The Chili con Carne Project

The GREAT Chili con Carne Project, Part 1: The Evolution of Chili con Carne

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by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach

The Chili con Carne Project

Part 1: The Evolution of Chili con Carne



Mole de Olla (Kettle Stew)

Pork in Adobo Sauce

Caldillo de Duranguense

Original San Antonio Chili

U. S. Army Chili

Mrs. Owen’s Cook Book Chili

The Great Chili con Carne Project Index

Everything about chili con carne generates some sort of controversy–the spelling of the name, the origin and history of the dish, the proper ingredients for a great recipe, the awesome society and cook-off rivalries, and even what the future holds for the bowl o’ red. Perhaps the fiery nature of the dish itself is responsible for such controversy, driving usually rational men and women into frenzies when their conception of the truth is challenged.

Name Games

As far as the spelling of the dish is concerned, etymologists tell us that there is enormous confusion about the terms that describe the Capsicums (chile peppers) and the recipes prepared with them. “For such a seemingly innocuous topic,” wrote researcher Sharon Hudgins, “a confusion of terms abounds. Take your pick of spellings: chile(s), chili(s,es), chille(s), chilli(s,es), chillie(s), chilley(s), chilly(s,ies). Then take your pick of meanings: a fruit, a berry, a vegetable, a spice, a specific dish (with many variations) of pureed mild or pungent peppers, a specific dish (with many variations) of mild or pungent peppers with meat, or a specific dish (with even more variations) of meat with peppers (usually hot ones).”

Debates about the spelling are endless, and this controversy has even made it into The Congressional Record. Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) noted in 1983: “New Mexicans know that ‘chili’ is that inedible mixture of watery tomato soup, dried gristle, half-cooked kidney beans, and a myriad of silly ingredients that is passed off as food in Texas and Oklahoma.” But at least Domenici allowed Texans to spell their chili with an i to differentiate it from the New Mexican versions of the dish.

Texans insist on spelling both the pod and the dish with an i, which is their prerogative. New Mexicans refuse to acknowledge that the word chili even exists, which is their right, and they spell the plant, pod, and dish with an e. In Illinois, for some strange reason, the dish is spelled chilli. In the end, say the true chiliheads, it really doesn’t matter how you spell it-so long as you love it.

For the past couple of decades, writers who must use these terms quite often, such as ourselves, have reached an informal agreement on style. To avoid confusing the plant and pod with the bowl o’ red, we use chile, the original Spanish-Mexican spelling, to refer to the plant and the pod. The word chili means the dish of meat and peppers. It is an abbreviated form of chili con carne, which is a curious combination of the Anglicized chili (from chile) and the Spanish carne (meat). Interestingly enough, some early California recipes were for carne con chile, which is actually a more accurate description, in Spanish, of the chili of today.

Our style is not new. As early as 1949, Arthur and Bobbie Coleman, authors of The Texas Cookbook, noted: “The dish itself, the completed product, is chili with one `1′ and an `i’ on the end…. The word chile means a hot pepper, the fruit, not the powdered product. To spell the name of the dish chile would lead to confusing it with the main ingredients….”

Mexican  Flag  The Mexican Connection

Another endlessly debated controversy is the origin of the bowl o’ red itself. Texans, New Mexicans, and Arizonans believe that the dish was invented in their state, and a chili historian, Bill Bridges, observed in The Great American Chili Book: “It has also been claimed that chili was invented by the army, the Texas Rangers, Confederate officers, American Indians, a Spanish nun, a Chinese chuckwagon cook, an Irish chuckwagon cook, Canary Islanders, Czechs, Greeks, Magyars, and the mountain people of the Caucasus.”

Archaeological evidence indicates that chile peppers-and their culinary use-evolved in South America and were domesticated there and in Mexico. But despite evidence that reveals dozens of recipes combining meat and chiles, most writers on the subject state flatly that chili did not originate in Mexico. Even Mexico disclaims chili; the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, a Mexican dictionary, defined it in 1959 as: “A detestable dish sold from Texas to New York City and erroneously described as Mexican.”

