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.)

Downtown San Antonio Spanish Governors Palace

The Spanish Governor’s Palace

by Celia Hayes

The single-story adobe ramble on the corner of Military Plaza (or that which is left, with Town Hall plunked down in the middle of it) is the oldest existing domestic structure in San Antonio, It dates from the 1700s; that period when Texas was a far-flung outpost of Spain, and the entire town was a huddle of similar houses around the margins of Military and Main Plazas. So – the Spanish part of the description is justified. It definitely wasn’t a palace by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a vast improvement, living-situation-wise over a windowless, dirt-floored jacale-hut made by planting upright timbers in a trench and plastering them inside and out with mud, so on that basis it certainly looked enough like a palace to warrant a touch of exaggeration. Finally, it was a governor’s residence only by extending the term to gossamer-thinness; it was originally built as the residence and place of business for whomever was captain of the local garrison.

That captain of the garrison was the highest authority-figure around, year in and year out … and long after Mexico won independence from Spain, and Texas won independence from Mexico, the sturdy adobe building survived, as the home of the family of the last garrison captain. When it was no longer a residence – as the area around became a lively commercial district – the rooms housed various enterprises; a pawn shop, a grocery store, a couple of saloons and a haberdashers. Little by little, similar colonial-era structures crumbled, or were demolished and replaced by newer and bigger shops and houses. The nearby Veramendi mansion on Soledad, from the same era and general plan, but built of stone, also followed the same arc. Once the home of the aristocratic family whose daughter married James Bowie, it descending from a grand residence to a variety of shabby businesses before being demolished in the first decade of the 20th century in order to facilitate the widening of Soledad Street.

The Governor’s Palace was luckier – in that it didn’t stand in the way of any plans to widen streets, and that the conservation bug had settled in, well and truly. The city bought the place entire, and commissioned architect Harvey Partridge Smith to restore it to what it would have been like in its glory days. Smith used his knowledge of other similar buildings across the length and breadth of the Hispanic settlements in the Southwest, and so arrived at a romantic approximation rather than a strict interpretation. But it is a charming building even so, with thick walls and tall ceilings (as a sort of heat sink), long narrow windows opening into a Spanish-style courtyard and garden. In the old days, the garden and outbuildings would have reached to San Pedro Creek. The floors are of tile, which would have been cool to walk on, and there are numerous niches cut into the walls and set with shelves for various ornamental items. Before the invention of air conditioning, this kind of building would have been about as comfortable as you could get, in the heat of a Texas summer. The Spanish Governor’s Palace is open to the public various hours on every day but Monday, and is well worth a visit to gain an idea of how the upper elite would have lived in early San Antonio.


Authentic Foods from Spain

More Flavors of Spain

by Celia Hayes

My mother just sent us a basket of gourmet foods from Spain as a Christmas present for us again, since last year’s basket from La Tienda was such a big hit. We loved living in Spain, loved the food, adored grazing from the little plates – the tapas – invitingly set out at bars, loved the fact that a ‘bar’ in Spain was usually not just a seamy joint serving spirituous liquors to an assortment of skeevey low-lives. A bar in Spain was much more likely to be a kind of café, coffee shop and neighborhood club-house, the place housing the pay phones, ATMs, video game machines, and clean bathrooms … and oh, yes – serving snacks and alcoholic drinks of every possible description. It also mildly freaked out many Americans upon discovering that many gas stations on the highway – or autopista – also had very well-stocked bars. Make of that what you will.

Mom’s Christmas basket again revived memories of some wonderful food, although it did not, for instance, include any jamon Serrano – that dried, cured ham which was available practically anywhere, and was a component of so many dishes. It was a rare rustic restaurant which didn’t have a couple of whole curing jamons hanging from the ceiling beams, and a rare bar that didn’t have one on hand for making the little tapas snacks from, with half the flesh shaved away in tissue-paper thin slices. The Spanish equivalent of Costco or Sam’s Club had them for sale in a special section … which it must be admitted, always smelt faintly of cheesy gym socks.
But there was one dish made with jamon Serrano which I loved, and only had once, in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela to celebrate having followed the old pilgrim road from the Rioja to Asturias – and that was a dish of baby artichokes cooked with jamon. I went looking for recipes for it, and found one which calls for one lemon cut in half, 1 and ¾ pounds tiny baby artichokes – the ones barely the size of a small egg, before the chokes inside have gotten coarse and inedible, ¼ cup of olive oil, 3 Tbsp minced fresh parsley, 8 thin slices of jamon, also chopped, and salt and pepper.

