Fredericksburg First Friday Food Ministry
Congress should pass a law making it mandatory for all restaurants serving chili to follow a Texas recipe.
--Henry James (1916-1983) band leader and trumpeter


Chili brings out the braggart in just about everybody who isn’t too proud to admit to craving a bowl of red from time to time. Cincinnati people swear by their cinnamon-boiled beef-processed cheese-spaghetti concoctions. Californians have a concept of chili that’s something akin to a movie script written by a committee: lots of posing and cheap talk without a plot to hold it all together. Mention chili to citizens of the Deep South and they'll give you a quizzical look and scratch their flanks. But then, they think barbeque is about the pig, instead of the steer.

As in many things, Texas claims to have invented chili. Being a native, I’m not going to argue. I’ve read Frank X. Tolbert’s classic A Bowl of Red, been to Terlingua, and enjoyed a whole lot of fine chili within my home state’s borders. I can’t say I’ve eaten much good chili out-of-state, so as far as I’m concerned, this is one claim to which Texas truly can—and should—lay claim.

The chili I grew up on was what some folks call Texas Jailhouse Chili. According to Tolbert, in the 1860s, inmates used to rate jails on the quality of their chili, and former inmates often wrote the Texas prison system asking for the recipe. Evidently, some things about prison life were worth preserving on the outside.

The chili we serve at our First Friday lunches is pure Texas and based on Tolbert’s research. According to my mother, it’s the actual recipe the Texas legislature mandated be followed in the prisons throughout the state.  No onions. No beans. No tomatoes. Like sour cream, chopped raw onion, shredded Longhorn-style cheese, and sliced jalapenos, those are fixins' served to the side and added to the chili tableside by those who want to gild the lily.

Our fixins' always include slow-cooked Pinto Beans and what we call "Cowboy Coleslaw" because we don't shred the cabbage too fine. If they're in season, we use apples from Medina, Texas in our Campfire Apple Cobbler. It's so good that people go back for thirds, never mind seconds. But our chili is the star and takes the honors for the day.

We always run out and we’re thinking of selling it by the quart this fall—just in time for football games and hunting season. Let us know if you think you’d be interested in buying some to stash in your freezer for when you want some chili but don’t want to go to the trouble of making up a pot full yourself.  The following recipe is our adaptation of Tolbert’s recreation of what he claims was served in the Texas prisons in the “good old days”. Enjoy!


3 lbs. lean stewing beef - diced into 3/8 to 1/2-inch pieces (or coarse chili grind beef if you insist!)

2 oz. beef suet - (or substitute 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil or freshly rendered lard)

4-5 Guajillo chile pods - toasted on a grill for 30-60 seconds, then soaked in a quart of hot water for 30 minutes, then cooled, stemmed, seeded and pureed in a food processor (reserve soaking water)

3-4 Tbsp. pure chili powder (Ancho chilies are our favorite)

1 tsp. dried marjoram or Mexican oregano

1 Tbsp. sugar

1 Tbsp. kosher salt

3 Tbsp. smoked paprika

2-3 tsp. cayenne pepper

10 minced garlic cloves

3-6 Ancho or Guajillo chile pods - extra

3-4 Tbsp. Masa Harina
Cook suet (beef kidney fat if you can find it) until most of the fat is rendered. Remove suet. Or, if the idea of using suet makes you shudder, use vegetable oil. Sear meat in fat in 2 or 3 batches.

Place seared meat in large pot with pepper puree and as much of the pepper liquid as you think you'll need to keep the meat from burning. A quart of the pepper liquid should be about right. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the rest of ingredients except the Masa and extra Anchos. Simmer 35-45 minutes more, covered. Stir only occasionally to avoid breaking up the meat. Skim off grease. Taste and adjust seasonings. If not hot enough to suit you, add extra Ancho or Guajillo pods which have been toasted, stemmed and seeded, but not chopped. Add Masa Harina (mixed in 1/2 -1 cup cold water or Shiner bock to form a paste) to thicken liquid. Simmer for another 30 minutes until the meat is tender.

If you can stand to wait, make the chili over a 2-day period. Cook as directed above, but after the chili has simmered with all the seasonings, take it off the stove and let the chili cool off before refrigerating overnight. The next day, skim off the grease, add the Masa Harina (mix it with a 1/2-1 cup cold water or Shiner bock to form a paste--don't add it directly to the chili) and simmer for an additional 20-30 minutes to thicken.

Makes a respectable size pot: enough for 5-6 hungry eaters. Freezes beautifully. Stains clothes and napkins like crazy!
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