Oaxacan Woman

A Oaxacan woman grinds
chile and spices on her metate


Despite such protestations, the combination of meat and chiles in stewlike concoctions appears frequently in Mexican cooking. Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, in her book, The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking (1967), has a recipe for Chile con Carne made with ancho chiles, which she described as “an authentic northern Mexican style of cooking … as distinct from the version that developed in Texas.” In The Food and Drink of Mexico (1964), George C. Booth commented: “In the United States, chili con carne is predominantly a bean dish, but in Mexico chile con carne is a generous meat dish.”

Mexican caldillos and pucheros (thick soups or stews), moles (sauces made with a variety of chiles), and adobos (thick sauces) often resemble chili in both appearance and taste because they all sometimes use similar ingredients: various types of chiles combined with meat (usually beef), onions, garlic, cumin, and occasionally tomatoes. We have collected three such recipes from Mexico, Mole de Olla, Pork in Adobo Sauce, and Caldillo de Duranguense, to illustrate their fundamental similarity to chili.

Bowl of Mole

Is this bowl of mole
the origin of chili?


There are even Texan chili purists who grudgingly-very grudgingly–admit a Mexican connection. As historian Charles Ramsdell noted, “It is true that in the northern part of Mexico, they serve what they call chile con carne. It is stewed meat with a kind of salsa picante (hot sauce) poured over it. This, no doubt, is akin to our chili, in about the same degree as the Neanderthal man or the orang-outan is akin to us. It may be a remote ancestor. But it is not chili.”

Chili as we know it today may not have originated in Mexico, but it’s there now. Since 1978, the Mexican National Championship Chili Cook-off has been held in various locations in that country. The Mexican cook-off is sanctioned by the International Chili Society-proving that the love of chili is indeed international.

Texas Flag Chili Conjectures

Chili con carne fanatics are not satisfied with a mundane theory holding that chili evolved from Mexican recipes. A strange tale about the possible origin of chili has appeared in several books, the first perhaps in George and Berthe Herter’s 1960 book, Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices. The story of the “lady in blue” tells of Sister Mary of Agreda, a Spanish nun in the early 1600s who never left her convent in Spain but nonetheless had out-of-body experiences during 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, which the Indians gave her: chile peppers, venison, onions, and tomatoes.

Only slightly less fanciful is the theory that suggests that Canary Islanders, transplanted to San Antonio as early as 1731, used local peppers and wild onions combined with various meats to create early chili combinations. This theory, first advanced by H. Allen Smith, states that it was the Canary Islanders who first brought cumin-an essential spice in chili-to the United States.

Everett Lee DeGolyer, a scholar, chili aficionado, and multimillionaire, believed that Texas chili con carne had its origins as the “pemmican of the Southwest” in the late 1840s. According to DeGolyer, Texans pounded together dried beef, beef fat, chiltepins (in Texas, “chilipiquins”), and salt to make trail food for the long ride out to San Francisco and the gold fields. The concentrated, dried mixture was then boiled in pots along the trail as sort of an “instant chili.”

As Bill Bridges noted, “It seems obvious that chili would originate where there was an abundant supply of its two prime ingredients, meat and chile.” Bridges quoted from Mexican Gold Trail, the journal of George W B. Evans, who in the mid-1800s mentioned a chili-like concoction. “Beef is prepared for the long journey by pounding it together with lard and pepper,” Evans wrote. “A small pinch of this … thrown into a pan or kettle of boiling water with a little flour or corn meal for thickening, will satisfy the wants of six men at any time; and it is a dish much relished by all.”

This reference may be one of the first written mentions of chili-albeit not by name. This pemmican premise even has a modern incarnation: brick chili, a highly fat-laden concoction that-because of a pound of suet-solidifies into a brick when it cools.

