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Let’s talk chili!

Photo caption: New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President Herb Skoog getting a taste of “York Creek Barn Chili” from the Queen of the 2nd Annual Chilympiad in San Marcos, Mrs. Bill (Barbara) Castlebury. Photo from the NB Herald-Zeitung Negatives Collection, September 16, 1971.

Photo caption: New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President Herb Skoog getting a taste of “York Creek Barn Chili” from the Queen of the 2nd Annual Chilympiad in San Marcos, Mrs. Bill (Barbara) Castlebury. Photo from the NB Herald-Zeitung Negatives Collection, September 16, 1971.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

An English-language advertisement in the German-language Neu Braunfelser Zeitung caught my eye:

Mexican Restaurant Seguin Street — New Braunfels
Meals at all times during the day for 25¢
Chili con carne, frieholes, tomales,
fresh oysters, hot coffee and chocolate
Cruz Gonzales

That might sound pretty normal to you, but this ad ran in the November 19, 1880 issue. 1880 and NB has a Mexican restaurant! Mr. Gonzales continued to advertise his establishment weekly until September 1881 when the ad refers to him selling fresh oysters next to Hampe’s Store on Seguin Street. Then he disappears.

I have so many questions.

Who was Cruz Gonzales? Where was he from and where did he go? Where exactly was the café? Did he live above the place? Why did he close?

I put my coworker, Sylvia Segovia, on the hunt. Together we have begun compiling an index and chronology of Mexican food restaurants in NB — both Mexican and Anglo owned. By collecting newspaper advertisements, phone listings and personal family info we have a good start. But we found nothing on Mr. Gonzales.

While Sylvia continued on the index, I looked into the origins of chili — not as cut and dry as you would think. Some have proposed that San Antonio’s Canary Islanders first concocted the mixture of meat, onions, garlic, chili peppers and cumin. Others, including me, think indigenous peoples have been stewing venison, turkey, and “whatever” meat with native spices for centuries. BTW there is a story written down in 1568 by conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo that tells of the capture of some unfortunate Spaniards by the Aztec. It seems they were thrown into a stew pot full of tomatoes and chili peppers. Ok, not true chili but they were sort of on the right track?

Most believe that chili, as we know it, was introduced by the “chili queens” in San Antonio. By the late 1880s, Mexican women were setting up rows of stalls and tables on Military Plaza. From morning’s light to evening’s dark, they sold chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas and chili verde. But before that in the 1870s, visitors and locals could visit humble homes in Laredito, a neighborhood near the Plaza, and be served “savory compounds, swimming in fiery peppers which biteth like a serpent” according to Edward King in Scribner’s magazine 1874. Sounds like a great bowl of chili! Mr. King also wrote that all classes of society frequented these home restaurants. It was an addicting dish.

Going back further, food historians have found that in 1862, an unruly group from the Confederate garrison set off a riot in Military Plaza destroying food stands of stews (read here, chili) and tamales. However, it wasn’t until the 1870s that the words “chili” or “chili con carne” appeared in print. There are mentions of chili-like stews as far back as the 1820s, so maybe chili was known by other names in the tri-lingual state of Texas (Spanish, English, German).

I found two other stories, almost myths, that tell of the dawn of San Antonio’s chili queens. One is of a young Creole named Louis St. Clare, who was part of the Gutierrez-Magee expedition of 1812-1813. This group, comprised of Spanish-Texan revolutionaries, Louisiana Creoles, Anglo soldiers of fortune and Native Americans, wanted to free Texas from Spanish rule (this actually happens about 25 years later!).

Long story short. The expedition does pretty well capturing Nacogdoches, Goliad and San Antonio. And then it gets messy. The Spanish colonial governors of Texas and Nuevo Leon and a dozen or so other Spanish supporters in San Antonio are taken prisoner and marched out of the city and not shot — their throats were slit.

Naturally, the citizens of San Antonio turned against the revolutionaries, and while they couldn’t throw them out, they could decline giving them any food. Here is where young St. Clare comes into the story. He falls in love with a local girl, Jesusita de la Torre. Their romance turns the residents of San Antonio against the de la Torres. In order to fend for themselves, St. Clare sets up a table and benches on the Plaza and the de la Torre women serve spicy meals to the nearly starving soldiers. The first chili queens?

The second legend is of the lavenderas, or washerwomen. These women followed the numerous armies that marched over and through Texas during the 1800s. Not only did they wash and mend clothes, they also cooked meals of, you guessed it, stews made with venison or goat seasoned with chili peppers. They, too, could be considered chili queens.

The chili queens reigned over Military Plaza for several decades, serving up their amazing spicy dishes to locals as well as travelers and soldiers who frequented San Antonio.

So there you have it. Chili, in various recipes, has been a Texas dish for at least 200 years. But I’m of the opinion that something like it has been here for much longer. I’m thinking it might just be the right time to make your way to your favorite local Mexican restaurant in honor of those wonderful women who shared chili with all of us Texans.

Sources: Neu Braunfelser Zeitung Collection; “The Bloody San Antonio Origins of Chili con Carne”, John Lomax, www.texasmonthly.com; Oscar Haas Collection; http://firstwefeast.com.