The Chili con Carne Project

The GREAT Chili con Carne Project, Part 2: Chili Conquers the U.S.A.

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 by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach

The Chili con Carne Project

Part 2: Chili Conquers the U.S.A.



Dallas County Jail Chili

Chili DeGolyer

Chili H. Allen Smith

Wick Fowler’s Chili

Joe Cooper’s Chili

Cincinnati-Style Chili

Whale Chili

The Great Chili con Carne Project Index

From its humble origins as various meat and chile concoctions in Mexico, the concept of chili crossed the border and further evolved in the Lone Star State, which now claims the bowl ‘o red as its State Dish. But that was just the beginning.

Chili for the Masses

Given the popularity of chili in Texas, commercialization of it was inevitable. Somewhere between 1877 and 1882 (no chili historian seems to have figured this one out), William G. Tobin of San Antonio, Texas, produced (presumably in his home) the first canned chili, W .G. Tobin’s Chili-Con-Carne. By 1884, he had constructed and was about to open the first chili canning factory, the Tobin Canning Company in San Antonio, but he died, and the factory project failed. Incidentally, the first printed chili recipe appeared in Mrs. Owen’s Cook Book in 1880 (see “Part 1: The Evolution of Chili con Carne” for the recipe.)

Chili became very popular in the Texas jail system between 1890 and 1900, giving some people the idea that the dish originated behind bars. Chili historian Floyd Cogan gives us the reason: “How else could you take bad or cheap cuts of meat, add chile peppers, spices, and herbs and make them taste first rate?” According to Cogan, inmates rated the jails according to the chili that was served, and after serving their time they wrote back to the jails for recipes. “Some, we are told,” added Cogan, “missed it so bad that they committed crimes just to get back in jail so they could once again have their fill of real Texas jail chili.”

Basic Jailhouse Chili

Basic Jailhouse Chili

Photo by Chel Beeson


The fame of chili con carne began to spread, and the dish soon became a major tourist attraction, making its appearance in Mexican restaurants all over Texas–and elsewhere. At the World’s Fair in Chicago in1893, a bowl o’ red was available at the “San Antonio Chili Stand.”

Around this time, commercial chili powder was created, but history is unclear about who actually invented it. Some chili historians credit the invention of the red dust to DeWitt Clinton Pendery of Fort Worth, who began selling his own brand of “Chiltomaline” powder to cafes and hotels in the early 1890s. It was Pendery who noted in his advertising: “The health giving properties of hot chile peppers have no equal. They give tone to the alimentary canal, regulating the functions, giving a natural appetite, and promoting healthy action of the kidneys, skin, and lymphatics.” Pendery’s company, first called The Mexican Chilley Supply Company, later changed its name to Pendery’s, and it’s still open and selling chili powder (and many other spices) today in Fort Worth.

Other sources insist that it was William Gebhardt of New Braunfels, Texas, who produced the first packaged chili powder in 1894. Two years before, Gebhardt had opened a café in back of Miller’s Saloon and discovered that chili was the favorite food of his customers. But chili was a seasonal food because homegrown chiles were available only after the summer harvest. Gebhardt solved the problem by importing Mexican ancho chiles so that he could serve the dish year-round.

At first, Gebhardt ran the chiles through a home meat grinder three times. Later, according to a description of the time, Gebhardt “concocted a chili powder in a crude mill by grinding chile peppers, cumin seed, oregano, and black pepper through an old hammer mill, feeding a little of this and a little of that to the mill. What came out was put in little-necked bottles and then packed in a box for retail.” At first he called the product “Tampico Dust,” but he later changed the name to “Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder.”

In 1896, Gebhardt opened a factory in San Antonio and was producing five cases of chili powder a week, which he sold from the back of his wagon as he drove through town. He was also an inventor, and eventually patented thirty-seven machines for his factory. By 1899, Gebhardt had received U.S. trademark number 32,329 for his Eagle Chili Powder. The Gebhardt brand is still in existence today.

