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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Chili Wars

     What are the ingredients in chili? I've seen everything, even pineapple! Most food historians agree that chili con carne is an American dish with Mexican roots, but Mexicans are said to deny any association with the stuff we call chili! In one amusing incident at Niagara Falls in Canada, my wife and I ordered "chili con carne" at a restaurant and when it arrived there was no meat in it! Asking the waitress about the absence of meat we were told, "That's the way we make our chili." Doesn't "con carne" mean "with meat"?! 
     Chili historians say one possible origin is Sister Mary of Agreda, a Spanish nun in the early 1600s who never left her convent yet had out-of-body experiences in which her spirit was transported across the Atlantic to preach Christianity to the Indians. After one of the return trips, her spirit wrote down the first recipe for chili con carne: chili peppers, venison, onions, and tomatoes. Another source says Canary Islanders who made their way to San Antonio, Texas as early as 1723, used local peppers and wild onions combined with various meats to create chili dishes. 
     Most food historians agree that the earliest written description of chili came from J.C. Clopper, who lived near Houston, Texas. He never mentioned the word chili, but when he visited San Antonio in 1828 that poor families cut what little meat they had into hash with a lot of peppers which was then stewed. By the 1880s, a market in San Antonio started setting up chili stands from which chili or bowls o'red, as it was called, were sold by women who were called "chili queens." A bowl cost ten cents and included bread and a glass of water.
     Chili con carne thus became a tourist attraction and it was featured at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 at the San Antonio Chili Stand. By the 20th century chili joints spread all across Texas and became familiar all over the west by the 1920s. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a big chili lover. His favorite recipe became known as Pedernales River chili after the location of his Texas ranch. Johnson preferred venison, which is leaner to beef. Johnson is quoted as saying. “One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.” Lady Bird Johnson, the First lady, had the recipe printed on cards to be mailed out because of the many thousands of requests the White House received for it. 
     Texas chili snobs claim that chili made outside of Texas is usually a weak imitation of the real thing and in 1977, chili manufacturers in Texas successfully lobbied the state legislature to have chili proclaimed the official state food thanks to the claim that the only real "bowl of red" that prepared by Texans. 
     New York author H. Allen Smith, in a 1967 essay for Holiday magazine article titled Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do denounced Texas and its claims about chili. Smith claimed chili without beans, either added or served on the side was against one of the basic laws of nature. Texas chili doesn't have beans. 
     Texans retaliated by claiming what Smith called chili was nothing more than vegetable stew. The claim was everybody knows that chili has no beans. The result was the Great Chili Confrontation held in Terlingua, a former mining outpost near the Mexican border, on October 21, 1967. Three judges would decide the outcome: the mayor of Terlingua, a San Antonio brewmaster and a judge from Alpine, Texas who just happened to be a cousin of Allen Smith. No winner was declared. And, that's how the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff came about and one of the rules is, no beans allowed. 
     If you don't live in Texas, chili has beans...and beef (no turkey or chicken!)...and tomatoes and lots of spices, but no pineapple. How to Make the Best Chili from one of my favorite TV cooking shows, Cooks Country.

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