Texas Living

The History of Chili

By Peter Simek 9.24.18

Let’s begin with the unanswerable question: Should there be beans in chili? Some Texans swear by the fact that authentic chili — the kind that first popped up in 19th-century San Antonio and proliferated in chili parlors across the state — does not and should never have beans.

There are historic and culinary reasons why Texans hold firm to this version. But to understand where the tradition comes from, we have to go back to the beginning.

Deep Roots

Chili has roots in Mexican culture, and Tex-Mex culture in particular, but some food historians believe that chili traces its earliest origins from farther-flung locales. Robb Walsh, author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook, argues that the original spice mixes used in the meat and tomato stews have their roots in Moroccan cooking traditions.

“In the 1700s, the government of New Spain recruited Canary Islanders to move to San Antonio,” Walsh writes. “Canary Island women made a tangia-like stew with meat, cumin, garlic, chili peppers, and wild onions that they cooked outdoors in copper kettles in their settlement, La Villita. Their peculiar, chile and cumin-heavy spice blend resembled the Berber seasoning style of Morocco.”

It also resembles the stews Native American tribes would make from wild game they caught.

Walsh argues that chili is a distinctively Texan dish. It isn’t a direct import from Mexico, but rather a reflection of the more complex melting pot that is Texas culture.

Chili Queens

Chili first became popular in San Antonio, where the so-called “Chili Queens” cooked up the dish and served it from stands around San Antonio’s Military Plaza beginning in the 1860s. It was a working-class dish — a quick hearty meal that laborers could rely on during the day.

Often the dish was served spooned on top of tamales or enchiladas (and later, into bags of Fritos to create Frito Pie). Walsh contends that chili’s use as a sauce in Texas dishes meant that it retained a stripped-down profile: just meat, tomatoes, and spices.

National Spread

Facilitated by packaged “chili powder” in 1900, chili spread around the country and was adopted into other traditions. Today, it’s served on hot dogs in Chicago and on pasta in Cincinnati. Its ubiquity was made possible in part by San Antonio’s chili stands at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Today it remains a dish that has both distinct American and Texan traits, a literal melting pot that carries with it the history of a place with each passing bite.

For more Texas food culture, try these salsa recipes or the state’s best kolache stops.

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