The perfect chilli con carne in the heart of Texas
Like Austin, San Antonio has grown out, not up - the suburbs sprawl away into the hotter, dustier and slightly less arable distance, leaving the old civic core unscathed. Magnificent Aztec-themed art deco buildings line the restaurant-thronged river that winds through the downtown district. And a bleached 18th-Century mission house still stands at the city's epicentre, one of the oldest buildings in America and perhaps the closest this nation has to a site of pilgrimage.
You wouldn't want to call it a silver lining to the crowds queuing solemnly outside the Alamo, but the day Davy Crockett and his men died was the day chilli con carne was born. Defiant Americans meeting their end in a Spanish building, at the hands of the Mexicans who then ruled Texas... Throw those cultural ingredients into the pot, simmer for 40 years, and you have the first confirmed sighting of chilli con carne - cooked up on Alamo Plaza in the 1880s by street vendors who became known as the chilli queens.
At La Gloria, a bright new restaurant alongside the soon-to-open San Antonio branch of the Culinary Institute of America, I'm given a taste of chilli's genesis.
The CIA aims to survive its challenging acronym and help steer Tex-Mex street food beyond the Taco Bell strip-malls. Chef and owner Johnny Hernandez addresses me through the steam rising from arrachera en salsa de tomatillo, a central Mexican speciality cooked and served in a molcajete - a mortar hewn from volcanic basalt whose design dates back to Mesoamerican times. "You could call this the first chilli," he says, though in truth the flavour is a little too light, too couth: more of a missing link between Aztec and Texan.
There's only one place to go for the fully evolved Tex-Mex genus: across town to Mi Tierra, more of a civic institution than a restaurant, run by the same family since 1941 and currently putting sauce-rimmed smiles on over a million faces a year. Michael Cortez, grandson of the founder, leads me to the kitchens through a warren of dining rooms, each more lavishly festooned with tinsel and fairy lights than the last, all patrolled by a restless army of flamenco-dressed waitresses.
Michael calls over his head chef Raul: together they're going to cook me a bowl of chilli. Because this is Mi Tierra, that bowl has a capacity of 12lb. "Tex-Mex is about a lot of food and big flavours," says Michael, stirring a pan of blood-red slurry. "Fresh isn't always best: in here we've got chilli anchos - the dried form of the poblano chilli, soaked in water for an hour. No tomatoes - this is where the colour comes from." Mi Tierra's chilli recipe, set in stone by his grandmother and her sisters, allows for no other variety. The restaurant now gets through three tons of it a year.
Before Columbus arrived, Michael tells me, people here ate chillies, but not chilli. "They didn't have cheese and they didn't have cumin." Ah, cumin - the Arabic spice with that redolent whiff of a cowboy's armpit, a definitive component of any chilli. "But mainly, they didn't have carne." Even after the Spanish introduced edible livestock, chilli was a poor man's meal, a way of making poor man's meat palatable. "The chilli queens would have used whatever they could get, cuts the butcher threw out. And always in chunks, because who had a mincer back then?" Venison, pork and goat were widespread options; chilli con turtle was not unknown. A lot of cowboy chilli was made with buffalo, back when the pioneers were slaughtering them for their skins. "They dried it into bricks and kept it in their saddlebags. Boil it up on the fire, throw in a few chillies and you're good to go."