we are about to eat. Amen.

Chili buffs in San Antonio - and in most of Texas, for that matter - say the stuff called "chili" was invented there, probably by "Chili Queens," women who dotted the Military Plaza and sold highly seasoned brews called "chili" from rudimentary carts, all through the night, to a cadre of customers who rode in from all over the prairies to singe their tonsils. The "Queens" did exist, for nearly two hundred years, the locals say. Yet most historians fail to tell of them selling chili much before 1880. Before then it was probably strictly Mexican food.

If chili next moved from the greatly romanticized cattle trail to the Military Plaza of San Antonio, it also moved right back into the factual stage. It is all pretty well documented from there. The "Queens" may have been there for two hundred years, but they probably had sold chili only for the last third of that period; and, if for no other reason than one that usually improves a product, they began to refine and add sophistication to the dish. They brought it somewhere near today's stage. The reason, of course, was competition. There were dozens of the Chili Queens on the plaza, and you can bet that each one was constantly striving to improve her blend, simply to attract more customers than any of the competition.

The Queens, who were for the most part Mexican, made their chili at home and then loaded it onto colorful little chili wagons, on which they transported it to the plaza, along with pots, crockery, and all the other gear necessary to feed the nineteenth-century night people. They build mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm, lighted the wagons with colored lanterns, and squatted on the ground beside the cart, dishing out chili to customers who sat on wooden stools to eat the delightful and fiery stew.

All this went on from nightfall until just before sunrise, when the vegetable vendors came on with their carts to occupy the Military Plaza, which had become known as "La Plaza del Chile con Carne."

The Chili Queens remained a highlight in San Antonio for many years (there was even a "San Antonio Chili Stand" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893), until the late 1930s, in fact, when the health department put an end to their time-honored profession.

The following is reprinted from the San Antonio Light of September 12, 1937:

Recent action of the city health department in ordering removal from Haymarket square of the chili queens and their stands brought an end to a 200-year-old tradition. The chili queens made their first appearance a couple of centuries back after a group of Spanish soldiers camped on what is now the city hall site and gave the place the name, Military Plaza. At one time the chili queens had stands on Military, Haymarket and Alamo plazas but years ago the city confined them to Haymarket plaza. According to Tax Commissioner Frank Bushick, a contemporary and a historian of those times, the greatest of all the queens was no Mexican but an American named Sadie. Another famous queen was a senorita named Martha who later went on the stage. Writing men like Stephen Crane and O. Henry were impressed enough to immortalize the queens in their writings. With the disappearance from the plaza of the chili stands, the troubadors who roamed the plaza for years also have disappeared into the night. Some of the chili queens have simply gone out of business. Others, like Mrs. Eufemia Lopez and her daughters, Juanita and Esperanza Garcia, have opened indoor cafes elsewhere. But henceforth the San Antonio visitor must forego his dining on chili al fresco.

From the research library of the Institute of Texan Cultures comes this link with the past - a Chili Queen recipe (slightly updated for shopping convenience):

Original San Antonio Chili


2 pounds beef shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 pound pork shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup suet
¼ 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
2 tablespoons Mexican oregano
Salt to taste

Place lightly floured beef and pork cubes in with suet and pork fat in 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 suet casing and skim off some fat. Never cook frijoles with chiles and meat. Serve as separate dish.


The hearty smell of mesquite smoke mingling with the spicy aroma of chiles is gone. Gone, too, are the gaily painted carts and the fancy costumes and flowers of the Chili Queens. But before their passing, chili had become somewhat of a national dish.

Chili parlors sprang up all over the country, and many small-town cafes served little else than chili. By the depression years, there was hardly a town that didn't have a chili parlor, even if it was nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall place with half-a-dozen bar stools in front of the linoleum-topped counter. To many a wandering work-seeker in those depression days, the wayside chili shack meant the difference between starvation and staying alive. Chili was cheap and crackers were free.

Joe DeFrates's father, "Port," worked as a bartender at the Adolphis Hotel in Dallas in 1914 and learned to love the chili that was served in the chili parlor just off the main lobby of the lavish hotel. When the older DeFrates returned to his native Springfield, Illinois, to open his own place, serving chili only to his friends and regular customers (it was not on the menu), he found chili parlors everywhere. He also found that the name of the dish was spelled chilli, because a sign painter named Sheehan had made an error when lettering the window of a local chili parlor and everybody liked it so much that it stayed. To this day, it is spelled with two ls in Illinois.

