Chili con carne is the mother of Tex-Mex
“Tex-Mex food might be described as native foreign food, contradictory though that term may seem. It is native, for it does not exist elsewhere; it was born on this soil. But it is foreign in that its inspiration came from an alien cuisine; that it has never merged into the mainstream of American cooking and remains alive almost solely in the region where it originated…”—Waverly Root & Richard de Rochemont, Eating in America, 1981
It was culinary tourism that made Tex-Mex famous more than a century ago. The 1880s saw a travel boom as the railroads promoted explorations in American cities on the rail lines, and San Antonio became a popular destination thanks to its Spanish colonial heritage. The Alamo City’s Mexican Quarter, where outdoor fondas served home-cooked Texas-Mexican dishes in the red light district, was considered one of the most exciting late-night scenes in the country. The food gained a sexy reputation due in part to the flirtatious sales techniques of the “Chili Queens.” Romanticized accounts of these Latina beauties who seduced tourists with plates of exotic foreign fare began to appear in newspapers across the country.
The Chili Queens ran outdoor eateries serving chili con carne, beans, and tamales—classic Texas street food at the time. Their food stands consisted of “three ten-foot planks propped on sawhorses and covered with red and white-checkered oilcloth,” wrote William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name O. Henry, who lived in San Antonio for a time. A bowl of chili was a dime and free condiments included chopped onions and oregano. In his short story,“The Enchanted Kiss,” Henry describes “delectable chile-con-carne…composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chile Colorado—a compound full of singular savor and a fiery zest.”
The recipe for chili con carne, and the ear-liest origins of Tex-Mex, can be traced back to the early 1700s and the ranching culture of San Antonio’s Spanish missions. Each mission had a ranch in the South Texas plains where cattle were tended by vaqueros. Steers were driven to the mission a few at a time and slaughtered when needed. The hides were cured for leather to make saddles, reins, whips, boots, belts, rawhide ropes, and other necessities. The tallow was used as fuel and to make candles and soap. It was also a handy cooking fat.
Chili became the mother sauce of restaurant Tex-Mex fare. It was to Tex-Mex what red sauce was to Italian-American cooking. You made a large pot of it, and then you used it to make other dishes. (Which is why beans weren’t added to the chili pot.)
The stringy beef wasn’t very tasty. Mincing it and simmering it for hours in tallow with dried chile peppers and spices was about the only way to make it palatable. This longhorn beef and chile pepper stew was the primordial chili con carne.
Chili con carne might have remained a dish found only in Texas if it weren’t for the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, as the Chicago World’s Fair was officially known. A typical San Antonio chili stand was recreated on the Midway complete with Chili Queens peddling authentic Texas chili con carne and other dishes—just like in the newspa-per travel accounts. Hundreds of thousands of people visited the fair that year, and this San Antonio version of “Mexican food” was a new sensation. German immigrant William Gebhardt patented Eagle Brand Chili Powder in 1895. The powdered ancho chile and spice blend was patterned after Hungarian paprika powder, which was first milled and distributed in bottles and cans in 1885. Thanks to bottled chili powder, chili con carne could be prepared anywhere on a moment’s notice. Chili stands made an encore appearance at the Saint Louis World’s Fair of 1904, and shortly thereafter, chili parlors and chili canning factories opened around the country.
A Chicagoan named Otis Farnsworth was one of the tourists who visited the chili stands of San Antonio. Farnsworth was shocked that Anglos in fancy clothes were lining up at such makeshift eateries in the unsanitary streets. That’s when he came up with the idea of building an elegant Mexican restaurant for Anglos in the commercial district and staffing it with Latinos from the barrio. Farnsworth opened the Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio in 1899. He hired a famous German muralist to paint scenes of Mexican peasants on the walls. In this upscale restaurant, gentlemen were required to wear jackets.
Tex-Mex includes ingredients that sophisticated food lovers detest. But so what? It’s a peasant cuisine that has been vilified by elitists throughout its history.
