The Chili Powder Cheat: A Tex-Mex Story

The Chili Powder Cheat

A Tex-Mex story

Texas: the land of BBQ, breakfast tacos… and of course Tex-Mex. But what if we told you Tex-Mex wasn’t created by a Texan or Mexican, but a German immigrant?

On this episode of Gravy, we tell you the story of William Gebhardt, the inventor of chili powder.

Gebhardt interactive exhibit through the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Lisa Fain of Homesick Texan forgoes prepared chili powder in her Texas turkey chili.

Gebhardt loved the chili con carne of the streetfood sold in the plazas of San Antonio. He adapted it back at his café, but quickly ran into a problem: chili peppers proved expensive and difficult to import. So he devised a solution. Gebhardt dried the peppers in an oven and used a hand-cranked coffee mill to grind them into a dust. He then mixed together the ground peppers with cumin seeds, oregano and some black pepper until he reached the right flavor. The end result? Gebhardt’s Eagle Chili Powder.

As it spread, chili powder came to define the taste of Tex-Mex. Chili, enchiladas, fajitas, nachos are all dishes built on the spice. And today, Tex-Mex dominates; traditional cuisines of the region are less popular.

Watch Gebhardt’s commercial from Texas Archive of the Moving Image.

Gebhardt’s history is a typical inventor tale. But he essentially took what poor Mexican-American streetfood vendors made, changed it and sold it for wider consumption. And boy, did Gebhardt market the heck out of it. Gebhardt’s slogan was “that real Mexican tang.”

In this episode of Gravy, Ryan Katz looks into the issue of chili powder’s authenticity.

Resources

Books

Texas State Map Icon
Follow the Texas leg of SFA’s Southern BBQ Trail.

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman
Truly Texas Mexican: A Native Culinary Heritage in Recipes by Adán Medrano
The Chili Cookbook by Robb Walsh
The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

Music

New San Antonio Rose by Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys
Mal Hombre by Lydia Mendoza
Eclipse by Nicola Cruz
Waltz Across Texas by Ernest Tubb

*Photos by Ben Dongarra for Texas Humane Heroes.

Ryan Katz is a radio and print journalist based in Austin, TX. He’s reported stories outside and inside of many large buildings – from gun shows to immigrant detention centers, soccer stadiums to money lenders. He’s worked at WBEZ and APM Reports. Feed him candy corn.