During what was looking to be one of the bigger snowfalls of this relatively mild winter, we made a pot of chili. If ever chili is the right thing to eat, it’s when the white flakes are fluttering down.

Chili may seem like a Mexican dish, but it probably isn’t.  You won’t find chili served in Mexico, except perhaps in places attempting to appeal to tourists. How do Mexicans feel about chili? Well, in 1959’s Diccionario de Mejicanism, chili con carne is defined as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.”

Texas does, indeed, seem to be the region where chili took hold in this part of North America. The Chili Queens of San Antonio – a group of legendarily attractive, chili-making Tejano ladies – were active in the city until the 1930s when they were banished from places like Alamo Plaza for being a “public nuisance” and for “health concerns.”  For over two-hundred years, though, the Chili Queens would set up tables with red and white oil cloths in the shadow of the old Mission-turned-fortress where General Santa Ana cleaned Davy’ Crockett’s clock. For a dime, you’d get a bowl of the Queens’ chili, and reportedly it was quite a party.

The first documented appearance of chili in Chicago seems to have been at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which introduced many new foods that are still available today, including Cracker Jack, Hershey Bars, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, brownies, the classic Chicago dragged-through-the-garden hot dog…and chili.

Although you might believe otherwise if you’ve ever seen “Blazing Saddles,” folks out west do not like beans in their chili. For the Lone Star state, the protein in the pot is meat, just meat. As a Chicagoan, I like meat AND beans in the chili, if for no other reason than that beans add some variety and texture.

To make the chili even more interesting, we dropped into the chili a few Chicago corn roll tamales, added cheese et voila: a Chili Cheese Tamale. Machine-extruded corn roll tamales are distributed by Chicago’s Tom Tom and Supreme tamale companies; they’re made of corn meal, rather than the more finely ground corn flour (masa harina) with a core of lightly seasoned meat (or maybe it’s just meat fat mixed with corn meal and tinted a kind of dark magenta).

The Chicago corn roll tamale, frequently just a thick mass of pasty carbs, is less than awesome all by itself. Dropped into a bowl of chili, however, it becomes a kind of corn dumpling, absorbing sauce and growing exponentially in deliciousness.

If you don’t want to make a whole pot of chili to celebrate National Chili Day on February 27, go to Parky’s and get yourself a bowl of chili (it’s made in house according to a Texas recipe)…or one of my favorite bites in Oak Park: a Chili Cheese Tamale.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...