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Exploring Chili: Facts, Folklore, and Fun Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

chili

chili

Where Did Chili Originate?

I always assumed that chili con carne was a traditional Mexican dish, lovingly, almost ceremonially carried north across the border to the United States of America where it was adopted, adapted, and became a part of our blended cultures.

Obviously, my assumptions were wrong. But if not a transplant from Mexico, from where did chili originate? There are almost as many stories as there are historians who have recorded them—prison grub, cattle drive chow, Christian missions, even the Divine appearance of a Spanish nun.

Sit back and let’s explore a few of the theories.

Chili, as we know it in the U.S., cannot be found in Mexico today except in a few spots which cater to tourists. If chili had come from Mexico, it would still be there. For Mexicans, especially those of Indian ancestry, do not change their culinary customs from one generation, or even from one century, to another.

— Charles Ramsdell, a San Antonio writer in an article "San Antonio: An Historical and Pictorial Guide

And if that isn't convincing enough, there is this entry in the 1959 Diccionario de Mejicanismos, which says (roughly translated) that chili con carne is:

"...detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York."

Ouch!

Nuns and Cowboys; Saints and Sinners

The oldest story takes place in the 17th century. It is said that a nun, Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain, fell into a trance and was spiritually transported to what is now the southwest corner of the United States. There she was seen as “La Dama de Azul,” (The Lady in Blue). She preached the Gospel message to the native peoples and in return, they gave her a recipe for a spicy stew composed of venison or antelope meat, onions, tomatoes, and chili peppers. We are told that she wrote down the recipe…and the rest is history (but no such writing has actually been found).

Another tale takes place a century later. A group of 56 persons (16 families) sailed from the Canary Islands and landed on American soil. They settled in Texas and ultimately founded San Antonio. The women in that assembly created a spicy stew. And in the words of Paul Harvey, now you know the rest of the story…or not.

Here's another (almost believable) story. In the 19th century, Spanish priests came to question the innocence of the fiery soup known as chili. They deemed the peppers that provided the heat an aphrodisiac, calling it "almost as hot as hell’s brimstone” and “Soup of the Devil.” No doubt the misgivings of these priests had the opposite effect. Instead of dissuading parishioners from eating chili, the flames of passion were fueled.

And here's another theory. Everrette DeGolyer, a Dallas millionaire and a lover of chili, says that chili was a staple on the mid-19thcentury cattle drives.

"They pounded dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and the chile peppers together into stackable rectangles which could be easily rehydrated with boiling water."

Or perhaps it all began at the grey bar hotel, according to “What’s Cooking America”

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chili

chili

Bowls O'Red

In the late 1800s, a San Antonio market started selling “bowls o’red” from food booths known as chili stands. It is said that among their customers were the author O. Henry and presidential hopeful William Jennings Bryan. For a mere 10 cents, one could purchase a bowl (and it came with bread and a glass of water). The bowls o’red became a tourist attraction and in 1893 the San Antonio Chili Stand had a prominent place at the Chicago Worlds’ Fair.

And, For Your Enjoyment, a Bit of Trivia

  • U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson famously loved chili. The White House received so many requests for the family recipe that Lady Bird Johnson, the First lady, had the recipe printed on cards to be mailed out.
  • In 1977 chili was proclaimed the State Food of Texas.
  • William Gerard Tobin, former Texas Ranger, hotel proprietor, and an advocate of Texas-type Mexican food negotiated with the United States government to sell canned chili to the army and navy.
  • In 1895 Lyman T. Davis of Corsicana, Texas sold chili from the back of a wagon; you could obtain a bowl for 5 cents (and all the crackers you wanted were free). In 1921 he began to can the chili and called it "Wolf Brand" (named after his pet wolf Kaiser Bill).
  • In 1924 oil was discovered on Mr. Davis' property. He sold the chili business. The new owners used Model T Ford trucks with cabs shaped like chili cans and painted to resemble the Wolf Brand label. A live wolf was caged in the back of each truck. Today the company is owned by Stokley-Van Camp in Dallas, Texas.

And now, let's explore some recipes.

Recipes In This Article

  • Classic chili con carne
  • Slow cooker
  • Best white chicken
  • Healthy sweet potato ground turkey
  • Cincinnati-style 5 ways
  • Carb Diva's un-meaty vegetarian
Classic Chili Con Carne

Classic Chili Con Carne

Classic Chili Con Carne

Genius Kitchen published this classic chili con carne recipe on their website. This is a no-bean version and, in true Texas fashion, contains three pounds of meat.

Slow Cooker Chili

Slow Cooker Chili

Slow Cooker Chili

Jaclyn is the author of the blog CookingClassy. We have visited her many times because she has a great collection of home cooking recipes. Her slow cooker chili simmers all day while you work, filling your home with wonderful aromas.

Best White Chicken Chili

Best White Chicken Chili

Best White Chicken Chili

Some white chicken chili recipes appear pale, watery and uninspiring, but not this one from LilLuna. This chicken stew is full of meat and beans, brightly flavorful green chilis, and is made rich and creamy with the addition of grated cheese. Yummy yummy for your tummy.

Healthy Sweet Potato Ground Turkey Chili

Healthy Sweet Potato Ground Turkey Chili

Healthy Sweet Potato Ground Turkey Chili

This sweet potato ground turkey chili is so pretty. If we eat with our eyes, this bowl is a definite feast. I'm happy I found the blog EvolvingTable.

Cincinnati-Style 5 Ways

Cincinnati-Style 5 Ways

Cincinnati-Style 5 Ways

I would be derelict in my duties if I wrote an article on chili con carne and failed to mention "Cincinnati-Style" although this is actually closer to Italian Bolognese sauce than a Texas Bowl'O Red. Developed during the Roaring Twenties by the Kiradjieff brothers, owners of the Empress Lunch. The Greek influence is evident with the use of Mediterranean spices such as cinnamon, allspice and, cloves. The website McCallums Shamrock Patch provides the history and the authentic recipe for us.

By the way, do you know what the "Five Ways" are?

  1. basic chili sauce
  2. put the sauce on top of a plate of spaghetti
  3. add shredded cheddar cheese
  4. add beans
  5. add onions
Carb Diva's Un-Meaty Vegetarian Chili

Carb Diva's Un-Meaty Vegetarian Chili

Carb Diva's Un-Meaty Vegetarian Chili

Of course, my favorite recipe is the vegetarian chili I created a few years ago for my family.

© 2018 Linda Lum

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