17th Annual Chili Fest - Chili Facts & Fiction
From the time the second person on earth mixed some chili peppers with meat and cooked them, the great chili debate was on;
more of a war in fact. The desire to brew up the best bowl of chili in the world is exactly that old.
Perhaps it is the effect of Capisicum spices upon man's mind, for in the immortal words of Joe DeFrates, the only man
ever to win the National and the World Chili Championships, "Chili powder makes you crazy." That may say it all. To keep
things straight, chile refers to the pepper pod, and chili to the concoction. The e and the i of it all.
The great debate, it seems, is not limited to whose chili is best. Even more heated is the argument over where the first
bowl was made and by whom. Estimates range from "somewhere west of Laramie" in the early nineteenth century - being a
product of a Texas trail drive - to a grisly tale of enraged Aztecs, who cut up invading Spanish conquistadors, seasoned
chunks of them with a passel of chili peppers and ate them.
Travels through Texas, New Mexico, and California and even Mexico over the years have failed to turn up the elusive
"best bowl of chili." Every state lays claim to the title, and certainly no Texan worth his comino (cumin) would think
even for a moment, that it rests anywhere else but in the Lone Star State - and probably right in his own blackened and
battered chili pot.
There may not be an answer. There are, however, certain facts that one cannot overlook. The mixture of meat, beans,
peppers, and herbs was known to the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayan Indians long before Columbus and the conquistadores.
- Fact: Chili peppers were used in Cervantes's Spain and show up in great ancient cuisines of China, India, Indonesia,
Italy, the Caribbean, France, and the Arab states.
- Fact: Don Juan de Onate entered what is now New Mexico in 1598 and brought with him the green chili pepper. It has grown
there for the nearly four hundred years since.
- Fact: Canary Islanders, transplanted in San Antonio as early as 1723, used local peppers, wild onions, garlic, and other
spices to concoct pungent meat dishes, improvising upon ones they had cooked for generations in their native land where
the chili pepper also grew.
There is little doubt that cattle drivers and trail hands did more to popularize the dish throughout the Southwest than
anybody else, and there is a tale heard one frosty night in a Texican bar in Marfa, Texas about a range cook who
made chili along all the great cattle trails of Texas. He collected wild oregano, chili peppers, wild garlic, and onions
and mixed it all with the fresh-killed beef or buffalo or jackrabbit, armadillo, rattlesnake, or whatever he had at hand and
the cowhands ate it like ambrosia. And to make sure he had an ample supply of native spices wherever he went, he planted gardens
along the paths of the cattle drives, mostly in patches of mesquite, to protect them from the hooves of the marauding
cattle. The next time the drive went by there, he found his garden and harvested the crop, hanging the peppers and onions and
oregano to dry on the side of the chuck wagon. The cook blazed a trail across Texas with tiny, spicy gardens.