The Smell of Chili

I Love the Smell of Chili in the Morning …

For much of the 19th century and into the early Twentieth, this was a popular San Antonio thing – various of the public squares, notably Military Plaza and Market Square were the domain of the Chili Queens who established the custom of setting up tables and benches along the edges of the square, in the early evening and selling chili-by-the-bowl to all comers. They would bring huge kettles of chili which they had made over their own home cook-fire during the day, and keep it warm through the evening and into the wee hours.

Very often the chili vendors would entice customers to their own particular stands by hiring musicians to entertain diners. There are some splendid descriptions of how marvelous this would have appeared – lantern and starlight shining down on the tables, gleaming on glass soda bottles, while the scent of the chili and the mesquite smoke from the fires which kept it warm hung on the night air. During South Texas summers before the invention of air conditioning, this likely would have been about the most comfortable dining venue for working men, for those out for an evening of gambling and drinking in the various saloons … and in later decades, for those visiting from the North or the East, desirous of absorbing a little exotic local color.

And it was a very local delicacy in those years. Texans took readily to a venison or beef stew highly spiced with local chili peppers (with or without beans, with or without tomatoes), especially in the borderlands. But it was also a seasonal dish – generally only served in the spring and summer when the fresh peppers ripened and were available in the market. Air-dried whole chilies were available, of course – but they just didn’t provide the same flavor-punch. There may have been many local gourmands who adored chili and wished to eat it year round, but only one of them did anything about it.

This was a German-American, Willie Gebhardt, who got his start in food entrepreneurship by owning a beer-garden and restaurant in New Braunfels in the 1890s. It’s often said among the Irish that there was an Irishman at the start of any interesting cultural, technological or scientific effort, but in Texas in the late 19th century this most usually fell to a German. Willie Gebhardt, like many other local cooks, developed his own special recipe for chili, and served it often in season – but on the side, he began experimenting with a means of preserving the essential chili pepper flavor.

Eventually he hit upon a means of soaking ancho chili peppers, garlic, oregano and cumin in a water-alcohol mixture, then grinding it into a stiff paste, which was dried under low heat. When dried, it was ground into a powder using a coffee-grinder, and packed in air-tight glass bottles. It was immediately popular; Willie Gebhardt took out a patent, calling it Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder. By the turn of the century, he had opened a factory – patenting a number of machines to expedite the manufacture of chili powder, which became and still is insanely popular. Eventually his factory, under the direction of a brother-in-law branched out into providing ready-made canned chili, and other staple Tex-Mex foods.

Since this cuisine was largely unknown outside of the southwest, Gebhardt’s company published a cook-book instructing American cooks how to use chili powder – the first nationally-distributed cook-book on Mexican food. The original recipe for Eagle Brand Chili Powder is still available, supposedly unchanged, although the company was sold to Beatrice Foods following on the death of Willie Gebhardt in 1956. (It’s available on Amazon – so is a facsimile of the original Gebhardt’s Mexican cookbook.)

Gotta Have Heart

You Gotta Have Heart!

Ah, yes – Fiesta Time is here once again; San Antonio’s very own Mardi Gras but with more couth. Or at least we like to think so. Around here, when the floats with the Fiesta female nobility pass, the crowd shouts, “Show us your shoes!” and not anything more revealing than that. Of all the scheduled events during a nearly-two-week-long city-wide block party, one of the most well-attended (to judge by the crowds every evening) is NIOSA, or Night In Old San Antonio, which features every kind of food booth imaginable in the little squares and streets of La Villita. One of the long-time favorites of NIOSA is a South American version of meat-onna-stick called ‘antichucios’, which a long-ago volunteer discovered while on an assignment in South America.

The recipe that I found calls for a marinade made by whirling 4 chopped jalapeno peppers in a blender with a little water and adding the resulting pepper slurry to 1 ½ cups red wine vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 tsp each cumin, paprika, and oregano with 2 tsp salt, ½ tsp black pepper, and a couple of crushed garlic cloves. Cut one large beef tenderloin or sirloin or top round into 1-inch cubes and marinate in the pepper/vinegar spice concoction overnight. Thread onto skewers and roast over hot coals, basting with marinade. The original version called for beef hearts – which since they are a muscle – are rather tough and need a powerful marinade. Otherwise – it’s like chewing steak-flavored rubber bands.

And I know this because – back in the day, when my parents were raising four children on a single salary, my mother joined a food co-op which offered serious bang for the food dollar. One of those bargains was beef hearts. Mom would bake it, thinly slivered in a casserole with rice, and my father would inevitably break out in song – from the musical Damn Yankees:

Damn Yankees

“You’ve gotta have heart
Miles ‘n miles n’ miles of heart
Oh, it’s fine to be a genius of course
But keep that old horse
Before the cart First you’ve gotta have heart!”

The casserole was an oblong enameled cast-iron number and very heavy; they loved each other very much, since Mom never hauled off and brained Dad with it.

Speaking of food, and saving money on it and all – the last couple of weeks of mild weather have done wonderfully for my little patch of back yard paradise. The first embryo tomatoes were spotted this morning, and the plants are simply covered in blossoms. This might be the year that I actually have enough tomatoes to think about canning and preserving them. I followed a suggestion on another blog for making raised beds – a circular construction of chicken wire, lined with weed barrier, and filled to within ten inches of the top with leaves, which gently compost as you grow stuff in the top ten inches or so of soil. It’s working pretty well so far – even better than topsy-turvey hanging planters. The raised bed full of potatoes is also thriving, and the pole beans are launching themselves up the poles with energy and enthusiasm. What a difference just over two weeks!

