|The Second Occasional LoneStarCon Science Fiction Convention and Chili Cook-off, Variously known as the 55th World Science Fiction Convention and LoneStarCon 2, the 1997 Worldcon, To be held from August 28th through September 1st, in the year 1997, in San Antonio, Texas.
Why A Chili Cookoff At A WorldCon?
Reprinted from LoneStarCon 2's Progress Report #3
hy A Chili Cookoff At A WorldCon?
by Diana Thayer
n the first place, LoneStarCon 2 is in Texas, and the dish known as "chili con carne" (literally "chile peppers with meat") is as Texas as the Rio Grande, the Alamo, and armadillos. Furthermore, the convention is in San Antonio, purported by most chili historians to be the birthplace of the spicy meat stew as we know it today.
Okay, that explains why a San Antonio Convention is featuring a Chili Cookoff, but what has chili got to do with science fiction? Read on to find out more about the marvelous chile peppers of the Capsicum family without which chili would not exist.
Chile, The Pepper
What better subject for the focus of a world science fiction convention than a tiny berry that rose from the depths of the Amazon jungle to conquer the cuisines of the world. As early as 8,000 years ago, chilies were considered important enough to be included in burial sites in Peru. They worked their way north, insinuating themselves into the diets of the Incas, the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayas and Aztecs. They Mayas are known to have cultivated at least 30 different types of chiles. The Aztecs used them in almost every dish. By about 1,000 years ago, chiles had invaded what is now known as the Southwestern United States and were used by the Pueblo Indians.
Now, their migration might have been stopped right there in the middle of the Sonora Desert. Indeed, if it hadn't been for Columbus, the extensive Capsicum family might never have escaped North America. You see, Columbus had convinced the Portuguese crown that he could find a new route in the spice trade, so when he found himself in the "New World" instead of the Orient, he had to take back something to justify his trip. Whether he actually thought the Capsicums were related to the true pepper (piper nigrum) that he sought, or whether he just went along with their masquerade, Columbus let them hitch a ride across the Atlantic. Chiles fit the same niche in the existing cuisines of Spain and Portugal as true pepper and were welcomed with open cooking pots. With fiery piquancy and bold flavors, the versatile chiles, now known, albeit mistakenly, as "peppers", usurped the favored position formerly held by black pepper.
Hardly settled into their new positions, the opportunistic Capsicums forged an alliance with Spanish and Portuguese explorers, who carried them to North Africa, the West African coast, Madagascar, and India, where the native populations embraced them into their cuisines. By 1550, chiles had reached western China. In less than 100 years, chiles had spread from the Americas right around the world. They had even seduced the Ottoman Turks into taking them into such out of the way places as Hungary and Tibet.
Not only were the Capsicums world travelers, they were very adaptable. They could grow in a wide range of environments. They cross pollinated freely (and still do) so that today we can identify almost 200 different varieties. Capsaisin, the potent chemical that gives chiles their fiery nature, survives both cooking and freezing. In addition, it triggers the brain to produce endorphins, natural pain killers that promote a sense of well-being and stimulation.
As if it wasn't enough that the Capsicum family conquered the world and made us love them for it, they are actually good for us. They are low in calories, low in sodium and cholesterol-free. They are very high in vitamins A and C, a good source of potassium, folic acid, and vitamin E. They help speed up the metabolism as well as aiding digestion, and studies indicate they may help prevent heart disease. Other diverse conditions successfully treated by folk remedies include arthritis, bronchitis, epilepsy, malaria and toothaches. Capsicum is also a natural decongestant, and I know from experience that it helps clear the sinuses!
In a wider context, chiles have succeeded in bringing the world together and have proven themselves not conquerors, but roving ambassadors, influencing cuisines all over the world. It has been estimated that as much as 3/4 of the world's population includes Capsicums in their diet, making chiles the most widely used seasoning in the world.
Chili, The Texas Stew
So now we come full circle, back to the "New World", to Texas, where the family of Capsicum made an odyssey of a different kind, from the simple stews cooked over campfires in the 1800's, to the more complex dishes that delight us today.
One story suggests that the primitive forerunner of chili was a kind of pemmican carried on the long trail from Texas to the California gold fields. It consisted of dried beef, beef fat and chilipiquines (small wild peppers) pounded together with salt and formed into dense bricks. The description of the does not sound very appetizing to us today, but the concoction kept well, and could be transported easily. Pieces of the brick were sliced off and reconstituted in boiling water as needed. The earliest mention of this food of convenience was in the 1840's, but it must not have gained much popularity since it isn't mentioned after about 1860.
