The perfect chilli con carne in the heart of Texas
Mi Tierra likes to simmer its chilli for four hours, but after one I'm too hungry to wait. Michael reluctantly assents, but then does something terrible: he ladles out a portion onto a red tortilla, rolls it up and smothers the ensemble in grated American cheddar. This, I realise, is how most chilli is now eaten: Mi Tierra's extensive menu only features it served inside or on top of something else, and buried under Monterey Jack. It tastes utterly wonderful - smoky, rich comfort food - but at the same time, it's not a bowl of red.
On a weekend afternoon in Austin, the middleaged locals were hitching pleasure craft up to their SUVs and heading out to the lake. Here in San Antonio, they're dancing in the street. Even better, they're cooking chilli in it. The market square outside Mi Tierra is suddenly alive with noise, colour and the aroma of muscular street food: the city is out in force to celebrate its Hispanic chilli queens, whose saucy banter and impromptu singalongs made every night a street party - until the 1930s, when the civic authorities despaired of their ribaldry and laissez-faire approach to food hygiene.
The annual Return of the Chili Queens festival seems to transplant this whole end of town south of the border: there are stalls selling the full, mad range of Mexican wrestling masks, and the sombrero-topped mariachi troupes stationed outside each restaurant somehow succeed in exuding an air of sombre artistry. But look and listen more closely and you'll spot the Tex-Mex cultural collisions. The craggy Charles Bronson vaqueros, Hispanic cowboys with their fancy rodeo shirts and Stetsons, and the Tejano bands playing the mix-and-match sound of chilli: shades of country and western, mariachi, blues - even a dash of Bavaria with the accordions.
Chilli's more usual sensory associations draw me to the far end of the square, where a row of jolly and pink couples are toiling away at little camping stoves in the mighty midday sun: the Chili Appreciation Society International has come to honour the chilli queens with a cook-off.
Competitive chilli-making is a very Texan concept, one unsurprisingly spawned by a feud. Held in Terlingua, Texas, in 1967, the debut cook-off was organised to settle a score between the embryonic CASI and an East Coast food writer who reviewed their champion's effort as "Texas mud pudding" in an article boldly headlined Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do. If I reveal that his own recipe included beans, you will know who won. One of the three judges ended up on the floor in convulsions.
These days, CASI takes itself much less seriously, cooking chilli to raise money for charity and have a laugh while doing so. Powdered spice abounds, and most entrants have a shot of tequila in one hand and a carton of pre-blended Knorr stock in the other; it's all cheerfully reminiscent of the way chilli is made in homes the world over. "Right back to the chilli queen days, this has always been a social meal," CASI director Robert "Wappo" Schrade tells me, "something people enjoy making and eating together." Still, you can't make chilli in Texas without a list of rules, and CASI's regulations proscribe marinading, tomato in any form but purée, the discharging of firearms while at the stove - and beans.
In the spirit of welcoming souls who have been drinking all day in the sun, CASI's senior members insist that I stay to help judge the final. I'm given a scorecard and a stack of plastic spoons, then seated at a table full of similarly inexperienced adjudicators; when I ask my elderly neighbour what he looks for in a chilli, he whispers, "Hell, I'm an Indian. I never eat this stuff!" Sure enough, his debut spoonful sends him into a fearsome coughing fit. "Only 20 to go," whispers Wappo.