A Bowl of Texas Red

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.”

The Great Beefsteak Raid

The white-haired man and the young boy sat side by side warming themselves in front of the fireplace.  The man turned to the boy. “Robert, did I ever tell you about the time I rustled cattle?”

The boy’s eyes grew wide. “Grandpa, You were a rustler? I thought rustling cattle was a bad thing.”

“Yep, usually is. But in this case it was a good thing and at the behest of General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War.”

“Robert E. Lee, he’s the general I was named for . . .”

“Right and a fine man he was.”

“What’s behest?”

“Behest means an order or command.” The old man smiled, “Let me tell you about it. It was quite an adventure.  Way back in the Fall of 1864—more than three years into the Civil War—things were not going well for General Robert E. Lee and our Confederate army. General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army had Petersburg, Virginia under siege. By September of that year the siege was in the third month and supplies were short for us Confederate troops. I was one of the troops who had established a ten mile defensive line surrounding Petersburg.”

“Petersburg is on the James River, right.  Dad and I fish there sometimes.”

“Yep, good catfish fishin’. Petersburg was important because it had four rail roads and two roads making it the heart of Southern supply lines, especially for Richmond, where the Confederacy was headquartered.

“General Grant’s strategy was to strangle the Southern supply lines—to cut off shipments of food, weapons, ammunition, uniforms, too. Not that the Confederacy had many uniforms to ship. We were a ragtag bunch. At the same time, he was cuttin’ off our supplies, Grant worked to maximize supplies for his own Union troops at the major supply depot and his field headquarters over at City Point, Virginia, that’s where the James and Appomattox rivers come together. It was about eight miles behind Union lines. I’ve been told that 2,900 tons of supplies arrived every day from trains and from ships at the City Point Harbor.”

“Gee! That’s a lot.”

“Yep. You like bread and butter, right?”  The boy nodded.

“Well, the City Point Bakery turned out 100,00 loaves of bread each day. All this kept the Union soldiers well fed and well supplied while we Confederates were sittin’ around our campfires with growling stomachs. I remember being really hungry and worried about how to stay warm ‘cause winter was comin’. Sure would have liked some of that bread and butter.

“Needless to say, the food situation was pretty desperate. I remember being on sentry duty on September 5th, when one of our Confederate agents and scouts, a guy named George Shadburne came back from a reconnaissance trip behind enemy lines and reported to General Wade Hampton— he was Commander of the Cavalry Corp. of the Army of Northern Virginia— that there were 3000 cattle—intended to feed Union troops—being held at Coggins Point, just five miles from Grant’s headquarters. I overheard him say that he believed the beeves were guarded by about 120 soldiers and 30 unarmed civilians.”

“That’s a lot of cattle. Those are the one’s you rustled?” The boy’s voice  was eager.

The old man patted the boy’s knee. “Don’t get ahead of me now. I’m comin’ to that. General

Hampton recognized an opportunity to harass the enemy and get some food for us. General Lee liked the idea and gave us permission to go after the cattle. Hampton gathered a force of some 3000 of us soldiers including (and I quote) “several certified Texas cattle thieves”. . . or, cattle rustlers as we’d call them. I’d never been a rustler. Valued my neck too much. Didn’t want to swing by it from a tree. But, I was a Texan, so he figured I’d at least know how to handle cattle. We found some shepherd dogs to help as herders.”

“How’d you get past enemy lines?” The boy’s attention was complete.

“Well, on the mornin’ of September 14th, Hampton led us around the Union’s left flank, then turned us southwest toward Wilkinson’s Bridge on Stony Creek, where we cold-camped for the night. Next mornin’ we moved northeast at a quick march to where Cooke’s Bridge had spanned Blackwater Creek—that is, until the Union troops burned it.  FIgurin’ the enemy wouldn’t expect an attack from this direction, Hampton ordered our engineers to build a new bridge over the creek. By midnight, we had crossed the creek and were within 10 miles of the cattle at Coggin’s Point.

“Hampton divided us into three groups. Group one, that was my group—under the command of General Thomas Rosser, would launch the attack at Sycamore Church, the central point of the Union camp and the spot closest to the cattle. Group two would go to the left to offer us protection from the Union forces close to Petersburg, while group three rode to the right to provide support for us as we rounded up the cattle and then skedaddled back the way we’d come.

