The Dish

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, and sense enough to leave the lid on so that the magic can happen. —KR

Christine Knight’s Big Kahuna Chili, the Princess Edition

2 pounds coarsely ground chuck (chili grind)
1 eight-ounce can tomato sauce (such as Contadina)
1 sixteen-ounce can beef broth (such as Swanson’s)
1–3 fresh jalapeños, scored vertically (optional)
3 tablespoons dark chili powder, divided (such as Mild Bill’s, sold online, or McCormick)
3 tablespoons mild or regular chili powder, divided (such as San Antonio Original, sold online, or Gebhardt)
2 tablespoons granulated onion
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 beef bouillon cube
1 chicken bouillon cube
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons paprika (such as Pacific Beauty)
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 package cilantro-tomato Sazón Goya seasoning

In a chili pot over medium heat, sear meat till gray, taking care not to brown it (browning changes texture). Remove grease using a turkey baster or by draining meat in a colander in the sink. Add tomato sauce, beef broth, and about half a cup of water. Tie the jalapeños in cheesecloth and add to pot. Cover and cook for 30 minutes, adding water as needed, then remove jalapeños.

Add 1 1/2 tablespoons dark chili powder, 1 1/2 tablespoons mild chili powder, granulated onion, cayenne, beef bouillon, and chicken bouillon. Stir, cover, and simmer for 1 hour, adding water if mixture gets too thick. Add remaining chili powders, granulated garlic, cumin, paprika, pepper, Sazón Goya, and more water if necessary. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serves 8.