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The Chili Queens of San Antonio

For more than 100 years, women would arrive at twilight at the plazas of San Antonio, Texas, with makeshift tables and pots of chili to cook over open fires. The plazas teemed with people: soldiers, tourists, cattlemen and troubadours roamed the tables, filling the night with music. The Kitchen Sisters tell their story.

Story Notes

Back in January, we made a trip to Washington, D.C. with Jay Allison to pow wow with Morning Edition and all the NPR departments that would collaborate on the Hidden Kitchens project, as well as food writers, bakers, restaurant critics, home cooks and historians devoted to studying the culture of food.

We met with Donna Gabaccia, professor of American history at the University North Carolina at Charlotte and author of many books, including We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. We also spoke with Jeffrey Pilcher, a history professor at The Citadel in South Carolina and author of ¡Qué vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity. Pilcher spoke of his research into the "globalization of the taco" and the impact of Mexican cooking on the cuisine and culture of the United States. We asked him what came to mind when we said "hidden kitchen." The chili queens of San Antonio was his response.

The saga of the chili queens goes back nearly 200 years. Some kitchens are hidden by place, some by time. If you want to see remarkable images of the plazas of San Antonio and the women who fed and tended their families and communities for generations, take a look at the small sampling we have on this page. The makeshift tables, the fires and pots of chili, the coffee and tamales, the lanterns, and the crowds of San Antonians of every stripe -- businessmen, soldiers, cowboys, families, Anglos, Tejanos and the singers and troubadours who filled the night with music. These photographs and far more are from the vast collection at the University of Texas Institute for Texan Cultures in Austin. Go visit their collection and if you’re lucky, Tom Shelton, their amazing photo archivist, will be there and can tell you the stories behind the images.

We went to the Esperanza Center in West San Antonio to meet with Isabel Sanchez, granddaughter of a chili queen and mother of Graciela Sanchez, who heads the center, which serves its community in so many ways: health needs, information, film showings, events honoring organizers and artists, the little known neighborhood heroes. If you are in town, you should go. On one rainy, late afternoon, Will Leon from KUT in Austin went there for the interview. Isabel's husband, Enrico, recalled the street vendors from his childhood -- the ones that sold fried cinnamon dough. And when he imitated their cries, we were transported in time: "Chicharrones de canela! Chicharrones de canela! calientito…"

-- The Kitchen Sisters

Special thanks to: Neil Foley, history and American studies professor, Univ. of Texas; Dr. Felix Almaraz, history professor, UTSA; Ron Bechtol; Julia Blackwelder, history dean, Texas A&M Univ.; Ken Calder; the Cortez family: Jorge, Cruz, Ruben and Christina; Elaine Davis; Pat Evan; Rosita Fernandez; Donna Gabaccia, history professor, UNC, Charlotte; Odelia and Manuel Gomez; Mary Ann Guerra; Gil Hernandez; Yolanda Hernandez; Emma Florez Hernandez; Will Leon; Jose Limon; Lydia Mendoza; Phylis McKensey, ITC; Jeffrey Pilcher, history professor, The Citadel; Jack Reynolds; Marina Rizo-Patron; Rose Rodriquez; Annie Madrid Salas; Isabel and Graciela Sanchez; Tom Shelton, photo archivist, ITC; John Wheat, sound archivist; Doci Shultz Williams.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.