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Chili con carne

[chil-ee kon kahr-nee]

Chili con carne (often known simply as chili) is a spicy stew made from chili peppers, meat, garlic, onions, and cumin. Traditional chili is made with chopped or ground beef. Variations, either geographic or by personal preference, may substitute different types of meat, and may also include tomatoes, beans, or other ingredients. The name "chili con carne" is a variation of the Spanish chile con carne, which means peppers with meat. Chili con carne is the official dish of the U.S. state of Texas. It can be found worldwide in local variations and also in American-style restaurants like Wendy's and A&W.

Origins and history

Many argue that chili was invented in Mexico during the 1840s, as a replacement for pemmican; others place its origin in Tijuana, Baja California, or Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

The Mexicano origin theory holds that it was created as a complimentary dish served at cantinas, especially to please outsiders, who wanted something spicy and "Mexican" to eat, but also free or cheap. It was made with leftovers from the meals prepared in the cantina and served for free to drinking customers.

The chilies originated in the Americas and were in wide use in pre-Columbian Mexican culture. Any stew made using significant amounts of chilies might be seen as a forerunner of all modern chili recipes.

While evidence of corn in pre-Columbian proto-chili stews remains to be discovered, its usage can be inferred. While bulk grain fillers are not seen as legitimate ingredients in some recipes, masa, a meal made from either corn flour (masa harina) or corn which has been treated with caustic lime to make hominy (Masa nixtamalera), is often used as a thickener and flavoring.

The Americanized recipe consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chile peppers (usually chilepiquenes), and salt, which were pounded together and left to dry into bricks, which could then be boiled in pots on the trail. An alternative, and more widely-accepted theory, holds that chile con carne was born in Ensenada, Mexico in the 1880s as a way of stretching available meat in the kitchens of poor Tejanos . However, this theory does not take in account Ensenada and Texas are very far from each other.

"San Antonio Chile Stand" was in operation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which helped spread a taste for chile to other parts of the country. San Antonio was a significant tourist destination and helped Texas-style chile con carne spread throughout the South and West.

Chili queens

During the 1880s, brightly-dressed Hispanic women known as "Chili Queens" began to operate around Military Plaza and other public gathering places in downtown San Antonio. They would appear at dusk, building charcoal or wood fires to reheat cauldrons of pre-cooked chili, selling it by the bowl to passers-by. The aroma was a potent sales pitch, aided by Mariachi street musicians, who joined in to serenade the eaters. Some Chili Queens later built semi-permanent stalls in the mercado, or local Mexican marketplace.

In September 1937, the San Antonio health department implemented new sanitary regulations which required the Chili Queens to adhere to the same standards as indoor restaurants; being unable to provide lavatorial facilities, the "street chili" culture disappeared overnight. Although [San Antonio Light, 12 September 1937] Mayor Maury Maverick reinstated their privileges in 1939, the more stringent regulations were reapplied permanently in 1943.

San Antonio's mercado was renovated in the 1970s, at which time it was the largest Mexican marketplace in the U.S. Local merchants began staging historic re-enactments of the Chili Queens' heyday, and the "Return of the Chili Queens Festival" is now part of that city's annual Memorial Day festivities.

Chili parlors

Before World War II, hundreds of small, family-run chili parlors (also known as "chili joints") could be found throughout Texas and other states, particularly those in which émigré Texans had made their new homes. Each establishment usually had a claim to some kind of "secret recipe".

One of the best known chili parlors, in part because of its location and socially-connected clientele, was Bob Pool's "joint" in downtown Dallas, just across the street from the headquarters of popular department store Neiman Marcus. Stanley Marcus, president of the store, frequently ate there, and sent containers of Pool's chili to friends and customers across the country by air express. Several members of General Dwight Eisenhower's SHAPE staff during the early 1950s were reported to have arranged regular shipments from Pool's to Paris.


Texas chili recipes

Original Texas-style chili

Texas-style chili contains no beans, tomatoes, or other vegetables besides chili peppers. Beans may be mixed at the diner's discretion in his or her own serving bowl. The meat (beef, venison, or other mature stewing meat) is cut into bite-sized pieces (traditionally, the size of a pecan nut), or coarsely ground. Prime beef and veal are not considered suitable for chili, as they tend to fall apart in long cooking. Suet is also added for flavor, but is often omitted. New Mexico or Anaheim peppers, or a combination of these or others (such as pasillas, chiles de arbol, anchos, ets.) are often used. The kinds and amount of chili peppers used determines the level of heat: for a spicy version, four pepper pods per pound of meat might be used; for a milder version, only 1-3 pods. Chili powder is often used as a substitute for whole chili peppers. A half teaspoon of chili powder is the approximate equivalent of one average-size chili pod.