A variation on the pemmican theory holds that cowboys invented chile while driving cattle along the lengthy and lonely trails. Supposedly, range cooks would plant oregano, chiles, and onions among patches of mesquite to protect the ingredients from cattle. The next time they passed along the same trail, they would collect the spices, combine them with beef (what else?) and make a dish called “trail drive chili.”

According to another chili historian, Robert Stuart, large pots of this chili were stirred with a “chilistick,” which had absorbed the flavors and spiciness of the chili and therefore could not be used to stir any other food. A further variation on the cowboy theory holds that chili descended from “son-of-abitch stew,” a concoction made from the internal organs of a freshly killed calf or deer.

Some chili scholars believe that the ex-chuckwagon cooks, who knew that trail drives would soon be a phenomenon of the past, opened up the first chili joints in cow towns along the trails. John Henderson, a western historian, described an early chili joint as “about twenty-five feet wide, half that in length, with a small space in the rear partitioned off to screen the cook stove and hide the lack of sanitation.”

Joe Cooper, author of With or Without Beans, noted that “during the late years of the previous century, almost every Texas town had its quota of restaurants which placed stress on chili. An unbelievable number were proprietored by guys named Joe. They guarded recipes with a passionate jealousy.”

Sam Pendergrast, the creator of “zen chili,” was weaned on cafe chilis. He recalled: “In Abilene, where I grew up in the 1940s, the best chili cafes were the Green Frog near Fourth and Pine, the wonderfully exotic Canton Cafe further south on Pine, the Grape Inn at Tenth and Grape, and the Dixie Pig at South 14th and Butternut. They all served the same chili–blood red, with an aroma of cominos [cumin] that could be whiffed at least a block away, hefty chunks of meat you could get your teeth into (along with bits of gristle), and a rich sauce featuring at least an eighth of an inch of grease that would easily soak up a quarter’s worth of crackers even at ’40s prices.” Sam’s slightly zen version of cafe chili is presented later in the Chili Project, along with more tales and recipes of cafe chilis.

The U.S. Army has often been given credit for originating chili, but these days that theory is generally discounted. According to chili scholar John Thorne, “Soldiers of the U.S. Army on the Western frontier had been eating chili since the war with Mexico (1846) but not necessarily in their messes. The first army publication to give a recipe for chili was published in 1896, the Manual for Army Cooks (War Department Document #18). By World War I, the army had added garlic and beans; by World War II, tomatoes.”

The Devil’s Soup

Bowl of Red

And this is what evolved


Probably the most likely explanation for the origin of chili con carne in Texas combines the heritage of Mexican food with the rigors of life on the Texas frontier. Most historians agree that the earliest written description of chili came from J. C. Clopper, who lived near Houston. He wrote of visiting San Antonio in 1828: “When they [poor families of San Antonio] have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for the family; it is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat–this is all stewed together.”

Except for this one quote, which does not mention the dish by name, historians of heat can find no documented evidence of chili in Texas before 1880. Around that time in San Antonio, a municipal market-El Mercado-was operating in Military Plaza. Historian Charles Ramsdell noted that “the first rickety chili stands” were set up in this marketplace, with the bowls of red sold by women who were called `chili queens.’

“The legendary chili queens,” continued Ramsdell, “beautiful, bantering, but virtuous, made their first appearance. All night long they cooked, served, and flirted in the picturesque flare from hand-hammered tin lanterns, in the savory haze rising from clay vessels on charcoal braziers.”

Alexander Sweet, a San Antonio newspaper columnist, described Military Plaza and the chili stands in 1885: “He will see an array of tables and benches, and he will be assailed by the smell of something cooking. At the fire are numerous pots and kettles, around which are dusky, female figures, and faces that are suggestive of `the weird sisters’ whose culinary proclivities were such a source of annoyance to Macbeth. These are the chile con carne stands, at which this toothsome viand is sold to all who have the money and inclination to patronize them.”

