Chili (Use with permission of Stephen Cummings.)
Chili (Use with permission of Stephen Cummings.)

“Open some cans of chili – mighty good.”

-Toots Shor’s recipe for chili-

Chili, the stuff of tall tales, legends, grudges, and just plain cussedness.

If you earned a buck for every chili recipe ever cooked, fantasized about, or pirated, you’d probably beat Bill Gates at the money game.

Chiles Habanero and Jalapeño (Used with permission.)
Chiles Habanero and Jalapeño (Used with permission.)

Not much appeals more to American individualism than that wonderful, spicy concoction, “Chili con Carne.”  For the perfect winter night’s supper, chili con carne knows no rival. More recipes exist for chili, as it is called for short, than there are cooks. (See list of cookbooks below.) Everyone KNOWS that his/her recipe is the ONLY right one. And that is what makes chili so special: every recipe IS the right one, because every recipe is delicious in its own way.

Cooks have been fighting over the right chili recipe for a long time, even though most Americans first became aware of chili only in 1893, at the “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Nowadays people hold chili cook-offs and call them the Great Chili Wars, for goodness’ sake! Real aficionados join groups like the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) or the International Chili Society (ICS).

Originating in Native American cooking pots on the Great Plains and made from buffalo meat, meaty chili stews filled the stomachs of generations of America’s legendary cowboys. Trail cooks followed the cowboys and the herds from one end of the Great

Chili Queens
Chili Queens (Photo credit: Russell Lee, 1939)

Plains to the other, chili pots bubbling and guns at the ready. Pioneers adapted the ways of the cowboys, and the scent of chili wafted among the long line of covered wagons, circled for safety against the terrors of the day: Native Americans outraged at the loss of their lands and herds of galloping buffalo. Until 1943, when the public health office closed them down, “chili queens” set up stands on San Antonio’s Military Plaza, and local families – gringos, too – ate bowls of red at all hours of the day. Every year, San Antonio holds a “Chili Queens Festival” to honor that tradition.

Buffalo (Used with permission of James Marvin Phelps.)
Buffalo (Used with permission of James Marvin Phelps.)

Lean stringy meat from longhorn cattle, maybe buffalo meat or venison, and chili peppers graced the first chili recipes. Beans and tomatoes, according to Texans, should not even come near the chili pot. Basically a MEAT dish, as the name “chili con carne” attests (chili with meat is the literal translation), cooks kept their chili recipes in their heads, unwritten, and guarded them with great secrecy. Not until 1880, with the publication of Mrs. Owen’s Cookbook, did any written recipes for chili appear. And in 1896, the U.S. Army began to incorporate chili recipes, with beans, into its cooking manual for mess cooks.

Sor Maria de Ageda
Sor Maria de Agreda

Yet an intriguing legend persists, about La Dama de Azul, a Poor Clare nun named Sister Maria of Agreda who never left her convent in Castile, a mystic who apparently saw visions of a recipe using venison, chiles, and onions. Stories beginning around 1620 in what is now Texas credited her with writing the first recipe for chili.

No matter what the truth, chili as we know it oozes with individualism and legend. So do the names bestowed on the recipes. “Georgia Chain Gang Chili” and “Texas Jail Chili” sound intriguing and one wonders if these fiery hot mixtures melted chains and bars, as well as tongues.

When it comes to chili names, author John Thorne’s “Old Buffalo Breath Chili” probably wins the prize for the most unappetizing-sounding name. You can stick to the tried and the true with the following recipe for “Traditional Chili,” safe sounding enough. Indulge in daring experimentation with “Black Bean Chili.”  Try white chili, made with chicken and mild green peppers, too.

And if you can’t find the time to cook chili from scratch, by all means follow Toots Shor’s recipe: some canned chili is indeed mighty good. But most contain beans, so don’t invite any chili purists over to share.

Serve chili, no matter what its name or provenance, with grated Jack cheese, hot tomato salsa or jalapeño pepper slices, tortilla chips, sour cream, shredded lettuce, and quarts of water to quench the fire! Oops. Make that beer. Or a Margarita, at least. Or two.

Pot of Chili (Used with permission.)
Pot of Chili (Used with permission.)


2 lbs. lean beef, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 lb. beef-fat, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/4 c. oil

1 medium onion, minced

1 T. mashed garlic

2 T. mild chili powder

3 T. paprika

1/2 t. ground cumin

1/2 t. dried oregano

Salt to taste

Water or beef stock as needed

1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Brown the meat and beef fat. Stir in the onion and garlic and cook until garlic begins to give off a spicy smell (about 1 minute).

2. Stir in the spices and cook for 20 seconds, stirring constantly. Pour in water or stock to just cover meat and cook, covered, until meat is tender. Serve chili in bowls. Top with grated cheese, salsa, sour cream, shredded lettuce, and tortilla chips.

Chili (Used with permission.)
Chili (Used with permission.)


3 cups black beans, picked over, washed, and soaked overnight

1/4 c. oil

1 lb. lean beef, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 lb. bulk hot pork sausage

1 medium onion, minced

1 T. garlic, mashed

1 green bell pepper, minced

1 bay leaf

1 t. ground cumin

1/2 t. dried oregano

2 t. chili powder

2 T. paprika

1 12-oz. can tomato sauce


1 1/2 t. salt or to taste

1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat and brown the beef. Remove and brown the sausage. Drain the cooked sausage on a paper towel to get rid of some of the excess grease. Pour off all but 1/4 cup of the grease and brown the onion and green pepper. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds. Stir in the spices and cook for 20 more seconds. To the pot, add the meats, the tomato sauce, the beans, and water to cover.

2. Bring chili to a boil and then reduce the heat to simmer. Cook until beans are done, 2-3 hours. When beans are tender, add the salt. Serve as directed for “Traditional Chili.”

Chiles Blooming (Used with permission.)
Chiles Blooming (Used with permission.)


A Bowl of Red, by Frank Tolbert

Chili Madness: A Passionate Cookbook, by Jane Butel

Chili Nation:  The Ultimate Chili Cookbook with Recipes from Every State in the Nation, by Jane and Michael Stern

The Great Chili Book, by Bill Bridges.

Just Another Bowl of Texas Red: Chili con Carne: The Myth and the Makings, by John Thorne

The Ultimate Chili Cookbook: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Gourmet recipes and the Perfect Four-Alarm Bowl, by Christopher B. O’Hara

The Ultimate Chili Cookbook: The History, Geography, Fact, and Folklore of Chili, by W. C. Jameson

© 2008 C. Bertelsen


  1. You have a very interesting and fact-filled site. Bravo. One book regarding chiles you may want to read is The Great Chile Book, written by Mark Miller. Fantastic historian and inventive cook of the chile.

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