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A Brief History of: Chilli con Carne

Understanding Spices

Chilli con carne (Spanish for ‘chilli with meat’) is a classic dish enjoyed all over the world. Once considered a very exotic meal by Americans, it is now right at home within their cuisine, often credited as the dish that gave rise to Tex-Mex cuisine and consequently enjoying special status as the official state dish of Texas. But where did it all begin for this simple, fiery concoction?

In its classic form, Chilli con carne is a spicy stew containing chilli peppers (sometimes as a powder), beef, tomatoes and beans. Other common seasoning includes garlic, onions and cumin. As is always the case with renowned worldwide classics, the origins and true history of the dish are not particularly clear. There are over ten different theories, tales and stories about chilli con carne.

One such grizzly tale is taken from Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (1568). In this story Bernal describes a gruesome scene where the remains of conquistadors were brutally sacrificed and butchered by the Aztecs. Their remains were then boiled up with hot peppers, wild tomatoes and oregano! Given that it was so long ago in the past, it is hard to confirm or deny such allegations but it no doubt served well in whipping up Spanish distrust and hysteria around the Aztecs.

Aztec pyramids

Whether the use of human flesh is true or not, it’s clear that Aztecs and other native Americans were eating chillies mixed with meat and herbs for centuries, long before the Spanish explorers ever turned up. They knew how to eat well.

How about the ‘Lady in Blue’ theory? Sister Maria De Agreda never actually left her home country of spain, yet she claimed to have evangelized the ‘savages of the New World’ by visiting them through hypnotic visions. It’s true that in 1629, 50 Jumano Indians walked out of the Texan desert in order to be baptized. They claimed that an ethereal woman clad in blue taught them about god. Furthermore, Indian legend has it, she taught them of the fiery red stew that we know today as Chilli con carne. Rather nice of her!

Unsurprisingly, religious priests didn’t like this one bit. They deemed it a ‘soup of the devil’ and warned against indulgence. Naturally, just like prohibition in America, suppression only serves to fuel the fire. Through the 19th century, chilli con carne was a staple dish among cowboys and adventurers on the Western frontier, despite the fact you’ll never catch John Wayne eating it. The cowboys, rounding up their huge herds of cattle and driving them to railheads such as Kansas and Nebraska during the 1860s and 70s, needed something filling for their long journeys and arduous work. In stepped the infamous ‘bowl o’ red’ stew.

Cowboy

Even in the prisons where frontier outlaws and ruffians ended up, chilli con carne was the dish of choice simply because it was so cheap. There’s a common joke that those who were released from prison committed crimes in the hope of being sent back for more of this delicious stew.

What is clear from the evidence is that, like all great dishes, chilli con carne was a result of many different peoples and cultures all mixing together through migration and movement. Whilst the cowboys and outlaws were roaming around, Jesuit missionaries were encountering native Indians cooking up spicy stews in the American southwest. Meanwhile, with a hungry Texan army demanding food, Mexican cooks had been hired to prepare whatever was available – often culminating in a simmering, hearty stew made from beef and red chillies.

And did we mention the gold rush? A story goes that whilst making their way west to the goldfields of California, a party of Texans needed an easy-to-prepare meal that would keep them fueled along the trail (a bit like the cowboys). A mixture of beef, salt, black pepper and red chillies was dried and carried in sacks. When they needed to eat in the evenings, they simply broke off a segment from the block and boiled it up in a pot of water. Simple!

Whatever the actual true origins of the dish, it was clear that during this period through the 19th century, chilli con carne was everywhere. As the American civil war came to a close in 1865, the dish was more popular than ever. For the next few decades running into the early 20th century, working class Tejana and Mexican women became famous for selling their cheap, chilli-flavoured beef stew in ‘chilli joints’ that were popping up all over the sidewalks of San Antonio. They came to be known as the ‘Chilli Queens’ of San Antonio, often decorating their street vendor stalls with elaborate designs and sharp colours.

San Antonio

Because San Antonio was a tourist destination, it helped the spread of the dish through Texas, Southwest America and beyond. Then, during the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, The San Antonio Chilli Stand popularised chilli con carne by introducing it to many Americans for the first time.

At the same time, there is yet another theory that suggests native Canary Island immigrants who arrived in San Antonio around the early 1700’s may well have been the original inventors of chilli con carne. Canary Island cuisine was characterised by curry. When the Canary Islanders arrived in San Antonio they could find little local ingredients or seasoning that could match what they were used to. So instead, they substituted locally grown chillis and other seasonings and herbs that at least resembled something they ate back home. Was it chilli con carne? A lot of people think so.

What is agreed is that San Antonio does appear to be the birthplace of the modern day chilli con carne that we’ve come to know and love.

So, that’s the history of Texas’ famous bowl o’ red. Hungry yet? If you fancy cooking this delicious dish for yourself, you can check out our amazing chilli con carne power pods. Loaded with Tex-Mex flavours, these pre-measured spice blends make cooking up chilli con carne easier than ever before.

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