Chili con carne was introduced to America by the “Chili Queens,” women who served food in San Antonio’s Military Plaza as early as the 1860s. Chili stands were also common in Galveston and Houston; they were the taco trucks of the 1800s. Tamales with chili was the most common order–beans were often added. Laborers counted on the chili vendors for a quick meal. Adventurous eaters loved them. And the upper classes tried to chase them away or get them shut down.
Chili con carne is not an import from Mexico, it is uniquely Texan. In The Tex-Mex Cookbook, I explore the contention that the unusual seasonings were influenced by immigrants from the Canary Islands, a Spanish possession off the coast of Morocco. In the 1700s, the government of New Spain recruited Canary Islanders to move to San Antonio. Canary Island women made a tangia-like stew with meat, cumin, garlic, chile peppers, and wild onions that they cooked outdoors in copper kettles in their settlement, La Villita. Their peculiar, chile and cumin-heavy spice blend resembled the Berber seasoning style of Morocco.
The invention of chili powder by William Gebhardt and others around 1900 standardized the flavor of chili and made it very easy to prepare in any restaurant or home kitchen. In early Tex-Mex restaurants chili was ladled over tamales, used as an enchilada sauce and offered in dishes like eggs with chili, macaroni with chili, and chili with beans. By the 1920s, chili started turning up all across the Midwest–on top of spaghetti in Ohio, on hot dogs in Michigan, and in omelets and casseroles. The Doolan family of San Antonio whose Fritos corn chips were becoming popular, promoted a dish of chili and corn chips they called “Frito pie.”
The one-pot meal of ground beef, canned tomatoes and kidney beans that became known as chili in the much rest of the country is a perfectly legitimate version of the dish. It just doesn’t lend itself very well to other uses. Chili dogs, Frito pie, cheese enchiladas in chili sauce and tamales covered with chili are still popular in Texas restaurants today. Which is why we still make chili the way the Chili Queens did–without beans.
Truck Stop Chili (from The Tex-Mex Cookbook)
Here’s a more elaborate diner-style chili made with bacon and chipotles. It tastes great all by itself, over tamales, with a side order of beans, or as an enchilada sauce for Truck Stop Enchiladas.
Makes 9-10 cups
3 pounds trimmed beef brisket, cut into 1/4-inch cubes 1/4 pound bacon 1 pound onions, chopped 1 1/2 tablespoon ground cumin 3 1/2 tablespoons chili powder 2 teaspoons paprika 1 teaspoon dried oregano 1 teaspoon black pepper 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon salt 4 large garlic cloves, minced One 13.75-ounce can beef broth One 28-ounce can plum tomatoes in purée 2 dried chipotle peppers
In a large skillet, cook the bacon until crisp. Remove the bacon and reserve. Over high heat, brown the beef in the bacon drippings left in the skillet and set the meat aside. Over medium heat, sauté the onions in the remaining drippings for 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned.
In a small skillet over medium heat, toast the cumin, stirring constantly for 1 minute until fragrant.
Add the toasted cumin, chili powder, paprika, oregano, black pepper, thyme, salt, and garlic to the cooked onions and sauté 1 minute. Crumble in the bacon, add the beef broth, 1 cup of water, tomatoes, chipotle peppers, and the beef. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover partially, and simmer for 3 hours or until the meat is very tender, adding water as needed to maintain the desired consistency.
Truck Stop Enchiladas (from The Tex-Mex Cookbook) I had a plate of cheese enchiladas in chili con carne like these at the Texas Grill, an old-fashioned roadside diner on Highway 90A in Rosenberg. They were topped with cheddar and sprinkled with raw onions.
Makes 24 enchiladas
24 corn tortillas for enchiladas
1/2 cup vegetable oil Truck Stop Chili 2 pounds grated Cheddar, Velveeta or a blend of the two 2 large onions, chopped
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Dip each tortilla in the oil. Then place the tortilla in a Pyrex baking pan and put a 1/4 cup of cheese, a 1/4 cup of chili and a tablespoon of onions across the middle of the tortilla. Roll up the tortilla, placing the seam side down in the Pyrex pan. Continue filling and rolling the tortillas until the pan is full. (You will need about 3 pans.) Pour 1/2 cup chili on top of the enchiladas. Sprinkle generously with cheese and bake in the preheated oven. Cook until the cheese on top begins to bubble (about 10 minutes).
Remove from the oven, top with remaining chopped onion and serve immediately.
— Robb Walsh