By the fifties, everbody was talking and writing about chili. Columnist Westbrook Pegler was taken to task by chili lovers everywhere when he suggested that chili should be made with beans. In response to the flood of mail, Pegler wrote:

In praising the beautiful version of chili-con that was revealed to me in my gallivanting youth in the Mid and Southwest I had no intention to invite or wage controversy. Yet I should have remembered that gladsomeness begets its own comeuppance and that compliments are made only on pain of angry dissent. During his Christmas trip home President Truman sopped at Vergne Dixon's chili parlor at 1904-1906 Olive St., Kansas City, and put himself outside a bowl of chili along with a scuttle of beer fetched him from yonder, Mr. Dixon having no beer license. It seems to me that some law got busted here, but I am not for multiplying our President's problems, so I will only mutter in a low voice that the W.C.T.U., which hollered murder when our troops got beer in Korea, certainly booted one. I am afraid I carried on when I got going about chili-con, for this delicatessen is downright spiritual with us who long since sat on the high stools, as Mr. Truman did in Dixon's, and on $25 a week got by payday to payday, well-fed and well-content. I wrote that chili-con should be made with ground beef, beans, chili powder, tomatoes, onions and garlic, and seized an occasion to extol by name the put-up chili and the beans and powder sold by Gebhardt's of El Paso. I had no inkling of the feeling among the devotees of the house of Gebhardt, who fell on me in numbers, by telegram and mail. Not only is Gebhardt's an ancient and honorable institution in San Antonio, but Gebhardt's meat is not ground but cooked so well that it comes undone, releasing its juices among the beans. Then, too, I ran afoul of the devotees of Wolf's chili-con and related products, which actually are made in El Paso.
Chili had made it.

In 1952, a Texas journalist who had devoted much of his life to the study of chili wrote a book entitled With or Without Beans. His name was Joe Cooper. After examining the best chili on record to that date, he released his own recipe - one that he described as "maybe not the best ever, but one which satisfies the Coopers' appetites," and is one which poses no undue problems for the average home cook. It will put good chili on the table without much effort or attention other than what is normal routine in any kitchen.

Joe Cooper's Chili


3 pounds lean beef (never veal)
¼ cup olive oil
1 quart water
2 bay leaves
8 dry chile pods or 6 tablespoons chili powder
3 teaspoons salt
10 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon oregano or marjoram
1 teaspoon red pepper
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons flour
6 tablespoons cornmeal

When olive oil is hot, in 6-quart pot, add meat and sear over high heat; stir constantly until gray - not brown. It then will have the consistency of whole-grain hominy. Add 1 quart water and cook (covered) at bubbling simmer 1½ to 2 hours. Then add all ingredients, except flour and cornmeal. Cook another 30 minutes at same bubbling simmer, but no longer, as further cooking will damage some of the spice flavors. Now add thickening, previously mixed in 3 tablespoons cold water. Cook 5 minutes to determine if more water is necessary (likely) for your desired consistency. Stir to prevent sticking after thickening is added. Some prefer all flour, others all cornmeal, and still others use cracker meal - about as good, and more convenient. Suit your own taste.

Some Texans agree with Joe Cooper, some don't. Hal John Wimberly, editor and publisher of the Goat Gap Gazette, a Houston newspaper "mainly for chiliheads and their ilk," likes it simple. He says reverently of chili: "I don't know why people screw around with it. It's a marvelous dish if you treat it right, with a few simple ingredients. I mean, look at California cooks, they're likely to throw the whole garden in."

Wimberly brings to light yet another controversy that has raged among chili cooks since the beginning of time: whether or not one should put tomatoes in chili. "Jailhouse chili," he says, "is a good example. It's always been a favorite. It has been served to many a prisoner, and it was always very basic - meat, spices, peppers, and grease from the suet."

Over the past one hundred fifty years, many personalities and anecdotes have been linked with chili. It has been lauded by presidents, show-business types have defended it, and it was said that Will Rogers judged a town by its chili, and even kept scores.

Chili aficionados are no longer mostly Texans. The famous Chasen's restaurant in Beverly Hills serves more "Soup of the Devil" to international celebrities than any other restaurant. Jack Benny, J. Edgar Hoover, and even Elizabeth Taylor have eaten chili there. In fact, Liz had some Chasen's chili sent, frozen, to her in Rome during the shooting of Cleopatra.

Frank Tolbert, the noted Texas chili authority, received 29,000 letters from all over the world relating chili experiences after an article of his appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

In 1977, a bill was introduced in the Texas legislature to designate chili as the official state dish, and one year earlier, back in California, Rufus (Rudy) Valdez, a full-blooded Ute Indian, won the world chili championship, using what he claimed to be a two thousand-year-old recipe.

"Originally," says Valdez, "chili was made with meat of horses or deer, chile peppers and cornmeal from ears of stalks that grew only to the knee. No beans." Valdez says he got his recipe from his grandmother when he was a boy on the Ute reservation near Ignacio, Colorado. She lived to the age of 102 and Valdez says she credited her longevity and that of her relatives to the powers of chili. Actually, he says, chili was invented by the Pueblo cliff dwellers in Mesa Verde who passed it on to the Navajos before it became popular with the Utes.

Carroll Shelby is more sanguine in his approach: "The beauty of chili to me is that it's really a state of mind," he says. "It's what you want when you make it. You can put anything in there you want, make it hot or mild, any blend of spices you feel like at the time. You make it up to suit your mood."

So the chili pot still boils. As does the controversy. We certainly don't know who started it, or where. We just know that, as with Billy the Kid, anybody who likes chili can't be all bad.

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