A bowl of blessedness
Every time I meet someone who, when asked about their favorite dishes, doesn’t mention chili – or, as Will Rogers referred to it, a "bowl of blessedness" – then I know this is someone who hasn’t tasted really good chili.
There can be no other way to explain it.
No other food, with the possible exception of barbeque, has inspired the passion or the following, as has this dish.
Its origin is possibly surrounded by as much controversy as is its ingredients. The one thing upon which most can agree is that chili as we know it did not originate in Mexico but rather is a product of gringos and tenderfeet.
One belief that seems factual has the first ever chili mix was created around 1850 by Texans as a staple for hard times when traveling to the gold fields of California.
These men supposedly pounded dried beef, fat, pepper, salt and chili peppers together to be later boiled in water on the trail.
Several historians place the origination of chili in San Antonio where the poor, to stretch their budgets, used it.
Having bought meat of poor quality, they chopped the meat to the consistency of hash to make it tender then added lots of chili pepper to give it flavor.
There are those who claim chili originated in Texas prisons in the mid to late 1800s as cheap prison fare.
It was a stew consisting of the cheapest cuts of meat hacked fine to be tender, then combined with chili peppers and other spices, all boiled in water until it reached an edible consistency, thus becoming a status symbol of Texas prisons.
Legend has it that ex-cons who couldn’t get a decent bowl of chili on the outside violated parole so as to be re-confined because they were homesick for good chili.
Then, there is the popular story that chili originated in Texas with the cowboys making long drives to Kansas City or Dodge.
Needing a stick-to-the-ribs dish for these hungry cowhands, trail cooks came up with a sort of stew, and since chili peppers grew wild, along with the fact there was plenty of beef, a hearty dish was born.
While there are many other entertaining stories and legends surrounding the creation of chili, I personally believe credit for originating the dish should go to the trail cooks who fed the cowboys as they were driving herds north.
No doubt by the late 1800s chili had arrived and San Antonio was the chili epicenter of the day. Customers would stroll around the city’s plazas and purchase a bowl served up by one of the many outdoor vendors, one of the legendary "chili queens," women who served bowls of their brew from bubbling pots behind their booths.
These chili queens served up their wares during the evenings and nights until 1937, when they were put out of business due to their inability to conform to sanitary standards enforced by San Antonio on indoor restaurants.
At any rate, by that time chili had taken hold throughout Texas and was well on its way to becoming one of the best-loved dishes in the country.
Chili was really discovered by the nation at large in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, called the World’s Columbian Exposition (in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World).
The Fair drew more than 25 million visitors, and the Texas exhibit contained an authentic San Antonio chili stand selling bowls of its signature dish.
The chili was such a huge hit that soon enterprising restaurateurs were opening chili joints in every major American city.
Chili wasn’t the only culinary icon to get discovered at the Fair. Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat cereal, Cream of Wheat and the hamburger were all introduced at the 1893 Fair.
Also, the fairgrounds architecture served as the inspiration for two of America’s better-known fantasy lands: Disneyland and Oz.
Walt Disney’s father was a builder on the Fair and Oz creator L. Frank Baum visited the Fair on several occasions before he wrote "The Wonderful World of Oz" in 1900.
So, the bowl of blessedness has a very remarkable history; one as remarkable as that of Texas itself.