August 10, 2010

Soup of the Devil

The evolution of Texas chili, first of a 4-part series

Although widely thought to be of Mexican origin, Texans claim chili con carne (or simply chili) to be our state’s “National Dish.” But chili really isn’t Mexican at all, and the origin of the interesting, spicy stew-like concoction is shrouded in myth.

Only because it is expected will one find chili on café menus in Mexico, and los turistas norteños will be the only ones seen eating the stuff. Mexicans don’t particularly care for it.

In fact, Mexicans don’t like it at all. In the 1959 edition of the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, chili is defined as a “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.” More recent editions of the dictionary have become more politically correct, omitting the entry altogether.

So, if not from Mexico, from whence did chili come? All that is there to guide us in our quest are myth and legend, so it is difficult to determine its origin. At best we can only suggest that chili is just another of the one-pot meals which have made up the bulk of poor folk fare since before recorded history.

Food historians generally agree that the earliest versions were created for that reason, but there is no agreement as to culture of origin of the chile pepper stew we call chili and Texas claims for its  own.

The earliest Texas-related written entry I can locate comes from a fellow named J. C. Clopper, who in 1828 remarked about a substance he called “San Antonio's chili carne.” Referencing the cooking habits of Mexican/Indian inhabiting the area, Clopper observed, "When they have to pay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for a family; this is generally into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat - this is all stewed together."

The American Indians likely made a chili-like dish as well. Native American story tellers passed early chili recipes from generation to generation, but it is believed that the first such recipe recorded on paper was penned in the 17th century by a Spanish nun, Sister Mary of Agreda, known to the Indians as "La Dama de Azul," or “the blue lady.” Sister Mary was somewhat of a mystic and has been promoted as a saint in the years since her death in 1665. That she recorded a supposed Native American recipe is more than interesting.

Sister Mary never actually left Spain. She would go into days-long trances in which she never ate or actually slept. When she aroused, she would tell tales of traveling to mysterious, far away lands where she witnessed to savages, imploring them to seek Spanish missionaries. Those very Spanish missionaries, when encountering Indians of the new world and upon hearing legends of "La Dama de Azul," made the leap that Sister Mary of Agreda and the Blue Lady were one and the same.

Upon awakening from one of her trances, Sister Mary is said to have scribed a recipe, which she called “chile,” which contained  venison, onion, tomato, and chile peppers.

Since both tomatoes and chiles are native to the Americas and were relatively rare in 17th century Europe, this tale poses some difficult questions.

Add to that the belief within the Church at the time that these chiles had aphrodisiac properties and were therefore sinful, one must wonder about the origin of Sister Mary’s recipe. In later years there are records of priests in the American southwest condemning the consumption of what they began calling, “the soup of the devil,” saying it was “as hot as hell’s brimstone.”

Another chili-like Foodstuff is native to Portugal, where as early as the 18th century, poor Portuguese mountain people made a stew of beans, tomatoes, African spices, and probably chiles as well. When a bit of meat was available, they would toss that into the pot. This concoction is known as feijoada, and the Portuguese exported it to their New World colonies, most notably Brazil.

Similar culinary concepts may be traced to 18th century Texas, where early Spanish ranchos free-ranged cattle, and the herders found a need for something good to eat. As they drove cattle down established trails, the ganaderos would plant patches of onions, chile peppers, coriander, majoram, and oregano in mesquite thickets for harvest on future drives. Combined with good Texas beef, this would become essential to Texas chili.

To be continued tomorrow…


Old NFO said...

I'm looking forward to this :-) I LIKE Chili, especially the Texas style. My Uncle had a recipe he got from the Indians that worked for him, and it was GOOD!

Old Weird Libra said...

One wonders about the "goodness" of beef from cattle during the drive. Perhaps the marjoram/oregano (cognates), the onions, and the chiles mainly served to make the beef itself edible.

Mule Breath said...

NFO, my recipe got accidentally published to an email list a few years ago, so it isn't a secret any more. I've considered making this a 5-part, with the recipe as the final note.

OWL, the old-time drovers were said to brag that the beef they got on the trail was far better than that which they shipped back east. One drover was quoted that they tossed better meat to their dogs than they sent to the Yankees.

Old NFO said...

I'm always looking for good recipes! :-)