Pedernales River chili

President Lyndon Johnson's favorite chili recipe became known as "Pedernales River chili" after the location of his Texas Hill Country ranch. It calls for leaving out the traditional beef suet (on doctor's orders after his heart attack while he was U.S. Senate Majority Leader) and also adds tomatoes and onions. LBJ preferred venison, when available, over beef; Hill Country deer were thought to be leaner than most. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson had it printed up on cards as a mail-out because of the many thousands of requests the White House received for the recipe


Beef was plentiful and cheap in San Antonio and other cattle towns. As chili spread east into areas where beef was more expensive, however, chili made with beans became more prevalent. In some eastern areas, this dish is referred to as chili beans, while the term chili is reserved for the all-meat dish.

Pinto beans are commonly used as chili beans, as are black-eyed peas, kidney beans, great northern beans, or navy beans. Chili bean can also refer to a small red variety of common bean also known as the pink bean. The name may have arisen from that bean's resemblance to small chili peppers, or may be a reference to that bean's inclusion in chili recipes.

Most commercially prepared canned chili includes beans. Commercial chili prepared without beans is usually called "Chili No Beans" in the United States. Some U.S. manufacturers, notably Bush Brothers and Company and Eden Organic, also sell canned pre-cooked beans (with no meat) that are explicitly labeled "Chili beans" - these beans are intended to be added to a chili recipe by the consumer, and are often pre-spiced.


A popular saying among self-proclaimed chili purists is "If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain't got no beans". The thought that beans do not belong in chili may be further credited to the fact that most official chili cookoffs do not allow beans. In many cases a chili will be disqualified if it contains such ingredients considered filler.

In fact, Pinto beans (frijoles), a staple of Tex-Mex cooking, have long been associated with chili and the question of whether beans "belong" in chili has been a matter of contention amongst chili cooks for an equally long time. It is likely that in many poorer areas of San Antonio and other places associated with the origins of chili, beans were used rather than meat or in addition to meat due to poverty. In that regard, it has been suggested by some chili aficionados that there were probably two chili types made in the world, depending on what could be afforded and how frugal the cook was.

Many easterners are just as adamant about the inclusion of beans in their chili for an authentic flavor as a minority of Texans are about their exclusion. A vocal minority of self-styled 'chili experts' believe that beans and chili should always be cooked separately and served on the side. It is then up to the consumer to stir his preferred quantity of beans into his own bowl.


Another ingredient considered anywhere from required to sacrilegious is tomatoes. Wick Fowler, north Texas newspaperman and inventor of "Two-Alarm Chili" (which he later marketed as a "kit" of spices), insisted on adding tomato sauce to his chili, one 15-oz. can per three pounds of meat. He also believed that chili should never be eaten newly-cooked but refrigerated overnight to seal in the flavor. Matt Weinstock, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, once remarked that Fowler's chili "was reputed to open eighteen sinus cavities unknown to the medical profession".

Vegetarian chili

Vegetarian chili (also known as chili sin carne, chili without meat, or chili) acquired wide popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of vegetarianism, and is also popular with those on a diet restricted in red meat. To make the chili vegetarian, the meat is left out of the recipe, or replaced with a meat analogue, such as textured vegetable protein or tofu, or a complimentary vegetable such as potatoes.

Many variant recipes exist, and almost any available vegetable can be added, including corn, squash, mushrooms, potatoes, and even beets. (Corn, squash, and beans are known as the "Three Sisters" of Native American agriculture in the American Southwest.)

One very popular variant is lentil chili, popular in France. In this instance, lentils (usually brown or green lentils) are used in the place of the meat. Because of their high protein content, lentils are an excellent meat substitute, and their flavor blends well with the seasonings in chili. Lentil chili is made either with just lentils, or combined with other beans. The seasonings are similar to chili con carne.

Meat on the side chili

In order to accommodate vegetarians and non-vegetarians with the same chili recipe, some chefs prepare the meat on the side (al lado), with roughly the same proportion of spices, peppers, onions, etc. as the remainder of the chili, which contains only beans, tomatoes, peppers, and other seasonings. This variant recipe on chile con carne (chili with meat) allows chefs to prepare a single batch of chili that can be enjoyed by vegetarian and other patrons.

When patrons are ready to eat, they can select the amount of meat they wish (in the case of vegetarians, none), add the vegetarian chili to their bowl, mix and enjoy.

