El Real to Host Release Party for Robb Walsh’s Chili Cookbook
Many Texans assume that chili, that soul-satisfying staple of cookoffs, tailgate parties, and church potlucks, was invented right here in the Lone Star State. But according to Houston food writer Robb Walsh, a version of the dish was being enjoyed by Meso-Americans long before any European had set foot on these shores. The first written record of the dish dates back to the 16th century, when a Spanish monk observed a group of Aztecs cooking lobster in a sauce made from fresh chile peppers.
Although we don’t know exactly what ingredients the Aztecs used, Walsh came up with a modern version of that dish, using Maine lobster and corn on the cob, for his latest book, The Chili Cookbook. “It’s absolutely fabulous—it’s just wonderful stuff to eat,” Walsh said. “But of course it’s nothing like they were eating in Mexico City. They didn’t have Maine lobster, and the corn didn’t look much like ours. But it’s the spirit of the thing.”
The Chili Cookbook includes over 60 recipes for the classic dish, ranging from the traditional to the experimental. There’s lamb chili, pork chili, chicken chili, shrimp chili, and even vegetarian chili. Walsh, the former restaurant critic for the Houston Press and the winner of three James Beard Awards for food writing, uses the recipes to tell the history of chili from its ancient origins to its spread through North America and beyond.
That history is surprisingly international. Walsh said that the Greeks and Hungarians independently developed their own chili-like dishes. Goulash, a Hungarian stew, was created by mounted cattle herdsmen on the plains of Hungary (the word goulash means “cowboy” in Hungarian). When those dishes were brought to America by European immigrants, they eventually merged with Meso-American chili to form hybrids like Cincinnati chili, which incorporates such heretical seasonings as cinnamon and allspice.
The version of chili most familiar to Texans emerged in San Antonio in the late 19th century, when so-called “chili queens” began selling bowls of the stuff from chili stands at outdoor markets. One of those chili queens set up shop at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, introducing the dish to the rest of the country. Because of meat rationing during World War II, recipe books started to recommend adding beans and chopped vegetables to stretch the dish further.
Although the 1970s saw a backlash by chili purists against the inclusion of beans, Walsh admitted that he likes the dish both ways. In 2011, he and two partners founded the Tex-Mex restaurant El Real on Westheimer, which will host The Chili Cookbook’s release party on Friday evening from 5 to 7. For $25, guests will receive a signed book and either a Texas Frito Pie or a large bowl of the restaurant’s signature chili. “I certainly have my own favorite chili—it’s the one we serve at El Real,” Walsh said. “But as a student of food history and a food lover in general, I’ve got to say that I’ve enjoyed just about every version of chili I’ve tried. And it’s been great fun to experiment and try some new stuff.”
The Chili Cookbook Release Party. October 2 from 5 to 7. El Real Tex-Mex Restaurant, 1201 Westheimer.