Slow Cooker Chili: American History in a Bowl

Chili is a classic example of a dish created by poor people out of necessity that evolves into a beloved national dish. This one originates from Texas– there are some theories that it originated in Mexico, but they are widely regarded to have been disproved. According to What’s Cooking America’s wonderful account, chili origin legends in the Americas date back to at least 1618, when

it is said that the first recipe for chili con carne was put on paper in the 17th century by a beautiful nun, Sister Mary of Agreda of Spain. She was mysteriously known to the Indians of the Southwest United States as “La Dama de Azul,” the lady in blue.

Mind you, Sister Mary was supposedly projecting herself spiritually to this unnamed tribe from her abbey in Spain. Good story, but probably not it.

Another theory is that the recipe evolved from pre-Colombian ingredients and migrated north. Another holds that it was invented in Mexico specifically to cater to American visitors– tourist food, in other words, which is an interesting theory. The prevalent belief, however, is that chili con carne evolved as a simple peasant dish in San Antonio in the 19th century. We know that

During the 1880s, brightly-dressed Hispanic women known as “Chili Queens” began to operate around Military Plaza and other public gathering places in downtown San Antonio. They would appear at dusk, building charcoal or wood fires to reheat cauldrons of pre-cooked chili, selling it by the bowl to passers-by. The aroma was a potent sales pitch, aided by Mariachi street musicians, who joined in to serenade the eaters. Some Chili Queens later built semi-permanent stalls in the mercado, or local Mexican marketplace. (Link)

Everything traceable seems to bring chili back to Texan street food– the perfect spot for Native American, Mexican, Spanish and Anglo cultures to be drawn together into regional specialties.

So what is chili?

The ingredients of chili are subject to at least as much passionate argument, regional variation and family secret-keeping as barbecue recipes. Tomatoes, ground beef, oregano, beans and red (or green) chili peppers are all either absolutely essential or sure signs that your chili isn’t the ‘real’ thing, depending on your source. We are, after all, talking about a dish that is cooked for competitions all over the U.S., often for large cash prizes and fame– chili recipes are serious business. Texas-style chili never contains beans and is normally hot and quite simple, but chili has long spread beyond Texas and been adapted for regional tastes and ingredients for about 150 years now. Vegetarians eat it with beans and tempeh. New Englanders make it with chicken. Cincinnatians put it on spaghetti— talk about mixing food cultures! Chili can’t be contained in a simple recipe or two. Chili is an evolutionary process. Chili will never stop changing.

We had some friends over last night. We were hurrying home from work, so another slow cooker recipe made perfect sense– and when it’s snowing and the roads are icy, nothing hits the spot quite like chili. I prepared the ingredients in the morning, turned on the slow cooker, and came home hours later to some really wonderful smells.

I intended to use this recipe from Serious Eats, posted by the Gurgling Cod just in time for Super Bowl parties. But I didn’t exactly have all of the ingredients, so I substituted left and right– ground sirloin for sliced chuck, Indian red chili powder for Korean red pepper flakes, epazote for oregano. (I know, that’s weird, but I’m always buying new and interesting herbs and spices, and we ran out of oregano, so I went for another green leafy thing. Hey, it worked.) Also, he simmers his beans with salt pork and serves them on the side; I had neither salt pork nor hours to simmer beans, so I threw them in with everything else. This is originally a recipe by Craig Claiborne, adapted by the Gurgling Cod to account for what wasn’t in his kitchen. Funny how recipes evolve, isn’t it? Here’s the recipe I ended up with– apologies to Craig Claiborne and Gurgling Cod. Note that all measurements are inexact, since chili is really just another variation of the fine art of throwing stuff into a pot. This recipe is gluten-free.

Chili con Carne

1 lb ground sirloin (from the Amish market, in this case)

1 tbsp cayenne pepper or Indian red chili powder

1/2 cup gluten-free oatmeal

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 teaspoons dried epazote (or oregano)

7 garlic cloves, chopped

Enough beef broth to cover the meat in the slow cooker (I like Pacific organic brand), about 4 cups
1 can fava beans


Diced onions

Grape tomatoes, halved

Sour cream

Grated cheddar cheese (preferably extra-sharp)

1. Brown meat in a large skillet.

2. Combine chili powder and oatmeal in a food processor; process until oatmeal is pretty floury.

3. Drain the meat and put it in the slow cooker. Mix in the oatmeal mixture. Add the cumin, epazote and garlic and stir together.

4. Add the broth and beans. Cover and cook in the slow cooker, on ‘low’ (200 degrees), for approximately six hours. If you’re home, stir it occasionally. If not, stir it when you get home.

5. Add sherry near the end of cooking. When we got home, it had been on ‘warm’ for a while, so I added the sherry and turned it back to ‘low’ until it was time to eat.

6. Serve with Carolina Corn Cakes, onions, grated cheddar, sliced grape tomatoes, sour cream, and cold beer.


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One Response to “Slow Cooker Chili: American History in a Bowl”

  1. pal002 Says:

    And it was awesome. Good recipe!!!

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