Note: The only thing certain about the
origin of chili is that it did not originate
in Mexico. Charles Ramsdell, a writer
from San Antonio in an article called
San Antonio: An Historical and Pictorial
Guide, wrote: "Chili, as we know
it in the U.S., cannot be found in Mexico
today except in a few spots which cater
to tourists. If chili had come from Mexico,
it would still be there. For Mexicans,
especially those of Indian ancestry, do
not change their culinary customs from
one generation, or even from one century,
Chili in the 16th Century
1598 - Don Juan de Onate entered what
is now New Mexico in 1598 and brought
with him the green chile pepper. It has
grown there for over four hundred years.
Chili in the 17th Century
1618 - According to an old Southwestern
American Indian legend and tale it is
said that the first recipe for chili con
carne was put on paper by a beautiful
nun, Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain. She
was mysteriously known to the Indians
of the Southwest United States as La Dama
de Azul or The Lady in Blue. Sister Mary
would go into trances while her body laid
lifeless for days. When she awoke, she
said her spirit had traveled to a faraway
land where she preached Christianity to
savages and counseled them to seek out
Spanish missionaries. It is important
to note that Sister Mary never physically
left Spain. Spanish missionaries and King
Philip IV of Spain believed that she was
the ghostly La Dama de Azul or The Lady
in Blue of Indian Legend. It is said that
sister Mary wrote down the recipe for
chili which called for venison or antelope
meat, onions, tomatoes, and chile peppers.
Chili in the 18th Century
1731 - On March 9, 1731, a group of sixteen
families (fifty-six people) arrived from
the Canary Islands at Bexar, the villa
of San Fernando de Béxar (San Antonio).
They emigrated to Texas from the Spanish
Canary Islands by order of King Philip
V. of Spain. The King of Spain felt that
colonization would help cement Spanish
claims to the region and block France's
westward expansion from Louisiana. These
families founded San Antonio’s first civil
government which became the first municipality
in the Spanish province of Texas. According
to historians, the women made a spicy
“Spanish” stew that is similar to chili.
Chili in the 19th Century
Some Spanish priests were said to be wary
of the passion inspired by chile peppers,
assuming they were aphrodisiacs. A few
preached sermons against indulgence in
a food which they said was almost as "hot
as hell's brimstone" and "Soup
of the Devil." The priest's warning
probably contributed to the dish's popularity.
1850 - Papers found by Everrette DeGolyer
(1886-1956), a Dallas millionaire and
a lover of chili, recorded that the first
chili mix was concocted around 1850 by
Texan adventurers and cowboys as a staple
for hard times when traveling to and in
the California gold fields and around
Texas. Needing hot grub, the trail cooks
came up with a sort of stew. They pounded
dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and the
chile peppers together. This amounted
to "brick chili" or "chili
bricks" that could be boiled in pots
along the trail. DeGolyer said that chili
should be called "chili a la Americano"
because the term chili is generic in Mexico
and simply means a hot pepper. He believed
that chili con carne began as the "pemmican
of the Southwest."
It is said that some trail cooks planted
pepper seeds, oregano, and onions in mesquite
patches (to protect them from foraging
cattle) to use on future trail drives.
It is thought that the chile peppers used
in the earliest dishes were probably chilipiquín0,
which grow wild on bushes in Texas, particularly
the southern part of the state.
There was another group of Texans known
as Lavanderas, or Washerwoman, that followed
around the 19th-century armies of Texas
making a stew of goat meat or venison,
wild marjoram and chile peppers.
1860 - Residents of the Texas prisons
in the mid to late 1800s also lay claim
to the creation of chili. They say that
the Texas version of bread and water (or
gruel) was a stew of the cheapest available
ingredients (tough beef that was hacked
fine and chiles and spices that was boiled
in water to an edible consistency). The
"prisoner's plight" became a
status symbol of the Texas prisons and
the inmates used to rate jails on the
quality of their chili. The Texas prison
system made such good chili that freed
inmates often wrote for the recipe, saying
what they missed most after leaving was
a really good bowl of chili.
