A “chili queen” (or “chile queen”) was a woman most famously in the 1880 and 1890s who sold chili. The term was popular in San Antonio, and the chili queens operated near or in Military Plaza. The term is of historical interest today.
The Great Chili Project
Alexander Sweet, a San Antonio newspaper columnist, described Military Plaza and the chili stands in 1885: “He will see an array of tables and benches, and he will be assailed by the smell of something cooking. At the fire are numerous pots and kettles, around which are dusky, female figures, and faces that are suggestive of `the weird sisters’ whose culinary proclivities were such a source of annoyance to Macbeth. These are the chile con carne stands, at which this toothsome viand is sold to all who have the money and inclination to patronize them.”
History of Chili
Chili buffs in San Antonio - and in most of Texas, for that matter - say the stuff called “chili” was invented there, probably by “Chili Queens,” women who dotted the Military Plaza and sold highly seasoned brews called “chili” from rudimentary carts, all through the night, to a cadre of customers who rode in from all over the prairies to singe their tonsils. The “Queens” did exist, for nearly two hundred years, the locals say. Yet most historians fail to tell of them selling chili much before 1880. Before then it was probably strictly Mexican food.
If chili next moved from the greatly romanticized cattle trail to the Military Plaza of San Antonio, it also moved right back into the factual stage. It is all pretty well documented from there. The “Queens” may have been there for two hundred years, but they probably had sold chili only for the last third of that period; and, if for no other reason than one that usually improves a product, they began to refine and add sophistication to the dish. They brought it somewhere near today’s stage. The reason, of course, was competition. There were dozens of the Chili Queens on the plaza, and you can bet that each one was constantly striving to improve her blend, simply to attract more customers than any of the competition.
The Queens, who were for the most part Mexican, made their chili at home and then loaded it onto colorful little chili wagons, on which they transported it to the plaza, along with pots, crockery, and all the other gear necessary to feed the nineteenth-century night people. They build mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm, lighted the wagons with colored lanterns, and squatted on the ground beside the cart, dishing out chili to customers who sat on wooden stools to eat the delightful and fiery stew.
All this went on from nightfall until just before sunrise, when the vegetable vendors came on with their carts to occupy the Military Plaza, which had become known as “La Plaza del Chile con Carne.”
The Chili Queens remained a highlight in San Antonio for many years (there was even a “San Antonio Chili Stand” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893), until the late 1930s, in fact, when the health department put an end to their time-honored profession.
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.
26 May 1890, San Antonio (TX) Daily Light, pg. 1:
The time when chili con carne was cheapest in San Antonio, was last Saturday night when the first blast of the rain storm came over the city. It carried lamps, buckets, plates and almost every thing portable in every direction. The proprietors and chili girls had a serious time of it for a few minutes while the spectators on the side walks jeered and it wasn’t long before the victims themselves joined in a hearty laugh over their ridiculous plight.
28 September 1891, San Antonio (TX) Daily Light, pg. 2?:
The chile queen has taken to the stage again. This time she will “supe” in the dramatic.
21 August 1893, Dallas Morning News, pg. 4:
The San Antonio News feels like the Roman general amid the rains of Carthage, or Byron in “Greece, but living Greece no more”:
A visitor to the new metropolitan Alamo city, who had traversed the broad plains of Texas when the ox teams, Mexican vaqueros, rancheros and bronchos filled the plazas; when the fandango houses were the aristocratic temples of amusement; when the deadly crack of the revolver was but as a breath of life; when the barbarities of the frontier hardened the brain and quickened the nerve—a visitor who saw San Antonio then and sees her to-day, is impressed wit hthe decadence of all that formerly lent a tinger of romance to this pueblo. The emptiness of the plaza by night and the absence of the dark-eyed chile girls imbues him with a melancholy regret for auld lang syne. ‘Tis true, some still remain, but compared to the beauty and glory of those that have passed they are as the chaff to the wind. The tamales, frijoles and enchiladas are still served, but not as of yore, by voluptuous, star-eyed senoritas whose fame in affairs of love spread to Mexico and back again to the plains of the Platte; for whose smiles men engaged in deadly conflict; for whose love men lived and died; and who reigned over their rough, lawless patrons with the autocratic sway of a despot. Those days are gone and the chile queens are now seen as often in the halls of justice under arraignment on some petty charge, as of yore their predecessors marched through a levee of ardent admirers, ready and willing to battle to the death for her smile or forfeit years of existence to bask in the sunlight of her affection for a brief segment of time.
