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Chili con carne, often known simply as chili, is a spicy stew-like dish. The essential ingredients are chili peppers and meat. Variations, either geographic or by personal preference may include tomatoes, onions, beans, and other ingredients. The name "chili con carne" is a slight corruption of the Spanish chile con carne, which means "chile (peppers) with meat". Chili con carne is the official dish of the State of Texas.
Origins and History
Many argue that chile was invented in Mexico during the 1840's, as a replacement for pemmican; others place its origin in Tijuana, Baja California, or Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico.
The Mexican origin theory holds that it was created as a complimentary dish served at cantinas, especially to please outsiders, who wanted something spicy and "Mexican" to eat, but also free or cheap. It was made with leftovers from the meals prepared in the cantina and served for free to drinking customers.
The chilis originated in the Americas and were in wide use in pre-Columbian Mexican culture. Any stew made using significant amounts of chilis might be seen as a forerunner of all modern chili recipes.
While evidence of corn in pre-Columbian proto-chili stews remains to be discovered, its usage can be inferred. While bulk grain fillers are not seen as legitimate ingredients in some recipes, masa, a meal made from either corn flour (masa harina) or corn which has been treated with lime to make hominy (masa nixtamalera), is often used as a thickener and flavoring.
The Americanized recipe consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chile peppers (usually chilepiquenes), and salt, which were pounded together and left to dry into bricks, which could then be boiled in pots on the trail. An alternative, and more widely-accepted theory, holds that chile con carne was born in Enseñada, Mexico in the 1880's as a way of stretching available meat in the kitchens of poor Tejanos. However, this theory does not take in account that Enseñada and Texas are very far from each other.
The "San Antonio Chile Stand" was in operation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which helped spread a taste for chili to other parts of the country. San Antonio was a significant tourist destination and helped Texas-style chile con carne spread throughout the South and West.
During the 1880's, brightly-dressed Hispanic women known as "Chili Queens" began to operate around Military Plaza and other public gathering places in downtown San Antonio. They would appear at dusk, building charcoal or wood fires to reheat cauldrons of pre-cooked chili, selling it by the bowl to passers-by. The aroma was a potent sales pitch, aided by Mariachi street musicians, who joined in to serenade the eaters. Some Chili Queens later built semi-permanent stalls in the mercado, or local Mexican marketplace.
Preparing plates of tortillas and fried beans to sell to pecan shellers, San Antonio, Texas in September, 1937, the San Antonio health department implemented new sanitary regulations which required the Chili Queens to adhere to the same standards as indoor restaurants. The "street chili" culture disappeared overnight. Although Mayor Maury Maverick reinstated their privileges in 1939, the more stringent regulations were re-applied permanently in 1943.
San Antonio's mercado was renovated in the 1970's, at which time it was the largest Mexican marketplace in the U.S. Local merchants began staging historic re-enactments of the Chili Queens' heyday, and the "Return of the Chili Queens Festival" is now part of that city's annual Memorial Day festivities.
Before World War II, hundreds of small, family-run chili parlors (also known as "chili joints") could be found throughout Texas and other states, particularly those in which emigré Texans had made their new homes. Each establishment usually had a claim to some kind of "secret recipe".
One of the best known chili parlors, in part because of its location and socially-connected clientele, was Bob Pool's "joint" in downtown Dallas, just across the street from the headquarters of popular department store Neiman Marcus. Stanley Marcus, president of the store, frequently ate there, and sent containers of Pool's chili to friends and customers across the country by air express. Several members of General Dwight Eisenhower's SHAPE staff during the early 1950's were reported to have arranged regular shipments from Pool's to Paris.
Variations of Chili
Original Texas-Style Chili
This dish contains no vegetables except chiles and beans which have been prepared by being boiled, peeled, and chopped. The meat is simply bite-size - traditionally, the size of a pecan nut - or coarsely ground, with 1/2-inch plate holes in a meat grinder as standard. It must always be beef, venison, or other mature meats. Stewing meat also works well. Prime beef and veal, on the other hand, are not suitable for chili, as they tend not to remain solid. Many cooks omit the suet being much too greasy, although it does add flavor, and New Mexico or Anaheim peppers, or a combination of these or others (such as pasillas, hiles de arbol, anchos, etc.) are recommended. For an "elevated" flavor, one uses four pepper pods per pound of meat; for a milder "beginners'" version, use only 2-3 pods. Chili powder is a barely adequate substitute in the original recipe; it lacks the subtle sting of the pods. (A heaped tablespoon of chili powder is the approximate equivalent of one average-size chili pod.)
Pedernales River Chili
President Lyndon Johnson's favorite chili recipe became known as "Pedernales River chili" after the location of his Texas Hill Country ranch. It calls for leaving out the traditional beef suet (on doctor's orders after his heart attack while he was U.S. Senate Majority Leader) and also adds tomatoes and onions. LBJ preferred venison, when available, over beef; Hill Country deer were thought to be leaner than most. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson had it printed up on cards as a mail-out because of the many thousands of requests the White House received for the recipe.
Cincinnati-style chili is a very popular regional variation that is quite different from Texas-style chili. Most notably, it is usually eaten as a topping for spaghetti or hot dogs, rather than as a stew by itself. It was invented by Greek immigrants, who began serving it in the 1920's. It is much thinner than Texas-style chili, and usually not as spicy. Cincinnati-style chili is beanless, but a "four-way" serving includes beans on top of the spaghetti, under the chili. The connection between cheddar cheese and chili probably originated in Cincinnati since the cheese normally tops Cincinnati spaghetti dishes.
