History

Early Texas Businesswomen: The Legendary Chili Queens of San Antonio

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Food trucks are everywhere nowadays, bringing grub to places without and diversifying palates too. It’s a win-win innovation with many benefits. Before there were food trucks like today, there were Chili Queens in the plazas of San Antonio. Roughly between the 1850s and the early 1940s, entrepreneurial women drew crowds from near and far for a taste of their delicious offerings while seated on benches near the Alamo, Market Square, and Military Plaza, among other areas.

Early Texas Businesswomen: The Legendary Chili Queens of San Antonio

Facebook/ El Cocinero Loko

These women toted supplies from homes in a community called Laredito to cook and serve items such as tamales, beans, coffee, and chile. Under lantern light, these women and their helpers worked from dusk until dawn. For a dime, a patron could walk away with a full plate of chile, beans and a tortilla on the side. The popularity of the food carts grew in 1877 when railroad service reached San Antonio. Word of mouth coupled with railroad propaganda spread about the food and music, making it a must-see stop. Newspapers invented the term “Chili Queens,” likely from “carne con chile,” which was easy to pronounce but ignored the impressive culinary range and diversity of dishes.

Early Texas Businesswomen: The Legendary Chili Queens of San Antonio

Facebook/ Vintage San Antonio

Due to this exposure, by the end of the 1800s, “carne con chile” had reached cities across the country via tourists who returned home craving the dish. Chili parlors soon sprang up everywhere. Trouble was brewing for the Chili Queens, however, because even though they boosted the local economy, their stands were increasingly displaced by city development. Further disruption occurred from the San Antonio health department who closed stands for sanitary reasons, ordered chefs to enclose their operations in tents and mesh fencing, and eventually deemed the dishwashing methods unhygienic. The early 1940s saw the last of the stands shut down.

Early Texas Businesswomen: The Legendary Chili Queens of San Antonio

Facebook/Ralph Goins

A legacy remains for the Chili Queens. Descendants carry their recipes and have written books, the Texas Legislature proclaimed chili con carne as the state dish in 1977, and even the theater is involved. The Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theatre will present a children’s play called The Texas Chili Queens from June 21 – 30, 2019. It’s a multi-generational historical story featuring a 4th grade descendant of an original Chili Queen competing in a school-wide chili competition. Learn more about this fascinating time and group in Texas history via Lydia Mendoza’s book: “Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary History in Recipes.”