Book Excerpt: The Fascinating Story of the Woman Behind Southwestern Chili


The intersection of feminism and cooking is a mighty tricky one to navigate, since the connotations of working in the kitchen have become so linked to dismissals of movement. But Deepi Ahluwalia and Stef Ferrari’s marvelous new book A Woman’s Place: The Inventors, Rumrunners, Lawbreakers, Scientists, and Single Moms Who Changed the World with Food (out this week from Little, Brown) tells the story of remarkable women throughout history responsible for progress in both the food world and the real world — and shares some incredible recipes besides.

In this excerpt, Ahluwalia and Ferrari tell the story of how chili became a Southwestern staple, and give you the chance to try it at home:


A bowl of spicy, cheesy, and hearty chili on a cold day can provide a pleasure bordering on the spiritual, and the origins of the hot dish may actually have been divine. In the early seventeenth century, Sister Mary of Jesus de Ágreda was stationed at a convent in Spain. And while she never left her home country in the physical sense, Sister Mary went into regular trances in which she reported being transported across the Atlantic to Texas and the American Southwest. During one of these spells, it is said, she awoke with a recipe for a pepper-spiked stew made with venison, onions, tomato, and peppers. The dish was essentially what we know as chili con carne, apparently heaven-sent. Several centuries later, a similar dish was setting the food world on fire in America. Shortly after the Civil War, in Texas, the land that Sister Mary once visited in her visions, markets sprang up in San Antonio’s open-air plazas. They were the city’s centers of community and commerce, and there women set up stalls from which to sell food to local laborers. One especially popular dish was tamales with beans and chili. Though originally intended to feed poor workers who frequented the market, thanks to wealthier travelers making their way through town, including the writers and poets who documented their meals, the market’s food started to capture the attention and appetites of all. The interest in Mexican food that followed was a great equalizer for a culturally and economically divided community ravaged by war. And at the center of it all? Great big bowls of chili. The fierce businesswomen who brought their specialty to the market became known as the San Antonio Chili Queens. And as travelers passed through and new populations came to settle in San Antonio and surrounding areas, the taste for their spicy food exploded, helping Tex-Mex become a popular and uniquely American cuisine. Eventually, changes to the community slowed the Chili Queens’ influence, and the institution of health regulations ultimately ended their reign. But so beloved is the memory of this former version of royalty that today the city hosts an annual Return of the Chili Queens Festival, which features live music, arts and crafts, and a chili cook-off. SWEET AND SPICY BEER CHILl Serves 6-8 EQUIPMENT: 4 ½ -quart Dutch oven or large stockpot ¼ cup olive oil, divided 2 pounds ground turkey 1 teaspoon kosher salt ½ teaspoon cracked black pepper 1 small red onion, diced 2 shallots, diced 1 tablespoon garlic, minced 1 pint (16 ounces) dark beer (such as Negra Modelo or dunkel) 1 cup chicken stock ½ cup tomato juice 1 tablespoon tomato paste 1 (14½ -ounce) can peeled tomatoes, diced ¼ cup honey 2 tablespoons canned, diced Hatch chiles 2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, plus 1 tablespoon sauce 1 hot chili pepper (such as serrano or jalapeno), seeded and diced 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa 1 tablespoon ground cumin ½ teaspoon kosher salt ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon ¼ teaspoon ground allspice 2 (15-ounce) cans beans (kidney, pinto, black beans, or a combination) 1 lime, halved Heat half the oil in Dutch oven or large stockpot set over medium heat. Add turkey, salt, and pepper, and sauté until meat is slightly browned. Remove from pot and set aside. Add remaining oil and sauté onion, shallots, and garlic until translucent. Add beer, chicken stock, tomato juice, and tomato paste. Stir to combine. Add tomatoes, honey, chiles, chipotle peppers and adobo sauce, chili pepper, remaining dry ingredients, beans, and sautéed turkey. Cover partially and simmer over low heat for 1½ hours, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Ladle into bowls and finish with squeeze of lime juice. Garnish with cilantro, scallions, or fresh avocado slices. Serve with warm corn tortillas or cornbread.

Excerpted from the book A WOMAN’S PLACE by Deepi Ahluwalia and Stef Ferrari. Illustrations by Jessica Olah. Copyright © 2019 by Deepi Ahluwalia and Stef Ferrari. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.