Chilli, Chile and Chili (con Carne)

The picture above shows the flavourful dish I have chosen to pair with my mild chayote side dish.  While checking out recipes, I came across a very interesting article about how the earliest cultivated varieties of Capsicum annuum were definitely grown in Mexico, with carbon-dating placing them back to between some 6000 and 9000 years … What?  I assure you, there will be a logical conclusion, but this was a very illuminating process that I wanted to share.  Both that scientific name, and the Spanish word chile, include all the sweet and hot vegetables known in English as peppers.  The researchers used a consensus model, in which traditional archaeological and genetic evidence was combined with local Linguistics and Ecology components [1].  The fascinating principle of the consensus model is to look at the larger picture, to place scientific findings in a cultural context; I have tried doing that with the word chile itself.  It comes from the Nahuatl word chilli; the first European explorers called it pepper, confusing it with black pepper (Piper nigrum).  I have always wondered how they could possibly make that mistake, but say they looked at these dried fruits:

chile chiltepin

Whole black peppercorns?  Nope, it is a photo of dried Chiltepín chiles.  They are a wild variety, hard to find outside Mexico (my sister sent me the photo).  The cultivated sibling of Chiltepín is Piquín, (which I have mentioned before):

Chile Piquin

Piquín are exactly the same variety as Chiltepín, but different growing conditions have made them slightly bigger and elongated.  From this example, it is easy to see the progression of a few wild varieties to the thousands of different types of chiles around the world, in every shape, colour and level of spiciness.  In terms of Linguistics, the name evolved back to chilis, chillies or chile peppers in English (although some sweet varieties are generally referred to as bell peppers.)  In Great Britain, it is still common to call hot peppers by their actual Nahuatl name chilli (brilliant!)  However, more often they are called hot peppers, if they are spicy, or sweet peppers, if they are mild, at least in Canada and the US, probably because the word “chili”, has been popularized as the name of a particular dish, not the vegetable.

Following this thread, sometime in the 1800s, a dish called “chili con carne” (“peppers with meat”) appeared in San Antonio, Texas; the name was shortened to “chili” in the second half of the 1900s, and it became so famous that was named “State Food of Texas” in 1977, and has its own “National Chili Day”, February 22 [2].  According to the National Chili Day website, the earliest written reference to the dish, although not mentioned by name, can be attributed to JC Clopper in his “Journal and Book of Memoranda from 1928”, where he describes a “… kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat – this is all stewed together.” [3]

There are two big questions about chili: Does it have Mexican roots? And, does it have beans?  Mexicans might answer a firm “no” to the first question, and Texans will give an even stronger negative to the second; the discussion is still open.  If we take Clopper’s journal as contemporary of the birth of the dish, then it would actually be Mexican, because Texas was still part of Mexico in 1928, in the state of Coahuila y Tejas [4]; however, by the time the dish became famous in the second half of the 1800s, Texas had gone from Mexican state, to independent republic, to be part of the US, so I would agree with the statement that chili is a Texan (US) dish, but certainly with Mexican roots.  As for the beans, in the mid 20th Century there were still two names used for two variations: “chili con carne” (“peppers with meat”) and “chili con carne y frijoles” (“peppers with meat and beans”).  The shortening of the name to simply “chili” has made it impossible to say for sure which dish was being described, so some people, for example Texans, might say “chili” was derived exclusively from “chili con carne”, while others might argue that both dishes have been amalgamated into the one term.  I think of it as comparing a burger with a cheese burger; they are both hamburgers, right?

I personally have a newly found appreciation for Texan cuisine; I must confess I grew up hearing that Tex-Mex was “just fake Mexican food”, and only very recently, I learned that chili has its own geo-culinary region in the Western area of Texas [5].  I like “chili con carne y frijoles” (with beans), the way most Canadians make it, but now I imagine a Texan “bowl o’ red” (no beans ever!) as being equally delicious.

And finally, that is how the word “chili” – from humble vegetable to famous stew – actually made me think of the dish pictured at the top of this post: Picadillo, a stew of ground meat originally from Spain (hence, no beans), adopted all over Mexico (probably including Coahuila y Tejas), with additions of whatever is available regionally (such as peppers) … Could chili (con carne) be Picadillo’s long-lost Texan child?

(You be the judge, recipes in my next post)

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