1880s - San Antonio was a wide-open town
cattle, rail and soldiers. and by day
a municipal food market and by night a
wild and open place. An authoritative
early account is provided in an article
published in the July 1927 issue of Frontier
Times. In this article, Frank H. Bushick,
San Antonio Commissioner of Taxation,
reminisces about the Chili Queens and
their origin at Military Plaza before
they were moved to Market Square in 1887.
According to Bushick: "The chili
stand and chili queens are peculiarities,
or unique institutions, of the Alamo City.
They started away back there when the
Spanish army camped on the plaza. They
were started to feed the soldiers. Every
class of people in every station of life
patronized them in the old days. Some
were attracted by the novelty of it, some
by the cheapness. A big plate of chili
and beans, with a tortilla on the side,
cost a dime. A Mexican bootblack and a
silk-hatted tourist would line up and
eat side by side, unconscious or oblivious
of the other."
Latino women nicknamed "Chili Queens"
sold stew they called "chili"
made with dried red chiles and beef from
open-air stalls at the Military Plaza
Mercado. They made their chili at home,
loaded it onto colorful chili wagons,
and transported the wagons and chili to
the plaza. They build mesquite fires on
the square to keep the chili warm, lighted
their wagons with colored lanterns, and
squatted on the ground beside the cart,
dishing out chili to customers who sat
on wooden stools to eat their fiery stew.
In those days, the world "chili"
referred strictly to the pepper. They
served a variation of simple, chile-spiked
dishes (tamales, tortillas, chili con
carne, and enchiladas). A night was not
considered complete without a visit to
one of these "chili queens."
In 1937 they were put out of business
due to their inability to conform to sanitary
standards enforced in the town's restaurants
(public officials objected to flies and
poorly washed dishes).
The following is reprinted from the San
Antonio Light of September 12, 1937: "Recent
action of the city health department in
ordering removal from Haymarket square
of the chili queens and their stands brought
an end to a 200-year-old tradition. The
chili queens made their first appearance
a couple of centuries back after a group
of Spanish soldiers camped on what is
now the city hall site and gave the place
the name, Military Plaza. At one time
the chili queens had stands on Military,
Haymarket and Alamo plazas but years ago
the city confined them to Haymarket plaza.
According to Tax Commissioner Frank Bushick,
a contemporary and a historian of those
times, the greatest of all the queens
was no Mexican but an American named Sadie.
Another famous queen was a senorita named
Martha who later went on the stage. Writing
men like Stephen Crane and O. Henry were
impressed enough to immortalize the queens
in their writings. With the disappearance
from the plaza of the chili stands, the
troubadors who roamed the plaza for years
also have disappeared into the night.
Some of the chili queens have simply gone
out of business. Others, like Mrs. Eufemia
Lopez and her daughters, Juanita and Esperanza
Garcia, have opened indoor cafes elsewhere.
But henceforth the San Antonio visitor
must forego his dining on chili al fresco."
During the 1980s, San Antonio began staging
what they call "historic re-enactments"
of the chili queens. As an tribute to
chili, the state dish, the city of San
Antonio holds an annual "Return of
the Chili Queens Festival" in Market
Square during the Memorial Day celebrations
in May, sponsored by the El Mercado Merchants.
