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


Frito Pie: Born, Bred and Loved in Texas

During the 1930s, in his search for a tastier tortilla that wouldn’t get stale so quickly, Charles Elmer Doolin (better known as C. E.) recalled a chip made by Gustavo Olguin, a Mexican native for whom he worked a short time as a fry cook. Gustavo’s fritos (meaning “little fried things”) were made from masa dough extruded through a converted potato ricer, fried, bagged, and then sold to several small accounts in San Antonio, Texas.

In 1932, C. E. heard that Gustavo wanted to return to Mexico and quickly negotiated the sale of his chip recipe along with the hand-operated custom ricer and nineteen accounts for the sum of $100, which he secured from his mother ($80 from pawning her wedding rings) and a $20 loan from a business associate. He then, along with his brother Earl, father Charles Bernard, and mother Daisy Dean, founded the Frito Company and set about making corn chips in the family kitchen.

C. E. Doolin spent much of his time perfecting the original recipe by breeding custom hybrid corn varieties. The selection used today is a closely guarded secret. In 1933, the Fritos name was trademarked and a mechanized chip making process (“Dough Dispensing and Cutting Device”) was patented.

From the company’s beginning, Daisy Dean, known affectionately as “Mother” Doolin, was an active participant, continuously trying out new recipes using Fritos as an ingredient. Many of “Mother” Doolin’s recipes were used to market the new corn chip and printed on the backs of the Fritos packages. On one occasion, she sprinkled leftover chili over the chips and the subject of this story, Frito Pie, was born.

There are some folks (including a number food historians) who claim the Frito pie was invented in the 1960s by Teresa Hernandez, who worked the lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This story seems highly unlikely, however, since the recipe for Frito pie was first published in an official Frito cookbook in the 1950s.

Regardless of which of the two stories you choose to believe, the fact is that Frito pie was a super hit throughout the American southwest, becoming popular lunchroom fare and a featured recipe in almost every junior league cookbook. Frito pie was also a staple concession item at Friday night high school football games and other outdoor events across the Lone Star state.

Almost as iconic as the dish itself is the way Frito pie was served at many of these events: simply slit the Fritos bag lengthwise along the side, top the contents with a ladle of warm chili, a handful of shredded American cheese, some diced onion, and serve with a plastic spoon.

Today, this once humble street food has reached haute cuisine status with recognition being given to it by national publications like the New York Times, Bon Appetit, and The New Yorker. Frito pie has also been lauded by chef superstars such as Daniel Boulud and Emeril Lagasse. It’s even made it onto Saveur magazine’s list of 100 trendiest foods.

For those of you who have never had the good fortune of enjoying this delicious retro dish, why not pick up a bag of Fritos corn chips (original only), a can of Wolf Brand Chili (no beans, please), cheese, and onion, and whip up a batch. Of course, serving it in the bag is optional.

Find Em: Sonic Drive-ins, nationwide (price varies by location); James Coney Island, Houston, TX ($3.59/$4.99); 59 Diner, Houston, TX ($4.99); Avalon Diner, Houston, TX ($2.95/$4.75)

Make Em: Woolworth’s Frito Pie, Frito Fruit Cake, Frito Texas Loaf, Corn Roasted Red Pepper and Cheddar Quiche