Sunday, February 14, 2010


As I was preparing my annual made-from-scratch chili with Mother’s prized #8 Wagner cast iron deep skillet (c. 1900 and smooth as a baby’s butt) for Friends this Super Bowl Sunday last (been doing it for over forty years), I was also pondering the fate of good Friends Dave Sherrard and Chuck Fatheree of Atlanta - stalwart co-hosts for twenty-plus years of the Best Damned Super Bowl Chili Party Outside of Texas held in Georgia, amazingly without killing someone or making anybody sick. It helps being food safety trained… Our biggest party was 138 Super bowl Revelers and, no, we rarely ever got to watch any of the games… Biggest batch of chili we ever made was somewhat in excess of 36 gallons - enough for a pint or more for each attendee (we loaded them up on liquid refreshments, salad and Texas Cornbread). Though I am not a worthy Chilihead some new data is available to the interested populous and I thought now the time to update the myriad books, articles and posts that have pontificated on the origins of chili. We are still climbing and negotiating that slippery slope we call Chili Mountain…

First of all how do you spell the name of the peppers that form the basis for our Bowl of Red? Some seemingly over the top folks will state emphatically that Chile (with an “e”) is the pepper and that Chili (with an “i”) is the stew. Well, it does make sense to make that distinction though I’ve seen the peppers spelled chilli, chillie, chili, and chile and even several different ways within the same botanical article. The name chili for the pepper derives from the ancient Aztec dialect of Nahuatl, which called the pepper chiltepin - so pick your nightshade.

Chile for me has always been that long narrow South American country with the flag (La Estrella Solitaria-The Lone Star) that’s suspiciously similar to the Texas flag though was conceived and adopted in 1817, twenty-one years before the Texas flag. Interestingly it is similar to the Confederate Stars and Bars. So, it’s not all about the “e” or the “i” of anything, rather just what’s comfortable for you. There are some great sites about the noble chili pepper and one of them is
Eat More Chiles. We heartily recommend. Note that they spell them with an “e”…

So now down to the Texas definition of chili (Texas’ official state dish since 1977). Chili is a stew-like meat soup more formally known as chili con carne (chili with meat) that references the signature ingredient, the chili peppers that form its base. That’s the definition of the dish. So, it’s like the Hammer, Stone of Strength, Caber and other Heavy Events of the Scottish Highland Games. We do it like our Scottish Ancestors did to celebrate, renew and revitalize our culture. As with Chili, we’re not trying to reinvent anything…

If you want beans in your chili it’s known as – viola – chili con frijoles. Now that wasn’t hard. The bottom line is that for most Native Texans chili with beans isn’t the original chili, rather another whole concoction like Cincinnati “chili”. These aberrations only evolved when beef/meat became scarce and beans were essentially used as a filler/expander and when Yankees decided to try their luck with our “Native Dish”. Texas and the Terlingua purists will argue that to their – and your grave.

Indeed, the Chili Appreciation Society, International (CASI), since 1951 is the governing body of most official chili cook-offs, and home to the philosophy that real chili--Texas Chili--doesn’t have beans. In fact, fillers like beans, pasta, rice, hominy, etc. aren’t allowed (note the etc.) in their competitions. These are the folks that hold their annual debauch aka the Terlingua International Chili Championship (TICC) at Rancho CASI de los Chisos in Terlingua, Texas in the Big Bend country of the Rio Grande. Indeed, CASI bylaws require that the headquarters of CASI always be in the State of Texas.

The rival International Chili Society (ICS) also promotes that noble bowl of red. Their history appears to be inextricably intertwined with that of the CASI apparently stemming from a 1970 CASI lapse that saw the formation of ICS and their administration of the 1970 World Championships with perennial favorite the legendary chili guru Wick Fowler capturing the gold.

After some disagreements and infighting chili and automotive guru Texan Carroll Shelby and his ICS split with CASI in 1975 (some say he was invited to leave) taking his chili pot and “World Championships” to the Tropico Goldmine outside of Rosamond, California and eventually on to Nevada and competition venues in Reno and Las Vegas, among others. Yikes, from that point you could gamble and eat chili at the same time! This writer does wonder why 2009 was featured as their “43rd World Championship” which would place their first competition in 1966 and not their advertized first championship as listed in their official history as 1970 though that’s a stretch. Whoops! Someone, please help me with this math… Like this writer said, the two organizations despite their differences appear to be ultimately muy simpatico and not the light years that separate CASI and the Tolbert nostalgic Behind the Store gang that sponsor the Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert-Wick Fowler Championship Chili Cookoff. You can get just so many egos into one chili pot. So much for politics.