Secret ingredients

In addition to the expected ingredients listed above, some more esoteric ingredients are used by some cooks to both personalize their recipe and ensure its superiority. These may include chocolate or cocoa, peanut butter, corn, pineapple, banana, oranges, tomatillos, beer, coffee, tequila, cola, honey, cinnamon, saffron, molasses, vinegar, wine (usually red), whiskey, or bourbon. Some cooks prefer a cast iron pot to cook their chili. Cornstarch is often added as a thickener, as is masa.

Accompaniments and additions

Several beverages are commonly used to accompany a bowl of chili, including ice-cold beer, cola to provide a sweet contrast taste, or a glass of cold milk to moderate the impact of the chiles on the throat.

Shredded cheese is a common topping. Saltine crackers, broken up and scattered on top, are common in chili parlors. Similarly, commercial corn chips can be added as a topping producing something akin to Frito pie. Jalapeño cornbread, rolled-up corn tortillas, and pork tamales also are popular, for dunking. Peanut butter sandwiches or peanut butter on saltine crackers served on the side can also accompany chili. In Missouri, a small portion of pickle juice is often poured into the bowl of chili. Similarly in Tennessee, it is common to sprinkle vinegar over the bowl of chili.

In Eastern Tennessee, chili with beans served in a cup with fritos and sour cream is referred to as a Petro, after a restaurant chain who introduced the dish at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Commercial chili

Willie Gebhardt, originally of New Braunfels, Texas and later of San Antonio, produced the first canned chili in 1908.

Wolf Brand Chili was developed by rancher Lyman Davis near Corsicana, Texas, in 1885. He owned a meat market and was a particular fan of Texas-style chili. In the 1880s, in partnership with an experienced range cook, he began producing heavily-spiced chili based on chunks of lean beef and rendered beef suet, which he sold by the pot to local cafés. In 1921, Davis began canning his product, naming it for his pet wolf, "Kaiser Bill". Wolf Brand canned chili was a favorite of Will Rogers, who always took along a case of it when traveling and entertaining in other regions of the world. Ernest Tubb, the country singer, was such a fan that one Texas hotel maintained a supply of Wolf Brand for his visits.

Both the Gebhardt and Wolf brands are now owned by ConAgra Foods, Inc. In the UK, the most popular brand of canned chili is sold by Stagg, a division of Hormel foods.

Another method of marketing commercial chili in the days before widespread home refrigerators was "brick chili". It was produced by pressing out nearly all of the moisture to leave a solid substance roughly the size and shape of a half-brick. Wolf Brand was originally sold in this form. Commonly available in small towns and rural areas of the American Southwest in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, brick chili has largely outlived its usefulness and is now difficult to find. In Southern California the Dolores Canning Co. still makes a traditional brick Chili called the "Dolores Chili Brick".

Other chilis

White (turkey) chili

Instead of a tomato-based sauce and red meat (beef), white chili is made using great northern beans and turkey meat or chicken breast. The resulting dish appears white when cooked, and has more of an alkali bean taste, instead of the acidic taste of "regular" chili. The spicing of white chili is similar to that of regular chili, though green chili peppers are more often used than red. Turkey is also used as a substitute for beef in regular chili recipes.

Cincinnati-style chili

Cincinnati-style chili is a popular regional variation that is entirely different from Texas-style chili. Most notably, it is usually eaten as a topping for spaghetti or hot dogs (called "Coneys"), rather than as a stew by itself. It was invented by Greek immigrants, who began serving it in the 1920s. It is much thinner than Texas-style chili, more closely resembling a meat spaghetti sauce and usually not as spicy-hot, but still with a rich flavor. Traditionally, a small measure of chocolate and/or cinnamon is added to give Cincinnati style chili its distinctive flavor. In most Cincinnati-style chili restaurants, you can get the chili dishes "5 ways". Chili and spaghetti served together is considered the "2-way". Add cheese, beans or onion on top of a "2-way" to get a "3-way". Typically, a cheese is the third ingredient of choice on a "3-way". Add beans or onion to a "3-way" to get a "4-way". All five ingredients yields a "5-way". The connection between cheddar cheese and chili probably originated in Cincinnati since the cheese normally tops Cincinnati spaghetti dishes.

Possibly borrowing from the Cincinnati style, chili recipes throughout the surrounding Ohio Valley will use some or all of the above "five way" ingredients. It will almost always have some type of pasta in it (usually spaghetti). However the seasoning is more mainstream and the chili will have the consistency of a soup.

Chains of diner-style "chili parlors" grew up in the Midwest in the 1920s and 1930s. As of 2005, one of these old-fashioned chili parlors still exists on Pine Street in downtown St. Louis. It features a chili-topped dish called a "slinger": two hamburger patties topped with melted American cheese and two eggs, then smothered in chili, all topped off with shredded cheese.

