It is said that chilli con carne (chilli with meat) comes from Texas and is most definitely not Mexican, however, if you check the history books, you’ll see that Texas was settled by the Spanish and later became part of an independent Mexico until 1836. That said, el Diccionario de Mejicanismos, describes chilli as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.”
There are many legends regarding the origins of chilli con carne – these are my favourites:
In 1568, Conquistador, Bernal Díaz del Castillo described in his book, Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain), how the Aztecs sacrificed and butcher unlucky Conquistadors and boiled them in a pot with hot chilli peppers, oregano and tomatoes. Chili con-quistadores perhaps, though probably a version of classic mole poblano.
The first written recipe for chilli comes from the 17th Century Lady in Blue, Sister María de Ágreda (who never left Spain). Apparently La Dama Azul would go into a trance for days on end, appearing to native Mexicans as a vision and teaching them about Christ. In 1629, 50 Jumano Indians walked out of the Texan desert asking to be baptised, as instructed by an ethereal blue-clad woman. It is said she also taught them how to cook a fiery red dish of venison, chilli, onions and tomatoes. Spanish priest were not impressed and referred to this chilli as soup of the devil – so of course it caught on!
In 1731, 16 families of Spanish colonists from the Canary Islands arrived in San Antonio with the promise of becoming hidalgos (nobles) in exchange for their relocation. Spanish King Philip V wished to encourage the colonisation of Texas in order to block French expansion. People from the Canaries are well know in Spain today for their love of spicy food. These 16 families liked to cook a Spanish stew of meat, onion, garlic, cumin and chilli – this resemble today’s chlli con carne.
In the 1860s, Chili Queens set up market stalls in San Antonio’s Military Square, selling bowls of chilli, cooked in bubbling pots over burning mesquite. Stalls also appeared in Houston and Galveston. Some of these ladies even added beans to their chilli con carne! 1880s pictures here.
Also in the 19th Century, Texan cowboys and adventurers traveled with chili bricks, comprised of dried beef, fat, chilli peppers, salt and pepper, pounded together into a rectangle. These bricks could be conveniently rehydrated with water over the campfire. Trail cooks are said to have planted chilli seeds, onions and garlic in mesquite patches, so as to have fresh ingredients on cattle drives. Lavanderas (washer women) followed the Texan army, using their tubs by day for washing, then cooking up pots of goat, marjoram and chilli at night. These days, Chili Bricks come frozen and can be found in American supermarkets, made by several manufacturers.
As for the addition of beans, well I like them, but some would say they don’t belong:
If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans
by Ken Finlay, singer, songwriter, and owner of Cheatham Street Warehouse (a music hall in San Marcos), written in 1976.
You burn some mesquite and when the coals get hot, you bunk up some meat and you throw it on a pot.
While some chile pods and garlic and comino and stuff, then you add a little salt till there’s just enough.
You can throw in some onions to make it smell good.
You can even add tomatoes, if you feel like you should.
But if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans
If you know beans about chili, you know it didn’t come from Mexico.
Chili was God’s gift to Texas (or maybe it came from down below).
And chili doesn’t go with macaroni, and dammed Yankee’s don’t go with chili queens; and if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.
Any meat can be used in chilli – possum, rattle snake, horse and even crow (including kangaroo down under). So I guess I’m safe with pheasant, though I’m now looking back to the night (in 1994), when I swerved to miss an armadillo, wondering what could have
bean been… So in keeping, here’s a Texas Road Kill recipe.
Chilli Powder (recipe):
My recipe does contain beans, but first the chilli powder recipe. Warm the cumin and coriander seeds to bring out their flavour, then chop up ancho and chipotle chillies (they are available whole in UK supermarkets). Ancho is dried poblano chilli (from Puebla) and chipotle is a smoke dried jalapeño. Combine all the ingredients in a mortar and grind them up with a pestle to make a powder. Dried whole chillis can be reconstituted in hot water, however, I’m making a jarful of dry chilli powder for frequent use – the above is about right to make a chilli con carne. The chipotle should give you a pleasant smokey tingle to the mouth when eating the chili.
Pheasant Chilli recipe (serves 6):
1 large pheasant – meat removed and chopped into pieces
1 hot chorizo ring (chopped)
3 slices of smoked streaky bacon (chopped)
1 large onion (chopped)
6 pieces garlic (finely chopped)
1 sweet red pepper (chopped)
5 medium tomatoes (grated)
1 courgette (chopped)
7 mushrooms (chopped)
1 jalapeño chilli pepper (chopped)
1 lb cooked red kidney beans
3 squirts anchovy paste
2 dessertspoons tomato purée
3 splashes red wine vinegar
1/2 pint pheasant stock
2 bay leaves
4 teaspoons home made chilli powder (above recipe)
a level teaspoon pimentón de la Vera picante
a level teaspoon pimentón de la Vera dulce
extra virgin olive oil (for frying)
fresh cilantro/coriander (chopped) to serve
Chop up the pheasant beforehand. Do used the carcass for stock. I used dried kidney beans, soaked for 1 hour in boiling water and then cooked for 12 minutes, using fresh water, in a pressure cooker. If using tinned beans, 2 cans should be about right.
Using a large cast iron casserole with lid, fry the onion in olive oil until it goes translucent, then caramelise the bacon and chorizo with it.
Stir in the pheasant meat with a sprinkle of chilli powder
and let it brown.
Mix in all the vegetables,
before grating on the tomatoes – cut them in half, grate the wet side and discard the skin. Squirt in the tomato puré and anchovy paste plus 3 splashes of red wine vinegar
Mix in the cooked kidney beans, with all the herbs, spices and pheasant stock.
Put the lid on the chilli and cook in the oven at 160ºC for 90 minutes. Check the seasoning when done and sprinkle on more chilli, if it has mellowed while cooking.