History Weekend (Culinary History Division) – The Smell of Chili in the Morning

(This is a slightly reworked piece I did for a local real estate blog, which alas seems to have gone dormant – enjoy! CH)

For much of the 19th century and into the early Twentieth, it was a popular San Antonio custom. Various of the public squares, notably Military Plaza and Market Square were the domain of the Chili Queens who established a custom of setting up tables and benches along the edges of the squares, in the early evening and selling chili-by-the-bowl to all comers. They would bring huge kettles of chili which they had made over their own home cook-fire during the day, and keep it warm through the evening and into the wee hours over an open fire. The chili vendors would entice customers to their own particular stands by hiring musicians to entertain diners. There are some splendid descriptions of how marvelous this would have appeared – lantern and starlight shining down on the tables, gleaming on glass soda bottles, while the scent of the chili and the mesquite smoke from the fires which kept it warm hung on the night air. (I used this scene several times in Lone Star Sons, and in Adelsverein – The Sowing.) During South Texas summers before the invention of air conditioning, this likely would have been about the most comfortable dining venue for working men, for those out for an evening of gambling and drinking in the various saloons … and in later decades, for those visiting from the North or the East, desirous of absorbing a little exotic local color.

Chili was a very local delicacy in those years. Texans took readily to a venison or beef stew highly spiced with local chili peppers (with or without beans, with or without tomatoes), especially in the borderlands. But it was also a seasonal dish – generally only served in the spring and summer when the fresh peppers ripened and were available in the market. Air-dried whole chilies were available, of course – but they just didn’t provide the same flavor-punch. There may have been many local gourmands who adored chili and wished to eat it year round, but only one of them did anything about it.

This was a German-American, Willie Gebhardt, who got his start in food entrepreneurship by owning a beer-garden and restaurant in New Braunfels in the 1890s. It’s often said among the Irish that there was an Irishman at the start of any interesting cultural, technological or scientific effort, but in Texas in the late 19th century this role most usually fell to a German. Willie Gebhardt, like many other local cooks, developed his own special recipe for chili, and served it often in season – but on the side, he began experimenting with a means of preserving the essential chili pepper flavor. Eventually he hit upon a means of soaking ancho chili peppers, garlic, oregano and cumin in a water-alcohol mixture, then grinding it into a stiff paste, which was dried under low heat. When dried, it was further ground into a powder using a coffee-grinder, and packed in air-tight glass bottles. It was immediately popular; Willie Gebhardt took out a patent, calling it Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder. By the turn of the century, he had opened a factory – patenting a number of machines to expedite the manufacture of chili powder, which became and still is insanely popular. Eventually his factory, under the direction of a brother-in-law branched out into providing ready-made canned chili, and other staple Tex-Mex foods. Since this cuisine was largely unknown outside of the southwest, Gebhardt’s company published a cook-book instructing American cooks how to use chili powder – the first nationally-distributed cook-book on Mexican food. The original recipe for Eagle Brand Chili Powder is still available, supposedly unchanged, although the company was sold to Beatrice Foods following on the death of Willie Gebhardt in 1956. (It’s available on Amazon – so is a facsimile of the original Gebhardt’s Mexican cookbook.)

6 thoughts on “History Weekend (Culinary History Division) – The Smell of Chili in the Morning”

  1. “a little exotic local color.”

    Unfortunately, my exposure to San Antonio’s local color was at Lackland AFB for basic training in 1959. I haven’t been back. I understand it is a little more attractive these days.

    My stories of basic are here. My buddy who went to basic with me discovered the page a few years ago and we had a reunion. Fifty years later.

  2. Ah, yes – my first exposure was on town leave, curtailed when my escort (we had to have an escort – another AF member with is) ditched me while I was in the Ladies at Joske’s. I never did go downtown again until I came back to SA in the mid-1990s. It was much improved by then.

  3. Very interesting. Thanks for posting this. Being from Michigan (and old) I’d never had “real” chili until I attended a Chili Cook-off near Ann Arbor in the early 70’s. It turned me into a chili aficionado and I’ve remained one to this day.

  4. I have encountered many people from Texas or neighboring states who insist that chili is not chili if it includes beans. I, being from the North, am more inclusive. If it’s beefy and spicy hot with that distinctive chili-pepper/cumin combination, then I am happy to call it whatever you like—just give me another bowl. Your words “with or without beans” caught my eye. Did the Texan’s insistence on no beans come later? Or is it a myth?

  5. Being only casually interested in the phenom, CAR, I really can’t say. It’s one of those much argued over bits of dogma. Kind of like the cause of the Civil War being slavery or states’ rights; lots of passion on either side, no real resolution one way or the other.

    I would hazard a guess, however, that the chili-with-beans is a means of eking out a little meat to serve a multitude by adding an inexpensive and readily-available commodity. And chili-without-beans was developed when quantity of meat was no problem — as when beef was a glut on the market.

  6. Sgt. Mom
    Being only casually interested in the phenom, CAR, I really can’t say. It’s one of those much argued over bits of dogma. Kind of like the cause of the Civil War being slavery or states’ rights; lots of passion on either side, no real resolution one way or the other.

    I use chiles/chile peppers on a nearly daily basis, usually a salsa from fresh serranos cooked w vinegar or incorporating chipotles, anchos, or pasillas into stews, ragouts, or soups. With plenty of modifying spices. If others do not consider my results real “chili,”I don’t care. I call it food.

    Regarding the Civil War being caused by slavery or state’s rights, I vote for slavery.Consider the Confederate States of America – Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.

    For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

    Recall that while Lincoln was opposed to the expansion of slavery, he recognized that it couldn’t be touched in the South. Secession occurred because the South saw it could no longer control the national dialogue. Freehling has written some good books on secession.

    The Declaration of Secession mentions slavery a lot more than states’ rights. Recall that Slave Power was quite willing to have the rights of northern states abrogated in order to capture fugitive slaves.

    Consider Alexander Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech.

    Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition

    Alexander Stephens was Vice President of the Confederacy, so his opinion should be taken into consideration.

    There are those who believe that States Rights was the leading cause of the Civil War. The above statements from the South of the Civil War era make that hard to believe.

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