Exploring Chili: Facts, Folklore, and Fun Recipes

Updated on January 31, 2018
Carb Diva profile image

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

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!

So, It's Not Mexican?

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. (I love a good story!)

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”

In 1860 the Texas version of bread and water was a stew of cheapest available ingredients (tough beef that was hacked fine and chiles and spices that was boiled in water to an edible consistency). The “prisoner’s plight” became a status symbol of the Texas prisons and the inmates used to rate jails on the quality of their chili. The Texas prison system made such good chili that freed inmates often wrote for the recipe, saying what they missed most after leaving was a really good bowl of chili.

So, which story do you believe?

Here is one more for your consideration.

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 (C)
  • Slow cooker C
  • Best white chicken C
  • Healthy sweet potato ground turkey C
  • Cincinnati-style 5 ways C
  • Carb Diva's un-meaty vegetarian C

Classic Chili Con Carne

The New York Times 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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Lum

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      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Kari, the thought of something called "5-alarm" almost gives me shivers. I can't do the heat. We'll be making the chili this weekend for Super Bowl Sunday.

      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        7 months ago from Ohio

        Your vegetarian chili looks like it could become a favorite of mine. I love the idea of mushrooms instead of the beef. My favorite chili is made using packet ingredients. It is called "5 Alarm Chili". They loved it in New Mexico, lol.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        7 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        A very large part of my assumption about Mexico. My limited understanding is just like us -- Central used them but not northern.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Eric, you and I are in total agreement. Kidney beans are dreadful, and ground, not cubed beef. The green chili (your moms) sounds good. Did you add tomatillos?

        Thanks so much for stopping by.

      • Ericdierker profile image

        Eric Dierker 

        7 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

        Fantastic. I love chilli. But make mine some kind of Texas style with both my beans (and if you use kidney you are a chili sinner) and lightly ground not cube beef.

        My mom would make a few gallons but not a slow cooker just big industrial Pot.

        Sorry but my mom also made an awsome award winning green chili. Which I kind of believe it is Mexican along the lines of Mole'. Do tell!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Mantita, you should know by now that that's how I roll. I enjoy doing the research, and a little chuckle every day never hurts. I will be cooking the vegetarian chili this weekend as we will be watching the Super Bowl.

      • manatita44 profile image

        manatita44 

        7 months ago from london

        Awesome! Well researched and with a tint of humor. I must try the veg chilli sometime. Looks great!!

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Venkat - If you click on the words "vegetarian chili" that is a link that will take you to the article. The primary ingredients are beans and mushrooms. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. I always enjoy hearing from you. (My younger daughter is vegetarian and so I try to include recipes for her taste as often as possible).

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 

        7 months ago from Hyderabad, India

        By chili, I thought it is about the red pepper and its fun facts. But, this article is a more wonderful one about a recipe named chili. Very interesting facts revealed by you. I would like your vegetarian one, Linda. But what are the ingredients in it? I would like to prepare and taste it.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Chili, with beans or without? That's one of those hot-button topics (like religion and politics) isn't it? I think the Robb Walsh recipe is the real deal, but most people immediately think "beans" when they think chili.

      • ptosis profile image

        ptosis 

        7 months ago from Arizona

        Other than the classic recipe from Robb Walsh that has no beans - all your other images has beans. Some say that if it has beans - then it ain't chili. I think the "...detestable food passing itself off as Mexican,' means it has beans. And from there - possible the source of the bogus racial slur 'beaner'?

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Bill, that's not strange at all. Chili is definitely one of those comfort foods that makes winter almost endurable.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Kristen, like you I am not a fan of heat. (What is the point of eating something that totally numbs your taste buds?). The vegetarian chili is quite mild and I think you would enjoy it. You are a clever cook and I'm sure you could adapt any of these to being simmered in a crockpot.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        7 months ago from Olympia, WA

        Fascinating history of chili, which I never knew. I only eat chili in the winter...I know, weird! Still, it's all part of the package that makes Bill, so there you have it. :)

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        7 months ago from Northeast Ohio

        Linda, this was an interesting hub on chili. I'm not a big chili fan, because of the spices. But I've had two crockpot chili recipes recently and it came out fine and tasted good with the ground turkey. I would love to try the sweet potato, white chicken and your veggie one someday this year.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Flourish, thanks so much. I hope he likes it. (And, BTW does he go for 2, 3, 4 or 5-way?).

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        7 months ago from USA

        Cincinnati chili is my husband’s favorite. We used to go to Cincinnati and buy canned Cincinnati chili by the case before they sold it in our area. He worked at the restaurant as a teenager and absolutely loves it. Now that I have the recipe I’ll have to see if I could make it better than the canned version. You’d hope?!? Wonderful article.

      • Carb Diva profile imageAUTHOR

        Linda Lum 

        7 months ago from Washington State, USA

        Hi Rochelle. I am hoping that my timing is right on publishing this article. Super Bowl Sunday is right around the corner, and we will definitely be having a pot of chili and a pot of chowder. It's how we roll.

      • Rochelle Frank profile image

        Rochelle Frank 

        7 months ago from California Gold Country

        Love chili, any which way.

        Had it tonight with cornbread baked on top.

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