By John Thorne, editor/publisher of Simple Cooking
P.O. Box 58, Castine, ME 04421

Visit John at the Simple Cooking Website

As published in the September/October 1990 issue of Chile Pepper Magazine

Every chili cook has a few recipes, whether written or just remembered, that have helped define his or her own special bowl of red. Here is a more-or-less historical collection which will assist the reader in this purpose, as it has for the author. Since they are really not meant to be cooked from, but rather used as a reference for your own concoctions, no attempt was made to bring the older recipes up to modern cookbook standards. There are valuable hints to be gleaned from them, but more than that, when reading them notice how none of the recipes will stay in focus very long -- that's chili's stubborn refusal to hold still and let the shutter snap. Mrs. Owen's Cook Book (1880)
U.S. Army (1896 - 1944)
Walker's Red Hot Chile Con Carne (1918)
Romana's Spanish-American Cookery (1929)
Texas Jail Chili (Circa 1950)
Old Buffalo Breath (1985)

Mrs. Owen's Cook Book Chili (1880)
lean beef -- cut in small dice
1 clove garlic -- chopped fine
1 tablespoon flour
2 tablespoons espagnole
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
dried whole peppers
cooked beans

This may be the earliest printed recipe for chili con carne and it is surprisingly authentic, save for the suspect addition of "espagnole", white sauce seasoned with hame, carrot, onion, celery, and clove. The words are Mrs. Owen's own.

This might be called the national dish of Mexico. Literally, it means 'pepper with meat' and when prepared to suit the taste of the average Mexican, is not misnamed. Take lean beef and cut in small dice, put to cook with a little oil. When well braised, add some onions, a clove of garlic chopped fine and one tablespoon flour. Mix and cover with water or stock and two tablespoons espagnole, 1 teaspoon each of ground oregano, camino, and coriander. The latter can be purchased at any drug store. Take dried whole peppers and remove the seeds, cover with water and put to boil and when thoroughly cooked pass through a fine strainer. Add sufficient puree to the stew to make it good and hot, and salt to taste. To be served with a border of Mexican beans (frijoles), well cooked in salted water.

Frijoles or Mexican brown beans. Boil beans in an earthen vessel until soft (four to eight hours). Mash and put them into a frying pan of very hot lard and fry until comparatively dry and light brown. Sometimes chopped onions are put into the lard before the beans are added and sometimes pods of red pepper or grated cheese.

U.S. Army Chili (1896-1944)
1 beefsteak (round)
1 tablespoon hot drippings
2 tablespoons rice
1 cup boiling water
onion -- (optional)
2 large dried red chile pods

Soldiers of the U.S. Army on the Western frontier had been eating chili since the war with Mexico (1846) but not necessarily in their messes. The first Army publication to give a recipe for chili was published in 1896, The Manual For Army Cooks (War Department Document #18). By World War I, the Army had added garlic and beans; by World War II, tomatoes. This was a national pattern: Fannie Farmer did exactly the same (see the editions for 1914, 1930, and 1941)

Chili con carne (1896) (per soldier). 1 beefsteak (round); 1 Tbs. hot drippings; 2 Tbs. rice; 1 cup boiling water; 2 large dried red chile pods; 1 cup boiling water; flour, salt, and onion (optional).

Cut steak in small pieces. Put in frying pan with hot drippings, cup of hot water, and rice. Cover closely and cook slowly until tender. Remove seeds and parts of veins from chile pods. Cover with second cup of boiling water and let stand until cool. Then squeeze them in the hand until the water is thick and red. If not thick enough, add a little flour. Season with salt and a little onion, if desired. Pour sauce over meat-rice mixture and serve very hot.

Walker's Red Hot Chile Con Carne (1918)
1 pound beef -- cut in small pieces
1/4 pound beef suet -- ground fine or lard
2 tablespoons Walker's Mexene
1 medium onion -- minced

In 1918, Walker Austex was producing 45,000 cans of Walker's Red Hot Chile Con Carne (with beans) and 15,000 cans of Mexene Chili Powder a day in their new factory in Austin, Texas. But Walker had already been selling canned Mexican foods for over a quarter century and may have been the first to can chili. Gebhardt's didn't start canning chili (as opposed to making chili powder) until 1911. Walker's 1918 recipe booklet had recipes for "chile huevos" and "chili mac" -- plus something called "combination chili con carne" -- one can chili mixed with one can tomatoes.

Genuine Mexican Chile Con Carne. One pound of beef cut in small pieces; 1/4 lb. beef suet, ground fine (or you can use lard). Add two tablespoons of Walker's Mexene, one medium sized onion minced; add water and boil until thoroughly cooked. The gravy from this chili con carne is fine for macaroni, spaghetti and vegetables. If beans are wanted, use any good red bean. For instance -- California Bayous, California Pinks or Pinto Beans. When these are not convenient, use French Red Kidney Beans. Boil the beans separately and add beans when serving.

