To stare into the glossy depths of a Texas bowl of red, with its heady currents of beef and blessed absence of beans, is to understand a truth about chili: It demands passion. In the history of our state, no other native dish has sparked such shameless boasts and heated quarrels. It was allegedly born as a chile-and-cumin-spiced meat stew made by scrappy Spanish colonists in eighteenth-century Texas; it later became a chuck wagon staple, then gained fame as a meal sold on the streets of San Antonio by women known as “chili queens.” It did not stir true public fervor, however, until the fifties and sixties, a period in which LBJ popularized his family’s Pedernales River Chili and Dallas newspaperman Frank X. Tolbert published a book on the subject, A Bowl of Red. Tolbert also ushered in a golden (and vituperative) age of chili-making: In 1967, after sparring in print with Yankee journalist H. Allen Smith over the meaty dish, he helped establish the World Championship Chili Cookoff in Terlingua. The event inspired great revelry and strong opinions, and it eventually split into rival factions, spawning a whole slew of contests and closely guarded recipes. Is it any wonder that in 1977 the Legislature declared chili our state dish?
How to Make It
For all the vehemence it inspires, cooking chili is a laissez-faire endeavor: It requires attention but not so much that you can’t wander off to chat up your neighbor or find yourself another Lone Star. “It’s the perfect social dish,” says championship chili queen Christine Knight. The 38-year-old Cibolo resident is a relative newcomer: Though she and her late husband, Scott, traveled to Terlingua’s dueling chili cookoffs for more than fourteen years, she began competing only about three years ago. But armed with a recipe that she and Scott developed—he competed as Big Kahuna Chili—she quickly rose to the top, placing first at both the Ladies State Chili Championship of Texas and the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff. Her secret? Fresh spices, which she buys from Mild Bill’s Spices, in Bulverde. “Old spices won’t make a bad pot of chili,” she says, “but they won’t make a winning one.” Other than that, the key is simplicity—a three-quart pot, some freshly ground chuck,