For those of us who live down South, we know Southern food is so much more than fried chicken and biscuits. Within the whole of our region there are distinct cooking cultures influenced by generations of people from all backgrounds and access to different resources. We asked five writers to team up with their favorite chefs to pick one dish that represents the culinary traditions in their corner of the South. From Texas to Virginia, we are exploring five plates with a sense of place like Louisiana’s gumbo and the Deep South’s meat ‘n’ three. Each team delves into the history, the nostalgia, the complexities, and the beauty of each plate, and asks you to share in their traditions with recipes that honor the old and introduce new interpretations.
In this edition, writer Jessica Dupuy, author of Southern Living’s United Tastes of Texas, and Tex-Mex maestro Hugo Ortega explain what makes a true chili con carne different from other bowls as Texas is from, well, everywhere. Beans have never caused such controversy.
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Chile con carne. Texas Red. Chili. It bares many names, but in Texas it’s one sacred stew. So much so that it was officially deemed the State Dish of Texas in 1977. Lady Bird Johnson made her own recipe famous by printing it on notecards to hand out to White House guests during her tenure as First Lady; Texas’ adopted Julia Child-meets-Emily Post, Helen Corbitt, made the humble bowl of chili a hit among ladies-who-lunch at Dallas’ posh Zodiac restaurant in Neiman Marcus; and no Friday night football game is complete without a mess of chili ladled over pile of corn chips for Frito Pie.
Indeed, in Texas, chili con carne is as much a thread woven into the Lone Star fabric as rodeos, ten-gallon hats and the Texas two-step, but few actually know exactly how the dish came about. Some say it originated in San Antonio in the early 1900s at the grounds of the Alamo, which became the stage for a makeshift street-vending extravaganza each night as different families would set up booths harboring large stockpots of homemade chili. A competitive endeavor, women would often dress in colorful costumes to lure more customers to their booth. These brightly clad beauties were given the name "Chili Queens" and still evoke a particular sentimental time in San Antonio history.
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Others say, chili began in the well-worn cast iron pots of chuck wagon cooks who were pressed to keep hot, filling meals for cattle ranchers in South and West Texas. According to Melissa Guerra, a culinary expert and food historian specializing in Texas regional, Mexican, and Latin American cuisine, it was likely picked up from the Native American tribes who would make dried meat—our modern day beef jerky—and pack it in their saddle bags. (This was before the Spanish brought beef to the Americas, so the meat would likely have been venison, rabbit, and snake.) They used a paste made from dried chilies as a preservative and antiseptic to make it last longer. The dish was picked up by European settlers and cattle ranchers as they moved cattle across the state.
At night around the campfire, a bit of the meat and chilies were cooked with water to make a hot meal. “One of the reasons chili con carne perpetuated is because you didn’t die after you ate it,” says Guerra. “It made crummy pieces of meat palatable and safe to eat.”
In truth, the history of chili dates even further back. And while many Texans might choke on a spoonful of their own bowl of red at the notion, the origins of chili really come from south of the border, in South America.
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The term “chili” is short for “chili con carne,” which translates from Spanish as chilies with meat. It’s s simple phrase that most people misinterpret placing more importance on the meat, rather than the chilies. But without chilies, and their integral role in the vast majority of Mexican food, our modern day chili would be little more than a boring bowl of sautéed meat. Just ask celebrated Houston chef, Hugo Ortega of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, and Caracol. Originally from Mexico City, the James Beard Award-nominated chef attributes his culinary influences to the rich flavors of neighboring regions Oaxaca and Puebla where a vast array of chilies reign supreme.
According Ortega, the four key elements to any authentic Mexican dish are chili peppers, spices, seeds and vegetables—in that order. Together, these elements form an array of base sauces that are foundational to the character of great Mexican cuisine. Any additional ingredient is simply an extra, which is why the names of dishes tend to begin with “chili” and end with the added ingredient such as chili con carne (beef), chili con queso (cheese), or chili con pollo (chicken).”