A bowl o’ red cost visitors like O. Henry and William Jennings Bryan a mere dime and was served with bread and a glass of water. O. Henry later wrote a short story about the chili stands entitled “The Enchanted Kiss.” In it, a young San Antonio drugstore clerk eats chili in the mercado and hallucinates (another out-of-body experience) that he is the former captain of the Spanish army in Mexico who has remained immortal since 1519 by eating chili con carne! The alleged hallucinogenic (beer?) and life-lengthening properties (chile?) of chili are still much debated today at chili cook-offs.

Armadillo Breath Chili Team

A chili stand
today: The
Armadillo Breath
Chili Team at
a cook-off





Mole de Olla (Kettle Stew)

Most people associate mole with the famous chocolate molemole poblano–but the word refers to both a mixture and a stew. No chocolate is used in this recipe, and with the exception of the potatoes and corn, this dish is quite similar to chili.

  • 4 ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed (or substitute dried red New Mexican pods)

  • 2 pounds sirloin steak, cut into ½ -inch cubes

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 3 canned chipotle chiles

  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 4 black peppercorns

  • 1 slice white bread

  • 3 cups beef broth

  • 1 cup cubed potatoes

  • 1 cup fresh corn kernels

  • Salt and pepper to taste

Cover the anchos with water and simmer for 15 minutes until soft. Drain. In a skillet, brown the steak in the oil, remove and drain.

Add the onion and garlic to the oil and saute until the onion is soft. Remove the onion and garlic; reserve the oil in the skillet.

Place the anchos, chipotles, onion, garlic, and spices in a blender and puree into a smooth paste. Add the bread and 1 cup of broth and blend again.

Heat the oil and fry the chile paste, stirring constantly for 5 minutes. Add the beef, potatoes, corn, and remaining broth to the chile mixture and simmer for an hour or more until the meat is tender and the potatoes are done. Add more water if necessary.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Pork in Adobo Sauce

Mexican adobos usually contain vinegar–an ingredient not found in very many chilis. Nevertheless, could a recipe such as this be the ancestral origin of chili?

  • 4 pasilla chiles, seeds and stems removed

  • 4 dried red New Mexican chiles, seeds and stems removed

  • 2 pounds pork from a roast or chops, cut in 1-inch cubes

  • 2 medium onions, chopped

  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped

  • Water to cover

  • ½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crushed

  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin

  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a pot, cover the pasilla and New Mexican chiles with water and simmer for 15 minutes or until soft. Drain.

Cover the pork, half the onions, and half the garlic with water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until the meat is tender, about 1 ½ hours. Remove the pork, strain the stock, and reserve both. Discard the onions and garlic.

Place the chiles, remaining onions and garlic, oregano, cumin, and vinegar in a blender and puree until you have a smooth paste. Add some of the stock if necessary.

In a large saucepan, saute the chile paste in the oil, stirring constantly for 5 minutes. Thin the mixture with 1 ½ cups of the reserved stock, add the reserved pork, and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes. The sauce should be very thick.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Caldillo de Duranguense (Durango Stew)

This thick and hearty stew from Durango, one of the northern states, is another Mexican dish that closely resembles chili con carne. A very similar recipe, carne guisada, is given by Jim Peyton in his book, El Norte: The Cuisine of Northern Mexico. We use pork in our version, but beef (or even shredded beef) can be used.

  • 8 ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed

  • 1 cup water

  • 2 to 3 pounds pork, cut into ½ -inch cubes

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 2 teaspoons flour

  • 2 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped

  • 2 to 3 cups beef stock

  • 1/4 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice

  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a pan, cover the chiles with water and simmer for 15 minutes until they are soft. Puree them in a blender along with the water until smooth.

In another pan, brown the pork in the oil. Add the onion and garlic and saute until soft. Add the flour and quickly brown, taking care that it does not burn. Add the chile puree and tomatoes, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the beef stock and oregano. Cover the pan and simmer until the meat is tender, about 1 ½ hours. (The meat should be tender and the gravy quite soupy.)

