Chile Queens
True West|February - March 2022
"For two centuries, locals and visitors to the public plazas of San Antonio, Texas, dined on the famous fiery cuisine."
By Sherry Monahan. Illustration by Bob Baze Bell

San Antonio, Texas, became famous for its “Chile Queens” in the late 1800s and early 20th century, but historians believe the renowned local cuisine was prepared and sold publicly in the Mission City as early as 200 years ago. Over time, the locations changed, but in the mid- to late-1800s chile con carne stands at Military Plaza offered Mexican specialties. Spicy aromas scented the air, women called from their carts in Spanish and English to attract customers, and music filled the plaza. In this wondrous culinary scene people dined on tamales, enchiladas, eggs, beans and chile con carne.

While other Texas cities had chile con carne stands, none were like San Antonio’s. Journalists informed their readers that no trip to San Antonio would be complete without a stop at one of the chile queen stands. While the term “chile queen” conjured up tasty thoughts of visiting San Antonio, the term was also applied to fallen women of Hispanic descent. Fort Worth had its own “chile queen,” named Susie Barton, who worked in Hell’s Half Acre. Although Susie might have been spicy, it wasn’t becauseshe sold chiles…if you know what I mean.

There were three classes of queens, according to the San Antonio Light in 1892. The first type acted out of necessity, was from the countryside, and probably had run away from home and needed work. Next was the Mexican senorita, whose parents likely owned the stand and were nearing retirement. Lastly, there was the true queen, who was raised in the art of deception and was generally known to be “fly” or flippant. The true queen was between 16 and 20 years old, generally good looking, nicely dressed and polite. The girls worked from 8 p.m. and remained at their stands until the wee hours of the morning. They earned a dollar or a dollar fifty per day, and the “most educated in their business” made 20 to 35 dollars per week, according to the article.

Sadie Thornhill-Rosenbaum was well-known as the “queen of queens” because of her cooking talent, beauty and vivaciousness. Before her chile queen reign, she appeared on the stage. In 1895 Forest and Stream recalled dinner at Sadie’s during her tenure: “If Sadie be not one of the features of interest of San Antonio and one of the leading citizens of town, to what or to whom shall we ascribe that honor? Of course a chile supper at Sadie’s casa was to be the close of ceremonies in San Antonio. Sadie was going to give us this supper herself, but we couldn't allow that. Sadie was still doing business at the old stand, and so was her Mexican cook Pancho. ‘Pancho is so funny when he’s drunk,’ said Sadie, philosophically.” The story went on to note that when Pancho wasn’t under the weather from “aguardiente” aka liquor, he cooked the best eggs, chile con carne and other delights.

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