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The Life and Times of Chili -Part One

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by Cliff Lowe

"Oh! I'll never eat chili again. Ooh! Chili!" . . . . Homer Simpson

Chili, like Apple Pie, is an American icon. And although you may think it is Mexican, it isn't. Chili, as we know it, is not served in Mexico except for areas that cater to tourists. When the Mexican people make "Chili con Carne" or "Chile con Carne" they are referring to a dish that is a soupy concoction laced with Chiles (the word for peppers) and chunks of meat, sometimes beef, sometimes goat.

So, if chili didn't sneak across the border in the dark of night, where did it come from?

Well, in this two part series, I am not only going to tell you about the history of Chili but I am going to tell you about a Chili that is not exactly a Chili (at least not Chili as we have commonly come to know it), but millions of pounds of it are consumed every year in the Midwestern United States.

 

But let us get back to Chili that is Chili, as opposed to Chili that isn't Chili. Clear as mud, right? Talking about the goodness of Chili give me chills and makes me chilly. Hmm. I'm getting carried away so I'd better chili . . . er . . . chill out.

Anyway, I have noticed that restaurants always list Chili on their menus along with soup. Chili is not really soup. It is, in fact, a stew consisting of mainly meat and sauce of a viscous nature, with some onions and a few beans and spices thrown in.

But, Chili, like soup, has many variations and incarnations and this is what makes it so hard to define Chili's origins. However, if you said that Chili unquestionably has a 'Western' flavor, you would be pretty much on the money.

There are various twists and turns in the history of Chili and various stories. For example, one story told is that Chili was invented by chuck wagon cooks who traveled along with the cowboys on long cattle drives across the rugged hills and deserts of the great Southwest. The story goes that, as they traveled in one direction, the cooks planted oregano, chiles, and onions among patches of mesquite to give them protection from extreme sun, foraging cattle, and other critters. Then, on their way back along the same trail, they would collect the spices, combine them with chopped beef and call it "Trail Stew"or "Trail Drive Chili."

Another version claims that Chili was an invention of the Texas prison systems in early times because the prisons bought the cheapest and toughest cuts of meat. To make them more palatable, they took cleavers and knives to the meat to create little pieces that were then boiled, along with chiles and spices to create a cheap and satisfying meal.

Chili, as with most of the foods we know and eat, does not spring from the place that would seem the most obvious: Mexico. However, I do not think that anyone can deny that Spanish and Mexican cuisine had a profound influence on its development.

There is little doubt that Texas is the birthplace of the popular American stew known as Chili, and I think there can be little doubt that Mexican cooking and spices contributed to its development. After all, the area of Texas was once Mexico (Remember the Alamo!). So, even though the US eventually took over and claimed the territory, the original Mexican people and their spices and traditions were still in place.

All my research into Chili tends to make me think that three cultures combined to, eventually, give us the Chili we know and love today.

Besides the Mexican influence in the area, there were also Native Americans. They commonly made a high-energy food, called Pemmican, which they carried in leather pouches when they hunted or traveled long distances. Pemmican was the Indian fast food; McDonald's in a pouch, kinda, sorta.

White hunters', trappers', and trail drivers' mommas didn't raise any dumb kids, and they knew a good thing when they saw it, so before long they, too, were making and transporting this combination of bear grease or buffalo fat, chopped buffalo meat, berries and nuts. Eventually, beef came to be used in place of buffalo, but the recipe essentially remained the same. And I have read account after account of how these folks used to take Pemmican, chop it up, put it in a pot, and add whatever spices were at hand to make a soup or stew.

Now, hold that thought while I give you one more fact. In all my researches into Chili, it keeps coming back to Texas and, in particular, San Antonio. And, indeed, history records that, somewhere in the early 1700s, some colonists arrived from the Canary Islands and settled in the San Antonio area. Care to guess the ancestry and heritage of these folks? Yup, Spanish. It is said that these women would make stews of their native homeland but, lacking the spices they normally had, they tried to imitate the flavors they knew by substituting local spices and flavorings. So, this is where the Mexicans and Indians come in. It seems likely that they borrowed from both the cuisines using berries, Mexican spices, chopped buffalo, and possibly wild peppers that grow in the area. They are called 'Chiliquitas' which, if my Spanish is still passable, means 'little chiles' or 'small peppers.'

Somewhere along the way, someone made the whole process easier by inventing chili powder. But, there is even debate over that. One candidate seems to be a German immigrant, William Gebhart, who, in 1902 (or thereabouts) at New Braunfels, Texas (not far from San Antonio) created chili 'powder' which helped popularize chili and eventually was sold under the brand name Gebhardt's Chili Powder. In fact, Gebhart's Chili powder, with a Mexican Sombrero bearing the name on the label, is still sold in the area.

But life is never simple.

Therefore, there just had to be a fly in the ointment or, in this case, the chili powder. The fly's name is DeWitt Clinton Pendery. He was a grocer in Fort Worth, Texas and in the late 1800s was selling a crushed blend of Chiles (or Chilies) under a brand name. Pendery spices, a label bearing a picture of a Gentleman's Top Hat imprinted with the date '1870', are still sold today.

So there, as best as I can decipher it, is the history of Chili, at least in most of the country. There is another place, however, where Chili that is not like any other Chili you have ever tasted, is sold by the millions of gallons yearly. But, you will just have to wait for part two of the history to find out about it. As they said in the old radio days: "Stay tuned."

"Delectable Chili con Carne. . . composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant Chile Colorado - a compound full of singular savor and a fiery zest!" . . . . O. Henry, The Enchanted Kiss

"Next to Jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirits and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili . . . . Harry James, Trumpeter

 

continue to discover more - chili part two

 

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