The Chili con Carne Project

The GREAT Chili con Carne Project, Part 9: The Southwest Chili Wars

Fiery Foods Manager Chili con Carne Leave a Comment

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Email this to someone

by Dave DeWitt

The Chili con Carne Project

Part 9: The Southwestern Chili Wars



Pueblo Red Chile

Mission Chili

Pete’s Red Chile

New Mexican Red Chile

Doña Josefita’s Ranch-Style Green Chile

Keller Green Chile Stew

Santa Fe Trail Chile

Hardfat Bentley’s Lone Star Chile or Chili

The Great Chili con Carne Project Index

Texans may rightfully claim that chili originated in their state, but the fact remains that the folks in the rest of the Southwest have been cooking up similar stews for centuries. “The extravagant use of red pepper among the [New] Mexicans has become truly proverbial,” wrote Josiah Gregg in 1844 in The Commerce of the Prairies. “It enters into nearly every dish at every meal, and often so predominates as entirely to conceal the character of the viands.”

As is so often true in chili lore, the rivalries among the states involve nomenclature as well as recipes. As we discovered in Part 1, New Mexicans and others in the Southwest use the word “chile” to describe the plant, the pod, and various dishes made with chile peppers, while to Texans, “chili” is a very specific dish. In New Mexico, to further complicate matters, chile cook-offs usually have three distinct categories: Red, Green, and Texas-Style.

But even such generosity has not prevented a series of chili–and chile–wars.

The Congressional Controversy

According to chili legend, in 1974, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona noticed that the National Press Club Restaurant in Washington, D.C. served a Texas-style chili. It is reported that the senator exclaimed, “Texans don’t know chili from shit.”

Champion of Arizona Chili, Barry Goldwater

Champion of Arizona Chili, Barry Goldwater


Senator John Tower replied on the Senate floor that comparing Texas chili to Arizona chili was like comparing Sophia Loren to Phyllis Diller and challenged Goldwater to a cook-off. Senator Henry Bellman of Oklahoma supported Goldwater regarding Texas chili, but indicated that to trade the “ketchup and sand” Arizona chili for the “crude oil flavored” Texas chili would only aggravate the situation.

Senator Robert Taft of Ohio decided that the issue was important enough to take to the Congressional Record. Speaking of Tower and Goldwater, he stated, “Each likened the other chili to barnyard apples, and possibly each spoke truly.” Taft went on to lambast the origin of Texas chili as “Texans mowing down helpless Mexicans and then ransacking their mess kits.” He was, of course, touting Cincinnati chili, which he said “draws on the subtleties of the Balkans for its spicing.”

Senator Joseph Montoya of New Mexico added fuel to the fire by stating that anyone born north of the border could not know anything at all about chili, so he entered his wife’s Mexican chili! The cook-off was judged to be a tie between Goldwater and Tower, but a subsequent cook-off sponsored by McCall’s Magazine was won by Tower.

The Congressional controversy continued in 1983 when Senator Pete Dominici of New Mexico stated in the Congressional Record that despite the fact that the dictionary preferred the spelling “chili,” the correct spelling was “chile” for the dish of meat and chile pods. “Knowing that criticizing the dictionary is akin to criticizing the Bible, I nevertheless stand here before the full Senate and with the backing of my New Mexican constituents state unequivocally, that the dictionary is wrong.”

Dominici went on to ask, “Would Florida be any less offended if oranges were suddenly spelled ‘orangis?’” Would there be no outcry from the state of Washington if their apples were suddenly spelled ‘applis?’” As a result of Dominici’s impassioned plea, on November 14, 1983, the Albuquerque Journal caved in and announced, “The I’s of Texas are no longer on us. ‘Chili’ is dead. The only time we will use “i” will be when we quote the written word of some Texan.”

Interestingly enough, it was Congressman Manuel Lujan of New Mexico who sponsored the Chili Bill in 1984, which called for making chili the national food. House Joint Resolution 465 (some sources say 255 and some say 337!) of February 2 spelled the dish “chili,” which touched off even more controversy. “Where I come from, we spell it ‘c-h-i-l-e’,” Lujan said.

