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WEST TEXAS: CHILI

by Dave Bolger
Wed, Jan 9, 2008

West Texas is not like any place else. Ft. Worth says it’s "Where the West begins," and from there it runs West and Southwest forever - from the Big Bend and Mexico to New Mexico and Oklahoma to less than 50 miles from the Colorado and Kansas borders. That’s big. Damn big. Nobody is really a native of West Texas, except the Comanches. And a staple of their diet was the chilipiquines - little round, pea-sized chilis that grew wild in that part of the world and would peel the paint off a ’54 Mercury. In truth, West Texas isn’t exactly known as the originator of much in the way of great food. Except Chili.

There are three theories about how chili (aka chili con carne) came to be: a gift from God, a way to keep from starving to death, and free enterprise in old San Antone.

The "God theory" is that a Spanish nun, Sister Maria de Agreda, miraculously appeared in the mid-1600’s to various Indian bands on the West Texas plains, long before the coming of the Spanish conquistadores. Known as "The Lady in Blue," legend says she ministered to the Indians and, in interviews by royal authorities in Spain, described the land and people in great (and accurate) detail and passed along a recipe for chili con carne that would satisfy most Texans as being the real thing.

The "keep from starving" theory says that on the long trail drives out of Texas after the War Between the States, the cowboys mixed the wild, dried chilipiquines and whatever other spices available into a stew to help make the tough Longhorn beef edible. Makes sense.

The "free enterprise theory" derives from the documented mentions as early as the 1870’s of vendor women, called "chili queens," who showed up about dark in the evenings in the downtown San Antonio plazas with tables, chairs, dishes, bright lamps, and big pots of pre-cooked chili. It all took on kind of a festive air until 1943, when the city health inspectors said these entrepreneurs had to conform to the same tightass sanitary rules as regular restaurants. Bummer! No more "chili queens."

Anyhow, whichever theory you subscribe to, and there are even more, the fact is that the delicacy we know as chili basically spread from God to San Antonio to the rest of Texas and, from the "San Antonio Chile Stand" at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, to the rest of the country.

There’s also lots of schools of thought, some bordering on the theological, about what you put in chili, how you prepare it, how you serve it, and with what.

Bottom line is this: a whole lot of it is "cook’s choice," with one exception: you do not cook it or serve it with beans in it. That is not chili. That is what you might call "spicy meat soup." And it is just wrong!

Whether you make it yourself, or buy it canned (Wolf Brand Chili has been around since 1885, with a canned version since 1921, named after Mr. Lyman Davis’ pet wolf, "Kaiser Bill," and it ain’t too bad for store-bought), there’s pretty much nothing better than a good bowl of red, as the sainted Frank X. Tolbert called it. And just so’s you know, Tolbert wrote that if you can’t have a cold beer with your chili, the next best thing is a big ol’ bottle of orange soda pop.

So "get your fire on the cooker, and get your chili ready, ‘cause before you know it, it’s gonna be tomorrow night!*" or get on down to the TEXAZ Grill right now for a mighty fine sample of what good Texas chili is all about!

terlingua

The Best Bowl of Red

Celebrating fifty years of chili in Terlingua, home of the dueling cookoffs. Check out this article from Texas Monthly.

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