Matter of Taste: Whether chilli, chili or chilley, the warmth of Tex-Mex lures everyone

The state dish of Texas is a relatively young creation, but comes into its own on winter nights

Matter of Taste: Whether chilli, chili or chilley, the warmth of Tex-Mex lures everyone


Winter is a time to slow things down and take your time. With shortened days and dipping temperatures, the months lead down a dark and dreary path, turning a corner with the rejuvenation of spring and the promise of renewed bounty. But till then, we’re stuck with the absence of warmth and sunshine, with sheets of rain, and sleet, the ultimate inclement con artist, tricking your inner child with the tantalising promise of snow, but never sticking when it finally hits the ground. No, winter is a time of year to take time, to stew and simmer over hours. To actually use that slow cooker you bought on a whim in Argos two years ago and used once. It’s a time to make chili.

But first, a slight note on spelling: according to The Oxford Companion to Food, its chili con carne, with one L, while the double L-ed chilli is more commonly used to describe the spicy fruits of the genus capsicum. To confuse matters further, chillis are often relegated to chilis in American English, while in Spanish they become chile, though only the Castilian variety spoken along the Iberian Peninsula. Latin Americans, for whom Spanish is the mother tongue, refer to them as aji or ajies, though even this pales in comparison to cooks in Laos who, in a translation from the Laotian, call certain varieties ‘mouse droppings’. I believe the term you’re looking for is... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Chili con carne, or chilli as it is known in its native Texas, is a Spanish-American term which translates as chilli with meat and is an example of the culinary hybridisation that is Tex-Mex. Bearing in mind that Texas, a vast landmass almost four times the size of Ireland, has the better part of two decades to go before even reaching its 200th birthday, it perhaps should come as no surprise that Tex-Mex dates back only as far as the 1940s. Running along the southern border of the south-western states, the line along with a wall will allegedly be built based on current political climates, this cuisine blends Mexican dishes with the ingredients and materials ready to hand north of the border.

Chili con carne plays, arguably, second fiddle to fajitas as the epitome of Tex-Mex, but at least can say it’s held the honour of being the state dish of the Lone Star State since 1977, despite the fact there is no clean consensus over what exactly should – and, more specifically, shouldn’t – be included in the pot. In New Mexico, for instance, beef is typically swapped for lamb, while the addition of pulses, in the shape of red kidney beans, is more common in northern states takes on the Texan classic.

While the contents of every chilli pot are up for debate, better known is its origins. It is strongly believed that the stew, a warm and inviting blend of minced beef, spices, and chopped tomatoes, pre-exits the formation of Texas in 1845 by some two decades. Back when Texas was a region in Mexico, sunsets in San Antonio would see ‘chilli queens’ descend on market squares, women brightly dressed and carrying an ornate lamp with an illuminated globe, pushing or pulling carts laded with wooden stools, bowls, and great steaming pots of chili con carne.

But despite the dishes near universal appeal – even vegetarian chili is a hit – it would take decades for the stew to spread its tasty touch across America. Records show that its expansion was slow, with McKinney, north of Dallas, getting a chilli parlour in 1890. But 1893 would be the landmark year, when a San Antonio Chilley Stand was approved to serve at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which proved a launching ground. Soon chili con carne was selling in New Orleans, St Louis, and Cincinnati, where, due to its large influx of eastern European migrants, the dish was often served with spaghetti.

The 20th century brought innovation in the form of canning, which in turn has helped spread the dish not just around the USA, but all over the world as well. Its heart still lies in Texas, which plays host every year to countless contests and cook-offs, the state fiercely proud of its ownership of a truly global dish.

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