The Chile Challenge

Regional politics continued to provoke frequent debates and contests. An offshoot of the chile-chili wars was sparked by a “Mexican” terminology. One might think that Mexico City, or perhaps Puebla, Oaxaca, or Cuernavaca would be the culinary capital of that diverse cuisine called “Mexican.” Think again, because in 1987, Tucson Mayor Lew Murphy proclaimed his city “The Mexican Food Capital of the World and Elsewhere.” In a blistering letter to the mayors of San Antonio, El Paso, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, Murphy challenged the cities to a chile cooking contest in Tucson. “It’s time to put your Mexican menu where your mouth is,” Murphy wrote.

Such a cavalier attitude produced fumes from Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick, who retorted: “We’ve been eating chile here in Santa Fe before Tucson was even thought of.” Pick was alluding to the fact that Santa Fe was founded 165 years before Tucson, and he called for a city-wide contest to pick a chile cook to represent the City Different at the Tucson chile challenge.

Murphy’s proclamation of Tucson as the Mexican Food Capital included a statement which seems to indicate that he was suffering from irreversible chile addiction: “Tucson’s growth has been due not as much to climate as chimichangas, not as much to colossal scenery as carne seca, not as much to great contemplation as to green corn tamales.”

Eventually, the cities of Phoenix, El Paso, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe collided with Tucson in early December, 1987, to give a heated response to the chile challenge. The event was called, incredibly, “The Great American Mexican Food Cook-Off.” The judges of the contest were all Mexicans–not Hispanics, mind you, but real Mexican chile aficionados imported from Tijuana. One of them was president of the Tijuana restaurant owners’ association.

The results of the contest proved that Tucson’s claim to be the capital of Mexican Food was invalid. Overall winners were, in order: Santa Fe, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. Santa Fe councilman John Egan announced tersely, in a good imitation of a heavyweight boxer’s manager: “As far as we’re concerned, the trophy lives in Santa Fe. You want it, you come and get it.”

The stunning Santa Fe victory led to a number of developments. In January, 1988 a bill was introduced in the New Mexico State Legislature calling for the memorialization of Santa Fe’s culinary reputation. Representatives Max Coll (D-Santa Fe) and Gary Robbins (R-Roosevelt-Curry) praised the Santa Fe chefs in their memorial, which threatens that any New Mexican who misspells “chile” as “chili” will “automatically be deported to Texas.” The memorial concluded by acclaiming Santa Fe as “The Mexican Food Capital of the Universe.”

Such political attention resulted in Mayor Sam Pick’s announcement of his city’s defense of the chile crown. On November 18 and 19, 1988, Santa Fe chefs successfully defended their city’s modified title of “Mexican Food Capital of the World…and Elsewhere” at the Mayor’s Chile Challenge held at Sweeney Center.

The winning Santa Fe cooking team consisted of chefs Bill Weiland, Alex Valdivia, Todd Sanson, and Robert Valencia, plus two non-professional cooks, Betsy Honce and Barbara Timber. The judging panel consisted of one representative from each city, and the official order of finish was Santa Fe, Española, and El Paso. Santa Fe Mayor Sam Pick announced that Santa Fe would again host the competition in 1989. But it was never held, and the competition faded away because of a failure of the political leadership.

Chili Madness - The Best-selling Chili Book Ever Published

The Best-selling Chili Book Ever Published
Was Written by Jane Butel–a Woman and
a New Mexican



The Chile-Chili War

The interstate conflict was revived again in 1992, when Texas declared war on New Mexico. The initial volley in the campaign was fired off by Hill Rylander of the Travis County Farmer’s Market in Austin and Nacho Padilla of El Paso, who proclaimed Texas to be the “chili capital of the world.” Rylander even went so far as to erect a beautiful engraved glass plaque at the Farmer’s Market that announced the site to be the “Capsicum Capital of the World.”