31 March 1894, Forest and Stream, pg. 270:
Dick and I visited the old plaza where once the chile girls hold their midnight fires, but here we met a disappointment, and found the town had sustained a loss. The chile girls had moved to another plaza, and Martha, the chile queen of four years ago, was gone, deposed, lost—in short, married. Another chile queen had arisen, Sadie yclept, who scorned to sell chile out of doors at midnight, and who actually had a chile restaurant up on the Alamo plaza. Thither, then, that evening.
But about the chile pastime and the chile queen as about many things in San Antonio and elsewhere, I must write later, promising faithfulness. It grieves me to reflect that we have not killed a single thing in this article—except the Mexicans at the Alamo, who has been dead—but I promise that from now on this story shall become bloodier and bloodier, and in part shall fairly reek with gore.
I can hardly help stopping to write about our chile soiree at the casa de la Reina de chile Sadie. You see, the new chile queen was called Sadie. Dick had never seen a chile queen, and wouldn’t have known one from Adam. Indeed, I imagine that a great many people don’t know what that unique thing being, a chile queen, is; neither do they know what a chile supper is. But it takes time to tell all these things. For instance, As I was saying, when Dick—
28 April 1894, Forest and Stream, pg. 358:
Sadie, the Chile Queen.
But we are forgetting something which should not be forgotten, an attraction of San Antonio which to some minds would no doubt rival the old missions in interest—Sadie, the present reigning chile queen, under whose regime as well as a great many between.
There are few who know what a chile queen is. As a type she is the one new thing under the sun. No novelist has discovered her (though some day I am going to ger Sadie to tell me her story, which will be pretty near a novel) and no newspaper has exploited her so far as I know. She remains a type.
The chile queen is a result of evolution. Originally all chile girls were born free and equal, and engaged in the sale of tortillas and the pursuit of happiness all about alike. They sold their peppery wares at night out of doors because they lived in a summer country and because their customers were out of doors at night. Then came in the American, the gringo, who found a certain picturesqueness about the custom, and a certain fascination about the chile girls and their costumes. A smartish fellow would go to buy, and linger to talk, or would make the buying merely a pretense for his chaffing. The customers were all men, and therefore merciless and brutal in their wit very often. The prettiest girl would get the most attention of this sort and the most chaffing. Natually her wits grew sharper, and if she thus gained the readiest and keenest tongue and retained the prettiest face and figure, she became by tacit consent the champion of them all, their “queen.” Against her the others seemed to feel no enmity. Possibly they reflected that the chile queen’s reign is but transient. Thus the “Queen” herself grew up to be a woman young and pretty, yet hard and cynical, with a bitter knowledge of the utter unchivalrousness and selfishness of the average man, yet with a good-natured tolerance of human nature as she found it; with a tongue swift in rude repartee, yet with a temper which did not show and did not feel the least of bitterness. Lazy, soft of voice, slow of motion, feline perhaps, and perhaps really attractive, your chile queen would answer you with speech peppery as her wares, but smile at you so kindly you could not take offense, and the next minute teach you you were there to eat chile and not to be hunting smiles nor expecting them. In short, being unable to classify this being as belonging either to the half or whole world or any known fraction thereof, you must end by giving her a world of her own, and wishing it were a better one and one not so full of disillusionments, for it would be the surest of all a queen’s privileges to keep the illusions of life unhurt.
Not so Spanish.
