As smoke rose from small fires, so too did the scents; earthy guajillo, pasilla, ancho chiles, and tough cuts. The aromas beckoned the empty bellies making their way to San Antonio’s Market Square. This is where the action took place when the orange haze of the sun gave way to the subtle glow of campfires in the Texas moonlight. Vendors of wares, ranging from exotic birds to pecans and honey, venison, wild turkey, and beef, filled the streets of San Antonio. The Plaza de Armas bustled with musicians, workers, visitors, locals, and most notably, the Chili Queens. The food they prepared and sold is a big part of defining chili in Texas.
A Common Misconception
Many would guess that chili originated in Mexico and came to Texas from their neighbors to the South. However, it is more likely that early 17th century Spanish settlers of the area (that is now San Antonio) made a hearty stew for their families, giving way to the food today known as chili. It was made popular by the cowboys of the 18th century, as the food served them well on long cattle drives. Jane Butel, the well-known author and television host who specializes in all things Southwest, Tex-Mex, and chile related, tells a different story, one about beans.
“With chili there are different histories, but what really popularized it was the railroads coming in and the cattle drives,” Butel said. “One of the dishes the cowboys learned was a really good one because red chiles are the world’s best antioxidant, which recharged the cowboys and helped prevent meat spoilage. The other thing going for beef is that it’s the only meat that oxidizes from the outside in. You can age it without it going bad. Coupling the red chiles with the beef was a natural.”
Butel’s maternal grandfather worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and theorized with his granddaughter about how chili recipes became varied across the country. “Chiles were relatively abundant, so they mixed the whole thing together to come up with various recipes for chili. Grandad said the reason why Midwestern chili had beans, and tomatoes, and other foreign objects in it is that while the cattle drives were passing into Oklahoma, sometimes the pot would get thin. So, they would add beans. As they were traveling North, the pot wouldn’t be red anymore, so they would add tomatoes.”
Texas Chili: No Beans Allowed
Carol Hancock, President and CEO of the International Chili Society, makes a good case for why there are no beans found in true Texas chili: because that is just the way it is. “I think there is probably no consensus on one idea (of what defines chili), but the reason why we don’t allow beans in chili is number one: real Texas chili has always been known as meat and the sauce with peppers,” Hancock said. “Beans don’t come into play at the cook off because if our judges are trying to determine a taste, beans are a dominant flavor and we wouldn’t get the pure chili taste.”
The Chili Queens and Other Women of Legend
Any discussion about Texas chili would be incomplete without mentioning the Chili Queens, who made the legendary meat and chili concoction in San Antonio’s Plaza de Armas. Aside from the cowboys eating the meal on long drives, they likely did as much, if not more, for this native dish. In fact, the Chili Queens left such an impression, that they inspired writers to include references to their dishes.
From 1860 to almost 1940, the San Antonio Chili Queens served their chili con carne, and other specialties like homemade tortillas scorched on open flames, along with beans, tamales, enchiladas, and chile verde. The allure of their physical charms, matched by the bravado of their cooking skills, was so memorable, authors romanticized about them.
There are other stories that stretch further back into time and are just as romantic. An old Southwestern American Indian legend, dating back to the 17th century, tells of Sister Mary Agreda of Spain. Likely passed to the Native Americans by Spanish missionaries that traveled across the ocean, the tale describes that the nun would go into trances for days on end, awaking to describe her missions to foreign lands, although she had never left her native Spain. After one of her lifeless episodes, she came to and wrote down a recipe. She made her prophetic chili from stewed antelope or deer meat, mixed with chili peppers, onions, and tomatoes. While no written documentation of the recipe remains, the legend still lives on.
No matter what legend or story best suits a Texas palate, the true history of Texas chili lies with the people who still cook pots of it today. Whether the version is Chili Queens style or cowboy style, a good bowl of red is a good bowl of red. Cooking keeps the tradition alive, and as long as there is chili to be had, there is history to be made.
Texas Cowboy Chili in a Modern World
Here is a simple recipe for a version akin to Cowboy Chili. Is it red? Does it contain dried chiles? Is it stewed? Yes, yes, and YES! Now what about those beans? This recipe has them, but they are optional. If tomatoes are preferred, add fresh, diced ones as a topping, along with cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and fresh fried corn tortillas. Either way, the Chili Queens and the cowboys would likely be proud of the upheld tradition of chili.
Yields 4 to 6 Servings
- 2 ounces dried, whole guajillo, pasilla, or ancho chiles, or a combination (5 to 7 chiles)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Salt to taste
- 5 tablespoons olive oil, vegetable oil, or bacon grease
- 2 1/2 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced
- 3 to 4 cups water
- 2 tablespoons masa harina
- Toppings to suit your taste: diced tomatoes, grated cheddar cheese, crumbled cotija cheese, diced jalapenos, sour cream, guacamole, chopped green onions, black olives, tortilla chips, or fresh corn tortillas, scorched in an iron skillet
- Optional: One can of up to 15 ounces of cooked kidney, red, or pinto beans
- Salt and pepper the raw meat and place on a paper towel.
- Heat the oil to medium high in a large soup pot, preferably cast iron. Sear the meat pieces on both sides to form a brown crust.
- Turn the heat down to low and add the garlic, dried chiles, and cumin. Stir and scrape the bottom of the pot once and add half a cup of water. Stir and scrape again. Cook for two to three minutes.
- Add two and one half cups of water. Let the mixture simmer for two to two and a half hours, or until the meat is fork tender. You should have enough water to cover the meat and chiles while stewing. Add another cup of water if the water cooks out.
- After the meat is done, strain the liquid and meat mixture with a fine mesh colander. This helps to remove most of the seeds from the dried chiles.
- Add the strained liquid and stewed meat back to the pot, along with the beans, if you are using them. Season to taste with more salt and pepper.
- Bring the chili up to a boil and add the masa harina, stirring it until the chili has thickened.
- T urn the heat off. Serve with toppings of your choice.
For a more authentic Texas chili, make sure to omit those beans!