What five letter word stands for Texas just like an oil man in a stetson hat or a rodeo cowgirl? C-H-I-L-I . . .Chili. Yep, when you find a steaming bowl of authentic, spicy chili on the kitchen table or on a cafe menu, the chances are pretty good that you’re in Texas. Chili is a passion in Texas. Some would even say a bowl of the thick, meaty stuff can be a religious experience!
But’s what the history of Texas chili? Most people are in agreement that chili started in Texas, but as to the definitive beginnings of chili . . .well folks argue about that just like they debate the best chili recipe.
We do know that in the latter half of the 1800’s “Chili Queens were dishing up bowls a’ red or chili con carne —that’s chili and beef— from booths on the Military Plaza in San Antonio. At the same time, wild long horn cattle were being brought up from Mexico by cow-chasers to stock newly-formed Texas ranches. With beef and wild chilis readily available, the combination of the two ingredients made its way into many a Texan’s bowl.
When the Chicago exposition of 1893 rolled around, some Texans from San Antonio set up their booths offering Texas chili. It didn’t take long for the word about this tasty new concoction to spread and chili parlors began to pop up across the country—some cooks making traditional chili, others expanding on the recipe.
Did you notice I haven’t said anything about beans? When it comes to chili, don’t add beans or even whisper the word beans over your chili bowl or some native Texan will say, “ Hummp, might be goulash, but’s sure as heck ain’t Chili!”
However, beans on the side are traditional. During cattle round ups or cattle drives to market, chuck wagon cooks would often have a pot of beans on the cook fire for some extra protein for hungry cow chasers.
By the way, the term cow chaser or cow catcher was an early term for cowboy and generally denotes those who collected wild Mexican cattle and then drove them to early start-up Texas ranches. Mexican cowboys were skillful cow handlers and made up about a third of the first Texas cow chasers. In Spanish, they are Vaqueros (which translates to cow boys). The word buckaroo evolved from vaquero. Anyway . . .back to chili.
According to The Chili Appreciation Society International, In the 1800s Texas prisons served their residents chili on a regular basis and prisoners rated the quality of their jails based on the quality of the chili served. Some prisoners even asked for the recipe when they were released.
By this time, households had begun preparing their own chili with the advent of commercially-available spices.
by 1895, Lyman T. Davis and a ranch cook developed their chili recipe and took it by wagon to the oil boomtown of Corsicana, TX where they sold it for five cents a bowl next to the Blue Front Saloon. Accompanying crackers were free. Subsequently, Davis opened a meat market and sold the chili in brick form. By 1921 he was canning his chili under the name Wolf Brand Chili, named after his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill. Two Corsicana business men bought Davis’ chili business in 1924. The two were savvy marketers. They customized model T Ford trucks with cabs shaped like cans of chili. These cans on wheels were painted with the Wolf Brand label. As if this weren’t enough to draw attention, a live wolf was caged in the back of each truck. They built a brand and sold a lot of chili because the Wolf Brand chili can still be found on grocery store shelves.
Chili was a staple in many households during the Great Depression. It was cheap and high on protein. Paired with crackers, it made a meal.
Jump ahead several decades for the start of chili cookoffs— a civilized way to settle the best chili recipe debate. The State Fair of Texas launched the first recorded chili cookoff in 1952. Naturally the rules included NO BEANS! If you’ve ever heard of Terlingua, TX, you know the chili cookoff lives on with Texas beer a key ingredient (replacing water) in many winning recipes.
Talk to a Texan today about Chili and you’ll often find yourself in an enthusiastic discussion about their chili memories. Here’s one of my chili memories. I grew up in a small Texas town. When I was in the seventh and eighth grade, I looked forward to the one day a week I could take 30 cents (the cost of a school lunch) and spend it across the street at a local root beer stand. For 15 cents, a small bag of Fritos would be split down the side, a big spoonful of chili would be ladled in, and the crunchy, spicy mass sprinkled with grated cheese and a bit of chopped onion. Sheer heaven! Along with this “Frito Pie” came a 15 cent Frosty mug of root beer containing a scoop of vanilla ice cream. For a middle schooler, life didn’t get much better!
As you can imagine, I cheered when in 1977 the Texas State Legislature voted to make chili the official state dish of Texas—in recognition that “ the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.”
Just remember, as “The Chili Song” sung by William Clark Green says,“Don’t you put no beans in my chili. If you put beans in my chili, you don’t know beans about making Texas chili!”
This has been Laurie Moore-More saying, “Enjoy your bowl of Texas red.”