Chili, the American Dish with Mexican Roots

chili2aThere is one fact about that popular, spicy concoction we call chili (or chili con carne) that should be cleared up right from the very start–it did not come from Mexico. If there is any doubt of what the citizenry of our southernmost neighbors think of this dish, one needs only to consult the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, which defines chili as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.”

Although there are many stories and legends about the origin of chili, research points to Texas as its most likely birthplace–San Antonio, Texas to be specific. However, there is little doubt that this popular American stew is heavily influenced by Mexican spices and ingredients. After all, San Antonio was founded by the Spanish in the early 1700s. It is said that in an effort to quickly establish their presence, the King of Spain sent sixteen families from the Canary Islands (one of Spain’s sovereign territories) to San Antonio to settle the area. In their attempt to replicate the much loved spicy, pungent stews of their homeland, these immigrants found it necessary to substitute their native meats, spices, berries, peppers, and other ingredients with those sourced from the local Mexicans and Indians. Thus chili was born. And while some ingredients may have changed over the years (beef instead of buffalo or wild game; domesticated chilies instead of wild peppers, known as “chiliquitas” for instance), the basic recipe for the dish remains the same today.

Chili Stand, San Antonio, 1902.from institute oof texan cultures, UTSAIn the 1880s, a number of women known as the Chili Queens, started setting up stands in an area of San Antonio known as Military Plaza from which they sold chili (or “bowls o’ red,” as it was called) for ten cents, including bread and water. It wasn’t long before word of these open air stalls spread and Military Plaza became a tourist attraction. In fact, so great was the Chili Queens’ fame that the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had its own San Antonio Chili Stand from which to introduce this southwestern elixir to the world outside the American West.

The reign of San Antonio’s Chili Queens ended in September of 1937 when the local health department implemented sanitary standards requiring the Queens to adhere to the same health codes as brick-and-mortar restaurants. Although Mayor Maury Maverick reinstated their operating privileges in 1939, the health department developed even more stringent rules were reapplied in 1943 and the Chili Queen’s disappeared from the city forever.

Jack Ingram, Ingram's Chili Bowl, c1983, by Tim BakerBy the twentieth century, chili joints had made their debut throughout Texas and were spreading outside the state. During the 1920s and 1930s, “chili parlors” popped up across the midwest and soon there was hardly a town anywhere that didn’t have at least one chili parlor–often nothing much more than a room with a small stove, counter, and stools.

Some of the best known chili parlors include Taylor’s Mexican Chili Parlor that opened in 1904 on Main Street in Carlinville, Illinois. Like most early chili joints, Taylor’s is a small place with a counter and six wooden stools, a dozen well-worn tables, and plenty of framed photos and newspaper articles lining the wood paneled walls. As one customer said, “People don’t come here for the ambiance. They come for the chili.” And chili they have–a fiery concoction not for the wimpy palate or faint-of-heart, with beans on the side.

Another of the midwest’s well known chili parlors is Big Ed’s Chili Mac’s Diner on Pine Street in downtown St. Louis. Big Ed’s signature dish is called a “Slinger”–two burger patties with slabs of melted American cheese, topped with hashbrowns, two eggs, and smothered in chili. A chili-head’s delight still available today.

Probably one of Texas’ most popular chili parlors of the time was Bob Pool’s chili joint which operated in downtown Dallas from the mid-1940’s to the mid-1950s. Located across Main Street from Neiman Marcus, one of America’s elite department stores, it was said that the store’s president, Stanley Marcus, was not only a frequent diner but bought and shipped Pool’s chili to friends and customers around the country.

TolbertStarPageLogoAnother Texas chili aficionado who is a must mention in any chili story is Frank X. Tolbert, historian, Dallas Morning News columnist, chili enthusiast, and co-founder of the World Chili Championship Cook-off in Terlingua, Texas. He also founded and operated the Original Frank Tolbert Chili Parlor. Tolbert opened his first restaurant in 1976 in downtown Dallas and by the time of his death in 1984, there were three. But by 2003, all of the original locations had closed. Then in March of 2006, Frank’s daughter, Kathleen, revived Tolbert’s in a restored building in the historic district of Grapevine, Texas.

Today, chili can be found throughout America in a variety of styles. In addition to traditional Texas chili (chili con carne), which is thick, spicy, and never cooked with beans (although sometimes served on the side), there is the very popular Cincinnati-style chili (invented by Greek immigrants), vegetarian chili (also known as “chili sin carne”), green chili (chili verde), a moderate to extremely spicy chili usually made with pork and popular in New Mexico, white chili made with white beans and turkey or chicken meat.

CincinnitiChili2In addition to the various styles of chili, it seems each region of the country has their own favorite way of serving chili. For example, there is Cincinnati’s chili mac, or “four-way.” This dish consists of spaghetti topped with beans, topped with chili, and finally cheddar cheese. Add diced onions and you have a “five-way.” This is also the way chili is eaten in the U.S. military.

In New Orleans, chili is prepared very much like Texas chili but served over slightly al dente rice. This is also the common way Hawaiians enjoy their chili as well–referred to there as “chili rice.”

In Texas, where chili is the official state dish, it is usually enjoyed by itself, garnished perhaps with a dollop of sour cream, some chopped onion, and little cheddar cheese. And while the purists would never add beans to their chili, much of the time it is accompanied by a cup of pintos and a chunk of cornbread or tortillas. Texas is also the home of “Frito pie.” That classic southwestern delicacy made from layers of Fritos corn chips, chili, onions, and cheese.