The turn of the century witnessed a surge in the popularity of chili. Hodge Chili was canned in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1905, and in 1908, Ike’s Chili House opened in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That establishment is still open at 712 South Boston Street. Lou Priebe, a regular customer there (and also a judge at the Blue Grass Chili Festival) commented on the establishment: “Chili was the ‘soul food’ of the Okies. During the Depression, you could go into Ike’s and get a bowl of chili for a quarter, and it was the main meal of the day.”

William Gebhardt’s own brand of chili was canned in San Antonio in 1908 (some say 1911), and “chile con carne” was first defined in an American dictionary in 1909, according to Joe Cooper. It was “a Mexican dish consisting of minced red peppers and meat.” Another definition (not in a dictionary) referred to the bowl o’ red as “the devil’s soup,” an allusion to the hot chiles in it.

Walker’s Recipe Booklet, 1918

Walker’s Recipe Booklet, 1918



By 1917, Walker’s Red Hot Chile con Carne was being canned in Austin, Texas–note the e in chile. During the following year, Walker’s was producing forty-five thousand cans of chili a day. In 1921, Wolf Brand Chili was being canned in Corsicana, Texas.

Chili Spreads East

About this time, the popularity of the bowl o’ red began to spread, and the first chili emporium opened in Cincinnati in 1922 (some say 1923), the Empress Chili Parlor. According to chili historian F. Starr, “Cincinnati chili was concocted in October, 1922, by a man who had never eaten a bit of Texas chili, and it has been made ever since by people immunized against it by geography and culture.”

Indeed. The easterners began serving the chili in strange ways, which, of course, forever earned them the scorn of Texans. One-Way Chili was straight, Cincinnati-style chili. Two-Way was served with spaghetti under the chili. Three-Way added cheese on top. Four-Way added onions to the spaghetti and-cheese chili, and Five-Way added beans to the spaghetti base! The Empress Chili Parlor is still open today, serving the now-traditional Cincinnati chili.

Back in Texas, the chili queens were banned from selling in San Antonio in 1937 for health reasons–public officials objected to flies and poorly washed dishes. They were restored by Mayor Maury Maverick (a real name, folks–unbranded cattle were named after his dad) in 1939, but their stands were closed again shortly after the start of World War II.

Chili continued to be mentioned occasionally–and erroneously–as late as 1964, when William I. Kaufman, in his book, Recipes from the Caribbean and Latin America, wrote in his recipe for Fiesta Chili con Carne: “The best known of all Mexican dishes, chili con carne, may also be eaten with rice instead of beans.”

The Texans, however, never forgot their culinary heritage, and in 1977 the Texas Legislature proclaimed chili con carne to be the “Official Texas State Dish.” Incidentally, in 1993, the Illinois State Senate passed a resolution proclaiming that Illinois was to be the “Chilli [sic] Capital of the Civilized World,” a move that outraged Texans.

During the 1980s, San Antonio began staging what they call “historic re-enactments” of the chili queens, complete with some of the original queens, such as songstress Lydia Mendoza, who serenaded the chili eaters. The “Return of the Chili Queens Festival,” held each year in Market Square, recreates the era of the chili queens and celebrates the dish that, no matter what its origin, will live forever in the hearts, minds, and stomachs of Texans.

Early, Classic Chili Poster

An Early, Classic Chili Poster



America’s Official Food?

Chili lovers are never satisfied. Despite the fact that the bowl o’ red is the Texas State Dish, a movement has been growing for about twenty years to have Congress declare chili con carne to be America’s “official food.” In 1984, Congressman Manuel Lujan of New Mexico introduced House Joint Resolution 465–the so-called “Chili Bill”–which contained ten instances of the word “whereas.” Here are four of them:

“Whereas chili enjoys a universal popularity throughout the width and breadth of this great land that is unequal to other American foods,” Lujan wrote, “and whereas chili is a succulent, distinctive blending of meats and spices that has economically nourished countless millions of Americans since its historic inception in the nineteenth century; and whereas chili is a truly egalitarian cuisine whose vast popularity prevails with American people of every economic and social stratum, unifying gastronomes and those with more proletarian palates as its devotees; and whereas chili is a definitive food whose hearty, committed character embodies the robust and indomitable American spirit, be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress Assembled, that chili be designated as the official food of this great Nation.”

