Charles Ramsdell, in his 1959 guidebook "San Antonio: An Historical and Pictorial Guide," pointed out that you simply couldn't find what we know today as chili con carne, a bowl of red, in Mexico, which meant that it had never been there. "If chili had come from Mexico, it would still be there," he wrote. "For Mexicans, especially those of Indian ancestry, do not change their culinary customs from one generation, or even from century, to another."
Frank X. Tolbert, in his seminal work on the subject of chili, "A Bowl of Red," found scant mention of chili in the newspapers, magazines or correspondence of the early and mid 1800s. An 1828 account described poor patrons of the San Antonio market buying small quantities of meat cut into a kind of hash "with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat" which is then "all stewed together." A pretty good description of chili.
By the 1880s there were mentions of "chili queens" from the poor neighborhoods in San Antonio. who showed up around dusk in Alamo Plaza and elsewhere downtown, selling chili con carne from pots kept warm and simmering over charcoal or mesquite. The chili queens became a fixture in downtown San Antonio until 1943, when city health regulations required them to conform to the same sanitary rules as restaurant.
That put the chili queens out of business, but the fiery concoction spread across the state, showing up in for the first time in different parts of the state at different times. The outlaws Frank and Jesse James supposedly stopped off in McKinney several times but they came in peace: the James brothers only wanted some chili from a man named Myers who had a small caf in downtown McKinney -- and they were willing to pay for it.
The world beyond Texas and the Southwest got its first glimpse and taste of chili corn carne at the 1893 World's Fair, which featured a "San Antonio Chilley Stand." Just as the people in Chicago couldn't spell chili, people in other parts of the country began to mess with the simple basic ingredients and processes of making chili. They put beans in it, for one thing, and in places like Cincinnati they served it over spaghetti. It's enough to make a chili queen (or king) shiver in disapproval.
By the time of World War II, chili parlors had become so common in Texas that Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers claimed he judged Texas cities by the quality of their chili. The parlors came and went but chili became mainstream, showing up on the tables of people who weren't eating it because it didn't cost much to make. The actress Elizabeth Taylor liked a good bowl of Texas chili, and jazz trumpeter Harry James said it should be made law that all chili sold in the United States adhere to the Texas recipe.
What really made chili a big deal was Tolbert's book, which not only collected nearly everything anyone would ever want to know about chili and all of its ingredients but described the very first chili cookoffs in Terlingua, which started off in a spirit of prankish fun and evolved into an annual event that some people take very seriously indeed.
Now we have chili cookoffs, where there are good representations of the original along with some concoctions a chili queen would never recognize such Hawaiian, chili, gumbo chili, mushroom chili, butterbean chili and alligator chili. In some places it's more of a concept than an actual dish. In trying to praise and promote chili con carne, they sometimes obliterate it.
Despite the exotic, bastardized chili dished that are available today, most chili that people eat today comes from a can they buy at the grocery store. That's a Texas thing, too. William Gerald Tobin, a former Texas Ranger, began canning in chili in San Antonio in the 1880s and had a contract with the government to produce it for the Army and Navy, but he died before the business could get off the ground.
Some forty years later, rancher Lyman T. Davis of Corsicana had a brainstorm similar to Tobin's. Using the recipe of a former range cook, Davis first sold his chili by wagon to cafes, where a huge bowl of red sold for five cents at the Blue Front Saloon. He began canning his chili in 1921, and named it in honor of his pet wolf, Kaiser Bill, and put a likeness of Kaiser Bill on every can. He called it Wolf Brand chili.
Davis cranked out a couple of hundred cans a day at first and then thousands. His ranch soon sprouted oil wells and he sold the business and stayed busy being rich. Today, millions of cans are sold every year and still feature a picture of Kaiser Bill.