“It was 5:00 a.m. on the 16th when we burst into the Union camp. Sure surprised the troops there! We were surprised, too. There were more than 300 soldiers in camp instead of the 120 the scout had estimated. Took about three hours to get in control of the situation and round up the herd. We captured 304 Union prisoners along with their new Henry repeater rifles.  Also rounded up eleven wagons. A bunch of non-combatant Yankee herders changed allegiance and came back with us to help drive the 2,486 cattle we rustled. And can you imagine, all this happened just five miles from Grant’s headquarters?”

“Were you scared?”

“Robert, any time you ‘see the elephant,’ you have some fear.”

“Seeing the elephant means going into battle, right?”

“Yep. Anyway, the march back to our Confederate camp was across the new bridge we’d built over Blackwater Creek. When we’d had crossed with our new wagons, prisoners, and all those beeves, we dismantled the bridge so, any Union troops chasing us cattle thieves couldn’t cross the creek.”

Laughing, the boy said, “Weren’t many left behind to chase you, were there?”

The old man grinned, “Nope. The raid was successful, but we lost ten Confederates, forty-seven were wounded. One of those was my cousin Jack (he recovered), and four soldiers went missing. We lost a few stray cattle on the road back to Confederate territory, so we ended up with a total of 2,468 “Confederate cattle. 

“But there was a problem. Wasn’t any fodder to feed the captured herd, so it was necessary to slaughter them immediately and with little or no salt to use as a preservative, we needed to cook and eat two million pounds of meat. There was so much meat in the short term that we Johnny Rebs could eat our fill and have a bit to trade in private exchanges with Union sentries for other items which union troops had and we Southerners didn’t. We had some fun taunting the Union sentries, invitin’ them for a steak dinner or simply “mooing” at them. Couldn’t eat all that beefsteak fast enough and raw beef spoils fast. Before long, our Confederate food shortage was desperate again.

“You know, when President Lincoln heard about our raid, he called it, ‘the slickest piece of cattle stealing’ he had ever heard of. Story is that shortly after our cattle rustling raid, Grant was asked when he expected to defeat Lee. He supposedly said, ‘Never if our armies continue to supply him with beef cattle.’” The old man chuckled, making new wrinkles on his face.

“Several ‘certified Texas cattle thieves’ and the rest of us who were part of the raid, have stories to tell and braggin’ to do about the great “Beefsteak Raid.”  The old man laughed again. It’s a bit of cattle thievery which didn’t justify hanging.

The old man stood. “All this talk has made me hungry. What do you say we go to the kitchen and rustle us up a couple of steaks?” 

Jumping to his feet the boy said, “Make my beefsteak rare!”

In a final note:

Prince Georges County, Virginia holds a steak dinner each year commemorating the Great Beefsteak Raid.  Want yours rare, medium or well done?

Kings of the Road

The next time you’re tempted to complain about traffic, stop and think about traveling to Texas in the early to mid-1800s when the rush was on! Compared to today, travel was certainly slower and more difficult at best. Train travel wasn’t available yet on the routes to Texas. So, unless you were a single person coming on horseback, you needed a covered wagon. 

Wagons of the time had to be strong, solid, and made of seasoned hardwood. Smaller than the old Conestoga wagons, they were straight sided with a flat bed measuring about ten feet wide and with sides about two feet high. The slats had to be well caulked to handle water crossings and the double canvas cover needed to be well oiled to be waterproof.

You could plan on packing about 2,500 pounds, evenly balanced. With a full load you’d need four ox teams—that’s eight oxen. Plus you’d need good luck to deal with rough roads and river crossings. Add water barrels, an extra wheel, a couple of tar buckets for greasing wheels, some tools and spare parts and you’d be reasonably well equipped.

Wondering why oxen instead of horses were needed to pull the wagons? The weight of the wagon, the terrain to be traveled, plus the fact that oxen could forage for their food—while it was necessary to carry supplementary food for horses—all that combined to made oxen a necessary choice. But you had to take care of your oxen. Most likely you’d pass through a few towns on your trip and having your oxen’s cloven hooves re-shod would probably be necessary. Damaged hooves could bring infection and death. If you lost an ox, you were in trouble. Some travelers even carried small leather bags which could be tied to a damaged hoof to help protect it, hopefully until a blacksmith could be found.

Once your wagon and oxen were purchased, it would be time to load up the wagon with most every thing needed for the trip—from clothing to food to pots and pans. Not to mention the things you’d need upon arrival in Texas.

Travelers generally walked beside their wagons rather than riding to avoid adding extra weight to the wagons. Men walked leading the first yoke of oxen and the women and children walked behind—often gathering dry kindling and tossing it into a cowhide sling under the  rear of the wagon.  