New Mexicans were furious and pointed out that not only did their state grow more jalapeños than Texas, the Lone Star State did not even keep records of their chile acreage! Ignoring such facts, Texas accelerated the attack with a proclamation from the El Paso County Commission, which stated on September 9, 1992, “Whereas, chili first made its way into El Paso County in 1598; and whereas New Mexico fraudulently claims that they are the chile capital of the Southwest; and whereas New Mexico has misrepresented and misspelled chili since since the State of Texas gave them the first chili pepper seeds; now, therefore be it resolved that El Paso County joins the State of Texas in declaring war on the State of New Mexico by sanctioning the First Annual Placita de Ysleta Texas/ New Mexico Chili War Festival at the Placita de Ysleta in El Paso County on the Mission Trail on August 20-22, 1992.”

Logo for the Wine and Chile War

Logo for the Wine and Chile War


The Texas governor, Ann Richards, kept up the pressure with her Official Memorandum of November 13–but she spelled the word both ways! “Texas is the chili capital of the Southwest,” she bragged. “The State of Texas grows more than 100 varieties of chiles in its various climates and soil conditions throughout the entire year.” She then stated, “The duty now falls on Texas chili chefs to uphold our state’s reputation as Chili Capital of the Southwest. The only thing that stands between us and our rightful title is the willingness of New Mexico chili chefs to actually show up and fight.” In light of what transpired, that comment would undoubtedly come back to haunt her.

New Mexico fought back. Governor Bruce King’s spokesman, John McKean, went on the record: “Even some Texas canneries that produce that awful brown stuff they call chili say they get their chiles from New Mexico, although I don’t know if that’s the best use for our product.”

The New Mexico State Legislature and Governor King quickly passed Senate Joint Memorial 5, which stated, in part and with considerable exaggeration: “Whereas, despite New Mexico’s long and rich chile history and prehistory, with solid archaeological evidence indicating the continuous use of both red and green chile since the time of Folsom Man some twelve thousand years ago [this is not true], we now find ‘Texas Man’ claiming the noble chile as his; and whereas despite the facts, we hear boasting from east of the Pecos that ‘The Lone Star State’ is the chili capital of the Southwest…and Texas chefs malign the noble ‘red and green’ by blending it into a slurry of kidney beans and onions called chili; now, therefore, be it resolved by the Legislature of the State of New Mexico that the Land of Enchantment bets the ‘whole enchilada’ and its reputation as the Chile Capital of the World against the Lone Star State in the Mother of All Chile Wars Festival to be held May 29-31, 1993 at the Doña Ana County Fairgrounds.”

New Mexico’s ploy was clever. By holding the Chile War Festival prior to the contest in El Paso in August, the New Mexicans hoped to deflate the Texan’s claims. Led by expert festival organizer, Bill Gomez, the Chile War Festival was an enormous success, with more than 15,000 people attending. About 100 chile cooks showed up, with the Texans outnumbered four to one. There were five different categories for the competition: red, green, salsa, unique, and Texas-style. There was even a sanctioned CASI cook-off.

The New Mexicans won the Chile War Festival. As the Las Cruces Sun News reported, “Temperatures flared, the food was hot, and New Mexico prevailed over Texas.” In the professional chef’s portion of the competition, chef Bill Keller of Albuquerque won both the Green Chile and the Texas Chili divisions! Later, Nacho Padilla of El Paso presented the Chile War bronze chile statue to Governor Bruce King, and, admitted the Texas defeat.

But did the Texans have their revenge in August? No. Dispirited and disillusioned, the Texans failed to hold their contest and, as Bill Gomez noted, “They declared war but never followed through.” Their failure proved what the New Mexico legislature had claimed in their memorial: “It’s painfully clear that the noises from Austin and El Paso are nothing more than Texas-style boasting.”

Given the history of such interstate rivalry, there is no doubt that the chile-chili wars will continue. Meanwhile, readers can decide for themselves about the quality of Southwestern chile-chili dishes with the recipes that follow.


Chile Dinner Gong

A Chile Dinner Gong Says
“Come and Get Some Chile–or Chili”


Pueblo Red Chile

Here is a very ancient recipe from New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians, although it’s not nearly as old as Whale Chile.

