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The Heyday of Chili Con Carne

The official state dish reached its apotheosis in the era of San Antonio’s Chili Queens.

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Juanita and Esperanza Garcia making tortillas; San Antonio, Texas, September 12, 1937. (When this story was originally published it was about the fact the city health deptartment ordered the chili stands to close down). These two women, along with their mother, were planning to open an indoor cafe.
UTSA Special Collections

Last month, we brought you the early history of chili con carne, focusing specifically on its first contact with Anglo Texans and its role in the origins of Tex-Mex cuisine. In addition to discussing the height of the popularity of San Antonio’s Chili Queens, we’ll explore chili’s conquest of America via dispatches from old San Antonio, the dawning of its mass production, and the road to its modern role as Texas’s official state dish.  

Chili con carne has been sold in San Antonio’s plazas since 1813, and first started attracting outside notice in 1877, a few years before San Antonio was linked to the rest of America via railroads. In 1881, around the time trains started rumbling into town, a reporter from Greenville, Alabama set the tone for what would become decades of purple prose about chili con carne (or “chille cancarne,” as he spelled it) when he sent these words, perhaps the earliest full outside account of a visit to a chili stand, back to his editor:

“Before us on the Plaza is the Mexican market,” the reporter wrote, apparently so overcome by the allure of San Antonio that he temporarily adopted the pseudonym “Alamo”: 

Here is a study for the artist. It consists of a number of rude pine tables formed into a hollow square; enclosed in the square are the primitive hand carts in which they have brought their wares, which will remain there until the early morning, when they will be disposed of to customers. But at night each table partakes of a different nature. Each table is a Mexican restaurant—not very inviting, it is true, but liked by those who have become accustomed to a Mexican diet.

Alamo went on to describe the set-up: each table laden with silverware and pots of cream and bowls of sugar, all lit by lanterns or lamps. Close behind each table burned a mesquite fire, over which roasted three tall braziers: one for coffee (“Mexicans never use tea”); another for “tamalas” and something he called “challals” (“thick pancakes…folded together and containing finely chopped raw onions and pepper”); and the third containing chili, “which is composed of small bits of beef, beans, and cayenne pepper.”

“Add to this a few teacakes”—surely he is referring to tortillas with that genteel Alabama term—“and you have the entire bill of fare.” Alamo reported that around each fire sat two or three blanket-shrouded Mexicans, presenting “rather a romantic appearance with their broad-brimmed sombreros, their melancholy countenances, and piercing black eyes.”

Chili stands in Haymarket Plaza, San Antonio, Texas, 1933

UTSA Special Collections

Then there were the Chili Queens, in Alamo’s words, the “swarthy señoritas with long black hair that falls loosely over well-formed shoulders, often reaching below the waist. All night long, year after year, through rain and cold, here they remain.”

Alamo’s account was the first, but certainly not the last, such dispatch from San Antonio’s chili central. Over the next two decades, many a writer would fall prey to this mesquite mystique, describing the same fiery food, exotic music, and lank-haired, tart-tongued señoritas. Austinite O. Henry was a frequent visitor, and in his bizarre, Edgar Allan Poe–esque short story “The Enchanted Kiss,” he described the scene like this:

Drawn by the coquettish señoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night.” In that saturnalia, the story’s narrator hallucinates meeting a four-hundred-year-old Spanish ghoul who tells him the secret to his long life and youthful appearance is to eat chili made out of tender cuts of teenaged virgins once a month.

Whatever was in the chili, the protagonist was a big fan of the bowl of red: “delectable chili-con-carne…composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chili Colorado a compound full of singular savor and a fiery zest.”

Novelist Stephen Crane passed through town in 1895 and was likewise enthralled by the scene, if not the food. “[U]pon one of the plazas, Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades—chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles.” (Crane apparently turned his nose up at red bowls of courage.) Crane passed through just before one of the Chili Queens’ many forced migrations back and forth across San Antonio—from Military Plaza to Alamo Plaza, Market Square to Haymarket Square, Milam Park back to Military Plaza, and so on. When city fathers decided to “improve” a square, or when nagging health inspectors came calling, the Queens would have to decamp.

For decades, newspapers repeatedly declared the Queens’ reign over, only for the women to set up shop again. (The open-air chili trade survived until the early 1940s, when the city declared them unsanitary and shut them down for good. Or, could there be a revival some day? Never count chili con carne out.) In an 1897 story that was carried widely over the wires, a San Antonio reporter chronicled one such false ending. He wrote of how, after showing tourists the missions, the Alamo, and the cathedral, San Antonio natives would guide them to the chili stands—then in Alamo Plaza—each presided over by “its attendant divinity, the far-famed chili queen.”

The writer describes the late 1880s as “the palmy days of the chili Queens when their fame had spread to the larger Northern cities. Some very musical verse about them had appeared in the magazines, and in the newspaper sketches they were idealized as stunning creatures, with the rich, brown skins of the tropics and the languorous grace and bewitching black eyes of Spanish donnas.” Not all of the Chili Queens were Tejanas, according to this local. One was German-American, and another was Irish. Four others, however, he described as “señoritas of the genuine Mexican variety.” The writer chronicled them as having sharp, flirtatious business tactics. In one anecdote, after a long flirtation with a Chili Queen, a tourist is described as having paid for several bowls of ten-cent chili with a $5 bill. Change was slow in coming, and the tourist is reported to have said, “Say, chiquita you needn’t mind that if…”

“‘You mean you want to make me a present?’ She tucks the bill in her bosom, and gives the tourist a fond look… She takes [a] rose from her hair and pins it on his coat and squeezes his hand in bidding him goodby [sic].”