Sadie is dark and adorably Spanish looking, 18 or 20, with fine figure, fine eyes, fine dark hair, and an air which is a mixture of tenderest solicitude, or coquetry and of cold-blooded indifference to you, any of your family or any of your relatives. Sadie speaks Spanish with the prettiest little voice in the world. There could be nothing more charming than to see Sadie lift her skirts daintily (for this particular queen has left the plaza and set up a Mexican restaurant indoors so that she can costume somewhat), to see her adjust the great mass of roses on her bosom (for Sadie will have fresh red roses, grand fragrant ones, every day you may be sure), to see her jab her head well into the narrow kitchen window (for Sadie has two rooms to her cafe), and to hear her call out to her Mexican cook Pancho (for Sadie has a cook, bless you!) in the sweetest, most Meissonier-painting-like voice on earth, and with the purest Castilian inflection possible to be found “Enchiladas y chile, Pancho! Dos blanquillas y chile! Chile con carne! Tres tassitas de cafe! Pronto! Pancho, pronto!” To see and to hear this, I say, is the most charming thing imaginable, especially when you are hungry, and when you wonder if Pancho really is going to be quick about the enchilladas, the eggs with chile gravy, the chile and meat, and the little cups of coffee.
While Pancho cooks, Sadie knits with bright silks, and smokes a cigarette the while. You rest, grow hungrier, and imagine that you are the first man that ever tried to guy a chile queen. You relent. You reflect on the pure Castilian beauty, upon the liquid Castilian speech of the being before you. You dream. You are in old Spain.
You can dream all you want to in the place so you don’t throw bones and things under the table, but don’t you dream too long that Sadie is Castilian, or Andalusian, or any of that, or that she speaks Spanish as a native tongue. The fact is Sadie was born in the Blue Grass land of old Kentucky. Sadie and her mother live together. Sadie keeps her mother, I suppose, and feeds all the beggars brusquely, and has a heart larger than her income. She and her mother have a history, no doubt. I do not know their other name and would not give it if I did. That part does not belong. In common with all the boys at San Antonio I pay my homage to Sadie because she is a good fellow. If a queen is a good fellow it makes no difference whether she was born in Andalusia or Kentucky, and as to her record or her history, it is nobody’s business. Therefore, long live Sadie, and may her cafe flourish. Those who seek it will find it on the Alamo plaza, a stone’s throw from where Kentucky Davy Crockett died.
It was with Sadie, the chile queen, then, that Dick ate his last chile supper in San Antonio. This was not the evening when Mr. Guessaz and Mr. Paris joined us there for supper after the quail shoot—the time when Sadie went into raptures over Mr. Paris’s resuscitated baby rabbit—but the evening after that, after we had bidden our friends all good-bye, and had just time after supper to catch our train for the North. Again we ate fresh eggs swimming in the biting chile gravy ,and again enchilladas. When you order enchilladas, you get something like a pancake, rolled up ,and inside of it are red hot chunks of genuine fire. You take a long breath to cool your mouth, and it only burns the harder, till Sadie gravely says, “I think you will find this coffee make it easier, sit,” and sets beside your plate the small cup of antidote to the red pepper. No wonder the Spanish are bull-fighters. If I got full of that blazing red pepper, I’d fight anything.
3 November 1897, Stevens Point (WI) Daily Journal, pg. 2?:
THE CHILI QUEENS.
THEIR THRONES WERE IN SAN AN-
TONIO’S HISTORIC ALAMO.
Their Reign Is Faded, But They Rules
Royally For a Long Times—They Were
Especially Gracious to the Tourist From
the North and Made It Pay.
When the northern tourist used to strike the town, the first things the patriotic citizen who was doing the honors would proudly steer him up against would be the Alamo plaza chili stand, with its attendant divinity, the far famed chili queen.
“Now, sir, you’ve seen the historic Alamo, the old cathedral and the missions and got a whiff of our ozone,” the citizen would remark with righteous pride, “and tonight you must come and east a Mexican supper and see the chili queens. The chili queens are one of our most noted attractions—the beautiful, dark eyed senoritas, you know.”