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

  • 1 cup water

  • 2 pounds pork, cut into 1/4-inch dice

  • 1 teaspoon pork fat

  • ½ teaspoon oregano

  • 1 clove garlic, minced

  • Cornstarch to thicken, if necessary

Combine the chiles and water in a blender and puree into a paste.

Fry the pork in a skillet with the fat until browned. Drain off the fat. Add the pureed chiles and the remaining ingredients and cook, covered, for about 1 hour or until the pork is tender. Add water if the chile is too thick, and cornstarch if it is too thin.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Mission Chili

This slightly modified recipe, originally published in the Mission Cookbook of the St. Ann’s Society of Tucson in 1909, was a chili con carne that was also called picadillo. It is a rather primitive chili recipe that sometimes was “fancied up” with raisins, wine, and olives.

  • 1 pound beefsteak, coarsely ground

  • 1 onion, diced

  • 2 tablespoons lard or shortening

  • 1 tablespoon flour

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons chili powder

  • 2 cups boiling water

  • 1 tomato, diced

In a bowl, combine the beefsteak and onion and mix well. Heat the lard in a pan and add the beefsteak and onion mix. While it browns, sprinkle it with the flour and salt and pepper to taste.

Add the chili powder to the boiling water and boil for 5 minutes. Add the this chili water to the browned meat, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the tomato and simmer for 20 minutes or until thickened to desired consistency.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Pete’s Red Chile

Pete Benavidez was the owner of the long-gone Videz Cafe in Albuquerque. This recipe is for his classic red chile, as collected by Dick Beeson in the early Chile Pepper magazine.

  • 6 dried red New Mexican chiles, stems and seeds removed, or a blender container packed loosely with the dried chiles

  • 1 clove garlic

  • 1 teaspoon ground Mexican oregano

  • Salt to taste

  • ½ pound pork, either cubed from a roast, or chops, or even bones with meat

  • 1 to 1½ pounds very lean ground beef

Cover the chile with very hot water and soak for 20 to 30 minutes or until limp and partially rehydrated. Place the chiles back in the blender (they should loosely fill 3/4 of the container; if more, make two small batches.) Fill the container up near the top with water. Drop in the clove of garlic and sprinkle the top with the oregano. Add a little salt at this stage if you wish. Blend for 2 to 3 minutes on high or until a homogeneous or orangish-red mixture is obtained.

Pour the mixture into a saucepan and add the pork. Cook, covered over a very low heat or uncovered at a slight bubble, for 2 to 3 hours. If cooked uncovered, periodically add water back to original level to maintain proper consistency–medium soupy.

Remove the pork pieces and save for another meal such as carne adovada. Place the chile sauce in the refrigerator and cool. Remove any fat that congeals on the top.

Season the beef with a little salt and pepper and saute until the meat is no longer pink.

Combine the reserved sauce and beef and simmer, covered, for an additional 30 to 45 minutes.

It is better if the sauce is on the thin side, it can always be thickened with a flour and water paste and cooked for an additional 10 minutes.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

New Mexican Red Chile

Here is a classic recipe from Nancy Gerlach, food editor the Fiery-Foods & Barbecue SuperSite.. She wrote: “When you order ‘chili’ in New Mexico, this is what you will be served. It is a basic recipe that has its roots in very old Pueblo Indian cooking. Beef can also be substituted in this recipe.”

  • 6 to 8 dried red chiles, stems removed

  • 2 pounds pork, cut into 1½ -inch cubes

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 3 cups water or beef broth

  • Salt to taste

Place the chiles on a sheet pan in a 250 degree oven and toast for 15 minutes, being careful not to let them burn. Place the chiles in a saucepan, cover with water and simmer for 15 minutes until soft. Place them in a blender, with the water, and puree until smooth.

Brown the pork in the oil. Add the garlic and saute. Pour off any excess fat.

Combine the chile mixture, pork and remaining water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the pork is very tender and starts to fall apart, at least 2 hours.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Doña Josefita’s Ranch-Style Green Chile

This recipe is a classic version of New Mexican green chile. It first appeared in New Mexico Magazine in 1947.

