The Texas Miracle
Texans claim to have invented Chili con Carne. Indeed, they do a great deal of vainglorious boasting about it. It's their official "State Food" and Texans churn out an endless stream of books and articles about Chili to bolster their preposterous myth. The truth is that they lifted the dish from the Mexicans along with the whole
Cowboy Vaquero culture. The Mexican dish is called Chile Colorado and people in the northern parts of Mexico were stewing beef in a red chile sauce before there ever was a Texas. Here's Ignaz Pferfferkorn, a German Jesuit who spent eleven years in the northern province of Sonora, New Spain in the 1750s and 60s:
The Spanish pepper, which is called chile in America, is abundantly grown in Sonora, as it is in all of New Spain because it is the Spaniard's favorite spice for seasoning their meat and their Lenten dishes. ...
The Americans make of the Spanish pepper a sauce, which one could call the universal sauce because it must serve on and for everything. It is prepared in the following manner: The fruit is opened and, after the seeds and thickest fibers have been removed, it is crushed on a stone, ... This stuff is then put through a sieve like peas or lentils, placed on the fire in a pan with a thick chunk of fat and finely cut, previously cooked meat, and the whole allowed to boil for a time. Thus is prepared the dish which appears on the table every day throughout the year, especially at supper time.
Ignaz Pfefferkorn, Sonora: A Description of the Province,1794
So, now that we know The Truth About Chili, we can have some fun exploring Texas Chili lore as one might visit a Creationist Museum. Click to continue reading and we'll do just that. As an added bonus, I will divulge my own heretofore Top-Secret Chili recipe. Do I love you guys, or what ?
Texas Chili Mythology
The Ur-text for the Texas Creation Myth is With or Without Beans; Being a Compendium to Perpetuate the Internationally Famous Bowl of Chili (Texas Style) Which Occupies Such an Important Place in Modern Civilization. It was written by a Dallas newspaper man named Joe Cooper. To promote his Creationist drivel, Cooper organized the first Chili Cook-off for the 1952 Texas State Fair.
The most important book on Texas Chile was written by a 4th generation Texan named Frank X. Tolbert. Called A Bowl of Red: Being a Natural History of Chili con Carne and Other Native Foods of the Southwest, with Recipes and a Guide to Paper napkin restaurants, (Don't you just love their pretentious titles?) this one set off the modern Chili-Head movement with their silly Societies and Cook-Offs. Tolbert claims that his 1967 World's Chili Cook-Off in Terlingua, Texas was the first such event. (See how these Texans lie.) It's an amusing little book. I have a copy, autographed believe it or not, although I bought it at a used book sale. Chapter 3 leads off with this quote:
One contemporary Mexican dictionary has this scornful definition of chili con carne: "A detestable dish sold from Texas to New York City and erroneously described as Mexican"
This little quote is extremely important to the Texas Lie and all the Texans have it memorized. They think it proves that Chile Colorado actually was invented in Texas and that the Mexicans never heard of it. It's taken out of context of course, and the Mexican writer was claiming, not that the Texans invented Chili, but that they prepare it badly.
If you're interested in the whacky world of Texas Chili Creationism, I found a really good website during my research. It's called History of Chili, Chili con Carne and it's got all the good stuff like the Texas controversy about who invented Chili powder and the legend of the 19th century Chili Queens of San Antonio. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) If you go all the way to the bottom of the page you can get recipes for some of the most famous versions; Lady Bird Johnson's Perdenales River Chile, the Chasen's Hollywood Chili that Elizabeth Taylor insisted on having flown in to whatever location she was on, and of course, Tolbert's original Bowl of Red.
Azazello's Baja Arizona Chili
Meat - It must be beef. (They make a Green Chile Stew in New Mexico with pork and potatoes. I make it sometimes myself. It's delicious but it is not Chili.) It doesn't matter which cut you use. Most recipes call for lean beef. I don't know why. As with any braise, a little marbling is a good thing. I don't use ground beef. Maybe a coarse "chili grind" would be OK, but I use beef cut into cubes. This recipe is based on one pound of beef, plus or minus. It feeds me, my wife and teenage son.
Chili Powder - I never touch the stuff. Commercial chili powder has garlic powder, cumin and salt already in it, in proportions that someone else has chosen. Better to do it yourself. Get pure ground chile, chile molido. A lot of people like ancho chile, I use pasillo negro. It's a darker chile with coffee and chocolate notes. I measure with what I call my "chili spoon", I guess it'd be about 2 heaping tablespoons if you measured it. I throw in a little New Mexico red at the end.
Onion - Big white onions are best, they're stronger. Use about a half an onion.
Garlic - Fresh, 4 cloves.
Beans - The Texans make a big damned deal about this, insisting that Chili must not have beans. They even have a little ditty, If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know Chili Has No Beans. It is true that Mexican Chile Colorado, err, Texas Chili, never has beans in it, but I always put them in my Chili. They must be Pinto beans, canned will do.
Cumin - This is essential for true Chili flavor. The Mexicans use just a pinch of comino in their Chile Colorado, the Texans use a lot more in Chili. This is the difference between the two dishes. I use about a tablespoon and a half of ground cumin. For a really special touch, sometimes I'll get whole cumin seeds, toast 'em lightly in a dry pan and grind 'em up with a mortar and pestle. This is an Indian technique that draws out the flavor. Be careful not to toast 'em too much, they'll get bitter.
Fat - You'll need something to sweat the onions in. Old-Timey recipes call for beef suet. I use a little of the good brown lard, manteca, that they render at the carniceria around the corner. You can use oil if you wish.
Tightener - Chili cooks don't thicken their chili, they tighten it. Most use corn masa, or masa harina. I just use a cornstarch and water slurry.
Oregano - Make sure it's Mexican oregano, it's not the same as the Mediterranean variety. I probably use a teaspoon of dried oregano crushed in my palm.
Beer - Another essential ingredient. You'll need a 12-pack of some good Mexican beer. Bohemia is the best, Victoria is good too.
Most people brown off their meat first, some even shake it in a bag with some flour in it like they were making Beef Stew. I don't (h/t to Jane Butel) I do thisaway: Put your beef in a mixing bowl. Add the ground chile and cumin. Put in the garlic, pressed or smashed. Now pour in about a half a bottle of the beer and squish it around with your hand. This is almost like a marinade and you can leave it like this for awhile if you like.
Next chop you onion, chop it fairly fine, and heat up your chili pot. Heat your oil or lard and sweat the onion. Don't brown it. Throw in the meat. Add enough beer, or water or beef stock, to cover and bring it to a boil. Boil it for 2 or 3 minutes, then reduce the heat to a strong simmer. What you've done here is cooked the chili. If you taste what you've got before and after you boil it, you'll taste the difference between the raw and the cooked. Now you just simmer it, adding liquid as necessary. Simmer it at least an hour and a half or until the meat is as tender as you want it.
When you figure it's about done, tighten and adjust. Put in your tightener and bring it back to a boil briefly. Check for seasoning. I usually go in with a little New Mexico red chile, a tad more cumin and some oregano. Check for salt and heat. If it's not hot enough for you, put in a little hot sauce. I like Bufalo® Chipotle Sauce. Drain your beans and dump 'em in. 1 can will do, 2 if you're having unexpected guests. When the beans are hot, you're ready to serve. Top it with a handful of grated cheese, I use Colby Longhorn, and eat it. In the summer we heat up a couple of tortillas on a cast-iron comal, in the colder months I serve my Chili with skillet cornbread.
I'm not making Chili tonight, I just made some last week. I'm doing sort of a low-rent Ragù alla Bolognese with ground beef. What's for dinner at your house ?