Chili is an incredibly popular tailgating food because it’s relatively easy to prepare for a group and most people love it. No one is really sure about where chili originated although many historians agree that the earliest versions of the dish were made by very poor people because it stretches out the use of meat—a relatively expensive item—by incorporating vegetables and spices.
One opinion is that chili dates its beginnings to the mid-1800s when Texas trail cooks had to feed hungry cowboys on long trail drives with whatever ingredients they had hand. That could mean beef or buffalo, venison, or even rattlesnake, chilies, and wild garlic, onion, and herbs. Some clever cooks figured out they could make nonperishable trail food by pounding together dried beef, fat, chili peppers, and salt. These “chili bricks” could be soaked in water during the day, and later, boiled in water with garlic and cumin to make a hearty—if not quite up to our standards of delicious– stew.
Another legend says that some trail cooks planted pepper seeds, oregano, and onions in mesquite patches (so foraging cattle wouldn’t nibble) to use on future trail drives. The chili peppers used in the earliest dishes were probably chilipiquíno, which grow wild in the southern part of Texas.
There is also a story about another group of Texans known as “Lavanderas,” or “Washerwoman,” ladies of indiscriminate virtue who followed the 19th-century armies of Texas and often whipped up a stew of goat meat or venison, wild marjoram and chili peppers.
A different version of the history holds that chili was invented on the Canary Islands in the 1720s when the Spanish commanded Mexico. The French were rapidly encroaching so an appeal was sent to the King of Spain to send some settlers. Sixteen families of Canary Islanders were sent to Mexico, settling near what became The Alamo. There, in an effort to reproduce food from their homeland, they came up with a stew of beef, hot peppers, oregano and garlic. No one is clear about the emergence of tomatoes, onions and beans.
One thing is clear: In 1977, the Texas legislature proclaimed chili the official “state food” of Texas “in recognition of the fact that the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.”
Residents of the Texas prisons in the mid to late 1800s also lay claim to the creation of chili. They say that the Texas version of bread and water (or gruel) was a stew of the cheapest available ingredients (tough beef that was hacked fine and chilies and spices that was boiled in water to an edible consistency). The “prisoner’s plight” became a status symbol of the Texas prisons and the inmates used to rate jails on the quality of their chili. The Texas prison system made such good chili that freed inmates often wrote for the recipe, saying what they missed most after leaving was a really good bowl of chili.
As chili’s popularity spread, chili parlors began to spring up in Texas trail towns and other parts of the West. Legend has it that Frank and Jesse James refused to rob the bank in the town where their favorite chili parlor was located. By the depression years, chili joints could be found
Debates about what should be in a true chili continue and depend greatly on where the debaters live. At one end of the spectrum are purists, otherwise known as Texans. Their chili has no beans although they often serve pinto beans on the side. This group also favors using chunks of beef instead of chopped meat. On the opposite side are those who favor chili created by a Greek immigrant in the 1920s who came up with a dish made of ground beef, chili powder, and Middle Eastern spices including cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cumin, mace and, coriander served over a mound of spaghetti. Optional toppings included shredded cheese (three-way chili), chopped onion (four-way), and kidney beans (five-way).
Today tailgaters can eat vegetarian chili, tamale pie and chili made with different takes on meat and spices.
This recipe, which feeds at least eight, (the exact number of servings depends to some degree on how generous the portions are), includes both coffee and beer.
Really Good Chili for a Crowd
2 teaspoons oil
2 onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound lean ground beef
3/4 pound beef sirloin, cubed
1 (14 1/2 ounce) cans diced tomatoes
1 can dark beer
1 cup strong coffee
2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
1 can beef broth
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons chili sauce
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon cocoa
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon salt
4 (15 ounce) cans kidney beans
4 chili peppers, chopped
Cook onions, garlic and meat until brown.
Add tomatoes, beer, coffee, tomato paste and beef broth.
Add spices and then stir in two cans of kidney beans and peppers.