San Antonio, Texas Has a Way Of... Part 1 - Catalina, A Chili Queen


San Antonio , Texas has a way of staying in a person’s memories. Maybe just a one day layover – as my friend did as a summerexchange student experience traveling all the way on a long bus ride in 1963. The trip is 1775 plus miles from Minneapolis to Guadalajara , Mexico. San Antonio is a natural place to linger . Not only the historical Alamo and the rich history all around the region, but it’s picturesque settings on the San Antonio River  and the famous “River Walk”….. People also love to take the river tours through the city - a place that is an experience so close to the Old World cities of Europe. Of course, these days that experience is so popular. Of all the cities in Texas, San Antonio is ranked at the top for tourist attractions. Of all the major cities in the US ,it ranks in The Top 10 List for “Foodies”Why should we be surprised?

As a youngster of 8 or 9 , I remember one particular year while living with my Dad and stepmother in San Antonio, I think I was in the 3RD grade. We lived very close to the part of town where the Mexican businesses were ; including lots of food stores ,tiendas,,cantinas, and restaurants. Obviously, those memories are peppered with thoughts that include food experiences of all types.  I have already recounted some in previous pieces that  I have written. Not sure about which stories I have passed to the reader before ( and too lazy to go back and search),but I want to stay with the obvious food theme that we all think of for Texas ….MEXICAN FOOD ; actually what Texas is famous forTEX MEX food.

We lived on Kentucky Street, just a block east of N.Zarzamora Street…which was parallel to a busy highway that led out of town to the west,Culebra Road (which means snake in Spanish-it is a curvy road) . Across that busy highway was where one found most of the different Mexican stores,businesses and lots of homes…..very close together. I remember the roads had gaping pot holes and were not well kept. Many did not have sidewalks, or just partial ones. I would get out of school and 2 block away from my house on the corner was a little Mexican cafe. It had one of those screen doors with a ceramic soda push bar in the center,I believe it was forGrapette soda.I would get fresh hot tortillas and butter-3 for 7 cents,5 cents more for a Dr.Pepper or a Grapette. Students would come in from the Catholic church at Little Flower School and we would play the juke box,whoever had a spare nickel, and visit. They were all Hispanic kids and I loved making friends with them. I had only been in San Antonio from California a few months. I noticed that the students uniforms were very plain and simple. The boys woreDickies khaki pants (like my Dad always wore as a carpenter ) and white shirts. My Dad told me it was a poor parrish when I asked him about it   later, their families could not afford the traditional ones.(The uniform is much the same today-some 60 years later)

One day while leaving the cafe and heading home, I noticed an old, dusty black Chevrolet Sedan Delivery with the back door open parked behind the cafe. There was a big German Shepherd dog inside. He jumped out and quickly trotted up the street . How a dog can smile and have his jaws firmly gripping a full sized hog’s head is something I’ll never forget…but that is what I saw. The hog’s eyes were wide open and the big pink ears flapping in the wind as the dog’s brisk place away led him further from that cafe. Determined not to have a sure loss of his prize. The driver came out of the back screen door, shouting,waving his arms and  running frantically after the dog, his bloody white coat flapping in the wind. It was obvious that he had been alerted to this serious “Grand Theft in Progress”! We kids surely were not going to miss all of this excitement….. the neighborhood was normally pretty quiet- and we gave chase. The little man in the bloody white coat was no match for that dog. I’m sure that dog had dreams about that day for the rest of his life. This whole scene is almost like one from a movie…and well could be so.  What do you think the little man told his boss?The truth…maybe or maybe not? It’s not a story most would believe , but it happened. I recall this was in February and there was a local tradition in the community,in fact in most of south Texas ….. most families and restaurants made tamales. The Texas style tamale is very different from the types that are popular on the Pacific coast. They are smaller and are a party favorite,usually made by the dozens.It was pretty evident that the south Texas and Mexican tradition using the head of a pig for tamales had to put on hold at the cafe for that day!

You see it was this neighborhood and the people that lived there that made a lasting impression on me. Even though over the years i would live in San Antonio from time to time, these times made an imprint forever. Tamales!!!! Enchiladas, tacos, Menudo Rojo,FrijolesRefritos,Mole Sauce…….the list is long and mostly familiar to us all. San Antonio is often given the credit for TexMex style food. Mexican home cooking that evolved in many directions ;unfortunately some available in the US today is far removed from those early home cooked dishes. The first chile powder can be traced to Willie Gebhardt; in 1896 started selling his chile powder to the public. He was born in Germany and his family had settled in Seguin, Texas, just a few miles from San Antonio.There was a point after World War I when his company imported 90 percent off all the chiles consumed in the USA! In the spirit of a naturalized American “Foodie Pioneer” I want to offer you a Fresh Chile Recipe . Willie was born in Germany; came to Texas as a child and soon learned English.As a young man in the tavern and bar business ,he saw a need and developed a product using chiles….a vegetable that had been new to his family. Now as a new Texan , he was ready to take the seasonal fresh chile from the kitchen to a form that could be used all year long. This became a food product that influenced the way Americans cooked ; and today the impact is especially evident.

“Mama, will there be music in the plaza tonight? “, said Gonzalo,who was only six years old and looked forward to the music . Mama replied,”I am sure you will hear some fine musicians . There may be some men playing guitarras or perhaps a little band with singers too.” “You will see lots of wonderful things,Gonzalo. But remember, we all need to help make our chile for the people to buy”.

Catalina and her five children were loading their cart with all they would need to make the trek from the west of the city to Alamo Plaza. They wanted to be there early so she could get her favorite spot to sell her famous Chili Con Carne. She was very proud of  the family recipe that her mother had first started selling in the Plaza de Las Islas after the war in 1866. Later they moved to theMilitary Plaza by the rail yards and the jail.Catalina had been just a baby then; but she continued to travel with her mother and her brothers and sisters to the plazas . She was now a second generation Chili Queen of San Antonio as the newspapers had named the women who came to sell their fiery brew to all takers. It was now 1899 and the big crowds of people would allow Catalina to make money for her family.

Her mother Lourdes was gone now. Catalina’s husband  Jesus , was in Mexico working on a cattle ranch. There still was always a need for her family. “Mama, will we all have enough money when the new year is 1900 ? “, Gabriella said in her typical sweet voice.


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