Despite repeated characterizations as “coquettish” or flirtatious, the Chili Queens were more than just pretty faces offering spicy fare. In Robb Walsh’s The Chili Cookbook, Marci R. McMahon, a literature professor at the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley, argues that as female “foreign” entrepreneurs, the Chili Queens challenged prevailing notions of both male chauvinism and xenophobia. “Their proud representation of Latino culture and their cuisine flew in the face of of the era’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and the ‘Americanization’ that attempted to rapidly assimilate Mexican Americans into the mainstream,” McMahon says.

As the Chili Queen era reached its apex, a former Texas Ranger and veteran of both the U.S. and Confederate Armies tried to take chili nationwide.

South Carolina native William Gerard Tobin arrived in San Antonio in 1853. Within two months, the twenty-year-old had married Josephine Smith, the daughter of the city’s first Anglo mayor, John William Smith—the last man to leave the Alamo, carrying Travis’s final letter to the government at Washington-on-the-Brazos.

Young Tobin rode with the Texas Rangers in 1855 and became city marshal of San Antonio the following year. In 1859, he assembled a company of local mounted volunteers to do battle with borderlands folk hero Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, a forerunner of Pancho Villa whose raids on Brownsville and the lower Rio Grande Valley are praised in corridos to this day. Following that failed adventure, Tobin enlisted in the Confederate Army and was commissioned a captain. After the war, Tobin returned to the Alamo City and finally found his true métier as a businessman.

Tobin leased the city’s former Confederate headquarters and converted it into a hotel called the Vance House, which stood on the site of today’s Gunter Hotel. But had he not died relatively young, his name might now be as iconic as those of Orville Redenbacher, Colonel Sanders, or Ettore “Chef Boyardee” Boiardi.

Reproductions of Tobin’s chili can labels.

Courtesy of Villa Finale

By the end of the 1870s, Tobin had turned his attention to the idea of canning chili and selling it nationwide, in stores and to the military. On May 9, 1879, the “San Antonio Siftings” column of the Galveston Daily News reported that “the War Department has ordered the use of Tobin’s chili sauce.” The writer goes on to commit a crime against the English language with the following pun: “This is one of the re-sauces of western Texas.” (In chili’s heyday, such witticisms were common.)

The product’s billing as a “sauce” is intriguing. Was it a canned product? Was there meat in it, or was it just a flavoring? The record is silent on those matters, but in December 1879, a Kansas newspaper noted that the Army’s inspector general had traveled from Washington, D.C. to Army installations in Chicago, St. Louis, and Fort Leavenworth to inspect this newly acquired “re-sauce,” W.G. Tobin’s Chili-Con-Carne.

By 1882 Tobin’s chili con carne was available in a can, per an Austin reporter who interviewed Tobin during a sojourn to the Texas capital. According to the reporter, Tobin was so obsessed with his chili he didn’t care to talk about politics. Tobin had finally received a military contract for his wares, with orders placed by both the Army and Navy.

Noted The Standard of Albert Lea, Minnesota, in January 1882:

The secretary general has ordered the inspector general of the army to place on the supply list for the use of the army the Americanized Mexican dish “chile con carne.” It has been recommended by officers of the army as a most valuable diet, and for its [anti-scurvy] properties.

As the year rolled on, Tobin’s chili was frequently mentioned in the Light. The newspaper touted its virtues with filler items like this early, quick-and-dirty chili recipe: “If you want a nice dish take two tablespoonsful of Tobin’s Chili-Con-Carne to four eggs; beat up well together; and make into an omelet.”  

Later, the Light gave over almost half of its front page to tributes from a dozen or so ranking members of Army and Navy brass.

“[I] have to report that in nutritive value it holds the same rank as the best preparation of canned beef,” wrote Philip S. Wales, surgeon general of the Navy, “while the combination of the fruit of the Chili, a plant containing aromatic and stomachic properties, confers valuable savory qualities upon the meat.” Army Assistant Quartermaster S.B. Holabird called it “a most palatable and excellent preparation of canned meat, especially for hot climates…For persons prospecting, camping out, and soldiering in Texas, Indian Territory, New Mexico and Arizona, I have not found anything superior to this. It is probable that the Northern palate is not so well-pleased with preparations such as this as is the Southern.”

And so on. The only quibble the Light printed came from a Navy paymaster, who said sailors wished Tobin didn’t dice the meat quite so fine.

It is unclear what type of meat Tobin used in the early iterations of his canned chili—a Light article from June of 1882 suggests he started with beef—but by 1884, the year he died, it contained goat meat, as we reported in the first part of this story. It’s uncertain if our soldiers and sailors were given goat chili in their rations, but Tobin’s canned goat chili did make it to store shelves around that time, and remained in production even after his death. In 1888 the product was advertised in a San Marcos grocery ad. At some point W.G. Tobin’s Chile Con Carne faded away. You can still buy the labels at auction sites.

Tobin’s demise opened the door for other chili-preneurs, some of whose names can be seen on grocery store shelves today. Chili’s popularity was about to boom in both diners and home kitchens. It would be fetishized by cultists, spun off into subsidiary dishes like Frito pies and chili dogs, and eventually become so familiar to be considered almost another condiment. But that’s a story for another day.

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