We should all just chill out and thank the Good Lord for the likes of George Haddaway, Jim Fuller, Vann York and Richard Knight, Ron Charlton, Joe Cooper and all the unsung aficionados, judges and cooks who for almost three generations made this story. And how about Mrs. F. G. Ventura of Dallas who on October 5, 1952 won the Chili Cook Off at the prestigious Texas State Fair in Dallas, Texas? In a world dominated by Men where women weren’t initially even allowed to compete at Terlingua, Ventura earned the title as the first ever "World Champion Chili Cook” and then in unprecedented fashion (move over Wick Fowler) successfully defended her title for fifteen years. Her recipe was declared the "Official State Fair of Texas Chili Recipe." She is one of the real heroes in this story. Back to our Bowl of Red…

Now, chile can be and is used as a sauce over tamales, enchiladas and other entrees so beans could be redundant or just in the way. We all know that evolution sometimes can take quirky side branches witness the Greek-inspired Cincinnati Five Way Chili (since 1922) that incorporates spaghetti, chili(?), shredded cheese, diced onions, and beans and generally served with oyster crackers (no cornbread or saltines). The basic ingredients also differ and incorporate cinnamon, cloves, mace, all spice, vinegar and chocolate which brings back memories of my experiments with mole (look it up). OK, this is not really chili as we know it, rather just a ground beef stew or more appropriately, sauce. Probably should have called it Macedonian Mud though we note that one Ivan "Ike" Johnson, from Texas, established the now famous Ike's Chili Parlor in downtown Oklahoma City and offered a similar version over Spaghetti from 1910 (do the math). So, let’s look at some origin theories.

The Spanish names chili and chili con carne might be a giveaway to the more modern origins of this meat stew. While some folks offer that chili is probably NOT from Mexico that may simply be a matter of timing and semantics. Bottom line: when you get right down to it modern chili originated in Texas and probably around San Antonio though the question begs who was in charge and whose flag was flying at the time.

Let’s set up the timeline. The military phase of the war for Texas independence formally began on October 2, 1835 and ended with the birth of the Republic of Texas on March 2, 1836 with the final nail being driven with the victory by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Much of that area we now know as Texas was a Mexican State, Tejas and then Coahuila y Tejas, from 1821 to 1836. From 1690 until 1821 this area was part of Spanish Texas, one of the interior provinces of New Spain. So my premise is if chili was a documented dish of Spanish Texas (1690-1821), Mexican Texas (1821-1836) or Texas from Republic to a state of the United States of America (1836 to present) then we assign the origin of chili accordingly. Yes, we are leaving a hell of a lot of history out of this but this is about chili not the nuances of international politics that formed the overall history of the region. The modern origins determined, we can then ponder if this basic of dishes might have been fomented in some ancient land and culture.

Well, we can state emphatically that origin could be nowhere else except the Americas as that is where the noble chile pepper, the most important signature ingredient in this stew, originated. So for all you serious or tongue in cheek historians, no, chili wasn’t invented in Egypt or anywhere else in Africa – well, sort of.

We concede that there are myriad theories and legends surrounding the origins of chile - many that date to Texas and the United States. One theory particularly resonates with me references the early 1700s, when colonists (fifteen families - a total of fifty-seven men, women and children) arrived from the Canary Islands (controlled by Spain since 1479) in order, “to populate the Province of Texas” and we suspect block France's westward expansion from Louisiana much like the Scots in Georgia blocked France’s eastward push.
The Canarians settled Villa de San Fernando/La Villita (The Little Village) just outside the Mission San Antonio de Bejar (The Alamo). Located on the east bank of the San Antonio River, La Villita was the site of an earlier Coahuiltecan Native American village and has now been restored as an arts & crafts complex and historic center. The people of San Antonio dedicated a plaque at La Villita in memory of this historic settlement thusly, "This city in the State of Texas was founded in 1731 by the islanders from the Canary Islands". Also in the municipality of San Antonio a sign lists the names and surnames of those original fifteen Canary island families – from which several of the old families of San Antonio trace their descent. Well done, San Antonio, but what’s that got to do with chili?

History records that the women of La Villita would make a tangia-like stew with meat, cumin, garlic, chile peppers, and wild onions at home in copper kettles. Robb Walsh, the award winning Texas food critic and author of several books including
The Tex-Mex Cookbook, relates to what was apparently, then, an unusual blend of spices commenting, “Their peculiar, chile and cumin-heavy spice blend resembled the Berber seasoning style of Morocco.” Tangia is a slow-cooked Moroccan meat stew that takes its name from the amphora-shaped earthenware vessel it’s cooked in. The Canary Islands are just off the coast of Morocco – and it would appear that the rest is history and globalization has long been upon us and yes, the Kingdom of Morocco is in - Africa. Sidebar: it was Morocco in 1777 that became the first country to publicly recognize the newly independent United States of America.

It is documented that the Canary Island women of La Villita would take their big copper kettles into the plaza, brew up their “chili” on open fires and then sell to passersby who would sit on the ground and eat their purchase. This documented history gives Spain, the Canary Islanders (and by extension Morocco) and La Villita legitimate claim as the birthplace and rightful home of chili.

