1880s - San Antonio was a wide-open town (a cattle town, a railroad town, and an army town) and by day a municipal food market and by night a wild and open place. An authoritative early account is provided in an article published in the July 1927 issue of Frontier Times. In this article, Frank H. Bushick, San Antonio Commissioner of Taxation, reminisces about the Chili Queens and their origin at Military Plaza before they were moved to Market Square in 1887. According to Bushick:
"The chili stand and chili queens are peculiarities, or unique institutions, of the Alamo City. They started away back there when the Spanish army camped on the plaza. They were started to feed the soldiers. Every class of people in every station of life patronized them in the old days. Some were attracted by the novelty of it, some by the cheapness. A big plate of chili and beans, with a tortilla on the side, cost a dime. A Mexican bootblack and a silk-hatted tourist would line up and eat side by side, [each] unconscious or oblivious of the other."
Latino women nicknamed "Chili Queens" sold stew they called "chili" made with dried red chiles and beef from open-air stalls at the Military Plaza Mercado. They made their chili at home, loaded it onto colorful chili wagons, and transported the wagons and chili to the plaza. They build mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm, lighted their wagons with colored lanterns, and squatted on the ground beside the cart, dishing out chili to customers who sat on wooden stools to eat their fiery stew. In those days, the world "chili" referred strictly to the pepper. They served a variation of simple, chile-spiked dishes (tamales, tortillas, chili con carne, and enchiladas). A night was not considered complete without a visit to one of these "chili queens."
1937 - In 1937 they were put out of business due to their inability to conform to sanitary standards enforced in the town's restaurants (public officials objected to flies and poorly washed dishes). Unable to provide laatorial facilities, they disappeared overnight. The following is reprinted from the San Antonio Light of September 12, 1937:
Recent action of the city health department in ordering removal from Haymarket square of the chili queens and their stands brought an end to a 200-year-old tradition. The chili queens made their first appearance a couple of centuries back after a group of Spanish soldiers camped on what is now the city hall site and gave the place the name, Military Plaza. At one time the chili queens had stands on Military, Haymarket and Alamo plazas but years ago the city confined them to Haymarket plaza. According to Tax Commissioner Frank Bushick, a contemporary and a historian of those times, the greatest of all the queens was no Mexican but an American named Sadie. Another famous queen was a senorita named Martha who later went on the stage. Writing men like Stephen Crane and O. Henry were impressed enough to immortalize the queens in their writings. With the disappearance from the plaza of the chili stands, the troubadors who roamed the plaza for years also have disappeared into the night. Some of the chili queens have simply gone out of business. Others, like Mrs. Eufemia Lopez and her daughters, Juanita and Esperanza Garcia, have opened indoor cafes elsewhere. But henceforth the San Antonio visitor must forego his dining on chili al fresco.
They were restored by Mayor Maury Maverick in 1939, but their stands were closed again shortly after the start of World War II.
1930s - During the 1980s, San Antonio began staging what they call "historic re-enactments" of the chili queens. As an tribute to chili, the state dish, the city of San Antonio holds an annual "Return of the Chili Queens Festival" in Market Square during the Memorial Day celebrations in May, sponsored by the El Mercado Merchants.
This chili recipe comes from a high school friend of my mothers of fifty five years. It makes enough to feed 10 to 12 people easily. It is a wonderful chili recipe and I use it often.
1/2 c canola oil
3 # ground beef
3 c chopped onion
3 cloves garlic chopped
8 c beef broth
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
18 oz tomato paste
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 c chili powder
3 tbsp cider vinegar
1 tbsp cumin
2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp oregano
1 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
4 cans of lite kidney beans
In a large soup pot add oil. Brown ground beef and remove any excess fat from pot. Add onions, garlic and cook until slightly soft. Add rest of ingredients and simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours stirring often to prevent the chili from settling to the bottom of the pot and scorching. Serve with cheese, sour cream, green onions, salsa, corn chips or your favorite toppings.