In other parts of the country, this is sold as "Hot Dog Chili" or "Hot Dog Sauce".

Louisville style chili

Louisville style chili is a popular regional variation in Louisville, Kentucky. Unlike Cincinnati style, Louisville style chili is stew like in consistency. The main difference between Louisville style and Texas style is that spaghetti pasta is added to the recipe. The main ingredients are tomatoes, beans, ground beef, beans, onions and chili powder. Louisville Style chili is spicier than Cincinnati Style but in general not as spicy as Texas Style

Chili verde (green chili)

Chile Verde is a Mexican and Mexican-American stew or sauce usually made from chunks of pork that have been slow cooked in chicken broth, garlic, tomatillos, and jalapeños. Tomatoes are rarely used. Sometimes the sauce is made with poblanos instead of or in addition to the jalapeños.

Chile Verde is usually moderately spicy, with much of its heat related to the proportion of tomatillos to jalapeños; with more jalapeños producing a more picante sauce. Green chili powder has become available for chili verde; other seasonings like garlic or oregano are common. Cumin is used just like red chili. If beans are included, white beans are used. Chili verde uses pork tenderloin (especially in competition chili) or other "white" pork or, in many home recipes, chicken breast

Chili verde is "the other competition chili". It has grown in popularity due primarily to being featured on the competitive chili circuit, giving it wide exposure. Chile Verde is a common filling for the San Francisco Burrito.

Other dishes made with chili

Chili dog

A Chili dog is a frankfurter served with a topping of chili. Hot dog chili can vary greatly. Coney Island sauce is a thin watery dish, many other restaurant chili sauces resemble more of a gravy than chili con carne. Other hot dog chilis are more like real chili con carne, except ground beef is almost always used instead of other types of beef.

Chili cheese fries

Chili is also added to fries and cheese to make "chili cheese fries", or "coney island fries".

Chili rice

In Southeast Texas, some people eat chili over white rice, much like one would eat gumbo; this is due to the proximity to Louisiana, and the fact that rice is a prominent agricultural crop in the area. This dish is known in that area as New Orleans-style chili. Unlike traditionally prepared Asian rice, the white rice used is left marginally undercooked, creating a slightly more solid and fibrous texture. It is also used as a cheap and simple way to "pad out" the dish with low cost ingredients, similar to the traditional use of beans.

Chili over rice (frequently with beans) is also common in Japan and Hawaii (where it is known as chili rice), the United Kingdom, France (where without rice it is called chili au boeuf), Canada, Denmark, Sweden and somewhat in Australia.

Chili mac

Chili mac (also known as American Chop Suey) is a dish made with canned chili, or roughly the same ingredients as chili (meat, spices, onion, tomato sauce, beans, and sometimes other vegetables), with the addition of macaroni or some other pasta. Chili mac is a standard dish in the US military, and is one of the varieties of MRE.

Frito pie

A Frito pie typically consists of a small single-serving bag of Fritos corn chips, with a cup of chili poured over the top, usually finished up with grated cheese or onions and jalapeños and sour cream. . Frito pies are popular in the Southwestern United States.


The exact origins of the Frito pie are unknown, though there are several stories as to its beginnings.

One of the stories says that the Frito pie originated with Frito-Lays founder Elmer Doolin's mother. It claims that Daisy Dean Doolin came up with the Frito pie sometime after creating the first Frito chip. Mentions of the Frito pie are nearly as old as the company itself, which was founded in 1932.

Another of the stories claims that the Frito pie originated in the 1960s with Teresa Hernandez, who worked at the F. W. Woolworth's lunch counter in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Chili stuffed spud

A large baked potato stuffed with chili and butter, and topped with shredded Cheddar cheese and chopped onions.

Quotations and song

Similar dishes

Dishes often described as similar to chili con carne include French cassoulet, Indian curry, Jewish cholent, Italian pasta fagioli, Serbian bean soups, Hungarian goulash, Portuguese "feijoada à transmontana" and Brazilian "feijoada".



  • Frank X. Tolbert. A Bowl of Red: A Natural History of Chili con Carne. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. [Much of the material in this book originally appeared in the author's newspaper columns in The Dallas Morning News beginning in the early 1950s.]
  • Charles Ramsdell. San Antonio: An Historical and Pictorial Guide. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959.
  • Joe E. Cooper. With or Without Beans. Dallas: W. S. Henson, 1952.
  • H. Allen Smith. "Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do." Reprinted at the International Chili Society web site.
  • Jack Arnold. The Chili Lover's Handbook. Privately published, 1977.
  • Robb Walsh. The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. [A very knowledgeable and very well-written "food history", including a long chapter on "real" chili, chili joints, and the San Antonio chili queens.]

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