Fill a large pan with cold water, and squeeze the lemons into it, adding the squeezed lemon halves. Trim the inedible stalk and tough outer leaves from each artichoke, and cut each in half, putting them into the lemon-water immediately; this will prevent them from turning brown. When finished processing the artichokes, put the pan on the stove, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 or 6 minutes, until the artichokes are tender. Drain, discarding water and lemon halves. Pat the artichokes dry. Heat the oil in a frying pan large enough to hold the artichokes in a single layer. Arrange the artichokes cut-side-down and fry for 5 minutes. Turn them over and fry the other side for two minutes, then add the jamon Serrano and fry for another four minutes, until the jamon is crispy. Place in a serving dish and top with the parsley and ground pepper. Oh, if it were only the season now for baby artichokes, and if Mom’s gift basked had only included jamon Serrano – I would definitely fix this for our Christmas Eve tapas supper!

Tacos Till 4 AM at Ericks

Urban Street Food – Erick’s Tacos

While I’m not nearly as willing as Anthony Bourdain is to risk my health eating exotic foods in . . . ummm . . . exotic and off the beaten track venues, and I certainly draw the line at consuming tid-bits that I would have to muscle past my gag-reflex . . . I’ve always been pretty adventurous about street food, and taking a chance on a restaurant venue that may not look all that promising and first or second glance. I will always remember the little Chinese restaurant in my hometown – a tiny wooden shack, with peeling paint and a sagging roof, which appeared as if a good sneeze would bring it down all together.

We went past it for years, assuming that it was the kind of place where you’d get ptomaine poisoning from the water glasses, until finally we had just heard too many glowing recommendations from friends, who insisted, positively and over and over that it was the best Chinese food in town, ever! We ventured in, at last – the place was shabby on the inside, but scrupulously clean, and the food was divine – crunchy, spicy, savory, crisp, aromatic, perfectly flavored – everything that good Chinese food is supposed to be. It was even good as leftovers, warmed up the next day.

So – lesson learned: pay no attention to what the outside looks like. And we learned the lesson again, after having driven by Erick’s Tacos on Nacogdoches for I don’t know how many years. It’s next to Cordova Auto, which is mostly painted vivid yellow – but Erick’s is painted a shade of vivid orange that you can see vibrating against the inside of your eyelids for some time after you close your eyes. The dining room of the original Erick’s is a group of folding tables and chairs in an open bay that was part of the garage, although there is how a nice little patio area adorned with potted palm trees. The cooking is done in a taco truck parked on one side – and the drinks and fruit cups and ice cream bars are served from a tiny enclosed area on the other. The menu is basically Mexican street food, sort of like La Gloria Ice House, but without a shred of pretensions to atmosphere. Heck, the atmosphere consists of looking at the traffic on Nacogdoches, but oh, the food . . .

I tried out the special, which was pork carnitas, and my daughter had chorizo con bifstec, which came with lashings of fresh cilantro, and crumbled cheese and sautéed onions. The menu is painted on the side of the truck, essentially. Both of our orders were served up on tiny corn tortillas, doubled – so as to have something to scoop up the goodness that fell out, as we ate. There weren’t many other diners on the evening we ate there, but we were early. It’s open until four in the morning, apparently. They have also just opened an indoors extension of Erick’s, in a little house next door which used to be something else. Perhaps they have something like a proper menu inside, but if they do, it’s probably just as good.

But beware of the green condiment sauce, and add it judiciously. That’s the stuff that is a pale creamy green, which at first glance might look like guacamole. It’s not – it’s nuclear fission by the spoonful.


An Old Fashioned San Antonio Diner

Created Monday, 19 October 2009 13:55

An Old Fashioned San Antonio Diner at the Alamo

I wouldn’t claim that San Antonio’s G/M Steakhouse is the oldest continuously operating diner and purveyor of fast food, in all it’s infinite varieties and greasy-grilled glory, but at fifty years and apparently going strong, it’s definitely in the running. This, my children, is what fast food used to be, before the days of Micky D’s, BK and Wendy’s drive-up window open to all hours. This fountain of classic fast-food delights – hamburgers, fries, grilled sandwiches, breakfast tacos and chicken-fried steaks (plus all sorts of other steaks) is just across Alamo Plaza from another classic San Antonio institution of slightly longer duration, the Menger Hotel. My daughter and I had lunch the Menger Hotel last weekend, after looking over the Alamo historical re-enactors in the gardens behind the Alamo.

