Food & Drink

Hot history: Chili has spicy origins - and so does island festival

The Kiwanis Club of Hilton Head Island's Chili Cookoff has a bit of history of its own. Staged on the island for 27 years, it makes for one of the longest standing festivals on a fest-happy island.

Who would have expected chili to take a foothold in the Lowcountry?

The story of who ladled up the first bowl of chili is a bit murky, but most chili historians point further west from here when trying to figure out its origins.

The dish has its roots in Spanish and Latin American cuisine, according to the International Chili Society. The practice of mixing meat, beans, peppers and herbs into a single dish has been traced back to the times of the Aztec, Mayan and Incan Indians.

Chili as we know it started to come to form when immigrants from the Canary Islands in the 1730s arrived in what's now called San Antonio. The Canary Islanders, who were under the reign of Spain, also brought over a spicy stew with meat, cumin, garlic, chili peppers and wild onion, according to food writer Robb Walsh in his "The Tex-Mex Cookbook."

Chili spread its popularity on the wagon trains and cattle drives of the Wild West, as the trail cooks needed cheap and easy dinner and a mix of dried beef, chili peppers and spices made for good eatin'.

The outlaw Jesse James even took a liking to the bowls of red, as he called it, and legend has it he spared one Texas town from his looting because of quality of its chili joint.

Chili started to take hold even further in late-1800s San Antonio, where Hispanic women called chili queens ladeled up a stew with dried red chilies and beef in an open-air market, according to the chili society. A plate of chili and beans with a tortilla on the side cost a dime. These stands' heyday lasted into the 1930s when the local government shut them down due to a lack of adherence to sanitary standards.

By that time, chili joints were popping up across Texas. Word of the cheap meal spread across the Midwest, as regional versions were brewed up in Cincinnati and Springfield, Ill., (where it's actually spelled "chilli"), according to cookbook author and food historian Linda Stradley.

By the 1950s, Texans started holding contests to prove once and for all who had the best chili. Mrs. F. G. Ventura of Dallas won the Texas State Fair contest in 1952 and was named first-ever World Champion Chili Cook. Twenty-five years later, the Texas legislature proclaimed chili the official state food of Texas.

By that time, chili was being made in kitchens from coast to coast, and cookoffs weren't just a Texas thing anymore.

The Kiwanis Chili Cookoff on Hilton Head started 27 years ago as a fundraising idea for local charities. Ideas were tossed around about possible events, when one member suggested a chili cookoff, similar to one where he used to live, said member Bill Haley, who was on the original organizing committee.

Chili cookoffs weren't commonplace in the area, leading to some questions.

"Hilton Head and chili? I don't know. It's not Texas," Haley recalled.

The first event brought in about 100 people to sample three restaurants' offerings.

But it raised $1,000 for charity, good enough for a new year.

Chili fans came out from hiding, and the cookoff has grown each year. Haley's tasted a few chilies over the years that could hold up to anything in Texas. The chili draws them in, but the starts of the show are the chefs who donate their time and the guests who donate their money for the good cause.

"It's really a testament to the charitable nature on Hilton Head," he said.

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