Chili is a classic American dish, even more classically Texan, with roots in the central southwest. Most historians agree that Texas is original chili country and all roads lead to San Antonio in the 1800s as its birthplace.
It’s been called a “bowl of blessedness” by actor Will Rogers, “God’s gift to Texas” by singer Ken Finlay, and a “beautiful bowl of red” by the 36th President of the United States and native Texan Lyndon B. Johnson. But, this fiery hot stew, by any other name, is still chili con carne, the state dish of Texas.
There is no doubt, or lack of documentation, that the “chili queens” of San Antonio helped give rise to the popularity of this simple, but hearty, dish. In the 1880s, Haymarket Square was a hubbub of folks lining up to sample the fare of outdoor chili booths.
Records show that a group of families emigrated to San Antonio from the Spanish Canary Islands and brought the recipe for this spicy stew with them. The piquant dish was described as a sort of hash with as many chile peppers as meat and included onions, garlic, cumin, and oregano.
This recipe would have made an easy transition in their new homeland, as all ingredients but cumin grew wild in south-central Texas.
Soon after the introduction of this belly-busting concoction, chuck wagon cooks began creating bricks of pounded dried beef, suet and chile peppers and rehydrated them on the trail with boiling water. These bricks would have been easy to store and reconstitute while driving cattle or searching for gold.
Later, it is said, onions, oregano and chiles were planted in mesquite patches (to protect them from foraging cattle) along well-traveled trails.
Commercial manufacturing of chili powder in 1894 by German immigrant and New Braunfels resident William Gebhardt, and inclusion of the San Antonio Chili Stand in the Chicago World’s Fair (aka World’s Columbian Exposition) of 1893, led to nationwide exposure.
No one knows exactly when tomatoes were added to the mix, but they were incorporated in the favorite recipe of Lady Bird Johnson and served to guests of the White House during her husband’s presidency. Legislation passed in 1977 cemented chili con carne as the official state dish of Texas.
Chili heads have been competing for bragging rights for the best recipe for decades. The first official chili cookoff on record took place in 1967 in Terlingua, Texas.
This year, Galvestonians continue this tradition with several chili cookoffs over the winter months. On the island’s west end, chili heads will gather for the 14th Annual West End Chili Cookoff to be held on Saturday, February 17.
The event will be held at the West End Marina & Restaurants, 21706 Burnet Drive in Sea Isle on the west end of Galveston Island, from noon to 4 pm. A $10 entry fee will get you samples of chili from more than 30 cook teams. Enjoy live music, raffles, and an auction. Jewelry and jams will also be for sale.
“The team at the West End Marina & Restaurants is happy to welcome the cookoff back for its 14th year,” said General Manager Billy Bunch. “It’s always a great time and we raise a lot of money for scholarships. It’s a win/win.”
Over the years, this event has raised more than $60,000 for local charities and scholarships, event organizers Brian Perry and Mark McKenna said. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the West End Chili Cookoff go to local charities.