August 11, 2010

Hell on the Bravo


The evolution of Texas chili, Part II of a 4-part series


Euro-American immigrants who were crossing the Red River in the mid-1880’s found Texas chili already well known. They’d heard of the stuff and maybe even sampled it before they ever arrived, and they took it as if their own. The cattle drives needed these men as drovers, and trail cooks won and lost jobs based upon the quality of their chili. The wave of immigrants brought entrepreneurs, and businesses were formed to cook, serve and to export the stuff back east.

Dallas millionaire and chili lover Everrette DeGolyer located records indicating the first commercial Texas chili spice mix was created sometime in the 1850’s. The mix was sold to cowboys as a hard times staple, and to adventurers traveling to the California gold fields. Combined with a little dried meat and some pork fat and tossed into some boiling water, the mix reconstituted into a hot, tasty trail meal.

A little later we find the even more convenient “brick” chili; a compressed cube of dried meat, chile peppers, fat and spices that could be dissolved in boiling water to make a respectable meal for those not talented enough to make their own. DeGolyer called the bricks, "chili a la Americano," wanting the stuff to be uniquely American. It also clarified it from the Mexican word “chili,” which is a generic term referring to any hot pepper.

San Antonio in the early to mid-1880’s found Mexican women, nicknamed "Chili Queens," selling a stew made from ground, dried red chile peppers and beef to passersby at the central Military Plaza Mercado. The chili was cooked at home, loaded along with tortillas and tamales onto gaily painted donkey carts for transport to the Mercado, where it was peddled from open kiosks.

The kiosks and this tradition continued until 1937, when they were closed over health concerns. A couple years later, San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick tried to revive the trade, but the effort was short lived. Several of the “queens” opened indoor cafes, some of which survive to this day, but the al fresco experience was no more.

In 1881 former Texas Ranger and hotelier William Gerard Tobin contracted with the United States government to sell canned goat meat chili to the army and navy. Tobin died before making his first delivery, causing the venture to fail, but this was just the beginning of the globalization of Texas chili.

In 1893 The State of Texas, as part of their exhibit, set up the San Antonio Chili Stand at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Not long afterwards, in 1895, Corsicana businessman Lyman Davis made chili that he peddled for a nickel a bowl from the back of a wagon, including all the crackers you could eat. Lyman made enough money that he switched to a Model A delivery truck, later opened a meat market where he began selling chili in brick form under the brand name, “Lyman's Famous Home Made Chili.” It was in 1921 when he first put the stuff in a can and named it after his pet wolf. Wolf Brand Chili still uses the same picture on their label.

Canned chili powder started showing up on store shelves sometime in the late 1800’s. This was as easy to use as the stuff carried by cowboys for generations, but was now marketed to housewives. Toss a couple spoons full of the stuff into a pan of stewing chipped beef, add some chopped onion, and voila… you have chili.

Not long before the turn of the century, a German immigrant to San Antonio by the name of William Gebhardt became the first maker of the spice blend to have his name identified with the stuff. Gebhardt’s blend contained a mix Mexican ancho chile peppers, paprika, cumin, cayenne, garlic, oregano and salt. Gephardt called his first product “Tampico Dust,” but later changed the name to Gephardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder,” which remains today as one of the best selling products of its kind.

At just about the same time Gephardt was turning heads in San Antonio, a dude by the name of DeWitt Clinton Pendery arrived in Fort Worth to set up shop. He started blending chili powder, peddling it nationwide, and becoming an apostle for the healing powers of chiles.

Pendery claimed in one of his sales flyers, that "[t]he health giving properties of hot chile peppers have no equal. They give tone to the alimentary canal, regulating the functions, giving a natural appetite, and promoting health by action of the kidneys, skin and lymphatics." Pendery’s products may still be found on store shelves, still a family business and sold today by his descendents.

Other products started appearing on store shelves, increasing in parallel to the successes of these two pioneers and as Texas “Hell on the Bravo” chili gained even greater popularity. Tomorrow we will spend time looking at the modern history of chili, visit with some modern chili purists, and examine some of the controversies and debates that have defined Texas chili.

To be continued tomorrow…
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6 Comments:

jeg43 said...

Can you touch on the controversy about the issue of beans or no beans? I'm a bean included fan, but I always add them after the rest has been simmered to completion.

Old NFO said...

Good post! I "thought" I knew about chili, you're proving I don't :-)

Mule Breath said...

jeg, I'll touch lightly on that in the last segment, but it really boils down to regional or cultural proclivities. With the origins of this stuff being in an area where beans were either not native, or perhaps used for other purposes, it was uncommon to find poot fruit in the chili. As the recipes moved northward and eastward, modifications were made and new cultural norms established. Witness the Cincinnati chili in the next segment and you will see what I mean.

NFO, I'm with you. I learned a lot researching this piece.

Labrys said...

Oh good Gods! Now I am a-dyin' for a bowl of Pecos Red....at 1:30 in the morning.

:::pounds head on desk::::

Old Weird Libra said...

Speaking of really olden times, my mother never, to my knowledge, opened a can of chili of any brand, but she did buy brick chili. If memory serves, one did not have to refrigerate the original brick chili (which now appears only in the refrigerated sections of the supermarket) and as a child I thought of it as a survival food somewhat like Indian pemmican. I seem to remember sneaking away with uncooked lumps cut from the brick when my mother did not catch me at it, and eating them like any other snack food. Does my memory fail me? If not, when did refrigeration begin?

Mule Breath said...

OWL, You are not incorrect. The original brick chili was made with the same kind of dried meat as the jerky of the day. When you pilfered a bit of that brick you were in no more risk than the drovers pulling a chunk of jerk from a saddlebag.

Jerky today is not the same either, as it will mold and spoil if not in vacuum pack or refrigerated. Brick chili (if you can find it) is now made from parboiled beef, which would quickly spoil without refrigeration.

I've no idea of the transition timing, and in researching this piece did not see any reference.