The perfect chilli con carne in the heart of Texas
My hardened palate laughs off the heat, but struggles to differentiate one spoonful of domesticated red from the next. In fact my only strong opinions are reserved for two duffers, which makes the final results fascinating: the burnt one breaks the top 10, and the one that stank of cats is only one off the podium. "All down to individual taste," says Wappo. "No such thing as the perfect chilli." Happily, he's wrong.
If the story of chilli is the story of Texas, the whole book is neatly abridged in the Hill Country, the rolling uplands north of San Antonio. Here, in the town of New Braunfels, German immigrant William Gebhardt marketed the first commercial chilli powder, thereby propelling a homespun local dish on the road to world domination. And it was in Bandera that the Great Western Trail began, and with it the cult of the cowboy: 300,000 head of longhorn cattle, most rustled from Mexico, herded through its broad main street every year in the 1870s and '80s, a last staging post to stock up on liquor and chilli brick before the long, hard ride to Dodge City, Kansas. And it's here, at the rambling and thrillingly authentic Dixie Dude Ranch, that I am inducted into that cult, riding my palomino slowly through the herds of longhorn for hour after hour.
As viewed through a windscreen, the Hill Country seems full of plump oak trees and well-watered meadows, almost European in aspect. It's hardly a surprise to learn that the region is now better known for its wine than its beef. But from the saddle and far into the heart of the Dixie Dude's 750 acres, I'm looking at a landscape crafted by Wayne and Eastwood: dried creeks, prickly pears, untamed, unpeopled hillsides of brush inflamed with a red-orange covering of the flower known as Indian paintbrush.
The sun is high when our column ambles out of the corral, the shadows long when we return, past the barn that's home to a wagon, the very one the current owner's grandfather drove in when he bought this place in 1901. I creak down from the saddle, hot and hungry, pull my Stetson-substitute cap down over my eyes, then stroll languidly towards the verandah shade, and a table where a glass of lemonade waits by an enamel bowl. Chilli, prepared to a recipe finalised in the kitchen here a century back, seasoned with the pequins and japones that gleam fiercely in the bushes behind the ranch-house, like rubies in the dust. Without raising a fork, I know I'm never going to find a better bowl of red.
Tim Moore is the author of Do Not Pass Go and French Revolutions, among others.