Romana's Spanish-American Cookery Chili (1929)
2 pounds lean beef
1/4 pound beef fat
12 large red chile peppers -- OR to taste
2 tablespoons chile powder
1 tablespoon paprika
2 pods garlic
2 teaspoons chopped oregano
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup minced onion
beef stock -- as needed
salt and pepper -- to taste

This California-based cookbook, edited and "modernized" in 1929 by Pauline Wile-Kleeman, has three chili recipes. The one labeled "Texas style" contains onions, beans and tomatoes, plus a whole cup of extra fat, half suet and half lard! The "California" version is also made with beans, but without tomatoes or onions. The first, and best recipe has none of these things.

Chile con Carne without Beans

Remove the seeds and veins from the chile peppers, place in sufficient hot water to cover, bring to boiling point, and cool in the water, drain and remove the pulp with a spoon. Cut the meat and suet in 3/4 inch cubes, heat the oil and fry the meat and suet to a light brown, then add onions and garlic and continue to cook, stirring continuously; before the onions start to brown add chile pulp, paprika, stir a few minutes, then add oregano, salt and pepper and sufficient stock to finish cooking till the meat is tender. Serve with beans or Spanish rice.

Texas Jail Chili (Circa 1950)
1/2 pound beef suet -- ground
2 pounds coarse ground beef
3 garlic cloves -- minced
1 1/2 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground dried sweet chile pods
3 cups water

Texas prison chili got its good reputation from Sheriff Smoot Schmid's truly fine recipe for the Dallas County Jail. Recently, however, a Texas prison chili contest was won by Huntsville Penitentiary with a godawful recipe that called for twice as much cumin as chili powder and "2 handfuls" of monosodium glutamate. In Texas, this is called crime deterrence.

Dallas County Chili

Fry suet in a heavy kettle. Add meat, finely diced garlic and seasonings; cover. Cook slowly for four hours, stirring occasionally. Add the water and continue cooking until the chili has thickened slightly, about one hour. Serve plain or mixed with equal portion of cooked pink or red beans.

Old Buffalo Breath Chili (1985)
5 pounds chuck roast
8 cloves garlic -- crushed
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon cumin seeds -- toasted and ground
juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons mild chile
2 tablespoons hot chile
beef broth
masa harina
small whole dried piquin chiles
salt -- to taste

This writer's own. On the Texas range, firewood meant mesquite. Not only did the trail cook use it for his own pit cooking, but the ranch cook used it to fire his wood stove. Until it was replaced with gas and electric, mesquite-flavored grilling dominated rural Texas cooking with its distinctive sweet savor. The meat rof this chili is seared over charcoal where mesquite chips have been set to flame (the taste of mesquite charcoal is indistinguishable from that of any other hardwood), which gives the resulting chili a haunting hint of smoke -- and without tasting a bit like barbecue, since there is no onion or tomato in it, none at all.

For the fire: mesquite wood chips and hardwood charcoal.

For the Rub: 2 or 3 cloves of garlic and chili powder.

The chuck roast should be as lean as possible and cut at least three inches thick. Two or three hours before you plan to make the chili, rub the meat all over with a mash of crushed garlic and salt then sprinkle it with chili powder to coat it lightly. Loosely cover it with plastic and set it aside.

Fire up enough hardwood charcoal to sear the meat in an outdoor grill, preferably one with a cover. At the same time, soak a few handfuls of the mesquite chips in the water. When the coals are covered with gray ash, spread them out evenly, and scatter the soaked mesquite chips over them. Then immediately set the meat on a grill over the smoke, about an inch from the coals. Cover the grill and adjust the dampers to maintain a slow, steady heat. Let meat sear for about 12 minutes (this is meant to flavor, not to cook the meat) and turn over to sear the other side for the same amount of time. Remove it from the heat, saving any juices on its surface, and transfer to the refrigerator. Let it cool thoroughly, about one hour.

After the meat has cooled, trim away any surface fat or cartilage. With a sharp knive, cube the meat into the smallest pieces you have patience for, saving all juices. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy pot over moderate heat. Stir in the garlic and saute until it turns translucent. Stir in the meat and all reserved meat juices, adding just enough beef broth to cover, or about one cup. Pour in the lime juice and sprinkle in the rest of the seasonings, stirring and tasting as you go. Crumble in a few piquins or other fiery chiles to bring the heat up to taste. However, do not try to adjust the seasoning to perfection right now; it's easy to ruin a chili by correcting the flavors too soon -- the long cooking will smooth and sweeten it.

Lower the heat to as low as possible. If the pot is left to boil, the meat will toughen. Every half hour or so after the first hour, taste for seasoning, adjusting and thickening with the masa harina a teaspoonful at a time. The chili should be about ready to eat in three hours, although it will benefit from a night's aging in the refrigerator.

Serve it simmering in large, heavy bowls with an ample supply of soda crackers and a side of beans, but not much else except, maybe, hot, black coffee or quart-sized glasses of iced tea or a few frosty bottles of your favorite beer. And, after a good long while, push things aside, lean back in your chair, and start arguing.

Garry's Home Cookin'
Eat first, ask questions later!

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