Although the G/M isn’t a classic diner; one of those early 20th century pre-fab restaurants on wheels, the kitchen set-up is reminiscent of one. There is a single narrow lane of cooking area, right by the entrance, a wide grill and deep-fryer, the case of cut slices of pie and cakes on display, and a menu on the wall above – a menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner items.The breakfast and lunch specials are on the inexpensive side; this may very well be the cheapest sit-down place to eat on Alamo Plaza, even cheaper than the Subway, a couple of doors down.And the Subway probably doesn’t have as interesting a place to sit and eat.

It’s an interesting jumble of a classic tall 19th century space with a pressed-tin ceiling, plain mid-20th century diner tables and chairs, and shelves and cases along the walls filled with military memorabilia, photographs and relics. The current owner has a large collection, only part of which is on display. They updated the menu prices at the beginning of the year; most breakfast items are under $5.00, most lunch selections are well under $10.00 – and the décor can’t be beat at any price.

The G/M is at 211 Alamo Plaza, and is open from 7 AM, every day but Tuesday.

Just as a lagniappe:

A recipe for chicken-fried steak – this is a 1985 prize-winner from the Chicken Fried Steak World Championships in Big Spring, which is spiced by marinating in the juice from a can of sliced canned jalapeno chili peppers:

  • Cut 1lb round steak into four portions and pound until thin. Marinate resulting cutlets in the juice from a 4-oz can of sliced jalapenos, for at least half an hour.
  • Combine in a flat pan: 2 cups flour, ½ tsp garlic salt, ¼ tsp salt, ¼ tsp black pepper, 1 Tbsp chili powder, 1 ½ Tbsp paprika, and a dash ginger
  • Combine in another flat pan: 2 beaten eggs, and 2 cups milk.

In a large flat skillet or electric fry pan, fry 5 strips bacon, and when done, remove bacon, reserving rendered bacon fat. Add cooking oil as needed to fry the steaks. Dip marinated steaks, first in the milk-egg mixture, then coat with flour mixture. Fry steaks at 350 degrees, until done, at 350 degrees. Garnish with crumbled bacon and serve with milk gravy.

Other classic Texas recipes are found here – Garry’s Home Cookin’ Eat first, ask questions later!


The Breakfast Taco or Aztec Warrior Food

Created Friday, 21 August 2009 21:17

An Ode to the World’s Most Perfect Breakfast Food

By Julia Hayden

Sing, Muses, of nature’s – and San Antonio’s most perfect breakfast entree, the food of the Gods, infinite in variety and nourishment! Unhappy mortals in less blessed locations may sing of their croissant and cafe au lait, the mixed breakfast grill, or toast with honey, jam on bread, even disgusting concoctions like sausage gravy, as vomitous in appearance as in taste … but little do they know of the sublime perfection in the simple breakfast taco!

By the breakfast taco, I mean the real thing, the honest, southwest concoction served in thousands of little eateries scattered along the San Antonio highways and byways, painted in bright pink, aqua, yellow or lavender, with a Virgin of Guadalupe painted inside or out, hand painted advertisements for menudo and barbacoa, and a corrida blasting out of the radio in back. This is not the fake, processed muck wrapped in something that might be white cardboard and oozing orange grease, foisted off on those deprived mortals who have never, ever tasted a real breakfast taco, oh no.

This is fluffy scrambled egg and a scattering of browned country sausage, enfolded in a tender, home-made fresh tortilla, irregular as to shape, two delicate layers baked swiftly on a griddle, a spoonful of roasted tomato and jalapeno chile salsa dribbled onto the eggs. There is the potato and egg variant, the chorizo version, the egg and bacon variety, the sub-category of chorizo-bean-and-cheese, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, all wrapped in a fresh flour tortilla. With salsa on it, you have the major food groups in one simple package.

This is the breakfast of the 21st century, combining solid nourishment, gustatory satisfaction, and unmatched ease of consumption. Until you have eaten a real breakfast taco, you cannot say that you have really, really had breakfast. Every major avenue in San Antonio has at least three places serving breakfast tacos in every block, and at least one of them will offer drive-through service.

You will know them by the construction pickup trucks parked out front, by a gathering of automobiles at every hour, by hand-painted signs in the windows, by the delicious odors wafting forth, and by the people departing them bearing away paper sacks bulging full of the bounteous and sacred tacos, each wrapped in a square of tinfoil, and accompanied by handful of little plastic cups, each containing a spoonful of thin red or green sauce … oh, be careful of the sauce, the home-made variety is nuclear-fission in a cup, but it wouldn’t be a breakfast taco without the sauce.