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

Quince: Another of America’s Forgotten Fruits

Originally from the Caucasus Mountain foothills of Iran and Turkey, this highly fragrant relative of the apple was once a commonplace orchard fruit in the early American Colonies. Quince was one of the first fruits introduced here by English settlers, and by 1720, their cultivation was thriving in Virginia.

50092427In the mid-nineteenth century, Reverend William W. Meech discovered an American variety of the fruit in Connecticut, which he introduced as the “Pear-Shaped Orange Quince.” In his 1888 book, Quince Culture, Reverend Meech described it as the “most uniformly prolific of all known varieties,” hence its name Meech’s Prolific. While this native variety is known for its reliable high yields and superior quality and remains popular by plant enthusiasts in England, Meech’s Prolific is now extremely rare in this country.

The delicate, yet heady fragrance of the quince is said to be reminiscent of lemon, pineapple, flowers, and apple. The claim of ancient traders was that a single ripe quince could perfume an entire caravan.

quince-jellyTraditionally the quince was used by English colonists in pies mixed with apples or pears and sweetened with honey. It was also used to make aromatic jams, jellies, and marmalades. In fact, the English word marmalade is derived from the Portuguese word “marmela,” meaning quince.

Quince are generally not eaten fresh because of the hardness of the fruit and the acidity, astringent, and sometimes grittiness of its flesh . However, when cooked they are transformed into a beautiful rosy pink color with a unique flavor and delicate peach-like texture. Quince can be used in the preparation of a variety of sweet and savory dishes from cakes and pies, to stews and chutneys, to fruit sauces as an accompaniment to chicken, beef, pork, and game. Another simple but delicious way of serving quince is to peel, core, and stuff them with raisins, nuts, and spices and bake them until tender.

quince on a treeAs American farmers moved westward, so did the quince, with sizable cultivations recorded in both Texas and California. By 1914, noted plant breeder Luther Burbank wrote that “the soil and climate of California are peculiarly hospitable to this fruit” where at the time there were about nine hundred acres of quince being grown. California remains the only state to commercially farms quinces, although the land devoted to its production has reduced to only about one-third of what it was in its heyday.

455014tqji54l2Although practically unheard of for decades, today the quince, like other once popular but neglected fruits, seems to be making somewhat of a comeback. In recent years, there have been at least three books and numerous articles containing quince recipes. The fruit has also become an increasingly featured item in a number of high-end restaurants, and at least half a dozen have even been named after it.

The quince is a seasonal fruit generally available only from early fall through January but may be found up until March in some areas. If you are fortunate enough to find them in your supermarket or green grocer, we recommend you pick up a few and rediscover the delights of this remarkably versatile but forgotten fruit.

Try Em: Quince Restaurant, Jackon Square, San Francisco, California; Quince at the Homestead, Evanston, Illinois; Quince Café and Market, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Make Em: Milopita, Poached Quince, Quince Clafoutis, Quince Tarte Tatin