Posts Tagged ‘pemmican’

A Bowl of Red

December 19, 2020

The forerunner of modern chili has ancient origins, perhaps dating to the Pleistocene.  For thousands of years nomadic people dried meat into jerky to preserve it and often pounded it into power and stuffed it into animal skins, so they could easily carry it.  When it was time to eat, they reconstituted the powder in water and cooked it.  The stew would swell in size and provide a filling meal.  Some nomads added onion and garlic to make it taste better and to retard bacterial contamination.  Dried berries were also added for flavor and nutrition, and when freshly rendered fat was mixed with it, it became pemmican–an energy rich creation of Native-Americans.  Nomads traveling through southwestern North America discovered the small berries of wild pepper plants that grew throughout the region and started mixing them with their meat powders.  Eventually, some Native-Americans became sedentary and cultivated peppers, resulting in many different varieties that varied in flavor.  Present day Mexican cuisine includes hundreds of dishes that mix chilies with meat, but modern day chili, as people in the U.S. know it, is not a Mexican dish.  In fact a Mexican dictionary defines chili as, “a disgusting dish falsely claimed to be Mexican.”

The modern day version of chili probably originated in San Antonio, Texas shortly after the U.S. defeated Mexico in 1848.  American soldiers stationed at the Presidio, a fort located in San Antonio, ate food prepared by Mexican women who were paid to do their laundry.  The big iron cauldrons where they washed clothes doubled as cooking vessels for large portions of meat seasoned with chili peppers, onions, garlic, and cumin.  Tough cuts of meat from locally abundant longhorn cattle, small deer, and even wandering goats were stewed in the cauldrons until tender.  The cumin originated from Spanish settlers who came to Mexico from the Canary Islands.  The Mexican “chili queens” also sold tamales, tortillas, and beans to the soldiers.  De-commissioned soldiers graduated to become cowboys, and they brought the dish north on their cattle drives.  From the stockyards of Chicago the dish eventually spread through the Midwest, becoming a cheap depression-era favorite.  The cowboy cooks spit-roasted the finer cuts of beef, but used the poorer quality cuts and trimmings in their chili.  Canned tomatoes became readily available during the late 19th century, and cowboys didn’t really know what to do with it (some thought it was a dessert), but the cooks started adding it to their chili.  Beans were added to stretch out chili, if meat was scarce.  75% of Texans think tomatoes do not belong in chili, but I disagree.  I think chili without tomatoes tastes awful, but the acidity of the tomatoes brings out the flavor of the chili powder and elevates it to my favorite dish.  Some chili-heads think beans don’t belong in chili either, but I like beans in my chili.  However, I do think beans should not be cooked with the chili or the starch that cooks out will dilute the flavor.

Here is how I like to make my favorite dish after 38 years of practice.  The earliest chili recipes call for great quantities of suet, so the meat wouldn’t stick to the the bottom of the iron pot after hours of cooking.  This is unnecessary in modern kitchens.  I prefer my chili very lean.  Most original recipes also call for a slurry of corn flour and water to be mixed in for thickening.  Again this is unnecessary, if enough meat is used.

Brown 2 pounds of lean ground beef, bison, or venison in a dry pan under high heat.  I prefer a chunky chili grind or if I’m not feeling lazy, I will dice a sirloin tip or round steak into small pieces.  A regular grind is ok, however. After the meat is no longer pink season it with 4 tablespoons of pure New Mexican chili powder, 1 dried chipotle pepper cut in half, 2 teaspoons of cumin, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 chopped onion, 4 crushed cloves of garlic, 1 tablespoon of Mexican oregano, and 1 bay leaf.  Mix the spices with the meat while it continues to brown for about 5-10 minutes.  This toasts the spices and brings them to life.  Put the meat and spices into a pot and add a 28 ounce can of Hunt’s crushed tomatoes.  Stir and simmer for 2 hours.  Shortly before serving add a drained can of dark red kidney beans.  Stir and heat through.  Pinto beans, black beans, and even roasted peanuts can be substituted for kidney beans.

My chili the way I like to make it.  If you prefer it soupier, add beef broth.

Mexican oregano is in the verbena family but tastes like mint.  Mediterranean oregano is in the mint family but tastes nothing like mint.  If you can’t find Mexican oregano substitute mint, but don’t use Mediterranean oregano.  


Bridges, Bill

The Great Chili Book

Lyons and Buford Publishing 1981