“With everything, I always start with these four elements,” says Ortega. “That’s the secret to this cuisine.”
You can best get a sense for the importance chilies play in a dish like chili con carne when spending an afternoon cooking with Ortega. In the kitchen of his seafood-inspired Mexican restaurant, Caracol, we spent the better part of an hour roasting and reconstituting dried chilies, toasting whole spices and seeds, and blending them together with fresh vegetables.
“With this kind of cooking, you have to give yourself time,” says Ortega while roasting chilies. “It takes patience to bring all of the flavors out. These days we try to do everything with a smart phone in 20 minutes, but you lose the character of these flavors when you rush.”
As the sauce came together, it simmered on a medium-heat burner while he sautéed meat hand-cut into a small dice. On its own, the meat was a little tough and non-descript, but once added to the chili sauce to simmer for a couple of hours, it transformed. Together, the sauce and the meat joined into a rich marriage of flavor.
Ortega’s recipe for chili con carne uses Oaxaca yellow chilies called chilhuacle amarillo, which are difficult to find in the United States. (He suggests a standard dried ancho chili as a substitute.) He also opted for diced lamb instead of beef for his recipe, a departure from most Texas-style chili recipes, which typically incorporate beef, pork, or venison.
If Ortega represents where chili con carne came from, Guerra can speak to how it became an iconic Texas treasure.
“In Mexico saying ‘chili con carne’ is a broad, general concept like saying rice and tomatoes. It’s really up for interpretation. But in Texas, it’s definitive,” says Guerra. “There are certain parameters and those parameters are elements that families fight over.”
Those parameters vary slightly depending on which part of the state you’re from, or which family recipe has been crumpled and stained enough to earn the merit. But these are the basics: the best chiles to use are dried chipotle and dried ancho chiles. Toast and reconstitute them, then blend them with tomatoes, onions, salt, and pepper. For the meat, you can use a mix of pork, beef, or venison and many people are just fine using ground beef. But if you want a great chili, using hand-diced meat is best.
“The large chili grind that you can find in stores is meant to approximate hand chopping but it’s really not as good as a good hand chop,” says Guerra. “What’s not okay is hamburger meat. It makes a huge difference in the texture of the chili.”
What is more a bone of contention is the addition of beans. Ask any Texan if you're supposed to put beans in chili and you'll likely get a scoff or a grunt followed by a curt "not on my watch.” Though chili purists may contend that the humble legume doesn’t belong in the hallowed dish, the truth is that they likely found their way into the pot to help make the dish cheaper to produce, and to extend the quantity.
“You don’t have to put beans in chili, but you can’t blame people for trying to make the dish even more economical,” says Guerra. “But they must be pinto beans. You certainly can’t use kidney beans. Not even.”
Beans or no beans, chili con carne commonly comes served with corn bread, saltine crackers, or corn chips with a sprinkle of cheese and diced onion. While a few hours of simmering will yield a perfectly fine chili, the flavors are even better the day after. The rich and spicy aromas of this recipe simmering away on the stove will summon a gathering in no time.
Chile Con Carne
4 ounces dried chipotle chiles (4 to 6)
4 ounces dried ancho chiles (about 4)
1 pound plum tomatoes, peeled and seeded (or a 15-ounce cane of peeled tomatoes, drained)
1 pound pork, diced (pork shoulder is best)
1 pound sirloin beef, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
Prepare the chiles for puréeing by boiling them in a medium sized pot of water until they are soft and has changed from a raisin color to dark red. (About 20-30 minutes) Place in a blender with ½ cup of water to facilitate blending and purée. Add the tomatoes and 1 cup of water and purée well. Add salt to taste.
Brown the meat with the onion in a Dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat for about 20 minutes. Add the chile purée. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about 20 minutes over medium heat. Serve ladled into soup bowls.