Those La Villita Ladies and that tradition of serving inexpensive food in this festive market atmosphere was further solidified and evolved by the ever vibrant “Chili Queens” of San Antonio who gave that whole chilithang color and panache. By the 1880’s San Antonio was a wide-open town that was sort of civilized by day and depending on the demeanor of the folks that constituted the cattle and railroad industries and the ever present army, “wild and open” by night. Frank H. Bushick, former San Antonio Tax Commissioner described the open air market in great detail and reminisces in his 1934 book Glamorous Days about the Chili Queens and their origins at Military Plaza before they were moved to Market Square in 1887.

History and Legends of Chili author Linda Stradley writes in her article History of Chili, Chili Con Carne at

“Latino women nicknamed "Chili Queens" sold stew they called "chili" made with dried red chilies and beef from open-air stalls at the Military Plaza Mercado. In those days, the world "chili" referred strictly to the pepper. They served a variation of simple, chile-spiked dishes (tamales, tortillas, chili con carne, and enchiladas). A night was not considered complete without a visit to one of these "chili queens." In 1943 they were put out of business due to their inability to conform to sanitary standards enforced in the town's restaurants.”

Now that we have identified the more recent origins of chili we need relate to the recent scholarship of Linda Perry, anthropologist and archeobotanist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and archaeologist Kent Flannery of the University of Michigan who in a recent study revealed at least ten different types of chili peppers that, “were prepared and eaten by Zapotec Indians between A.D. 600 and 1521.” Well, on with our timeline. It gets worse/better.

Perry has continued her studies and along with her colleagues reported in the article Ancient Americans Liked It Hot: Mexican Cuisine Traced to 1,500 Years Ago which appeared in the online magazine Science Daily that chili peppers were cultivated and routinely used in Mesoamerica. That would appear somewhat anticlimactic considering the revelation of Perry and Ruth Dickau/Sonia Zarillo of the University of Calgary among others in their February 2007 Science Daily article which confirmed that chilis have been grown and traded in Meso, Central and South America for – are you ready? – over six thousand years. We can probably assume that they used the spice to ratchet up their veggies (corn, beans, and squash) and, yes, probably their meat… We should note for the record that in 1976 one Rudy Valdez, a full-blooded Ute Indian, won the ICS World Chili Championship, using what he claimed to be a two thousand-year-old recipe from the Pueblo cliff dwellers in Mesa Verde. Guess they could have picked it up along the way. Given that other major components including cumin (comino) and oregano emanate from the Middle East and Greece respectively this whole scenario is taking on a distinctly international flavor. Time and space, time and space.

All that’s okay and we can most likely look to the future for more interesting data. Native Texan and writer extraordinaire
Joe Nick Patoski finally concluded in his November, 1992 Texas Monthly article, Chili Relations, that New York humorist H. Allen Smith (1907-1976) author of the irreverent though sometimes accurate “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do” article in Holiday magazine, had it right when he commented, “The chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt, and sizzling scorn.” Patoski continued, “In other words, if it wasn’t worth fussing over, it wouldn’t be chili. And that, podnuh, just wouldn’t be any fun at all.”

No doubt, chili is one of the most popular, yea contentious, foods ever concocted and one that has fomented controversial debate and probably broke up a relationship or two, witness Frank Tolbert and Carroll Shelby. If you want to get a good, accurate look at the early days of chilimania in Texas just go to for Ranger Bob Ritchey’s, Nobody Knows More About The Original Chili Cook-Offs Than I Do. Nobody probably does…

The bottom line is that we apparently have the Ladies to thank for our noble Bowl of Red and especially the La Villita Ladies from San Antonio via the Canary Islands, the iconic Chili Queens even to the female participants of the CASI sanctioned event Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned Chili Cook Off in Luckenbach, Texas which has since morphed into the Ladies Texas State Chili Championship in Blanco. Seems that the ladies miffed at the Men and inspired by the iconic perennial Texas State Fair Chili Champion Mrs. F. G. Ventura, formed their own CASI sanctioned event when the sexist and separatist Republic of Texas Chilympiad in San Marcos barred women from their competition. I note their demise in 2003. Make sure that you like this writer on behalf of all Men and directed to all Women, thank your Lady this St. Valentines’ Day for their nurturing personas. They have made our lives and chili so much more palatable…

Now for the record – a confession. I always use a premium cubed stew meat, andouille sausage and based on availability, either bison or venison (cubed or chili ground). I did have pintos and red kidney beans available on the border (side) and was the only one that ate them. I don’t use celery nor tarantula venom. As great cooks will attest, (with everything else being equal) a great award winning chili is not only specific to ingredients but also to timing and assembly of the recipe.

Finally, I will also readily and publicly admit to a great love and admiration of the classic Frito Pie and still yearn for the good old days at the Pitt Stop in Lufkin, Texas. Or, how about a double chili cheese steak, glorified at The Varsity in Atlanta.
Doesn’t get any better…

So, just continue to stir the pot y’all and, hey, don’t talk with your mouth full…..


Ned Buxton

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