The Best Recipes: San Antonio Chili Queen Chili

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A chilli stand in the 1920s, San Antonio. Image: http://sthc.wittemuseum.org/

I can’t remember how I found it – probably twitter – but I started listening to the NPR (National Public Radio) Hidden Kitchensseries last year. It is so good. Each episode investigates cooking and eating on the fringes or in challenging economic and political circumstances: communal Soviet kitchens, civil rights kitchens, Nascar kitchens, homeless cooking. It’s made by Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva AKA The Kitchen Sisters, who are really thorough in their research, tracing archival material, expert historians and interviewees with first hand connections to the stories. 

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Chilli queens. Image: http://bluehawk.monmouth.edu/

I bought the tie-in book (with forward by legendary Alice Waters), and it’s FULL of recipes alongside material from the series. Among dozens of others it features Georgia Gilmore, a cook fired from her job for participating in the bus boycott in the US, who ran an illegal restaurant from her house that fed and funded the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama. Film director Frances Ford Coppola’s recipe for homeless meatballs for 500 people. Nascar racing chef Joe Wheeler’s recipe for pasta sauce… and so many more.

I made the San Antonio Chili Queens recipe, preserved in 1940s and stored in The Institute of Texan Cultures Library. From the early nineteenth to mid twentieth century, as dusk fell, women of Mexican descent would drive carts loaded with pots, plank tables and ingredients into the Plaza del Zacate, build fires and cook chili in large cauldrons. There would be coffee, tamales, and music from glamorous bands of women playing to children, roaming cattle, soldiers, tourists and everyone out to eat and party. Though they became something of a tourist attraction, stereotyped as exotic Hispanic women, the chili queens were tough business women and supported their families through their cooking. 

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“Tejano music legend Lydia Mendozo began her singing career in the plazas of downtown San Antonio in the early 1930s.”  

As the public space was redeveloped, landscaped and regulated from the early 20th century ( —sound familiar?), the chili queens slowly died out. The city’s government cited open fires, open air cooking, lack of police presence and music as hazards and by 1936 the chili queens were screened off in tents, fires were put out, music was silenced and the queens eventually disappeared, or opened bricks and mortar restaurants. 

Read more about it and listen to the NPR programme here.

The Recipe:

The chili they cooked was very different to what we now consider as Chile con Carne. The meat, a mix of beef and pork, was not minced, and there were no beans in it. 

“Although the campfires and little decorated booths of the chili queens are gone from the plazas of San Antonio, some of the earliest recipes for chili have been collected and preserved in the archives of the Institute of Texan Cultures Library. You won’t find beans in this chili, but you will find “various savory compounds swimming in fiery pepper, which biteth like a serpent.”

I have now cooked this recipe several times and have made a few amendments to it – adding dark sugar and also vinegar – but all of the essentials are the Chili Queens’. It is just so delicious, shimmering with fiery heat and the dark, sweet caramelised savour. 

Definitely make it the day before. So far I have served it either with rice and beans cooked together (ideally with some Mexican epazote), and sour cream, or warm brioche buns (click for a killer recipe), pickled Jalapeños and sour cream. 

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Chilli slowly blip-blipping away when I made it for NYE 2015.

Souschef online is really good and really fast delivery for Mexican Chillies. 

Definitely make this at least one day before you eat it. Makes enough for 10-12 people with sides.

Ingredients:

2 pounds of beef chuck or stewing beef, cubed into 1-2 inch pieces

1 pound of pork shoulder, cubed into 1-2 inch pieces

½ cup of beef fat cut into small bits (the butcher should give it for free) or suet

½ cup of pork fat cut into small bits

3 medium sized onions, roughly chopped

6 garlic cloves, minced

1 litre of water

4 ancho chillies (essential)

6 dried red chillies 

1 serrano chilli (or other similar mexican chilli)

1 tablespoon of cumin seeds, toasted then pounded

2 tablespoons of Mexican Oregano (or just Oregano)

1 tablespoon of treacle or dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon of vinegar (red wine, white wine, or malt)

salt

How to make:

Soak the dried chillies in hot water for 20-30 minutes. 

Toss the cubed meat lightly in flour (optional) then add to a large heavy bottomed pan, along with the fat and fry quickly while stirring often for a few minutes, until it begins to brown. 

Add the onions and garlic and cook while stirring every 30 seconds until the onions are soft. Don’t have it too hot so they burn. 

Add the water and simmer gently while preparing the chillies.

Remove the stems and seeds from the chillies and pound in a pestle and mortar or blitz with a hand blender into a paste, along with the cumin seeds too. Mix in the oregano and a hefty pinch of salt.

Add the chilli mixture to the pot and the sugar and simmer on a low heat, not allowing it to boil, for at least 2 hours. If you are worried about it drying out, place a lid half-on or add bit more water. Skim off some fat.

Then add the vinegar and salt. Keep adding salt and tasting until you are happy with the seasoning. This is important. 

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The brioche buns Sam made to have with it. 

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