The history of chili

Published 1:13 pm Monday, November 17, 2008

With Spring Creek Volunteer Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary planning their first chili cook-off in the lake area, I thought that you would like to know the history behind chili.

Some historians say the first chili cook-off took place in 1800, when a tired Army cook grabbed a tomato and put it in his pot of bubbly meat. No one died when they ate it. So this was when chili was born.

However, when I investigated more, I found that chili is mentioned in history in 1618. The southwest American Indian was making chili way back then.

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Next mention was that of a nun in the early 1600s. She is given credit for being the first to write down a recipe for chili. She mentioned that this dish should contain “antelope meat, onions, tomatoes and chili peppers.”

In 1731, a group of settlers, which came to San Antonio from the Canary Islands, take credit for bringing the first chili into Texas. Legend called it a spicy “Spanish” stew.

Now that Texas had the recipe for chili, they really ran with it.

A Texan is credited for making the first chili powder in the 1850s. They also take responsibility for inventing a unique way to take chili out on the cattle trails. It is said that trail cooks pounded dried beef, fat, pepper, salt and chili peppers all together. Then they pressed it into “bricks.” When it was time, they would boil it in the mess pot for the men on the cattle drive. Legends also say that some cooks planted pepper seeds, oregano and onions in mesquite patches to use when they came through that way with another drive.

Other trail drive cooks were said to have made their stew with goat meat, or deer, wild marjoram and the must-have chili peppers. Seems that chili could not be hot enough for Texans!

Prisoners in Texan jails were giving credit for changing the chili recipe to suit their tastes. These men were said to have made a sort of gruel that contained tough beef that was chopped up fine and chili peppers and other spices. All was put in boiling water. This recipe was perfected with time and became very tasty. This took place in 1860.

In 1881, a former Texas Ranger began to can chili. He opened the Range Canning company at Fort McKavett, Texas. Unfortunately, the ranger died and the canning business stopped before it even had a chance.

Also in the 1880s, San Antonio had grown into a wide open cattle town. Chili was a most popular dish. Many people tried it because it was a different food. Plates heaped with chili and beans with a tortilla on the side made a hearty, filling and cheap meal. Women would cook outside, causing the whole town to smell with the enticing aroma of chili now being made with dried red chilies. That aroma and the mesquite from the fires brought customers from all over eager to eat this fiery red dish.

Troubadours would roam from chili stand to chili stand serenading the customers. This continued from the 1880s to 1937 when the government said it was unsanitary to cook outside because you could not properly wash the dishes. A 200-year-old tradition came to an abrupt end.

In 1893, chili went on a road trip. The first-ever chili stand was set up at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was very popular, especially in the cold Chicago winters. These cooks toned down the recipe somewhat and changed the tortilla to crackers.

During the Great Depression, bowls of chili and crackers were served free to the hungry in soup kitchens across America. Cincinnati is given credit for being the first place to start the chili dog.

It is said that the first World Championship Chili Cook-Off was held in Terlingue, Texas, in 1952. Also, there is evidence that one was held in Dallas at this time also.

Further investigation shows that Georgia chili lovers were said to have been the ones that discovered that tomato and mustard do mix. While other places made history by making the sauce from Coke or Pepsi while others used good, strong coffee.

These were the humble beginnings of a trend that became as popular as the barbecue. There are now hundreds of chili recipes and just as many cook-offs taking place. Just think, here, in little Seminole County, we will be experiencing our very first!

Remember, Saturday, Nov. 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Spring Creek Volunteer Fire Department station, come and taste all of the different creations of more than 40 chili cooks. Just remember that these cooks are making serious chili, the kind you need to keep away from pets, open flames and children. And yes, there is chili in heaven.

The fire station is just past the four-way stop. You will see Parkside Minit Market, two homes and a building that is now a Realtor but used to be a bank. From this intersection of Spring Creek Road (State Route 253) and State Route 374, you will see the station.

Joyce and Dale are in the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 1-10 and members of Boat US. They can be reached at,

On Saturday, Nov. 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Spring Creek Volunteer Fire Department station, come and taste all of the different creations of more than 40 chili cooks.