The tourist generally knew. This was in the late eighties, the palmy days of the chili queens, when their fame had spread to the larger northern cities. Some very musical verse about them had appeared in the magazines, and in the newspaper sketches they were idealized as stunning creatures, with the rich, brown skins of the tropics and the languorous grace and bewitching black eyes of Spanish donnas.
When the citizen and the tourist stroll up to the gay looking chili stand with its big red, green and yellow lanterns and its scintillating pyramids of cheap but gorgeous glassware, she promptly shuts up the sporty young man who is bandying slang with her or quits haggling with the chili gorged bootblack over change.
She hastily rearranges the flowers in her hair and the big bouquet at he bosom and beams o nthe new arrivals with sparkling eyes.
The citizen addresses her with an easy familiarity.
“Hello, Chiquita! How’s tricks?”
“Hello, senor. Tricks are bueno. How is my amigo, the senor?”
They all used the Spanish dialect when they had special customers, despite the fact that other tongues came easier to some of them by nature. There were six reigning queens on the plaza in 1888, and one of them was of German descent and another was born in the island where the sod is highly green and there are no snakes. The other four, however, were senoritas of the genuine Mexican variety.
Chiquita’s eyes sparkle with their most brilliant luster, and, with a quick succession of flashing smiles, she uses her red lips and white teeth to good advantage on the tourist while she engaged in badinage with the citizen.
“You’re looking prettier than ever tonight, Chiquita. I’m glad of it, because we want to make a good impression on my friend here. He’s from away up north, you know, and he’s heard of you before.”
Then Chiquita uses her tinkling laugh and slaps the citizen gently on the cheek.
“So sorry, but I have not a single nickel to give you. But take this flower instead.”
She transfers a big rose from her corsage to the citizen’s buttonhole. The tourist is beginning to want his share of the fun.
“Yes, I heard of you up there, and that’s one reason I came down here—to see you, you know.”
“Oh my! You must have a flower too.”
Her hands linger lightly on his coat as she carefully pins a spray of honeysuckle on, and the tourist begins to believe that he must have come down here for this. He is enjoying himself very much.
“Well, let’s being on our chili peppers,” suggests the citizen. “You say you never ate one before? We had better take a little of everything, then, so you can say you ‘did’ San Antonio right. Bring us the whole bill of fare, Chiquita.”
The queen turns sharply to the slimy looking old Mexican who has charge of the steaming pots and kettles in the rear and rattles off this with a celerity which seems to astonish the tourist:
“Jesus, andarle! Dos platas de chili con carne, y dos tamales con chili gravy, de enchilades tortillas, y dos tazas de cafe.”
The fiercely burning chili con carne agonizes the tourist and he chokes on the enchilades, but he manages to struggle through the tamales by drinking a great deal of water. Meanwhile, the chili queen sits opposite him in a languishing attitude and keeps up her tinkling laugh. When it comes time to go, he insists on paying the bill, despite protests of the citizen, and tenders a $5 bill. Chiquita seems to have trouble in counting out the change and a thought strikes the tourist.
“Say, Chiquita,” he says tentatively, “you needn’t mind that if”—
“You mean you want to make me a present?”
As that is what he means, she tucks the bill in her bosom, and gives the tourist a fond look. She places another rose from her hair and pins it on his coat and squeezes his hand in bidding him goodby.
Then, when her customers are gone, she goes and sits down in front of one of the steaming kettles, with a lap full of tortillas, which she uses to scoop up large mouthfuls of chili.
Chiquita was a fair type of all the chili queens. They were not the idyllic creatures of popular conception that they appeared to be when on dress parade, but most of them were really comely and they had the charm at least of novelty.
The glory of the chili queens waned and flickered away with great suddenness, and they themselves drifted away from the high tide of fame and fortune in a like manner.—San Antonio Express.