Another story suggests that chili originated with the lavanderas, or washerwomen, who followed armies around frontier Texas. These women were apparently darn good cooks, especially known for their meat stews. They used whatever meat was available, seasoning it with wild native marjoram and red chilesprobably those wild chilipiquines again.
A most intriguing theory speculates that chili con carne may have been born as early as 1731 when a group of Canary Island immigrants brought cumin to Texas. They added the fragrant spice to the existing meat and chili dish cooked by San Antonio settlers, giving it a unique bouquet (Or so the story goes.)
Whatever the primitive origins of chili con carne truly are, consensus places the first commercial chilies on the streets of San Antonio in the 1800's. For a meticulously researched history of chili, look to the work of the late Frank X. Tolbert. A Dallas Morning News columnist for many years, and one of the founders of the first Chili Cookoff at Terlingua, Texas, Tolbert was the world's greatest authority on chili at the time of his death in 1984.
In his book, A Bowl of Red, Tolbert documented the advent of the colorful chili queens into the downtown plazas of San Antonio in the 1880's, including Alamo plaza. Until that time, chili seems to have been confined to poor folks' kitchens where it was a great way to stretch cheaper cuts of meat. The picturesque chili queens raised chili to event status. They's appear around dusk, gaily dressed and often wearing roses. They pushed carts piled with crude tables, paraphernalia and steaming cauldrons of chili to a favorite spot, then started charcoal or mesquite fires to keep the chile simmering and sending forth its peppery perfumes on the night air. As if that seductive aroma wasn't enough, each chili queen used a big ornamental lamp with a brightly colored globe to attract customers who came from all walks of life. Street musicians serenaded chili eaters as they sat around tables covered with bright tablecloths.
By the time health regulations drove the chili queens from the San Antonio plazas in 1943, chili had become well established as the national dish of Texas. Two men in particular are given credit for this: William Gebhardt of San Antonio and DeWitt Clinton Pendery of Fort Worth, both of whom developed chili powders made of ground chiles, oregano, cumin seed and garlic. They provided the housewife a simple, quick way to make chili con carne. By eliminating the time consuming and sometimes unpleasant task of preparing the chile peppers, these men paved the way for the transition of chili con carne from the street vendors back into the home kitchen on a broad scale.
Today there are as many chili recipes in the world as there are chili cooks. And there are almost as many opinions about what makes "real chili". Some people prefer their chili mild while others think true chili must be spicy enough to blow the top of your head off. One group favors a certain amount of grease in their chili while another insists on as little oil as possible. Then there's "with tomatoes" versus "no tomatoes". And, of course, the ever popular feud between beans and no beans. Some cooks believe that chili should only be made in a cast-iron pot. It is this diversity of tastes which led to the most recent phase of chili historythe Chili Cookoff.
The Chili Cookoff
Chili Cookoff date back to 1967 when Frank Tolbert and Public Relations Executive Tom Tierney came up with the idea of staging a competition to promote the recently revised version of A Bowl of Red. The original idea was for Tolbert's friend David Chasen, Beverly Hills restaurateur, to match his "tame" chili against the real Texas chili of the great Wick Fowler, chief cook of the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI). But, with the date of the competition only a few weeks away, Mr. Chasen became ill. As if by a miracle, a contender appeared from the same school of though about chili as Chasen. He was New York humorist H. Alden Smith, who, in August of 1967, published an article titled "Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do". As they say in Texas, "them's fightin' words"especially from someone in New York.
At "high noon" on an unrecorded date in the autumn of 1967, at Terlingua, a near ghost-town in a remote part of Texas, the first chili cookoff was held. Smith's recipe contained green bell peppers and kidney beans; Fowler's was a pristine concoction of meat and spices. Despite the sharp contrast, the first contest ended in a draw.
Since those days, the world of cookoffs has gotten quite a bit more complex. From coast to coast, on just about any weekend, chili cooks pit their best (and sometimes secret) recipes against each other. Chili has changed and evolved over the years. Today, there are numerous schools of chili preparation. Some cooks prefer braising the meat first, others favor stewing it directly without preliminary browning. Some use chili powder, others grind their own peppers. Some season before stewing to allow the flavors to cook in and blend, others season toward the end of cooking for the strongest flavors. And some cookoff contenders cook different recipes for competition than they cook at home for themselves!
What have chile peppers got to do with science fiction?
Consider the origin of science fictionideas germinating in the minds of a few brave souls, fueled by the fire of imagination. Crosspollinating freely, the ideas grew and spread, embraced by people from all walks of life. Like the lowly Capsicums, science fiction has crossed cultural and political lines to bring us closer together. In short, both have conquered the world!