Spice Girls: How Chili Became a Woman's Game
From the so-called "chili queens" of San Antonio to modern-day cook-off champions, women have shaped the history of chili culture—even as men tried to write them out of it.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
From 1970 to 2001, the "Chilympiad" chili competition in San Marcos, Texas, had but two rules. The first: All chili must be made from scratch at the site of the contest. The second: Women are barred from entering the contest as chefs.
In response to the latter—and armed with the knowledge that winners of the Chilympiad contest automatically qualified for the International Championship Chili Cookoff in Terlingua, Texas—the "Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned" competition, a chili showdown featuring female cooks only, was formed in Luckenbach, Texas, in 1970. Once considered a hero in Texas for purchasing the extremely rural town (population: a whopping three), Mayor Hondo Crouch founded the all-women chili cook-off as a method of attracting visitors. Crouch once explained the festival as, "A women's chili cookin' contest where you make one little lady happy and 500 mad!"
Read more: Eating Out, as a Feminist
While the Hell Hath No Fury competition continued past Crouch's death in 1976, a woman was admitted to the Chilympiad cook-off in 1975: 117-year-old Genova Gutierrez. The chairman of the cook-off at the time released a statement, saying, "Due to the growing pressure of the women's liberation movement we've decided to change our ruling and accept women cooks—over 100 years of age." Not exactly a warm welcome. Ultimately the Chilympiad cook-off—the "Olympics of chili cooking"—ended shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as "34 years of tradition screeched to a halt" when organizers canceled the event in 2003, citing a loss of profit of $30,000 in 2001, and $19,000 in 2002. Shortly after the event was canceled for good, one blogger offered a possible reason for its demise: "And who is to blame for the end of a central Texas tradition? Women? Or terrorists? Really, is there a difference?"
When I began reporting for this story, I assumed that I would be looking at a male-dominated picture. Much has been written about the gender divide in outdoor cooking: Whether it's because of the potential danger of an open flame and the assumption that men are humanity's fire-tamers, or the archaic generalization that men prefer meat while women would rather eat vegetables, or studies suggesting that men who like spicy food have higher levels of testosterone, machismo has permeated the outdoor cooking domain.
But unlike other forms of outdoor cooking, chili has women to thank for its existence. As the history of Tex-Mex and the Southwest shows, those responsible for introducing the hearty, spicy dish to the region were a group of Mexican women.
Who is to blame for the end of a central Texas tradition? Women? Or terrorists? Really, is there a difference?
"I don't know who named them the chili queens, probably some gringo," lifelong San Antonio native Annie Madrid Salas told NPR in 2004. Regardless, from the 1860s to the late 1930s, Mexican women referred to as the chili queens created a lively outdoor bazaar in San Antonio's plazas—including its most famous, the Alamo—serving Mexican–American specialties like chili con carne, tamales, and enchiladas from twilight until dawn the next morning. The chili queens transformed the plazas into a place for the community to share meals together at lantern-lit tables adorned with red and yellow paper mache flowers—into a nightly party.
From its earliest days as a Spanish military encampment and refueling place for the military to its time as a gold mine for thieves and rest stop for tourists and business travelers, San Antonio has always had an air of mystery about it. The plazas were considered the heart of the city, and during the day they acted as marketplace where vendors could sell their goods, as well as a sort of front porch to the city's government and church. The chili queens—referred to as "bright, bewitching creatures" in a story that appeared in the San Antonio Express from 1894—brought a jovial and carnival-esque atmosphere, and the open-air environment of the plazas allowed the queens to throw nightly chili festivities under a starry sky. By nightfall, the plazas were lively with San Antonians from every walk of life: businessmen and politicians who worked nearby, Anglos and Tejanos, and cowboys, tourists, and musicians who filled the Texas air with song.
With the advent of railroad travel in the latter half of the 19th century, even more patrons could experience the joy of nightly chili queen parties. After arriving on one of the very first trains into San Antonio in 1870, Harriet Prescott Spofford wrote of the Plaza de Armas:
Beneath an umbrella-tree that sheds powerful fragrance, little tables are spread, where the market people get their roll and chocolate and bit of pastry... vendors of bunches of magnolias and great, ineffably sweet Cape Jasmines; Mexican women half veiled by their rebozos surrounded by wicker cages full of mockingbirds, vivid cardinals and lively little canaries... Whatever you buy, pilon (a bonus) will be given to you.
While city officials would close the stands for sanitary reasons periodically over the years, public outcry would always result in the queens reopening. Slowly, however, the number of chili queens dwindled, and in 1937 the city council shut down the party for good, citing health hazards and public nuisance.
"We didn't protect them," Dr. Felix Almaraz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin who grew up in San Antonio in the early 1930s, said in 2005. "We didn't know there would be bureaucrats, and at the end of the day, they moved [the chili queens] out." Nevertheless, it would not be a huge stretch of the imagination to suggest that the chili queens' chili stands are the ancestral origins of today's food trucks—that any modern Mexican street food vendor is continuing this outdoor cooking and food tradition and paying unintentional (or sometimes very intentional) homage to the tradition of the chili queens of San Antonio.
Today, women say that despite the Chilympiad's sexist history, overall they're celebrated in chili culture. Cindy Wilkins, the only back-to-back champion of the International Chili Championship (1992, 1993) in Terlingua, Texas, comes from a long line of chili cooks. "My mother is also a Terlingua champion; we were called the Chili Dynasty," she told me. In speaking with six previous and current female chili champions (my own group of chili queens, if you will), I found it very surprising that they reported little overt sexism—the only real problem is a lack of representation. "You win, you win, regardless of sex," Wilkins told me. "And all is well for the winner." Dana Plocheck, who has won 20 cook-offs since 2005 and is a second-generation board member of Chili Appreciation Society International, agrees. "The camaraderie is what keeps me from coming back to cook-offs," she said. "Good luck wishes are given to everyone."
Trinidad and Tobago–born chef Marlene Moore, the only female competitor at the Pechanga Resort and Casino's Microbrew and Chili Cook-off in Temecula, California, told me, "I had to earn the respect of my peers, just as the men had to earn mine." Moore, along with her male counterparts, served 1,600 people at the cook-off and represented women well: She won both this year's and last year's championship with her Southern Spicy Chili. Mama T, a vegan chef from Hawaii who won the second annual Chili Pepper Festival cook-off in Honolulu, said two of her male competitors believed she didn't have a chance, but she thought their opinion of her chili might have had more to do with it being vegan than with her being a woman.
"I was the only woman, and the only vegan going up against barbecue beef brisket chili, and pork and white bean chili," Mama T told me. "I did not announce to the 600 attendees that my chili was vegan. At the end of the cook-off, the votes were tallied, and all the chefs were called to the stage. When the MC asked each of us what our secret ingredient was, I announced to the crowd that there was no meat in my vegan chili. There was a loud gasp and then roaring laughter. I think the men I competed against thought I was a nice little lady, but they chuckled at the fact they knew my chili was vegan, and they thought they were each other's competition.
"Then they announced the winner," she said, "and I won first place."