  • 12 large green New Mexico chiles, roasted, peeled, seeds and stems removed

  • 1 clove garlic, minced

  • 1 large tomato, sliced

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • 3/4 pound round steak, chopped into 1/4 inch cubes

  • 2½ cups water

Chop the chiles into small pieces, the smaller the better. Place the chile and garlic in a skillet. Add the tomato, season with salt and pepper. Add chopped round and fry in skillet.

Add 2½ cups of water to the fried meat. Boil for 10 minutes.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium-hot

Keller Green Chile Stew

Albuquerque chef and caterer Bill Keller won second place at Tucson’s Great American Mexican Food Cook-Off in 1987 with this simple but delicious green chile.

  • 2 tablespoons lard

  • 1 ½ pound pork butt, diced

  • 2 tablespoons white pepper

  • 2 tablespoons granulated garlic

  • 4 tablespoons cumin

  • ½ onion, diced

  • 2 tablespoons chicken boullion granules

  • 8 ounces chopped hot green New Mexican chile

  • 2 cups hot water

  • 1 large potato, peeled and diced

Heat the lard in a skillet and add the pork. Cook but don’t brown the pork. Add the remaining ingredients except the potato and cook for 30 minutes. Add the potato and cook until the potato is done, about 20 minutes.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Santa Fe Trail Chile

Scott Almy of Santa Fe placed third in Tucson’s Great American Mexican Food Cook-Off in 1987 with this amalgam of Texas and Southwestern styles.

  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 1 pound pork butt, cut into 1/4-inch dice

  • 1 pound beef chuck, cut into 1/4-inch dice

  • 1 pound ground pork

  • 1 pound premium ground beef

  • 2 green bell peppers, seeds and stems removed, diced

  • 2 stalks celery, diced

  • 2 medium yellow onions, chopped

  • ½ pound frozen or canned chopped Hatch New Mexican green chile

  • 1 beer (12 ounces)

  • Water as needed

  • 2 cups cooked pinto beans

  • 2 cups cooked kidney beans, including the liquid

  • 1 cup diced canned tomatoes

  • 1 cup tomato sauce

  • 2 tablespoons oregano

  • 1 tablespoon cumin

  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh garlic

  • 1/4 to 1 cup Chimayo red chile powder (cook’s choice)

In a pot, heat the oil over medium heat, add the the cubed pork and beef, and sear until a rich, dark color develops. Add the ground pork and beef and cook until browned. Drain off all fat.

Add the bell peppers, celery, onions, and green chile. Pour in the beer. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes over very low heat.

Add the remaining ingredients and simmer 1 hour, adding water if necessary. Cool and refrigerate overnight, and reheat and serve it the next day.

Yield: 12 servings

Heat Scale: Medium-hot

Hardfat Bentley’s Lone Star Chile or Chili

Our friend Jon Bentley, who grew up in Texas but lives in New Mexico, has divided loyalties. This recipe reveals influences from both states. He noted: “For the roadkill version, substitute armadillo, ‘coon, possum, or other toothsome, recently procurred meat. As with all game, double the amount of chile and beer. Oil guests appropriately with beers, tequila, or mezcal.”

  • 6 tablespoons sunflower oil

  • 1 teaspoon olive oil

  • 1 teaspoon crushed New Mexican red chile

  • 2 medium onions, chopped

  • 5 cloves garlic, minced

  • 6 pounds coarsely ground chuck

  • 8 cups water

  • 1 or 2 Lone Star longneck beers

  • 10 to 15 New Mexican red chile pods, stems and seeds removed

  • 8 cups water (or more if needed)

  • 1 1/4 cups tomato paste

  • 2 dashes cumin

  • Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the two oils in a large pot and add the crushed red chile and stir well. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are soft. Add the chuck, water, beer and simmer until the meat turns grey, stirring often.

Meanwhile, in a separate pot, combine the chile pods and the water and boil rapidly for 10 minutes. Puree the mixture in a blender and add to the simmering meat.

Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the mixture has thickened. You may need to add more water if it is too thick.

Serve with Lone Star or Mexican beer and beans on the side, but don’t put any beans in the damn chile!

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Heat Scale: Medium-hot


Top of Page

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Email this to someone