After years of research, James Beard-winning author Robb Walsh’s The Chili Cookbook is finally in print. There are 60 recipes to try at home that sound absolutely mouthwatering, including short rib, braised chuck roast, lamb, venison and turkey chilis. Walsh, who also authored Texas Eats: The New Lone Star Heritage Cookbook and others, also promises some “lovable off-the-wall chili” recipes. For example, the first recipe in the book is one based on an ancient recipe for lobster and chili from Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, whose documentation of the Aztec way of life earned him informal distinction as “the first anthropologist.”
Those interested in the history and evolution of chili will likely be enthralled. “If you’re interested in the story of chili, the book touches a lot of bases that haven’t been explored before,” says Walsh. Indeed, his researched turned up some interesting and even controversial issues. Here are some of the unexpected factors and conclusions:
5. Walsh traveled not only throughout the United States but even internationally to research chili.
After years exploring his home turf of the Houston and Galveston area, he turned his eye to San Antonio, where he actually had difficulty finding just simple bowls of chili that didn't also come with tamales and the like. He visited Mi Tierra Café, then headed north to Chili Parlor in Austin, Tolbert's in Grapevine, Buffalo Grille in Little Rock and Varallo's Chili Parlor in Nashville, which opened way back in 1907.
He says he then “spent a few days in Cincinnati taking in the whole chili parlor phenomenon.” From there he traveled to Springfield, Illinois, where the Dew Chili Parlor has been resurrected after 20 years of being closed. It originally opened for business in 1909.
The oldest chili haven Walsh found in his trek across the United States was Taylor’s Mexican Chili Parlor in Carlinville, Illinois, which opened in 1904. According to the legend related on the company's web site, Carlinville resident C.O. Taylor was tasked with making traditional dishes at the Mexican National Exposition during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. After the fair, a Mexican man taught Taylor how to make chili con carne with beans to repay Taylor for coming to his aid.
Interestingly, Walsh points out that Taylor’s Mexican Chili is available canned, but the beans and the meat sauce are kept separate, otherwise the beans dissolve. (Take note, all of you home cooks out there who put beans in your chili!)
He also visited the Horseman's Haven Café (which he cites as his favorite New Mexican chili place in Santa Fe).
Next, Walsh and his family in fact made a house-swapping arrangement to be able to spend time in East Germany and Prague to learn more about Hungarian, Austrian and Czechoslovakian takes on goulash. What in the world does goulash have to do with chili? Read on.
4. Chili has a lot of close cousins.
“Chili is part of a grand family of chili pepper dishes from around the world,” says Walsh. There are other dishes that, at a bare minimum, went through a similar evolution. Those include goulash, bolognese and qeema (also spelled "keema" or "kheema"), a meat-and-sauce dish that appears in Greek and South Asian cuisines (“qeema” is an ancient Akkadian word meaning 'finely chopped”).
Walsh went to East Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to learn more about goulash. Surprisingly, the world “goulash” means “cowboy soup” in Hungarian, and the stew was invented by horseback-mounted men who herded cattle on the Hungarian plains. Sound familiar? “It’s totally analogous to American cowboys. It all makes sense when you remember the cowboy tradition was born in Andalusia, Spain."
There’s even similarity between Texas chili and goulash in the ingredients, says Walsh. Chili peppers (paprika peppers in the case of goulash) and beef appear in both dishes. These were simply ingredients readily available to cowboys.
3. Walsh came out of the research process with more respect for Cincinnati chili.
Native Texans love to mock Cincinnati chili, but the dish has deep historical roots. “Cincinnati is the modern leading light in chili culture,” says Walsh. “It’s shocking but true.” Despite the great Texas pride in chili, Cincinnati has more than 250 chili parlors while Texas has very few.
2. He still considers the chili at James Coney Island to be legit.
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Back when Walsh was compiling the first 100 Favorite Dishes in Houston list in 2010, the chili at James Coney Island took the number 80 slot. Now that he’s traveled the world learning about chili, does it still measure up? “I like James Coney Island chili. The great thing about it is that it came from Greek immigrants and goes back to 1923. It’s a throwback to the kind of chili our grandmothers used to eat in diners. James Coney Island preserves that earlier chili tradition, and it’s a pretty straight-ahead Texas chili. Also, they serve Frito pie, which is a Texas classic.”
1. His own restaurant, El Real Tex-Mex, is one of the few places in Houston where you can order a simple bowl of chili con carne.
When was the last time you saw just a bowl of chili on a menu? It was on the first menu of El Real Tex-Mex, which he co-owns with Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd (also known for Reef, Little Bigs and Jackson Street Barbecue), but not enough people ordered it so it was taken off. So, now it's something of a secret menu item. Guests can also order Frito pie. Walsh is proud of the chili there and describes it as having a significant dose of cumin and ancho.
Visit El Real Tex-Mex to pick up your own copy of The Chili Cookbook (possibly even a signed one). Those who can’t stop by the restaurant can order it from Amazon and learn more about this revered comfort food classic.