1881 - William Gerard Tobin (1833-1884),
former Texas Ranger, hotel proprietor,
and an advocate of Texas-type Mexican
food, negotiated with the United States
government to sell canned chili to the
army and navy. In 1884, he organized a
venture with the Range Canning Company
at Fort McKavett, Texas to make chili
from goat meat. Tobin's death, a few days
after the canning operation had started,
ended further developemnt and the venture
1890 - Chili historians are not exactly
certain who first "invented"
chili powder. Fort Worth chili buffs give
credit to DeWitt Clinton Pendery who arrived
in Fort Worth, Texas in 1870. It is said
that local cowboys jeered his elegant
appearance (he was wearing a long frock
coat and a tall silk hat) as he stepped
onto the dusty street. It is also said
that he was initiated into the town by
a bullet whipping through his coat. He
casually collected his belongings and
continued on his way, earning immediate
popular respect. By 1890, after his grocery
store burned down, he started selling
his own unique blend of chiles to cafes,
hotels, and citizens under the name of
Mexican Chili Supply Company. Pendery's
products are still sold today by members
of his family. Pendery wrote of the medicinal
benefits of his condiments and its acclamation
from physicians: "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 health
by action of the kidneys, skin and lymphatics."
San Antonio buffs swear that chili powder
was invented by William Gebhardt, a German
immigrant in New Braunfels, Texas (now
a suburb of San Antonio) around 1890.
Since chiles were only available after
the summer harvest, chili was only a seasonal
food during that era. Gebhardt solved
the problem by importing Mexican ancho
chiles so that he could serve the dish
year-round. At first he called the product
"Tampico Dust." In 1896, he
changed the name to Eagle Brand Chili
Powder and registered his trademark, making
it one of the oldest in the United States.
In 1960, it was acquired by Beatrice Foods
and is now known as Gebhardt Mexican Foods
Company. The blend today is unchanged
and is still one of the most popular brands
1893 - The Texas chili went national when
Texas set up a San Antonio Chili Stand
at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Chili in the 20th Century
Around the turn of the century, chili
joints appeared in Texas. By the 1920s,
they were familiar all over the West,
and by the depression years, there was
hardly a town that didn't have a chili
parlor. The chili joints were usually
no more than a shed or a room with a counter
and some stools. Usually a blanket was
hung up to separate the kitchen. By the
depression years, the chili joints meant
the difference between starvation and
staying alive. Chili was cheap and crackers
were free. At the time, chili was said
to have saved more people from starvation
than the Red Cross. The Dictionary of
American Regional English describes chili
joints as: "A small cheap restaurant,
particularly one that served poor quality
1908 - Willie Gebhardt, originally of
New Braunfels, Texas and later of San
Antonio, produces the first canned chili.
1936-2000 - Chasen's Restaurant in Hollywood,
California probably made the most famous
chili. The owner of the restaurant, Dave
Chasen (1899-1973), ex-vaudeville performer,
kept the recipe a secret, entrusting it
to no one. For years, he came to the restaurant
every Sunday to privately cook up a batch,
which he would freeze for the week, believing
that the chili was best when reheated.
"It is a kind of bastard chili"
was all that Dave Chasen would divulge.
Chauffeurs and studio people, actors and
actresses would come to the back door
of Chasen's to buy and pick up the chili
by the quart. Other famous people craved
this chili such as comedian and actor
Jack Benny (1894-1974) who ordered it
by the quart. J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972),
former Director of the Federal Bureau
of Investigation (FBI), who considered
it the best chili in the world, and Eleanor
Roosevelt (1894-1962) wife of the 32nd
President of the United States, Franklin
D. Roosevelt, sought the recipe but was
refused (a complimentary order was dispatched
to her instead). It is said that Chasen's
also send chili to movie actor Clark Gable
(1901-1960), when he was in the hospital
(he reportedly had it for dinner the night
he died). During the filming of the movie
Cleopatra in Rome, Italy, famous movie
star, Elizabeth Taylor, had Chasen's Restaurant
in Hollywood, California send 10 quarts
of their famous chili to her. She supposedly
paid $200 to have it shipped to her in
1952 - Most present day historians write
that the first World's Chili Championship
was the 1967 cook-off in Terlingua, Texas.
Ranger Bob Ritchey of Texas proved this
theory wrong. He researched and found
several newspaper articles about the 1952
Texas State Fair Chili Championship. On
October 5, 1952, headlines of The Daily
Times Herald of Dallas, Texas said "Woman
Wins But Men Do Well in Chili Event."
