In 1988 cultural geographer John Milbauer conducted a foodways survey of Oklahoma restaurants and concluded that chicken fried steak, chili, and barbecue were among Oklahomans' favorite foods. Traditionally, chili combines ground or coarse-chopped beef (or other meat), dried red chili powder, onion, garlic, some liquid, and sometimes comino, oregano, beef suet, tomato, and masa (finely ground corn meal) to thicken. Texas-style chili has no beans. Southerners and Midwesterners generally add beans. Oklahoma chili has its own history, with traditional restaurants, compiled-cookbook recipes, festivals, and humor.
Chili falls clearly within a Hispanic food tradition. Peppers and masa trace their use to Mexico. In 1842, when Sequoyah and a contingent of Cherokees from the Cherokee Nation visited the Rio Grande Valley seeking survivors of the 1839 Texan-Cherokee War, the travelers were fed a fiery concoction of chunks of meat boiled with peppers. Food historians speculate that chili originated in Texas-Mexico border towns and spread north. In the 1880s San Antonio's downtown was famous for Hispanic outdoor vendors called "chili queens." At Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition Texas-style chili was popular, and at St. Louis's 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition the Mexican pavilion introduced other spicy foods. Afterward, proving the world's fairs' success in educating Americans, "chili parlors" appeared around the Midwest.
Oklahoma's first chili vendors may have appeared shortly after the Land Run of 1889. Earliest mention of them appears in an 1897 "booster" pamphlet written by an Edmond resident. Discussing the cosmopolitan nature of Oklahoma Territory, C. Douglas Clem spoke of a "Mexican chilli and tamalla vendor." Similarly, a 1902 business directory for Oklahoma Territory lists an Enid establishment owned by Francisco Garza offering "Mexican chili and hot tamales." A 1903 Oklahoma City directory lists two "Mexican chili parlors" owned by men with Hispanic surnames. Later, in 1918 "Baxter's Chili Parlor" opened, and it operated in Oklahoma City through the 1940s. Owner H. J. Poff, locally called the "Chili King," also sold the dry ingredients to stores in Oklahoma City, Wichita, Kansas, and Fort Worth, Texas.
Tulsans may have first appreciated chili at Frank Morris's chili parlor, noted in a city directory in 1909. In 1910 Morris employed a waiter named Ivan "Ike" Johnson, from Texas, who established "Ike's Chili Parlor" downtown in 1910 or 1911, purportedly acquiring his recipe from an Hispanic Texan employee named Alex Garcia. Eventually Ike had several branches; other Johnson family members also used the basic recipe and opened a string of restaurants called "Ike's Chili House." Both chains remained active toward the end of the twentieth century. He served his chili several ways: chili alone, with beans, on spaghetti, or with beans on spaghetti. Unlike Baxter's, Ike's recipe remained a secret.
Compiled cookbooks from 1900 to mid-century illustrate that early-day Oklahomans made chili at home. A 1903 Afton, Indian Territory, cookbook, included a "Chile Soup" recipe calling for meat, chile peppers, and comino. While the recipe included beans, the base was a Texas traditional mixture. A 1905 collection published by the Ladies' Aid Society of the Presbyterian Church of Ponca City, Oklahoma Territory, offered "Real Mexican Chile," using traditional ingredients but substituting pork for beef. A 1924 Tulsa Business and Professional Women's Club cookbook, The Way to a Man's Heart, included three recipes (two called for beans). The 1927 Cook Book of Tulsa's Hagler Memorial Church Missionary Society included a now-standard recipe for "chili con carne" (no beans). In 1935 the Willing Workers Home Demonstration Club of Henryetta included "chilli con carne (Mexican style)" with beans, in both the "foreign cooking" and "home canning of meats" categories. Over the century, most Oklahoma chili recipes have used beans, although a vocal group of Oklahomans criticized the practice.
Nearly every Oklahoma town probably had a chili parlor at some time. Sixty-two are documented in thirty-four communities from 1897 through 1948. Oil-boom towns such as Drumright and Sapulpa had their share. During the Great Depression of the 1930s "quick lunch" counters abounded and featured stew, hamburgers, and chili. Cheap to make and easy to prepare, chili was loaded with protein (especially when mixed with beans). Other communities with chili parlors were Perry, Grant, Frederick, Blackwell, Gracemont, Red Oak, Frederick, and Woodward.
