"It all began on the plaza that never slept – my favorite place in the whole of the city. In daytime, most people on San Antonio's Plaza de Armas, Military Plaza, were selling or shopping. After sundown, they came to have a good time." With those words, Marian Martinello begins her conjuring of the oft-forgotten world of the chili queens of 19th-century San Antonio.
Inspired by the true tales of mobile food vendors on the plaza, Chili Queen: Mi Historia follows 17-year-old Guadalupe Pérez as she attempts to use storytelling, music and a budding entrepreneurial spirit to help her family's business thrive. Her fictional memoir is built with actual historic artifacts — maps, recipes, folklore, photographs and songs — inserted into the narrative in order to craft a lushly detailed experience for young adults and history buffs alike.
A professor emeritus at UTSA, Martinello is no stranger to teaching history, but this is her first attempt at writing historical fiction. Building a career on historic inquiry, the lifetime teacher's previous TCU Press publications, The Search for Pedro's Story, The Search for Emma's Story, and the similarly themed Search for a Chili Queen: On the Fringes of a Rebozo, encourage readers to use evidence as a means to interpret the past. While at book signings for the latter, it became apparent to the author that there was an audience hungry for a full story from this world.
Conceptually, Chili Queen soars as it unearths an exciting piece of the past, however, there is a bit of weakness in the execution. Overall, the novel feels formulaic: With every chapter, our young female protagonist meets a character that provides her with a piece of information to incorporate into her business. When plot points occur, they often seem forced, and with a pivotal storyline introduced and resolved in the last 10 pages, it's clear that while Lupe's world is rich, her journey is murky.
Journey aside, Lupe's belly is full — and Martinello taunts her readers with descriptions so vivid the aroma of enchiladas, chili and poblanos practically wafts from the pages. As a bonus, the author includes authentic recipes adapted from 1880s-era newspaper articles and the handwritten Spanish cookbook Cocina Mexicana so readers may join our heroine in the kitchen for a bit of culinary time travel.
Despite some bumps in storytelling, Martinello's historical investigation is a worthwhile read that would shine in a classroom setting. And when it's at its best, Chili Queen paints a lamp-lit portrait of old San Antonio, complete with chili con carne cooked over an open flame, hand-rolled cornhusk cigarettes and true Texas trail driver histories.
Marian L. Martinello | TCU Press | $22.95 | 200 pp
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