On October 5, 1952 at the Texas State
Fair in Dallas, Texas. Mrs. F. G. Ventura
of Dallas won the Texas State Fair contest
and her recipe was declared the "Official
State Fair of Texas Chili Recipe"
and first ever "World Champion Chili
Cook." Mrs. Ventura held her title
as World Champions Chili Cook for fifteen
years. The event was planned by Joe. E.
Cooper (1895-1952), ex-newspaper man,
to help promote his newly published book
on chili called With or Without Beans
- An Informal Biography of Chili. It was
a no-holds-barred affair as to ingredients,
except that beans could not be used. The
contestants numbered fifty-five with five
judges. Joe E. Cooper is quoted as saying:
"Besides that, it'll take a lot of
judges because after the first two or
three spoonfuls of good, hot Texas-style
chili, the fine edge wears off even an
expert chili judge's taste buds... It'll
be a hot job but one that no true Texan
1967 - The most famous and well known
chili cook-off took place in 1967 in Terlingua,
Texas. Terlingua was once a thriving mercury-mining
town of 5,000 people and it is the most
remote site your can choose as it is not
close to any major city and the nearest
commercial airport is almost 279 miles
away. Just getting to Terlingua requires
a major effort. It was a two-man cook-off
between Texas chili champ Homer "Wick"
Fowler (1909-1972), a Dallas and Denton
newspaper reporter, and H. Allen Smith
(1906-1976), New York humorist and author,
which ended in a tie.
The cook-off challenge started when H.
Allen Smith wrote a story for the August
1967 Holiday Magazine titled Nobody Knows
More About Chili Than I Do, which claimed
that no one in Texas could make proper
chili. Smith contended that ". .
. no living man, I repeat, can put together
a pot of chili as ambrosial, as delicately
and zestfully flavorful, as the chili
I make." His article included his
recipe for chili that included beans.
Of course, this offended many Texans who
would never consider adding beans to their
chili. When Frank Tolbert (1912-1984),
famous journalist and author of A Bowl
of Red, saw Smith's article, he started
open warfare in the press with a column
he wrote for the Dallas News. A reader
suggested that Fowler answer the challenge,
which he did. The cook-off competition
ended in a tie vote when the tie-breaker
judge, Dave Witts, a Dallas lawyer and
self-proclaimed mayor of Terlingua, spat
out his chili, declaring that his taste
buds were "ruint," and said
they would have to do the whole thing
over again next year.
1977 - The chili manufacturers of the
state of Texas, successfully lobbied the
Texas legislature to have chili proclaimed
the official "state food" of
Texas "in recognition of the fact
that the only real 'bowl of red' is that
prepared by Texans."
Famous Quotes about Chili
"Next to music there is nothing that
lifts the spirits and strengthens the
soul more than a good bowl of chili."
Harry James (1916-1983) band leader and
"Wish I had time for just one more
bowl of chili."
Alleged dying words of Kit Carson (1809-1868),
Frontiers Man and Mountain Man
"Chili is much improved by having
had a day to contemplate its fate."
John Steele Gordon
"Chili is not so much food as a
state of mind. Addictions to it are formed
early in life and the victims never recover.
On blue days in October, I get this passionate
yearning for a bowl of chili, and I nearly
lose my mind."
Margaret Cousins, novelist
"The aroma of good chili should generate
rapture akin to a lover's kiss."
Motto of the Chili Appreciation Society
"Chili concocted outside of Texas
is usually a weak, apologetic imitation
of the real thing. One of the first things
I do when I get home to Texas is to have
a bowl of red. There is simply nothing
Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the
"Whenever I meet someone who does
not consider chili a favorite dish, then
I've usually found someone who has never
tasted good chili.
Jan Butel, author of Chili Madness
Linda Stradley / What's Cooking America