Of all the theories about the ori gins of chili, my favorite comes from George Herter, whom old-timers might remember as the bombastic voice of the mail-order gear catalog of the same name in the ’50s and ’60s. Herter wrote a slew of outdoor books–on fly tying, taxidermy, professional guiding, even dieting–but his classic volume, self-published in 1960, was Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices. Herter overstuffed Bull Cook with all manner of deliciously crackpot theories and declarations, including his history of chili. The dish, he decreed, was invented by Saint Mary of Agreda, a 17th-century Spanish nun said to have appeared countless times, via teleportation, in the American Southwest. During one visit, according to Herter, she bestowed a recipe upon the Native American tribes that called for venison, chile pepper pulp, tomatoes, and other ingredients to be stewed together. Thus, via providence, was chili born.

I’m fond of this theory for two reasons: First, because it puts venison, not beef, in the inaugural chili pot, and second, because I like the idea of its being a product of “intelligent design.” After a bitterly cold afternoon in the deer stand, it’s hard to imagine a better meal.

Herter’s recipe is an excellent one. Based on a 2-to-1 mixture of venison and pork (though the original, he notes, called for javelina), the latter lending flavorful fat to the chili and tamping down any gaminess, it provides a fine jumping-off point for discussing the finer points of chili.

Let’s start with the basics: With its long cooking time and gut punch of seasonings, chili is the ideal venue for tougher, stronger cuts–from the neck, shoulder, flank, brisket, shanks, and any bits and trimmings. Like Herter, I prefer the meat cut into cubes rather than ground–it provides a substantial consistency, more like stew than sludge, and lets the wild flavors shine. Adding pork is a great tack: Venison needs the textural help.

Beans? That’s fine. But cook them separately, and ladle the chili over them when serving. They will be more tender this way (the acid in tomatoes prevents beans from softening properly), and their starches won’t render the chili gluey. Gluey is bad, of course, but then, so is watery. The traditional thickener–masa harina, or corn flour–is the best, but employ it sparingly. Too much of it can flatten the flavors. One more tip: If you’re using fresh tomatoes, first blanch them in boiling water for a minute and then rub off the skins. This prevents any strands of skin from annoying the finished texture.

Beyond that, it’s every camp cook for himself. One of the grander aspects of chili making is the individualistic nature of the process–it’s a culinary free-for-all. Whether a divinely inspired Mary of Agreda divulged it in the Southwest or, as many scholars contend, it developed as a means of disguising the taste of overripe meat on the frontier is beside the point. A hot, deep bowl of venison chili is as close to manna from heaven as you’re likely to find in deer camp.

On the Menu



Mary of Agreda’s Chili Con Carne de Venado (Serves six to eight)

This is George Herter’s rendering of the recipe. Buying his tale demands a bit of faith, but here’s an indisputable fact: That nun (or Herter) had pretty good taste in chili. The version below was adapted from Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices.

2 pounds venison, cut into ½-inch cubes

1 pound pork shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons lard or beef suet

1 medium onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 quart fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped

1 cup chile pepper pulp (or 6 tablespoons chili powder mixed with 1 tablespoon flour)

2 tablespoons fresh oregano

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon cumin powder

3 bay leaves

2 cups cooked kidney beans (see note)

1 In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat the lard or suet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until softened and beginning to brown; add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. (If using chili powder and flour rather than pulp, mix the two with enough cold water to make a paste, then stir into the onion mixture until smooth.)

2 Stir in the meat, and brown. Add the tomatoes and chile pepper pulp and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the oregano, salt, cumin, and bay leaves and simmer, covered, for 2 hours. Check occasionally to make sure the chili isn’t drying out or scorching; add water as necessary, but not too much.

3 To serve, ladle some cooked beans in a bowl and top with the chili.

Note: Herter’s method for cooking beans goes like this: Soak dried kidney beans overnight in water. Drain, then mix them with 1/3 pound of salt pork and a pinch of oregano and fresh water to cover. Simmer for 2 or more hours until beans are tender; drain before serving.

Field & Stream’s

Ultimate Deer Camp Chili (Serves six)

Nothing fancy here, not even a tomato: just the most ribsticking, appetite-sating, down-home bowl of Texas red that your deer camp buddies have ever had. Serve hot and often.

2 pounds venison, cut into ½-inch cubes

1 pound pork shoulder, cut into ½-inch cubes

3 tablespoons flour

¼ cup vegetable oil

4 cloves garlic, minced

6 tablespoons ancho chili powder

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon freshly ground cumin seeds

4-5 cups game or beef stock

1 tablespoon masa harina mixed with 2 tablespoons water Cayenne pepper to taste (optional)

4 cups cooked pinto beans (optional; if using canned, drain and rinse well) Salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

1 Combine the meats in a bowl and add the flour along with salt and pepper; stir until evenly coated. In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat and add the meat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is browned. Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes. Put in the chili powder, oregano, and cumin and stir. Slowly mix in 4 cups of the stock or broth.

2 Simmer for 1½ hours, or until the venison is fork tender. Add more stock or broth as necessary to keep it from sticking or overthickening. Add the masa harina paste, stir well, and simmer for 10 more minutes. Add salt, pepper, and cayenne, if desired. If using beans, heat them now in a separate pot.

3 To serve, ladle beans into a bowl and top with the chili. Serve with lime wedges.

To get the recipe for maple-spiked moose chili with cranberry beans and Vermont cheddar, go to fieldand

GOOD FOR THE HEART: For the best texture, cook beans separately, then ladle the chili on top.