San Antonio and the Rise of Chili

As you may or may not have heard, San Antonio and Austin have been involved in what has been called the Texas Taco War.  The “first shot” was fired when the Austin Eater’s website published a story that gave Austin credit as the “home of the breakfast taco.”  For San Antonians, it may as well have been the shot fired at Fort Sumnter because there are several things sacred to the people of this city, among them are its baskeball team, its river and its food.  Mayors from both cities met for a “Taco Summit” in which they both brought 50 tacos from their favorite taco joints.  Personally, I would declare San Antonio the winner of this battle in the Texas Taco War.  The Alamo City’s Mayor Taylor presented tacos made with hand-made tortillas as opposed to the tacos made with store-bought tortillas brought by Austin’s Mayor Adler.

As the Texas Taco War continues – there will be a “taco throwdown” where a chef representing each city will bring their best taco-making skills to the table – it made me think of not only the importance of food to a place and its people, but also of cultural appropriation.  In the past, the people of San Antonio have “accused” Austinites of taking credit for Tex-Mex food made popular here.  Now, this “taking credit” for food isn’t a new phenomenon.  One instance happened several generations ago and it involved chili.

No one can say for sure who “invented” chili, it is most likely a delicious fusion of cultures that came together.  The indigenous people of Mexico and South America, like the Incas and Aztecs, were known to cook dishes mixing meat, herbs and peppers long before the arrival of the Spanish.  For their part, the Spanish had been creating spicy meat dishes with pungent smells in their country long before arriving in Texas.  When the Canary Islanders settled in San Antonio, they devised a way to continue making the dishes they so enjoyed using local spices, onions, garlic, peppers and meats.  And so a cooking tradition came to be!

chili tables

Chili market, San Antonio, ca. 1890s.

Long before Texas joined the Union, groups of women called “Chili Queens” could be found throughout San Antonio’s plazas serving up their own spicy creations and hand-made tortillas to locals and visitors alike.  From dusk until dawn, these women worked hard to serve the hungry masses; and when darkness came, their patrons were more than happy to eat by the faint light of oil lamps.  Many visitors to San Antonio were “charmed” by the young ladies and their savory fare.  Author O. Henry wrote in his story “The Enchanted Kiss” about the city’s Chili Queens.  He wrote, “Drawn by the coquettish senoritas, 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.”

 

william g tobin

William G. Tobin

Enter William Gerard Tobin, a great-grandfather many times over of Walter Mathis, the last private owner of Villa Finale.  A native of South Carolina, Tobin arrived in San Antonio at age 20 in 1853 and two months later met, fell in love and married Josephine Augusta Smith, daughter of the city’s first American-born mayor John W. Smith and the lastmessenger to leave the Alamo.   In 1855, Tobin was city marshal before joining the Texas Rangers in 1859.  When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army where he was made a captain.  Although Tobin had a long career in law-enforcement and the military, his true calling was in the business world.  In the 1870s, he leased the Vance Building – which had been headquarters of the Confederacy during the war – near the corner of Travis and St. Mary’s Streets.  He turned the building into a hotel he named Vance House (today it is the site of the Gunter Hotel).  However, Tobin’s business ventures didn’t end there.

By this time, Tobin had spent nearly 30 years in San Antonio assimilating and taking in the local culture, including the food.  His wife’s family, who no doubt had some influence in his newly acquired tastes, could trace its roots to the Spanish Canary Islanders that arrived in San Antonio in 1731.  It is no surprise that Tobin took a great liking to Tex-Mex food and was an early supporter of its consumption.  In the 1880s he had a bright idea: to can San Antonio’s famous chili con carne for sale.  In 1881, he negotiated a contract with the United States government to sell his canned chili to the army and navy.  In 1884, he began to organize an aggressive venture with the Range Canning Company located in Fort McKavett, Texas for the manufacture and canning of chili con carne and other “Mexican” delicacies.  Now, this is where the “Americanization” of chili began for understandable business reasons.

Tobin chili labels

Reproduction of Tobin’s Chili-con-Carne labels in Villa Finale’s kitchen.

“Carne” is meat in Spanish.  While beef or pork were the meats of choice for the Chili Queens, Tobin opted to use goat and more than likely, made changes to the recipe and ingredients to better suit the American palate.  While the people of San Antonio welcomed and were used to the many colorful herbs, aromas and higher levels of spiciness, as far as the business, the food had to be attractive to consumers from all over the nation.  On July 28, 1884, just days after Tobin’s dream got off the ground and the manufacturing process began, he died at home never seeing his venture fulfilled.  The development of the project also died with Tobin.

lyman davis

Lyman Davis

It wasn’t until 1893 that the rest of the world was introduced to chili con carne at the San Antonio Chili Stand during the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  But it wasn’t until 1921 that an attempt to can chili con carne, by then simply known as “chili”, was reattempted by Lyman Davis of Corsicana, Texas who developed his recipe in the 1890s and sold it to oil workers for .5 cents per bowl from the back of a horse-drawn wagon.  Davis’ early canning machinery was simple, but by 1923 his improved operation was producing 2,000 cans per day.  Davis’ chili became known as Wolf Brand Chili, named after his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill … and the rest is chili history!

So while San Antonio and Austin duke it out during the Texas Taco War of 2016, let’s remember the Chili Queens and people like William Gerard Tobin whose interest in filling our tummies with tasty Tex-Mex dishes eventually helped make chili the official Texas State Dish.  “Viva chili con carne!”

Here is a recipe for “Original San Antonio Chili” (from a Chili Queen) taken from the Institute of Texan Cultures research library, with updated changes by the International Chili Society for shopping convenience:

2 pounds beef shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 pound pork shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup suet
¼ cup pork fat
3 medium-sized onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 quart water
4 ancho chiles
1 serrano chile
6 dried red chiles
1 tablespoon comino seeds, freshly ground
2 tablespoons Mexican oregano
Salt to taste

Place lightly floured beef and pork cubes in with suet and pork fat in heavy chili pot and cook quickly, stirring often. Add onions and garlic and cook until they are tender and limp. Add water to mixture and simmer slowly while preparing chiles. Remove stems and seeds from chiles and chop very finely. Grind chiles in molcajete and add oregano with salt to mixture. Simmer another 2 hours. Remove suet casing and skim off some fat. Never cook frijoles with chiles and meat. Serve as separate dish.