Oh – and if the thought of downtown Fiesta traffic gives you the willies – check out the Running of the Wiener-Dogs in Buda. This year’s poster is a wee bit of a change from the usual movie-theme. This year it’s a TV show: Yes, it’s Dog Dynasty…

San Antonio Book Festival

In the Shade of the Big Enchilada

By Celia Hayes

Well, that is the fond nickname given to the Central Library building in downtown San Antonio – a hulking cube with geometric cut-outs, painted in a shade of dark orange which always reminded me of paprika. This last weekend, the Central Library and the campus of the Southwest School for Art and Craft across the street from it was the site for the second annual San Antonio Book Festival. This is the kind of book bash which is a small brother of the Texas Book Festival, which is huge, as far as local writers are concerned. Alas, the Texas Book Festival is so huge, that I couldn’t even begin to afford an exhibitor table there, either as a writer for my own books, or as the owner of Watercress Press and for the benefit of the authors that we do publish. But I could afford a single table at the San Antonio Book Festival, so off we went, very early Saturday morning, with two tubs of books, a tub of table accoutrements, some nicely-printed flyers enlarging on what Watercress Press could do for you, and a tall standing vase filled with origami flowers and leaves which had the company name and website printed on the origami leaves.

by Celia HayesThe rows of exhibitor tables were already set up in the parking lot of the Southwest School – three or four rows of neat white pop-up canopies, and white-topped tables with blue skirts, each neatly numbered and the exhibitor’s name in larger letters. We were supposed to have help from volunteers in orange tee-shirts standing by, ready to assist, but the ones which we saw on the way in seemed mostly uncertain of what they should be doing for us; in any case, what materiel we had could be easily moved on the folding dolly. I wound up dragging it all myself, and locating our table; easily enough, since I had been sent a map of the exhibitor layout.
It was overcast the entire day, and early on there was an occasional gust of breeze which sent flyers and business cards and other papers all over the place. If the sun had come out, it might have been quite pleasant – but in any case, it was better than our last outdoor venue – Christmas on the Square at Goliad, this last December, which event was utterly wrecked by bitter cold. Perhaps there would have been more foot traffic through the exhibitor area, but I can’t complain.

Of the three Watercress authors who took a stint at the table, the first was pleased because he sold two books, the second because we made contact with a woman collecting author information with an eye to setting up events on base at Randolph AFB, and the third because I sent her over to speak to the people in the Texas Association of Authors booth. That is a relatively new Austin-based group for independently-published Texas authors. I have met some of the members before, and better yet, thumbed through their books. Better yet, I had even bought one of them, a reference book on early Austin history. They are set up to do events with an organization table, with all of their members’ books – including the aforementioned Texas Book Festival, which happens every year in late October, on the grounds of the state capitol building in Austin. That basis alone would be an excellent reason for joining them.

Home again, at the end of a long day, exhausted and ready for a glass or two of wine, a frozen pizza baking in the oven and an episode or two of the old TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. And that was my weekend – yours?

Hanging Gardens of Spring Creek Forest

The Splendid Hanging Gardens of Spring Creek Forest – Spring 2014

by Celia Hayes

All right then – I confess that after last year’s disastrous tomato adventure – in which that which wasn’t killed by the heat was demolished by invading rats – I could be forgiven for giving up entirely. But darn it, the year before was so bountiful … well, not really all that bountiful, but a good many dinners enlivened with fresh sliced tomatoes on the salad. I hunger for fresh garden tomatoes, and it’s too darned far to drive down to Trader Joe’s for a box of their assorted baby heirloom tomatoes every day or so, with gas over $3.00 a gallon. I stocked up at Rainbow Gardens on a wide assortment of heirloom tomato starts, after the unseasonable hard freeze at the end of February, and embarked again on the adventure of a thriving backyard garden.

Some of the tomatoes are growing in the hanging containers, or in single surviving Topsy-Turvy, but most are in large pots, or in a pair of round raised beds – the suggestion of a commenter on a gardening discussion forum. It seems that you can take a length of hardware cloth or other wire mesh, or even chicken wire, make a circular form about the size of an oil drum with it, line with landscape fabric or weed barrier, dump leaves, grass, twigs, etc to fill it up to within ten inches of the top, then fill the rest with garden soil or potting mix. The stuff underneath composts merrily away, even as the vegetables grow … and in colder climates, the rotting compost even keeps the tomatoes going well into late fall. Lord knows, I have a sufficiency of leaves, what with the Arizona trashtree, and my next door neighbors’ oak molting frequently and generously, and little space to compost them. May as well put them to use as a basis for raised beds

The good garden news this week is that the two sapling fruit trees I bought at Sam’s Club for a pittance sometime in January have both begun to put out tiny green leaves. I thought the peach tree would be OK, as it had noticeable buds swelling the ends of the branches, and when I cautiously pruned an end of the branch, it was supple and green underneath, but the plum was more of an enduring question. It just sat there, sullenly, week after week, all bare twiggy limbs long after the peach began putting forth tiny green leaves. This week, the plum began bringing forth leaves of its own, and I was relieved. Naturally, it will be years before we have any fruit from them, but the speed at which the two crepe myrtle trees and the fig tree grew encourages me no end.

The new flowerbed by the front door – that one which my daughter and I built up when we re-did the brick step – is also doing very, very well. All of the bulbs have come up, the rose bush is thriving mightily, some of the scattered seeds have produced … well, something, and the four narrow planters where I planted mesclun salad greens have done well enough to have been harvested for salads several times already. I planted another round of mesclun greens in back, in two lengths of guttering nailed to the fence – another suggestion from an on-line garden discussion. Cap off the ends of a length of gutter, fill with garden soil, and there you have – a vertical garden. I’d really like to have this be the year that I hardly have to purchase any produce at all.