Since the Chili Bill’s introduction, however, it has been simmering on Congress’ back burner and has never been passed into law. But loyal chili fans try year after year with national publicity campaigns in hopes of getting the bill passed. In 1988, a campaign led by self-proclaimed World Chili Ambassador Ormly Gumfudgin–and supported by the International Chili Society and Maximum Strength Pepto-Bismol–attempted to obtain the signatures of one million chiliheads on a petition to support passage of the bill, which had stalled in the House for four years. Because more than 750,000 people attend chili cook-offs each year, Gumfudgin believed that the goal was obtainable. The goal was not achieved, however, but the bill continued its long stewing in the House of Representatives.

Another publicity stunt was staged in 1993, when the International Chili Society and Hyundai Motor America co-sponsored the twenty-three-city “Chili Across America” tour. That motorcade, led by a motorized stagecoach with a three-hundred-pound copper chili pot mounted on top, was designed to begin at the Capitol building in Washington. The final stop in the tour, appropriately enough, was the ICS World Championship Chili Cook-Off in Reno, with its $25,000 grand prize. It seems likely that the cantankerousness of Congress will match that of chili cooks all over the country, and that a final decision on our national dish will come long after this series is published.

Meanwhile, on January 23, 1993, a record crowd of thirty-five thousand chiliheads showed up in Greenway Plaza Park in Houston for the ninth annual Houston Post Go Texan Roundup Chili Cook-Off. And that was a local contest. So the public support for chili simply will not evaporate.

The recipes that follow reveal the developments of chili con carne, from jails to the chili historians–and the nearly infinite combinations of ingredients and amounts. And we just had to throw in the funniest, most fanciful chili recipe ever created: Whale Chili.



Dallas County Jail Chili

Chili philosopher John Thorne comments: “Texas prison chili got its good reputation from Sheriff Smoot Schmidt’s truly fine recipe for the Dallas County Jail. Recently, however, a Texas prison chili contest was won by the Huntsville Penitentiary with a godawful recipe that called for twice as much cumin as chili powder and ‘2 handfuls’ of monosodium glutamate. In Texas, this is called crime deterrence.”

  • ½ pound beef suet, ground

  • 2 pounds coarsely ground beef

  • 3 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1½ tablespoons paprika

  • 3 tablespoons chili powder

  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds

  • 1 tablespoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon white pepper

  • 1½ teaspoons dried sweet (mild) chile pods (or paprika)

  • 3 cups water

Fry the suet in a heavy kettle. Add the meat, garlic, and seasonings; cover. Cook slowly for 4 hours, stirring occasionally. Add the water and continue cooking until the chili has thickened slightly, about 1 hour. Serve plain or mixed with an equal portion of cooked pink or red beans.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Chili DeGolyer

Chili historian Everett Lee DeGolyer was the owner of The Saturday Review of Literature, and was also, according to H. Allen Smith, “a world traveler, a gourmet, and the Solomon of the chili bowl.” Here is the historian’s recipe in his own words.

  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • 2½ cups fat rendered from beef suet

  • 3 pounds center-cut steak (Trim and cut into cubes of less than ½ inch dimension. Lazy people

  • grind meat in a food chopper using only the coarse knife.)

  • 2 cups water, or the liquid in which the chiles have been boiled

  • 2 to 12 pods of chile colorado [New Mexican], according to taste. If you are muy fuerte, use more. 1 teaspoon of comino seeds (cumin in English, or kummel if you understand it better)

  • 1 teaspoon oregano (marjoram)

  • 1 teaspoon salt

Brown the garlic and onion in the fat, add meat, and cook until gray (not brown) in color.

Add 2 cups of water and let simmer 1 hour.

Take pods of dried chile, wash, stem, and remove seeds. Put to boil in cold water and boil slowly until the skins slip easily, usually 45 minutes. Rub the pulp through a colander or sieve to make a smooth paste. You should now have ½ to 3/4 cup of pulp. Chile powder, prepared commercially, may be substituted for the pulp at the equivalent of one heaping tablespoon of chile powder for 2 pods of chile.

