The cold winter days of the past two years have reminded me of my childhood. That was a good time to have a hot bowl of chili. One might not believe that chili was a dish that Germans would relish, but not so! Had it not been for William F. Gebhardt introducing the first chili power to Americans in 1896, who knows how long it might have been before chili became an American favorite? Gebhardt was the son of German immigrants living in New Braunfels where his growing interest in Mexican food fueled his desire to produce a chili powder. Little did he realize that he was shaping American cuisine. By drying a variety of chilies, he discovered that he could grind them into a powder that he could keep in a jar for months, which made the spice ideal for selling on a larger scale.
Having Chili and beans at our house for lunch meant it was also Monday and “Wash Day”. It was a dish that my mother could prepare and leave simmering for hours while she did our family’s washing. Until 1952, that meant outside. It was also the reason we had a wash house. Typically, it was an open-air shed. There stood her washing machine. Our appliances were always Kelvinators, a brand that is no longer manufactured. A single overhead electric socket provided power. In our back yard was also an iron kettle where water was heated over an open fire. Buckets of hot water were required for the washer. With the addition of washing powder (today called detergent) the washer, with its large agitator, did its work. Nothing was automatic. After some 15-20 minutes the agitator was stopped. It was time to rinse the clothes. Each piece was fed through the ringer three times. First into a tub of clean rinse water to which bluing had been added to improve the appearance of white fabrics. Then a 2nd rinse into clean water and a 3rd time into the laundry basket. The clothes were then carried to the wash line. The process took hours, hence the reason for producing a meal that practically cooked itself.
The recipe below is from the 1948 edition of the Fredericksburg PTA Cook Book. In fact, the 1916 edition mentioned chili powder twice — just 20 years after its first introduction. Apparently, chili powder was not yet universally accepted. In 1826, J. C. Clopper, an immigrant in Stephen F. Austin’s colony, was the first American known to have mentioned San Antonio’s chili con carne. He wrote, “this is generally [made] into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat – this is all stewed together.”
On the other hand, Everette DeGolyer, a Dallas millionaire oilman and chairman of the editorial board of the Saturday Review of Literature, as well asassociate editor of New Colophon the Southwest Review, AND a regent of the Smithsonian Institution,claimed the first chili mix was concocted around 1850 by Texas cowboys as a staple for hard times traveling to the California gold fields. He went on to theorize they pounded dried beef, fat, peppers, salt, and chili peppers into stackable packages which could be rehydrated with boiling water. (Incidentally, Fredericksburg and San Antonio were the two towns from which everyone headed west.)
There are other theories, but in the end, it was Gebhardt who did concoct the first chili power. Seven years after the 1916 edition of the Fredericksburg PTA cookbook, Gebhardt produced a small 32-page cookery pamphlet on Mexican American cookery. The pamphlet was so successful that it was regularly published throughout the 1950s. His blend remains unchanged and is one of the most popular brands used anywhere.
2 lbs. chili meat
½ cup shorting
3 tbsp chili powder
1 button garlic
2 tbsp flour
2 qts water or stock
1 medium-sized onion
Salt to taste
Cut meat in small cubes. In a large frying pan heat the shortening, add the meat, onion, pepper and garlic. Fry until nicely browned. Add chili powder and flour. Fry for five minutes stirring continually. Then add water or stock and allow to slowly simmer for 2 to 3 hours.
There is only one bean that should go with chili and that is the Pinto, a variety of a plain ordinary bean. In Spanish they are called frijol pinto, literally “speckled beans,” just like the horse. It is and has been the most popular bean in Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States. There are a large variety found throughout South America. Other varieties originated in northern Spain and Africa, but in Mexico and Peruvian civilizations they have been grown for more than 5,000 years.
One word of caution that is rarely mentioned today is to clean one’s beans. Bad beans, rocks and mud clots simply don’t belong in any meal and biting down on a rock is dangerous. We poured them onto the kitchen table and then carefully sorted the good from any debris found. Then after rinsing they were ready to soak in water—often overnight, as 6 to 8 hours is required! The longer they are left to soak the more quickly they will cook. My mother’s favorite addition to this simple recipe was to add a ham hock or some bacon.
1 ½ cups pinto beans
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp cayenne
3 thick-cut slices of bacon, cut into thirds
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 medium onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
Salt and pepper to taste
Soak rinsed beans overnight.
Drain and rinse.
Cover beans with water, add all ingredients.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to low.
Simmer until tender – 2 – 3 ½ hours.
Serve hot with corn bread.