A Brief History of Chili Con Carne

Jan 19, 2012 2:01 pm

Part 2 of the blueprint for chili mastery

the history of chili con carne
Photo: yurilong on Flickr
Only when you understand where chili has been, can you know where it's going.
 

Read Part 1 of the blueprint for chili mastery: Chili Con Carne: The Anti-Recipe

Anyone can create an original pot o’ red with the right blueprint, yet that first delicious spoonful only cracks the surface of chili con carne. Dig in and you’ll find a culinary rabbit hole of fiery flavors, ingredients, techniques and history. But to fully appreciate where this dish can go, you first need to know where it began.

Soup of the Devil
A shroud of mystery surrounds the beginnings of chili con carne. Southwestern lore dates the origin to the religious trances of the mystic Lady in Blue, Sister María de Ágreda. Sister Maria never left her home country of Spain, yet professed to evangelize savages of the New World by presenting herself before them in hypnotic visions. History cannot explain why in 1629, 50 Jumano Indians walked out of the desert of unsettled West Texas to be baptized. They told stories of an ethereal blue-clad woman who had taught them of God. According to Indian legend, the Lady in Blue also taught them of a fiery red stew, which over the next century came to be known as chili con carne.

Spanish priests took a more hostile view of this peculiarly potent brew, deeming it “soup of the devil” and preaching sermons against indulgence. Suppression only fueled the fire, and by the 19th century chili was a staple among cowboys, ruffians and adventurers on the Western frontier. Bricks of dried beef, fat, spices and peppers were saddlebagged for the trail and reconstituted over the campfire. When these outlaws wound up behind bars, the prisons were serving chili as well. It happened to be the cheapest slop around.

As the Civil War ended, chili's popularity took off. By the turn of the century, Chili Queens lined Market Square in San Antonio, chili powder was widely available and chili joints were popping up across the country. The resulting regional variations led to three distinct styles, and what would become a national chili rivalry.

Texas Red
"It can only truly be Texas Red if it walks the thin line just this side of indigestibility: Damning the mouth that eats it and defying the stomach to digest it, the ingredients are hardly willing to lie in the same pot together."—John Thorne, Simple Cooking

Chili con carne was dubbed the Lone Star's state food in 1977, and they reckon a real bowl o’ red hasn’t left the state since. Texas Red is a potent, pungent concoction that touts a no-frills approach to chili: just meat, spices and as many chiles as you can stand. To Texans, anything else isn’t even called chili.

Springfield-Style “Chilli”
Springfield-style “chilli” is a saucy stew with no fear of a little fat in the mix, often in the form of suet: the hard fat found around the organs of beef or mutton. The Midwesterners go with a mild, cumin-heavy spice mix and usually add a generous helping of beans (“Treason!” says the Texan).

It takes no small amount of hubris to rename a dish in your own honor (read: ch-ILLI-nois), but in 1993 the state legislature of Illinois went one step further to name Springfield “The Chilli Capital of the Civilized World.” At its peak, Springfield boasted over a dozen chili parlors, three chili canners and exports of over four million cans per year.

Cincinnati Five-Way Chili
In stark contrast to its western cousins, Cincinnati chili is closer to Italian Bolognese than Texas Red. Developed during the Roaring Twenties from Greek roots, this thin chili uses Mediterranean spices such as cinnamon, allspice, cloves and cocoa. Most oddly of all, Cincinnati chili is served over spaghetti with a host of toppings. The traditional Cincinnati Five-Way comes with the works: a loose chili meat sauce, spaghetti noodles, chopped raw onions, red beans and cheese.

What It All Means
Chili began as a no-nonsense dish on the Western frontier, but has evolved into a national pastime. It was no accident that chili established a special place in the belly of America — it has the uncanny ability to turn tough, tired and otherwise tasteless ingredients into a delicious meal through a delightful combination of spices and slow-cooking. To turn nothing into something requires a curious stubbornness that perhaps itself is all too American.


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