Rub comino seeds and oregano to a powder, toasting if need be. Add chile pulp, comino, oregano, and salt to the meat and cook slowly for 1 hour.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Heat Scale: Varies

Chili H. Allen Smith

From the famous iconoclast and author of The Great Chili Confrontation, here’s the recipe that infuriated Texans after it was published in Holiday Magazine in 1967. Smith had the gall to title his article “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do.” Once again, the directions are in Smith’s own words.

  • 3 pounds chuck, coarsely ground

  • 2 or 3 medium onions, chopped

  • 1 bell pepper, seeds and stems removed, chopped

  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic

  • ½ teaspoon oregano

  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seed

  • 2 small cans tomato paste

  • 1 quart water

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • 3 tablespoons [New Mexican] chile powder

  • 2 cans kidney or pinto beans

Get 3 pounds of chuck, coarse ground. Brown it in an iron kettle. (If you don’t have an iron kettle you are not civilized. Go out and get one.) Chop two or three medium-sized onions and one bell pepper and add to the browned meat. Crush or mince one or two cloves of garlic and throw it into the pot, then add about a half a teaspoon of oregano and a quarter teaspoon of cumin seed. Now add two small cans of tomato paste; if you prefer canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes, put them through a colander. Add about a quart of water. Salt liberally and grind in some black pepper, and, for a starter, two or three tablespoons of chile powder. (Some of us use chile pods, but chile powder is just as good.) Simmer for an hour and a half or longer, then add your beans. Pinto beans are best, but if they are not available, canned kidney beans will do–two 15-17 oz. cans will be adequate. Simmer another half hour. Throughout the cooking, do some tasting from time to time and, as the Gourmet Cookbook puts it, “correct seasoning.” When you’ve got it right let it set for several hours. Later, you may heat it up as much as you want, and put the remainder in the refrigerator. It will taste better the second day, still better the third, and absolutely superb the fourth. You can’t even begin to imagine the delights in store for you one week later.

Yield: 8 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Wick Fowler’s Chili

Nowadays it’s easy to re-create the chili that Wick used in the first cook-off against H. Allen Smith–just buy some of the famous Wick Fowler 2-Alarm Chili Mix. Or, you can follow the recipe below, which chili legend holds is Wick’s original version that he cooked in Terlingua in 1967. Remember to remove the Japanese chiles and the chilipiquins before serving. If this chili is too hot, Wick recommended drinking a pint of buttermilk.

  • 3 pounds chili-grind beef, mostly lean

  • 1½ cups canned tomato sauce

  • Water as needed

  • 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce

  • 3 heaping tablespoons chile powder

  • 1 teaspoon oregano

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seed or powder

  • 2 onions, chopped

  • 6 or more cloves garlic, chopped

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon cayenne

  • 1 tablespoon paprika

  • 12 or more whole dried Japanese chiles (very hot)

  • 6 to 8 chilipiquins (very, very hot)

  • 3 tablespoons flour for thickener

Sear the meat in a large skillet until gray in color. Transfer the meat to a chili pot, along with the tomato sauce and enough water to cover the meat about ½ inch, mixing well. Stir in the Tabasco, chili powder, oregano, cumin, onions, garlic, salt, cayenne, and paprika. Add the Japanese chiles and chilipiquins, taking care not to break them open. Let simmer for 1 hour and 45 minutes, stirring gently at intervals.

About 30 minutes before the end of the cooking time, skim off any grease that has risen to the top. Mix the flour with a little water to make it liquid without lumps. Add this paste to ingredients in the pot and blend in thoroughly. Adjust salt and seasonings. Unless you are chili hungry at the moment, let the chili remain in the pot overnight, then reheat and serve. Freeze any chili left over. Serve with sliced or chopped onions and pinto beans on the side.

