by Frank W. Jennings
From the 1860s until the late 1930s, one of the primary amusements of both visitors and locals was the food and entertainment offered in the plazas of San Antonio by the Chili Queens.
These women served chili con carne and other Mexican American delicacies from dusk until dawn at various San Antonio plazas over the years -- setting up tables and benches and bringing pots of food to cook or reheat over their flickering mesquite fires and to serve by the light of their oil lanterns. As morning came, their families helped them cart everything away. Wandering musicians and singers provided a festive air to the unique proceedings—unique, that is, outside Mexico. In Mexico, the open-air plaza restaurants were not celebrated for their charming food-servers. Only San Antonio had Chili Queens—and while they liked to joke, banter, and flirt with customers, they were well chaperoned by family members who guarded their virtue.
At first, only a few women -- such as Sadie and Martha, sometimes pictured in old books about San Antonio -- were called Chili Queens. Sadie was called "Anglo-Celtic;" Martha was Hispanic. Eventually, the royal title was applied to all the women—most of them young and virtually all of them Hispanic.
Visiting writers such as Stephen Crane, author of Red Badge of Courage, were charmed by the Chili Queens. He recalled in 1895 that "upon one of the plazas, Mexican vendors with open-air stands sell food that tastes exactly like pounded fire-brick from Hades -- chili con carne, tamales, enchiladas, chili verde, frijoles." Crane depicted a romantic scene: "In the soft atmosphere of the southern night, the cheap glass bottles upon the stands shine like crystal and lamps glow with a tender radiance. A hum of conversation ascends from the strolling visitors who are at their social shrine."
O. Henry, who visited San Antonio in the 1880s and 1890s, wrote in his short story, “The Enchanted Kiss”, that “the nightly encampments upon the historic Alamo Plaza, in the heart of the city, had been a carnival, a saturnalia that was renowned throughout the land.” Then the caterers numbered hundreds, the patrons thousands. "Drawn by the coquettish senoritas, the music of the weird Spanish minstrels, and the strange piquant Mexican dishes served at a hundred competing tables, crowds thronged the Alamo Plaza all night."
Maury Maverick, U. S. Congressman and Mayor of San Antonio, recalled that when he was a small boy, around 1900, "Life in San Antonio was free and easy. The band played on the square in front of the Alamo, and San Antonians came out on the public square and walked around in circles just as they do in Mexico. In front of the Alamo there were chili stands."
At other times in the city's history, the Chili Queens cooked in Market Square and, after the city built the spectacular Municipal Market House in the square in 1900, they moved west to Haymarket Plaza and Milam Park, near Commerce and Santa Rosa streets. Originally, diners found the Chili Queen tables in the city's first marketplace, Military Plaza, but only until City Hall was built there in 1889.
Theatrical groups loved to visit the plazas. Trying the meat stew for the first time, visitors from the East and North discovered a tantalizing new taste, as hot peppers seared their mouths. Most of them loved the novel sensation.
Fred Mosebach wrote in the San Antonio Express in 1937 that “the evangelist Sam Jones, when he conducted a big revival meeting in the old car barns at San Pedro Park, partook of the peppery viands served in steaming dishes at the chili stands on the plaza as a guest of N. R. Jennings, a newspaper writer.” Railroad brochures aimed at potential travelers to San Antonio in the 1890s spoke brightly of the "revelry and gormandizing" at the tables "presided over by dark-eyed Mexican girls" in Milam Square. Later, a 1930s city booklet described the night scene in Haymarket Square, saying "There is no light on the plaza but that of lanterns and of the distant street lamps, which shine garishly through bottles of highly colored soda pop along the tables and pick out pleasing patterns of color. Someone is sure to have a guitar. Proprietors of various tables pay the musicians with food to sing and draw trade. The tunes are always the same."
Frank Bushick, author of 1934’s Glamorous Days in Old San Antonio, said that "travelers and tourists who came to San Antonio usually got around to these open-air Mexican restaurants before they took time to visit our world- famous patriotic shrine which so many of our visitors mispronounce as 'the A-lay-mo.' "Bushick also noted that "during the cholera epidemic that once visited San Antonio, when hundreds of people died or were stricken daily, the waitresses at the chili stands were called upon to abandon their tables and lend assistance. They administered to the sick and dying freely and faithfully, never abandoning a patient until death or recovery and sometimes themselves caught the malady and lost their lives."
The chili stands were closed by the City Council at various times over the years for sanitary reasons, but public outcry would soon cause them to reopen. Slowly, the number of Chili Queens dwindled, and finally, in the early 1940s, the City Health Department closed their stands permanently because they deemed the dishwashing methods unsanitary.
Over the years, the Chili Queens became the forerunners of today's nationwide Tex-Mex food industry -- and San Antonio had become the hometown for large-scale production by William Gebhardt of chili powder, canned chili and canned tamales. In 1932, Elmer Doolin started selling in San Antonio a favorite Tejano snack made from toasted corn tortillas; he called them Fritos. Later, the city also saw the first Pace Picante Sauce and the first commercially successful fajitas. The Texas Legislature proclaimed chili con carne as the state dish in 1977.