Chains of diner-style "chili parlors" grew up in the Midwest in the 1920's and 1930's. As of 2005, one of these old-fashioned chili parlors still exists on Pine Street in downtown St. Louis. It features a chili-topped dish called a "slinger": two hamburger patties topped with melted American cheese and two eggs, then smothered in chili, all topped off with shredded cheese.
An example of a derivation of the "four-way" is served at Steak 'n Shake as the Chili 3-Way and Chili 5-Way. The Chili 3-Way is Chili (including beans), Chili Meat, and a special macaroni sauce served over spaghetti. The Chili 5-Way is the same as the 3-Way with shredded cheese and onions added.
In other parts of the country, this is sold as "Hot Dog Chili" or "Hot Dog Sauce". Most commentators do not regard Cincinnati "chili" as true chili.
New Orleans-Style Chili
New Orleans style chili con carne is prepared almost identically to the common style of Texas, but transformed through the addition of rice into the mixture. However, unlike traditionally prepared Asian rice, the white rice used is left marginally undercooked, creating a slightly more solid and fibrous texture. It is also used as a cheap and simple way to "pad out" the dish with low cost ingredients, similar to the traditional use of beans.
Vegetarian chili acquired wide popularity in the U.S. during the 1960's and 1970's with the rise of the vegetarian philosophy, and is also popular with those on a diet restricted in red meat. To make the chili vegetarian, the meat is left out of the recipe or replaced with a meat analogue, such as Textured vegetable protein or tofu. Some people consider vegetarian chili to be a spicy vegetable stew, and not authentic chili.
"Meat on the Side" Chili
In order to accommodate vegetarians and non-vegetarians with the same chili recipe, some chefs prepare the meat on the side (al lado), with roughly the same proportion of spices, peppers, onions, etc., as the remainder of the chili, which contains only beans, tomatoes, peppers, and other seasonings. When patrons are ready to eat, they can select the amount of meat they wish (in the case of vegetarians, none), add the vegetarian chili to their bowl, mix and enjoy.
Instead of a tomato-based sauce and red meat (beef), great northern beans and chicken breast meat can be substituted. The resulting dish appears white when cooked, and has more of an alkali bean taste, instead of the acidic taste of "regular" chili.
Pinto beans (frijoles), a staple of Tex-Mex cooking, have long been associated with chili and the question of whether beans "belong" in chili has been a matter of contention amongst chili cooks for an equally long time. It is likely that in many poorer areas of San Antonio and other places associated with the origins of chili, beans were used rather than meat or in addition to meat due to poverty. In that regard, it has been suggested by some chili aficionados that there were probably two chili types made in the world, depending on what could be afforded and how frugal the cook was.
As chili spread east into areas where beef was more expensive (beef was plentiful and cheap in San Antonio and other cattle towns), chili with pinto beans or other beans became more prevalent. In some eastern areas, this dish is referred to as "chili beans" while the term chili is reserved for the all-meat dish. Other changes included the adding of other vegetables. Tomatoes are almost always used, bell peppers are common and even celery appears in recipes. Many easterners are just as adamant about the inclusion of beans in their chili for an authentic flavor as Texans are about their exclusion.
Most commercially prepared canned chili includes beans. Commercial chili prepared without beans is usually called "Chili No Beans". A vocal minority of self-styled 'chili experts' believe that beans and chili should always be cooked separately and served on the side. It is then up to the consumer to stir his preferred quantity of beans into his own bowl. Some cooks prefer black beans, black-eyed peas, or kidney beans instead of pinto beans.
A popular saying among self-proclaimed chili purists is "If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain't got no beans". The thought that beans do not belong in chili may be further credited to the fact that most official chili cookoffs do not allow beans. In many cases a chili will be disqualified if it contains such ingredients considered filler.
Another ingredient considered anywhere from required to sacrilegious is tomatoes. Wick Fowler, north Texas newspaperman and inventor of his own chili (which he later marketed as a "kit" of spices), insisted on adding tomato sauce to his chili, one 15-oz. can per three pounds of meat. He also believed that chili should never be eaten newly-cooked but refrigerated overnight to seal in the flavor.
In addition to the expected ingredients listed above, some more esoteric ingredients are used by some cooks to both personalize their recipe and ensure its superiority. These may include chocolate, cumin, peanut butter, corn, pineapple, banana, oranges, tomatillos, bock beer, coffee, tequila, Coca Cola, honey, cocoa, saffron, molasses, vinegar, wine (usually red), whiskey, or bourbon. Some cooks prefer a cast iron pot to cook their chili. Cornstarch is often added as a thickener, as is masa.
Accompaniments and Additions
Several beverages are commonly used to accompany a bowl of chili, including ice-cold beer, or a glass of cold milk to moderate the impact of the chilies on the throat. Saltine crackers, broken up and scattered on top, are common in chili parlors. Similarly, commercial corn chips can be added as a topping producing something akin to Frito pie. Jalapeño cornbread, rolled-up corn tortillas, and pork tamales also are popular, for dunking. Peanut butter sandwiches or peanut butter on saltine crackers served on the side can also accompany chili. In Missouri, a small portion of pickle juice is often poured into the bowl of chili. Similarly in Tennessee, it is common to sprinkle vinegar over the bowl of chili.
Chili can also be served as a topping on frankfurters. This dish is referred to as a "Chili Dog."
Chili Cheese Fries
Chili is also added to fries and cheese to make "Chili Cheese Fries."
In Southeast Texas, some people eat chili over white rice, much like one would eat gumbo. This is due to the proximity to Louisiana. This is also common in Japan, Hawaii, United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, and somewhat in Australia. This practice is commonly known as New Orleans-style Chili.
The History of Chili
Click here to read more about the interesting history of chili and
chili con carne:
Old Time Chili Soup Recipe – 1914
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see an old time recipe for Chili Soup using authentic MEXENE®
Chili Powder Seasoning