On The Range: Chili Con Carne

Chili con carne, better known as chili for short, was named Official State Dish of Texas back in the late 1970s.

Why chili and not barbecue or steak? According to Paul Burka, political writer, food guru, and all-around resident curmudgeon of Texas Monthly magazine, the esteemed members of the Texas State Legislature were bribed with beer (probably enough to do the trick) and free chili by a lobbyist for the cause. In his article, "I Still Hate Chili," Burka notes, "(Chili lobbyist) Robert Marsh brewed what he claimed to be the world's largest pot of chili to feed to the members of the Legislature: 259 gallons weighing over 2500 pounds. Marsh also persuaded Pearl to donate 24 cases of beer, which several lawmakers told me had more to do with the bill's ultimate success than the taste of the chili." In short, politics as usual...and we were right about the beer's influence.

Chili, after all, is hardly Texan in origin. In fact, it may have been bought to the United States by settlers from the Canary Islands.

According to Robb Walsh, author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook, fifteen families arrived in San Antonio, in March, 1731, bringing their Berber-influenced love of spices with them. He adds that the Canary Island women reportedly made a stew of cumin, wild onions, chili peppers, the available herbs and cooked according to custom in big copper kettles outdoors in the plaza. Over time, meat was added and the dish evolved into modern chili.

Descendants of those original cooks kept up the practice of selling their rude fare well into the 20th century and became known as Chili Queens...until they were chased from downtown plazas for health reasons.

Other theories abound for the origin of chili. W.C. Jameson notes a dozen or so in his book, The Ultimate Chili Cookbook, speculating that the dish could have also come from Gold Rush settlers, Old West cowboys of--most mysteriously--La Dama de Azul (The Lady in Blue), a 17th Century Spanish nun who in a series of prophetic trances, told of visiting a distant land where she walked among natives and spoke to them about Christianity. With amazing accuracy, she described a dish consisting of venison, onions, tomatoes and peppers, an impressive feat considering she apparently died without ever having visited the New World.

As usual, Walsh includes a number of recipes for chili con carne in his book, including a 1940's version from Casa Rio, a grande dame of Riverwalk cuisine still very much in operation today. Many of their combination plates feature a bowl of red, quite useful in covering enchiladas and tacos in a thick blanket. Sadly, most Tex-Mex establishments have long since abandoned this practice, opting instead for a tiny rivulet of chili atop or alongside beef or cheese enchiladas. More often than not, chili gravy rather than authentic chili con carne is served instead. Walsh indeed calls chili gravy "the lifeblood of original Tex-Mex".

Luckily, you can still find a true bowl of red at Tolbert,s Restaurant in Grapevine. Frank X. Tolbert first opened his reincarnated old-time chili joints downtown in 1976. Although that location has since closed, his daughter Kathleen keeps the fires burning bright in a cheery restored building on Grapevine's Main street, adding home style Texas favorites and a full slate of live music into the mix. You can still order the original recipe, made without tomatoes...which some customers apparently try to circumvent by adding ketchup, according to our genial waitress.

Served with onions and cheese, a giant fresh jalapeno on top and tortilla chips on the side, Tolbert's chili has been cited by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the ten best versions in the entire country.

Such acclaim seems far removed from the old tales of Legislative bribery and the ramblings of trance-induced nuns. Too bad.

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