Another version of chili may have come to Oklahoma on the rebound from Cincinnati; in 1922 a Greek restaurateur augmented a batch of Texas-style chili with cinnamon, allspice, and chocolate. As they amalgamated food habits from several cultures, Cincinnati's Greeks invented chili on top of spaghetti, with cheese, onions, and/or beans. "Five-way chili" became standard fare in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, and plain chili was often drizzled on a hot dog, making a "Coney Island." Generally, a parlor or chain would be owned by a single Greek family.
Oklahomans first encountered this style of chili in the mid-1920s. In 1926 Christ Economou, a Greek immigrant, came to Tulsa after operating hot dog restaurants in Dallas and Houston. At his Coney Island in Tulsa, he served hot dogs with mustard, onions, or chili (no beans). His chili's ingredients included cinnamon, chili powder, red pepper, and paprika. By 1982 renamed Coney I-Lander, the chain included six more outlets, sold more than six hundred thousand hot dogs in Tulsa in 1983, and in 1984 became a nationwide franchise. Similarly, from 1928 to 1967 in downtown Oklahoma City, Gus, Mike, and James Soter operated their own Coney Island. Later, the Mihas family acquired it and opened a second branch in the Capitol Hill district. Specializing in Greek-style chili on spaghetti and hot dogs (no beans), this Coney Island remained in business at the end of the twentieth century.
Oklahoma chili tradition incorporates food events. Following a national trend that began in the 1960s, chili cook-offs have been popular. The Chili Appreciation Society International (founded 1959) and the International Chili Society (founded 1975) have both held competitions, and some of the Oklahoma winners have captured "world" titles in national contests. The event has serious standards for judging, and showmanship is important. The rules dictate that only traditional Tex-Mex ingredients may be used, and no beans are allowed. Future study by cultural geographers will reveal more of the cultural meaning of chili events for those who participate and for those who attend. These formal contests, and informal ones conducted by churches, nonprofit organizations, and corporations, are community events that raise money for charity.
Other phenomena may reveal insights into chili's function in Oklahomans' self-identification. In 1989 Chili USA, a Washington, D.C.–based group led by former Oklahomans Lou Priebe and R. N. Dunagan III, convinced U.S. Rep. Glenn English of Cordell to cosponsor legislation making chili the official food of the United States. The effort turned out to be primarily a media event but may reveal chili's symbolic role in the process of maintaining a group identity (and advertising Oklahoma). As to the allegation that the Oklahoma variety was "just like that of Texas," Chili USA responded that "the difference between Oklahoma chili and Texas chili is the difference between Will Rogers and J. R. Ewing." This rivalry reflects the two states' close historical kinship and their need to be different. A survey of compiled-cookbook recipes reveals that Oklahoma chili is "Texas red," generally with the addition of beans, perhaps reflecting the traditions of the South and the Midwest in Oklahoma.
Oklahomans repeat chili stories, some true and some almost true. When champion bull-rider Kid Fletcher finished in the big money at a rodeo, he is said to have clapped his hands and exclaimed, "I don't care if chili goes to a dollar a bowl!" On television's 1960s quiz show What's My Line? actor Peggy Cass asked the contestant, "Who makes the most famous chili in the world?" and answered her own question, "Ike's in Tulsa, that's who!" A regular patron of Ike's in Tulsa, Will Rogers really did call chili "a bowl of blessedness." Turning down a banquet meal before a speaking engagement at the Mayo Hotel, he said, "I can always eat chicken, but I can't always eat at Ike's."
Grant Foreman, "The Story of Sequoyah's Last Days," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 12 (March 1934).
Sheila Hibben, American Regional Cookery (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1946).
Theodore C. Humphrey and Linn T. Humphrey, eds., "We Gather Together": Food and Festival in American Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1988).
W. C. Jameson, The Ultimate Chili Cookbook: History, Geography, Fact, and Folklore of Chili (Plano, Tex.: Republic of Texas Press, 1999).
Susan Kalcik, "Ethnic Foodways in America: Symbol and the Performance of Identity," in Ethnic and Regional Foodways in the United States: The Performance of Group Identity, ed. Linda K. Brown and Kay Mussell (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984).
Timothy Charles Lloyd, "The Cincinnati Chili Culinary Complex," Western Folklore 40 (January 1981).
Frank X. Tolbert, A Bowl of Red (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1953).
Peter W. Williams, "Foodways," in Encyclopedia of American Social History, ed. Mary K. Cayton, Elliott J. Gorn, and Peter W. Williams, Vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Dianna Everett, "Chili," The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CH041.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.