When the weather cools down and the campfire gets going, there’s no better comfort food than chili to warm your soul and make it a perfect night. Every October, when autumn starts to chill our bones, break out the bread bowls and warm up with National Chili Month. Though its origins are murky, one thing we know is that chili doesn’t come from Mexico. Wherever it was created, this warm and filling Southwestern staple has become a beloved American dish and cultural touchstone, with festivals and cook-offs dedicated to the many varieties of chili.
History of National Chili Month
From cowboys to Girl Scouts, everyone who goes on camping trips has experienced the culinary delight that is chili con carne, also known simply as chili. Named for the spicy peppers that are its key ingredient, this simple, hearty, and delicious Southwestern staple has achieved cult status in the United States.
First prepared somewhere in Southern Texas or Northern Mexico, chili started out as a simple preparation of meat and spices. Working-class women stewed beef pieces, chilis, and other vegetables and spices to make a hearty dish that would feed a whole family.
In San Antonio, women known as “chili queens” made and sold chili by the bowlful in the city’s markets. Soon “chili parlors” began popping up, and the practice spread throughout Texas and other states, with each chili parlor claiming its own special, secret recipe. In the days before widespread home refrigeration you could purchase “brick chili,” a dehydrated version of the stew that kept longer and could be cooked with some water.
In 1893, the San Antonio chili stand became an exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, showcasing the humble “bowl o’ red” to the nation and popularizing chili across the Midwest.
At its core, chili is just a seasoned stew of beef and chili peppers, topped with cheese and onions. But don’t be fooled — this deceptively simple dish sparks heated debates over what ingredients truly belong there. The only ingredients people can agree on are chilis and beef — the rest is up for debate. Even though beans seem like a natural addition, some chili connoisseurs swear beans have no place there at all.
Today, chili remains a popular part of American cuisine and a ubiquitous camping food. You can find dozens of varieties including beef, bean-less, vegetarian, and turkey to suit your tastes.