Before serving, stir in the lemon juice.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Original San Antonio Chili

According to legend, this is one of the Chili Queen’s original recipes. Some changes have been made in order to take advantage of modern ingredients. Note the heavy use of cumin and oregano.

  • Flour for dredging

  • 2 pounds beef shoulder, cut into ½ -inch cubes

  • 1 pound pork shoulder, cut into ½ -inch cubes

  • 1/4 cup suet

  • 1/4 cup pork fat

  • 3 medium onions, chopped

  • 6 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 quart water

  • 4 ancho chiles, seeds and stems removed, rehydrated and chopped fine

  • 1 serrano chile, seeds and stems removed, chopped fine

  • 6 dried red New Mexican chiles, seeds and stems removed, reydrated and chopped fine

  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin

  • 2 tablespoons dried Mexican oregano

  • Salt and pepper to taste

Lightly flour the beef and pork cubes. In a large pot, quickly fry the meat in the suet and pork fat, stirring often. Add the onions and garlic and saute until they are tender and limp. Remove all pieces of fat. Add the water to the mixture and simmer for 1 hour.

Grind the chiles in a molcajete or blender. Add to the meat mixture. Add the remaining ingredients, cover and simmer for an additional 2 hours. Skim off any fat that rises, and serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

U. S. Army Chili

This recipe hails from 1896. For reasons of authenticity, we have not altered the original wording. The recipe is given “per soldier.”

  • 1 beefsteak (round)

  • 1 tablespoon hot drippings

  • 1 cup boiling water

  • 2 tablespoons rice

  • 2 large dried red chile pods

  • 1 cup boiling water

  • Flour

  • Salt

  • Onion (optional)

Cut steak in small pieces. Put in frying pan with hot drippings, cup of hot water, and rice. Cover closely and cook slowly until tender. Remove seeds and parts of veins from chile pods. Cover with second cup of boiling water and let stand until cool. Then squeeze them in the hand until the water is thick and red. If not thick enough, add a little flour. Season with salt and a little onion, if desired. Pour sauce over meat-rice mixture and serve very hot.

Yield 1 serving

Heat Scale: Mild

Mrs. Owen’s Cook Book Chili

The original version of this recipe was first published in 1880. According to John Thorne, “This may be the earliest printed recipe for chili con carne and it is surprisingly authentic, save for the suspect addition of `espagnole,’ a white sauce seasoned with ham, carrot, onion, celery, and clove.” Mrs. Owen wrote, incorrectly: “This might be called the national dish of Mexico. Literally, it means `pepper with meat,’ and when prepared to suit the taste of the average Mexican, is not misnamed.” We have revised the recipe to add ingredient amounts, which, in the recipe-writing fashion of the day, Mrs. Owen omitted. We have retained most of Mrs. Owen’s original instructions.

  • 2 pounds lean beef, cut into ½ -inch cubes

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 medium onions, chopped

  • 1 clove garlic, minced

  • 1 tablespoon flour

  • Beef stock to cover

  • 2 tablespoons white sauce (espagnole–see Joy of Cooking)

  • 1 teaspoon ground Mexican oregano

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 5 New Mexican red chiles, seeds and stems removed

  • Water

  • Salt to taste

Take the lean beef and put to cook with a little oil. When well braised, add the onions, a clove of garlic chopped fine and one tablespoon flour. Mix and cover with water or stock and two tablespoons espagnole, 1 teaspoon each of ground oregano, comino (cumin), and coriander. Take the dried whole peppers and remove the seeds, cover with water and put to boil. When thoroughly cooked (soft) pass through a fine strainer. Add sufficient puree to the stew to make it good and hot, and salt to taste.

To be served with a border of Mexican beans (frijoles), well cooked in salted water and refried.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium


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