Chile Con Carne: A History

It’s simple really. Peppers with meat in a spicy stew with tomatoes, onions, beans and other ingredients in as many variations as the mind can muster. From Baja to Cincinnati right through the heart of Texas, where it’s the official state dish, chile con carne, or chili for short, is among the most famous indigenous American foods.

Some say that chili was invented in Mexico during the 1840’s, possibly in Chihuahua, as a complimentary dish served at cantinas for outsiders, who wanted something spicy and cheap. Others contend it was born in Ensenada, Mexico in the 1880’s as a way of stretching available meat in the kitchens of poor Tejanos. Many Texans maintain that it was the invention of Texas cowhands who ate it by the bucketful as the drove their herds across the plains. The most imaginative origin traces its roots back to pre-Columbian Aztec chefs.

What is known for a fact is that in the 1880’s, colorfully-dressed Hispanic women called “Chili Queens” began to operate around Military Plaza and other high traffic public places in downtown San Antonio, Texas, where they would reheat cast iron pots of pre-cooked chili and sell it by the bowl.

Sanitation laws in the late 30’s shut down the Chili Queens, but not the public appetite for this tasty Western dish. Chili parlors opened by hundreds. These small, family-run chili joints spread from Texas to the rest of the USA, and became a part of the pre-WWII American landscape. Even today hardly any American who claims to be able to cook doesn’t have their very own secrete recipe for chili, whether it be hot, sweet, thick, soupy or just plain odd.

Regional variations add a certain level of enjoyment for chili lovers. Traditional Texas style chili is thick and uses few to no vegetables. New Mexico chili is famed for it’s thinner consistency and the use of green rather than red chili peppers. In the chili in Cincinnati, Ohio has a sauce like quality and is used as a condiment or topping for hotdogs or spaghetti. White chili uses no tomato and relies on beans. Vegetarian chili (chile sin carne) is, of course, meatless. Health conscious chili ditches the suet and substitutes white button mushrooms for beans to lower the calories. In fact, chili is such a malleable dish that it can be hard to define. Still, most people know it when they taste it, and are all to happy to do so.