Chili: a concise and biased history

I have followed Yvona Fast for decades, always insightful and an obviously talented chef, but her Feb. 20 Weekender article on chili seemed to miss the mark. She included beans, which requires comment and, perhaps, aprobation.

Chile con carne is a stew of chile peppers (Capsicum annuum) and flesh. Conquistadors described an Aztec mash of chiles with beef, fish, fowl or frog eaten in Nueva Espana in the 1500s. Mexican oregano (Lippa graveolens), garlic (Allium vineale/sativum), wild onion (Allium canadense), culantro (Eryngium foetidum) and corn meal (Zea mays) were available additives. Canary Islanders emigrating to Bexar, Texas, in the 1730s added cumin (Cuminum cynimun) and cilantro/coriander (Carum carvi).

J.C. Clopper’s notes from an 1828 visit to San Antonio describe hashed beef stewed with equal part chiles. Gold rushers pounded jerky, dried chiles, suet, cumin and salt into bricks for trail food, thickened with wheat or corn flour in a pot of water. S. Compton Smith’s 1857 book “Chile Con Carne” suggests the U.S. Army was eating chili mid 19th century. R.E. Stuart claims concineros, chuck wagon chefs, would add beans to stretch a meal. San Antonio’s “Chili Queen” street vendors served chile con carne of beef or pork with onion, cumin, garlic and oregano from the 1870s through World War II. William Tobin married into a San Antonio family of Canary Island heritage and served chili con carne at his Vance Hotel in the 1870s. He contracted to can chili for the U.S. Army in 1884. Gephardt’s chili powder — ground anchos, with cumin, oregano and garlic — has been sold since 1896. Chile con carne was a staple of the U.S. Army before 1900. Beans were added later to inexpensively increase protein. Chili was introduced to the U.S. Midwest during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair.

By the 1950s, Texan authors Ernest DeGolyer and Frank X. Tolbert stirred classic pots of beef browned in its suet, chiles, onion, garlic cumin and oregano. Joe Cooper browned beef in olive oil and added sugar, corn meal, flour and cocoa but no onion. Wick Fowler’s Two Alarm Chili and Helen Corbitt’s Neiman Marcus Chili added both onion and tomato.

The Chili Appreciation Society International formed in the 1950s. In 1967, the first CASI Terlingua Cookoff, a high-camp event in a Rio Grande ghost town, featured competition between Texan Wick Fowler and easterner H. Allen Smith. Fowler presented Two Alarm Texas Red. Smith’s chili included beans, bell peppers and garlic. The CASI continues its Terlingua event on the first Saturday in November. The International Chili Society, formed when Californians C.V. Wood and Carroll Shelby (of Cobra race car fame) were disinvited from Terlingua, hosts a moving cook-off. Both are fall events. No beans are allowed in either chili competition.

In summary, chile con carne, or chili, developed in San Antonio in the mid 1800s as beef and/or pork hashed into a chile pepper mash with cumin, garlic, Mexican oregano, onions and culantro-cilantro-coriander, sometimes thickened with corn meal. Texans later occasionally added tomato, cinnamon and, rarely, pinto beans. Hollywood Chili with beans, celery, chicken and cheese; Cincinnati Style, served over spaghetti; Coney Island Style with turmeric; and Springfield Style with beans but no tomato, are all later, localized traditions.



“A Bowl of Red,” Frank X. Tolbert, 1972, isbn 0-89096-598-6, 1-58544-209-7 pbk

“Chili Maddness,” Jane Butel, 1980, isbn 0-89480134-1 pbk

Chili Appreciation Society Int., www.chili.org, www.casichili.net, Facebook

Fiery Foods and Barbecue, www.fieryfoodscentral.com

International Chili Society, www.chilicookoff.org

“The Chili Cookbook,” Robb Walsh, 2015, isbn 9781607747956

“The Great Chili Book,” Bill Bridges, 1981, isbn 1-55821-281-7

“The Great Chili Confrontation,” H. Allen Smith, 1969, isbn 978-0671270230

“With or Without Beans,” Joe E. Cooper, 1952, ASIN B0006ATJIA


Here’s my take on a bowl of red.


Charlie’s Chili Rojo, Bexar Chile con Carne, sinfully modified

A San Antonio chili, hashed meat in a chile pepper mash flavored with onions, cumin, garlic, oregano and coriander, somewhat corrupted with bacon, red bell peppers, tomatoes, cinnamon, thyme and cocoa.

4 ounces dried ancho chiles (Sub: 1/2 cup ground ancho) 

5 poblano chiles

4 red bell peppers (H.A. Smith) (Sub: 1/3 cup paprika)

2-2.5 pounds venison or lean beef, with up to 1/3 pound lean pork, all diced

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 red onion, diced

14-ounce can of small diced tomatoes

1 cup beef, turkey or chicken stock

Masa harina (traditional Mexican flour) as needed

1/2 pound bacon in 1/4-inch lardoons

8 cloves garlic

6-ounce can tomato paste

1/2 beer to meld spices; adjust liquid

1 square baker’s chocolate

More heat? Add three to 4 jalapeno chiles, or 3 to 5 4.5-ounce cans of chopped chiles, or 1/2 of a 7-ounce can of adobo chipotles, or 2 tablespoons of ground chipotle for medium-high heat. Careful!


SEASONING BLEND: Soak in 1/4 can beer:

1/4 clove of garlic, minced

2 Tablespoons Mexican oregano

2 Tablespoons paprika

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon thyme

2 Tablespoons Demerara sugar

2 Tablespoons cumin

1 Tablespoons black pepper

1 teaspoon ground chipotle 

1 teaspoon coriander

Mix into mash, adding 1/2 with meat, 1/4 with softening veggies, 1/4 10 minutes prior to serving.

Add chocolate late. Adjust heat last with hot sauce.

PREP: Soak dried anchos if not using pre-ground. For fresh peppers, roast wrap in paper towels, slip skin, stem, seed, mince red bells, poblanos, jalapenos. Slice bacon to lardons, meat to about 3/8-inch squares; flour in bag. Mince garlic, onions and tomatoes if using fresh.

COOK: Saute 1/2 of bacon in 13-inch pan with less than 2 Tablespoons of olive oil. Add 1 pound of floured meat, with 1/4 seasoning, by halves, adding oil as required. Remove to 5-quart Dutch oven; repeat. Add onions, then garlic, soften; remove to Dutch oven. Deglaze pan by adding tomatoes and beer; when tomatoes collapse and fond is dissolved, remove to Dutch oven. Add red peppers and all chiles and 1/4 seasoning to Dutch oven. Add chocolate. Adjust texture and liquidity with beer or masa harina. Simmer about 45 minutes. Add final 1/4 seasoning dump, adjust salt and cinnamon, and adjust heat with hot sauce. Serve.

SERVE: Serves 4 to 5 as meal, 10 to 12 as appetizer.

TIME: Prep 2 hours, cook 1 hour minimum.

A note on heat: This chili is a 5 on 1-10 scale. With heat added, as above, it is medium high, about 7. Adjust for the group being served. Capsaicin is easy to add, hard to remove. Fixes include more salt and/or more sugar. Grated cheese or sour cream on table to mix in, and serving over rice all ameliorate excess heat.

Charlie Wilson lives in Saranac Lake