The Original became the most successful Mexican restaurant in the nation. Chili con carne featured prominently on the menu, where it was combined with spaghetti, scrambled eggs, tamales, and other items. Chili became the mother sauce of restaurant Tex-Mex fare. It was to Tex-Mex what red sauce was to Italian-American cooking. You made a large pot of it, and then you used it to make other dishes. (Which is why beans weren’t added to the chili pot.)
In the era before political correctness, the Spanish-speaking citizens of San Antonio were called Mexicans by their fellow Americans and their cuisine was called Mexican food, though in fact most of the people and much of the cooking were native to Texas. “That authentic Mexican tang,” was the slogan used by Gebhardt to market bottled chili powder to Americans. Such slogans gave rise to a special contempt among elite Mexicans for chili con carne, which was defined in the Diccionario de Mejicanismos as a “detestable comida que con el falso titulo de mejicana”—that is, “a detestable food that passes itself off as Mexican.”
The pejorative term “Tex-Mex” was first applied to the Texas style of Mexican food in the 1970s, after Diana Kennedy published her groundbreaking cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, in 1972. Kennedy denigrated the “so-called Mexican food north of the border” and insisted that chips and salsa and combination plates had nothing to do with real Mexican food.
As Americans learned more about the cuisine of interior Mexico—the complex moles, elegant stuffed squash blossoms, and exotic huitlacoche dishes—Americanized Mexican cooking was deemed a bad imitation. “Tex-Mex” was essentially a polite way to say “bastardized.”
Upscale Mexican restaurants opened in most major cities. They offered interior Mexican dishes like mole poblano, chiles en nogada, and cochinita pibil, but most were forced to add Tex-Mex standards like fajitas, nachos, and frozen margaritas to their menus because that’s what the public wanted. Few Americans ever understood that what we called an “authentic Mexican” menu was actually a bunch of items cherry-picked from different Mexican cuisines and that these dishes would never be served together.
In the fast food world, Tex-Mex was side-lined in favor of Cal-Mex, a style made famous by Southern California’s Taco Bell drive-in and Northern California’s burrito chains. Tex-Mex survived in its homeland; it even enjoyed a bit of a revival. Upscale taco trucks, Austin breakfast tacos, and San Antonio puffy tacos caught the nation’s attention. In Houston, Chef Bryan Caswell, restaurateur Bill Floyd, and I opened El Real Tex-Mex Café in 2010. The restaurant serves “vintage Tex-Mex.”
Chili con carne is the single most important contribution that Tex-Mex has made to American cooking, but America’s taste in chili has changed a lot over the years. Today, many people are careful to remove every bit of grease from the chili. But in the cowboy era, the beef fat, or tallow, was more valuable than the tough longhorn steer meat. Old-timers used crackers to sop up the tasty fat. Chuckwagon cooks skimmed the orange grease off the top of the pot, mixed it with flour and cooked the roux with water or stock to make “chili gravy,” the perfect sauce for enchiladas or tamales.
At El Real, our chili is made with freshly ground chili powder and pieces of beef chuck sautéed in bacon drippings. It’s served by itself in a bowl with a fried egg on top, over tamales, or in Frito pie. Our enchilada sauce is half chili and half chili gravy, and it’s used on several varieties of enchiladas and as a topping for combination plates like the tampiqueño, a rib-eye steak topped with two cheese enchiladas.
A new category of enlightened “Fresh-Mex” restaurants has also entered the market to try to appease modern tastes. In response to complaints from healthy eating authorities, these modern Tex-Mex restaurants cut back on the fat—there is little, if any, grease in the chili con carne and no lard in the tamales or the refried beans. Some like it, but old-fashioned Tex-Mex fans find this sort of food insipid.
My social media rants in defense of lard, Velveeta, and canned Ro-Tel tomatoes in-spired one foodie blogger to suggest that I was drinking too much of my own “Tex-Mex apologist Kool-Aid.” I completely get his point of view. Tex-Mex includes ingredients that sophisticated food lovers detest. But so what? It’s a peasant cuisine that has been vilified by elitists throughout its history.
Among an older generation of food snobs, Tex-Mex will always be seen as inferior to “real Mexican food.” But to a new generation of food lovers, Tex-Mex is an honest regional cuisine with deep historical roots—and a fascinating part of Americana.