Every wagon train needed a captain who could lead the way and be responsible for the wagon train and its travelers. Ideally, you’d find a captain who’d made the trip before. Decisions would need to be made by the group before starting. One common question was whether or not the train would travel on Sundays. Travelers in some trains voted to make Sunday a day of worship and rest, other trains chose to travel on Sundays, perhaps taking an extra hour at midday for hymn singing and bible reading.

Key to the trip were the roads. . .or, rather the TRAILS. Travel was on dirt trails which generally had been cleared by the military. A class one road was 30 feet wide when cleared and had tree stumps no higher than six inches. A class two road (more common) had stumps no higher than twelve inches. As you might guess, it was important to check the clearance on your wagon!

Many travelers to Texas from the Southern states and other nearby states, traveled the “Trail of Tears,” which consisted of the dirt trails and waterways used during the official “Indian Removal” from the southeastern U.S. to a new “Indian Territory,” which had been established by the US government in the early 1830s (in what is now Oklahoma). Although these trails were pretty well traveled, one still had to deal with fallen trees, washed-out areas, water crossings, and in some cases, heavy wagon train traffic—especially at the ferry crossings where there were actually wagon train traffic jams!

As to travel time, while wagon trains might aim for twenty miles a day for the first day or two to settle the oxen into a routine, the travel goal would drop to fifteen or so miles daily (if the roads were good) to keep from wearing out the oxen. Healthy oxen were key to a successful trip. Travel days would be lost due to problems with the trail, sickness, weather, break downs, deaths, and long waits at water crossings.

If you traveled through Indian Territory along the Texas Road to the Red River’s ferry crossings into Texas, you’d pass Choctaw and Chickasaw farms, where the people lived much like the settlers in Texas, and you’d have the opportunity to buy food and other items from farmers and from an occasional small village store.

Life on the road developed a pattern. Up before dawn to dress, cook and eat breakfast, gather and yoke the oxen, and begin the day’s travel. Eat a cold midday meal during a short break, then back on the trail. Circle the wagons at the end of the day, unyoke your oxen, build your campfire, cook and eat supper and also prepare a meal which could be eaten cold at midday the next day. Refilling water barrels, bathing and laundry could be done if camps were made by creeks, rivers, or lakes. Hunting and fishing were occasional activities to supplement the food pantry. If berries, grapes, wild onions and other edibles were spotted along the trail, the women would stop to harvest, then hurry to catch up with the wagons.

The final stage of travel to Texas was crossing the Red River and moving down the Preston Road which went from Denison to Dallas to Waco and on to Austin. There were several ferry crossings on the Red River. In the 1840s, the Coffee Crossing at Preston was a busy ferry across the river. Later, the Colbert Crossing, just seven miles away, attracted huge numbers of wagons. In 1853, Benjamin Franklin Colbert, a Chickasaw, had been granted a ferry license by the Chickasaw Nation. His ferry was a flat bottomed boat poled across the river by his slaves. Colbert also had a large plantation on the river and his river crossing became a station stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail stage coach  trail in September of 1858 when stage coach travel started in Texas.

It’s true that traveling to Texas was easier than taking the Oregon Trail to the West Coast. Settlers heading to the far West had a longer distance to travel. In addition they had to traverse the prairie, where the fierce Comanche and other tribes roamed and attacked wagon trains. They also faced the desert, mountains, and the challenges of those terrains. Nonetheless travel to Texas was no picnic as wagons dealt with lake, river, and deep creek crossings, traversed the mountains of western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma and faced endless miles of the dark green tunnel created by the Cross Timbers forest—a tangle of stunted, interwoven trees dense with under growth and twisted vines. What Washington Irving (who traveled there) described as the Cast Iron forest.  Travel to Texas wasn’t easy. Graves marked the route.

The decade of the 1850s was a mad rush to Texas and the state’s population doubled and almost doubled again in this decade. Individuals and families in search of land and opportunity poured into the new state and entire plantations were moved to Texas as the Civil War loomed and planters feared invasion of the South by the Northern army—rightly so as it turned out.

While many new residents of Texas traveled by ship to Gulf Coast ports, especially Galveston, wagon trains were the kings of the road!

During the holidays, podcast posts will be every other week. Check back for new posts.

Remember to check out my novel, Gone to Dallas, The Storekeeper 1856-1861 on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and other popular book-buying sites. Thanks for listening! This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with the Texas Brave and Strong Podcast, the best little podcast in Texas. Ya’ll come back.