So no matter how you choose to enjoy your chili, enjoy it you should. And the best way to ensure you do, is to make your own–hot or mild, spicy or sweet, beef, pork, or meatless. We’ve included several recipes here from which at least one (or a variation thereof) should suit your taste buds. Remember chili can be just about anything you want it to be, except one–it’s not Mexican food!

Buy Em: Hormel Chili, Wolf Brand Chili, Nalley Chili, Ray’s Chili, Dennison’s Chili

Make Em: Original San Antonio Chili, Bob Pools Brew Chili, Tolbert’s Bowl of Red, Cincinnati Chili, Cry Wolf Chili, President Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili


Gumbo: The Official Cuisine of Louisiana

Of all of the foods for which Louisiana is known, one of the oldest and most famous is, without question, gumbo. This thick, dark stew, containing vegetables (usually a celery, bell pepper, and onion mixture known as the “holy trinity”), meat or seafood, and served over rice, is as much a cultural symbol of the state and its people as is jazz and Cajun music. You will find gumbo in almost every restaurant, catering venue, and home throughout the state.

Gumbo is generally thought to derive its name from the word kingomb, meaning okra in the West African dialect of Bantu, the homeland of many of the slaves brought to Louisiana. Since okra stews were one of the slaves’ staple foods, and the vegetable’s edible fruit and leaves often used as a thickening agent in making gumbo, it is reasonable to assume the dish bears some African heritage.

On the other hand, since many gumbos are also thickened, colored, and flavored with roux, a French ingredient developed in the fourteenth century, there are those who feel that gumbo is a variation of French bouillabaisse. Still another theory is that gumbo originated with the Choctaw tribe of Native Americans because some gumbos were thickened by ground sassafras leaves (or filé) they called kombo. But while neither of these stories are widely held by historians as the origin of this famous regional dish, it seems certain that gumbo is not totally without their influences, as well as that of German and Spanish, too.

Gumbo was first documented almost 300 years ago when twenty-four different kinds were served at a French gubernatorial reception in New Orleans. Some twenty years later, in Mary Randolph’s cookbook The Virginia Housewife, the first recipe for gumbo was published, although it bore little resemblance to the dish we know today. Then in 1879, a cookbook by Marion Cabell Tyree included a more familiar chicken and oyster gumbo recipe thickened with filé. Two years later, the cookbook What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, written by former slave Abby Fisher, contained three gumbo recipes–two thickened with okra and an “Oyster Gumbo Soup” that used a filé base.

Gumbo can be divided into two categories. The variety commonly served in New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana is known as “Creole” gumbo, after the French and Spanish descendants who settled in those areas. It most often contains seafood (some combination of oysters, shrimp, and crab), tomatoes, and is usually thickened with a light roux. It is generally not as spicy as the Cajun variety, and rarely contained celery until the mid-twentieth century.

“Cajun” gumbo, more common to the southwestern part of the state and the descendants of Arcadia, is normally characterized by its very dark roux, cooked until just before burning. Most often Cajun gumbo was traditionally made with various foul or other meats and sausage. However, during the last century the addition of seafood to some recipes became popular. Cajun gumbo is almost always topped with chopped parsley or green onion just before serving.

It should be noted that over the years the popularity of filé as a thickener has waned and both Creole and Cajun style gumbo now use a flour and fat roux, although the cooking time which determines flavor and texture varies. The darker a roux, the more nutty and rich its flavor, but the less thickening power it will have. Also, either style gumbo may use okra in conjunction with the roux.

A third, meatless (and sometimes roux-less) style of gumbo known as “gumbo z’herbes” was often served during Lent. This type of gumbo incorporates turnip, mustard and/or collard greens, and spinach. With today’s more relaxed Lenten restrictions, this dish has become less popular.

Today, most people are familiar with seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo. But truthfully, they just touch the surface of gumbo cookery. There are as many recipes for gumbo as there are gumbo cooks. Contemporary gumbos may include all manner of ingredients–duck, turkey, crab, shrimp, oysters, ham, smoked sausage, andouille, beef, venison, or squirrel. Some are roux-based; some with okra and some don’t. Some may add filé just before serving and some may not. Everyone has their own taste and opinion.

Those readers wanting to sample a wide range of gumbos, prepared by some of Louisiana’s best cooks, should plan a trip to the World Championship Gumbo Cook Off held each October in New Iberia. Another great celebration worth attending is the annual Gumbo Festival held in the self-described “Gumbo Capital of the World,” Bridge City, Louisiana, which features gumbo cooked in a cast-iron pot three feet deep and five feet in diameter.

But whether you attend one of these exciting events or just happen to be traveling through the state, you owe it to yourself to stop and enjoy a hot, steamy bowl of gumbo–the official cuisine of Louisiana.

Find Em: Dooky Chase’s, New Orleans ($18); Galatoire’s, New Orleans ($7 – $9); Cafe Des Amis, Breaux Bridge ($5 – $10); Cafe Bermilionville, Lafayette ($7 – $9); Mulate’s, Baton Rouge ($7 – $12)

Make Em: Tucker’s Seafood Gumbo, Classic Chicken Gumbo