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Food Phenomenon

Charting the chili trail

Feb. 13, 2008
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Withthe sixth-annual WMSE Rockabilly Chili Contest just two weeks away, we must ask ourselves if we are fully prepared to stand in judgment of such a wild and woolly stew. A heated debate brews over the proper ingredients of chili, as well as its source of origin.

Though there are several fascinating theories regarding its birthplace, many chili scholars believe the most acceptable explanation lies in Texas—San Antonio, to be exact. According to W.C. Jameson, author of Chili From the Southwest: Fixin’s, Flavors, and Folklore, chili wasn’t invented by Mexicans or white Texans, but by Canary Islanders. The Spanish founded the city in the late-17th century, but soon found the French encroaching from the east. So a plea went out to the king of Spain to send settlers. He obliged, albeit halfheartedly, by shipping 16 families from the Canary Islands. These founding fathers and mothers of San Antonio combined the seasonings they were accustomed to using back home, like hot peppers, garlic, cumin and oregano, with what was plentiful in Texas—beef. The result: “chile con carne,” Spanish for “pepper with meat.”

Family recipes were fine-tuned, and by the late-1800s, women calling themselves Chili Queens started serving “son of a gun stew” from sidewalk stands in public squares. There was even a “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The Chili Queens were a cultural phenomenon in San Antonio—until 1937, that is, when the health department put an end to their 200-yearold tradition.

Cowboys ate chili while on their cattle drives, and with every mile they traveled, the spicy stew grew in popularity. There’s a tale of a range cook who made chili for the cowboy outfits he rode with on the great cattle trails of Texas. He would collect wild chile peppers, onions, garlic and oregano and mix it with fresh-killed beef—or buffalo, rattlesnake, jack rabbit, armadillo, or whatever he had on hand. Legend has it the range cook planted gardens along the paths of the drives, placing them in patches of mesquite to protect them from the hooves of marauding cattle. On any given trail, the range cook would find his secret stash and harvest the crop, hanging the peppers, onions and oregano to dry on the side of the chuck wagon.

By the Depression years, chili parlors had sprung up all over the country. Variations of the original Texas-style chili, which contains no beans or vegetables except chiles, were inevitable. Ingredients like tomatoes, beans, carrots, celery, textured vegetable protein, rice, pasta and corn have found their way into a bowl of “red.” Some cooks, hoping to personalize their recipe, add secret ingredients ranging from chocolate and peanut butter to honey and coffee, as well as any number of alcoholic beverages, including beer, tequila, wine and whiskey.

The question of what “belongs” in chili has since become a major matter of contention among chili cooks. To this day, the International Chili Society, the largest food contest/festival organization in the world, has this as its very first rule for chefs at its cook-offs for district, regional, state and world championships: “Traditional Red Chili is defined by the International Chili Society as any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of BEANS and PASTA, which are strictly forbidden.”

Please note the capitalization of the contraband carbs— these cooks take their chili VERY seriously. Fortunately, the WMSE Rockabilly Chili Contest is more concerned with making food than controversy. Admission to the event is $5; meat and vegetarian chili from more than 40 of the area’s restaurants are $1 per sample and 100% of the proceeds will benefit the noncommercial radio station.

The 91.7 WMSE Rockabilly Chili Contest takes place Sunday, March 2, at the MSOE Kern Center, 1245 N. Broadway, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Photos courtesy of WMSE)


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