It's simple, really. Peppers with meat in a spicy stew with tomatoes, onions, beans and other ingredients in as many variations as the mind can gather. From Baja to Cincinnati to the heart of Texas, where it's the official dish of the state, chili con carne, or chilli, is one of America's most famous foods.
Some say that chili was invented in Mexico in the 1840s, possibly in Chihuahua, as a free dish served to cantinas for foreigners, who were looking for something spicy and cheap. Others claim that he was born in Ensenada, Mexico, in the 1880s, as a means of stretching meat available in the kitchens of poor Tejanos. Many Texans claimed that it was the invention of the Texan cowboys who ate it like buckets as their flocks crossed the plains. The most imaginative origin finds its roots in pre-Columbian Aztec chiefs.
What is known is that in the 1880s brightly colored Hispanic women, known as "Chile Queens", began to operate around Military Plaza and other popular public places in the United States. Downtown San Antonio, Texas, where you warm up pots of pre-cooked cast-iron pepper and sell them in the bowl.
In the late 1930s, sanitation laws closed Chile Queens, but not a public appetizer for this delicious Western dish. Open chilli salons by the hundreds. These small family chili joints spread from Texas to the rest of the United States and became part of the American landscape before the Second World War. Even nowadays, any American who claims to be able to cook does not have his own secret recipe for chili, whether it is hot, sweet, thick, velvety or just plain strange.
Regional variations add a certain level of pleasure to chili lovers. The traditional Texas chili is thick and uses little or no vegetables. New Mexico chili is held responsible for its thinner consistency and the use of green peppers rather than red peppers. In the Cincinnati pepper, Ohio has a quality sauce comparable to that used for condiments or toppings of hot dogs or spaghetti. The white pepper does not use tomato and relies on beans. The vegetarian pepper (Chili Sin Carne) is, of course, meatless. The health-conscious chili leaves the tallow and substitutes white beans for mushrooms to reduce the number of calories. In fact, chili is such a malleable dish that it can be hard to define. Yet most people know it when they taste it and are happy to do it.