Yield: 8 servings

Heat Scale: Hot

Joe Cooper’s Chili

Joe, the author of probably the best book ever written about chili, included his own recipe in With or Without Beans. “That which is to follow,” he wrote, “represents many tedious, but gladdening, hours in the kitchen, not to mention countless pots of chili.” Joe then presented three pages of description of his chili before revealing the recipe. He modestly stated that it should not be construed as the “best ever” chili, but rather one that satisfied the Coopers’ appetites. “This recipe,” concluded Cooper, “like most all worthwhile others, was conceived out of an uncertain past; born of a belief that no man can live long and prosper without good chili; reared in the confusion of trial and error; and now exists in maturity with the respect of neighbors and friends.”

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 3 pounds lean beef (never veal), hand-chopped into bite-sized cubes

  • 1 quart water

  • 2 bay leaves (if desired)

  • 8 dry [New Mexican] chile pods or 6 tablespoons chile powder

  • 3 teaspoons salt

  • 10 cloves garlic, finely chopped

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon oregano

  • 1 teaspoon red pepper [hot Chile powder]

  • ½ teaspoon black pepper

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 3 tablespoons paprika

  • 1/4 teaspoon cocoa (optional)

  • 3 tablespoons flour

  • 6 tablespoons corn meal

When the olive oil is hot, in a 6-quart pot, add meat and sear over high heat; stir constantly until gray–not brown. It then will have the consistency of whole-grain hominy. Add 1 quart water and cook (covered) at bubbling simmer 1½ to 2 hours.

Then add all ingredients, except thickening (flour and corn meal). Cook 30 minutes longer at same bubbling simmer. Further cooking will damage some of the spice flavors. Skim off the fat.

Now add thickening, previously mixed in some cold water. Cook 5 minutes to determine if more water is necessary (likely) for your desired consistency. Stir to prevent sticking after thickening is added. A fairly hot chili.

Yield: 8 servings

Heat Scale: Hot

Cincinnati-Style Chili

Cincinnati Chili Cook-Off Illustration

A Recent Illustration for a
Cincinnati Chili Cook-Off


This chili is often served over spaghetti and is then called chili-mac or TwoWay chili. According to Floyd Cogan, “The proper way to make chili-mac is to place cooked spaghetti (al dente) on a plate and cover it with chili, with grated Parmesan cheese on top.”

  • 2 pounds coarsely ground chuck steak

  • 1 quart water

  • 1 cup chopped onions

  • 2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1/4 teaspoon powdered allspice

  • 4 whole cloves, crushed

  • 1 bay leaf, powdered

  • ½ ounce unsweetened chocolate

  • 3 tablespoons chili powder (or more for heat)

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1½ teaspoons sugar

  • 2 tablespoons flower mixed with 1/4 cup water

Combine the chuck steak and the water and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except the flour mixed with water and simmer for 3 hours.

Add the flour mixed with water, bring to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Whale Chili

In 1989, Sheldon P. Wimpfen, of Luray, Virginia, wrote that he had been a chili cook for fifty-five of his seventy-five years and that fact makes him an expert on the subject. He lambasted us for our “mistaken tales” about the origin of chili con carne. He enclosed as his evidence the first recipe ever used for chili con carne, dating from approximately 15,000 B.C. The ancient recipe which follows was invented by the Alaxsxaq Indians of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes on the Bering Land Bridge. He apologized in advance for any insult to whale lovers and wrote, “that’s just the way they cook up there.”

  • 3 tons red chile pods

  • 1 medium (50-foot) blue whale, cubed to fingertip size using razor-sharp ulus (a native knife)

  • 60 oogruk (seals), cubed to fingertip size using razor-sharp ulus

  • 30 tons onions, chopped fine using razor-sharp ulus

  • 1 ton garlic, minced using razorsharp ulus

  • 100 pounds sea salt

  • 600 pounds oregano

  • 400 pounds cumin

Dig a bowl in the ice 40 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 10 feet deep. Place all ingredients in the ice bowl and mix well with dull ulus. Add water and fumarole-heated stones until the ice bowl is bubbling. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 weeks. Ladle leftovers into 5-gallon leather buckets and freeze in a glacier.

Yield: Enough to feed an entire tribe for a year

Heat Scale: Medium


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