The Ol’ Camp Cook

A couple of weeks back, I did a story about chili. However, it did not end the story about chili because there are volumes of info about this spicy meat dish. 

A Dallas millionaire that was an avid chili connoisseur began to research the “chili story” and found records that suggested South Texas cowboys back about 1850 were probably the ones that first concocted the spicy meat dish that came to be known as chili. 

The trail cooks found that chili met a need for hot meals on these early cattle drives. They developed a way to provide these meals by making “chili bricks.”  

This was a process of pressing dried beef, beef tallow, seasoning and chili peppers into a hard mass that could be reconstituted in boiling water. This was a great favorite of these early travelers because4 of the ease of preparation. 

Over the years, enterprising trail cooks would plant peppers such as wild chili pequins, onions, and a variety of spices in areas not readily accessible to livestock for future cattle drives. In the mid 1800s, groups of Texas entrepreneurs known as “Lavenderas or Washerwoman” followed Texas armies providing meals that closely resembled chili. 

In the 1860s, Texas prison inmates developed a brand of chili that used cheap available ingredients such as finely chopped tough cuts of beef, chiles, and other spices that they boiled. Some of this “chili” was so good that when inmates were released, what they missed most was a chance to enjoy a good bowl of chili. 

San Antonio in the was a rough town made up of cowboys, railroad workers, and military  that gave rise to a group later known as the “Chili Queens.” This group of  Mexican women actually started serving a cheap meal of stew, beans, and tortillas to Mexican soldiers before the Battle of the Alamo. 

Later, after Texas won its Independence from Mexico, they continued doing business in open air stalls at the Military Plaza Mercado as they improved their stew to include goat meat and chiles. 

In the 1880s, they made chili in their homes, then loaded colorful wagons to make the trip to the Mercado to serve their wares of spicy meat, beans, and tortillas in a festive atmosphere. 

They became known as the “Chili Queens” and anyone celebrating a night on the town made it a point to visit the Chili Queens. Some of these groups made their chili dishes in exotic ways, and some even added various kinds of beans. 

That may not be unAmerican, but it is definitely unTexan. Yes, I know there are two different camps on the ”Bean, no bean” method of chili making, but the old time Texas chili makers hold to the old adage that Texas chili comes without beans.

 I ran across this little tidbit that says it best. Ken Finley said in his song, “If you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans!” 

I love beans in a variety of ways, but when making chili, I side with the old time chili cooks and you will not find beans in my chili! 

In my poem, “The Ol’ Camp Cook” you will see that beans and chili are two separate and different dishes. 

It just stands to reason, when you are asked why there are no beans found in true Texas chili, the answer is because that is just the way it is! Keep the chili cooking tradition alive.


 The Ol’ Camp Cook


He was a cantankerous ol’ cuss, 

Would give you the look!

For nothing at all, he’d put up a fuss,

But Mister, he could cook!

Now the boys give him plenty of room,

His cook space was taboo,

Kickin’ up a dust would be certain doom,

An’ I’ tellin’ you true!


Yeah, he was as onery as a dang mule,

So you best just leave him alone,

In cow country that’s sort of an unwritten rule,

Mister, that’s how camp cooks are known


 So the fellers give him plenty of space,

Tried not to rile him none,

You see, a good cook is hard to replace,

Best we take care of this one.


‘Cuz as sour as he was he shore could cook,

For hurts, he had a doctorin’ kit,

An’ at funerals an’ Sundays he’d read from the Book,

Need advice, he’d give it.


He could whip up a batch of biscuits an’ scorch a steak,

His dried apple pie was the best,

But when he cooked chili, make no mistake,

It topped ‘em all from east to west.


He’d chunk up his meat, an’ sear it plumb thru,

Some canned termaters as you should,

Onions an’ garlic with Chili pequins too,

His chili was lip smackin’ good!


Hold on there, what about the beans you say,

He could boil them by the pot!

An’ mighty good they were, but in chili…NO WAY!

In Texas, that’s how we are taught!


When he hollers, “come an’ get it,” don’t be slow,

Get there by hook or crook,

Elbow in! He might beller at you though

He’s crusty, but he shore can cook!

© Jim Cathey  


Believe I’ll have another bowl of Red!

God bless each of you and God Bless Texas




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