With beans or without beans, that is the question when it comes to chili.
Rival chili cooks are as passionate about beans as rival makers of clam chowder are about tomatoes. “If you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans!” thundered Wick Fowler, journalist and chili fan from Texas, the state that made (beanless) chili its official state dish in 1977.
Today, the bean line remains drawn in the sand, sharp as the divide between Red States and Blue, despite a host of modern-day chefs who insist that chili is a creative, eccentric, and open-minded dish for which there are no rules. Chili is “an expression of the cook’s personality rather than codified chow,” write Cheryl and Bill Jamison in Texas Home Cooking (2011).
In this spirit, many cooks have moved far beyond the traditional chili basics of beef, chile peppers, and (maybe) beans. Chili has been made with everything from venison to buffalo, goat, skunk, jackrabbit, rattlesnake, pork, chicken and hot sausage. Outback Chili – an Australian specialty – is made with kangaroo; Alaskans use moose meat; and Norwegians, reindeer. The Jamisons include a recipe for Hornadillo Chili, made from the chopped meat of one medium armadillo, served in an armadillo shell.
Other not-so-traditional chili ingredients include peanuts, chocolate, sherry, blackstrap molasses, raisins, tequila, moonshine, ginger ale, bamboo shoots, artichoke hearts, eggplant, tofu, and zucchini. Mark Bittman’s black bean chili recipe calls for a cup of espresso. Greek chili makers favor a dash of cinnamon.
In Cincinnati, chili comes with spaghetti. Known as “five-way chili,” this dish was reportedly invented in the 1920s by Greek hot-dog stand proprietors Joe and Tom Kiradjieff, who served their customers quintuple-layered plates of spaghetti, chili, beans, chopped onions, and grated Cheddar cheese. Food writers Jane and Michael Stern admiringly dubbed this “one of America’s quintessential meals.” But a less-friendly critic calls it a “Z-grade atrocity,” adding: “Don’t let your loved ones eat it. Turn away from the darkness, and toward the deep-dish pizza.”
Whatever recipe chili fans favor, they’re likely to be unreasonably devoted to it. Humorist Will Rogers, who claimed to judge a town by the quality of its chili, gave the prize to Coleman, Tex. The town’s spicy concoction featured mountain oysters (a.k.a. bull testicles); Rogers referred to it as a “bowl of blessedness.”
Outlaws Frank and Jesse James are said to have spared the bank in McKinney, Tex., home of their favorite chili parlor. Lyndon Baines Johnson swore by the chili of his home state. He once said: “Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing.” This led to such a national flurry of recipe requests that Lady Bird Johnson had cards printed with directions for making the president’s favorite: Pedernales River Chili, named for the river near their Texas ranch.
For all the emotions that it stirs up, no one is really sure how or in what form chili originated. One story holds that the dish formally known as chili con carne came from Mexico, based on Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (1568), in which the author describes how the remains of luckless conquistadors, sacrificed and butchered by the Aztecs, were boiled up with hot peppers, wild tomatoes, and oregano. (The primal chili recipe, writes H. Allen Smith, should thus begin: “First, catch yourself a lean Spaniard.”)
An alternative hypothesis attributes chili to Spain, via channeling. In the 17th century, the story goes, a nun named Sister Mary of Agreda was transported (by angels) from her Spanish convent to western Texas while in a trance. There she brought the word of God to the Jumano Indians and, in exchange, picked up a recipe for chili, which consisted of venison, onions, tomatoes, and chile peppers.
Others cite the lavenderas, or washerwomen, who followed the Mexican Army in the 1830s and 40s as the first chili makers; and cowboy historians opt for the chuckwagon cooks on the cattle trails. Everette Lee DeGolyer, oil millionaire and occasional chili scholar, believed that the first chili was an early 19th-century form of trail food: dried beef, fat, and chile peppers pounded together and shaped into packable chili bricks that could be reconstituted in boiling water over a campfire. DeGolyer called this “the pemmican of the Southwest.”
Alternatively, chili may have been a brainstorm of displaced Canary Islanders, sent to what is now San Antonio, in 1730 by order of King Philip V of Spain. (The king was hoping that Spanish settlers would thwart attempts of the French to expand their territory westward from Louisiana.) If so, their spicy beef-and-chile-pepper stews may have influenced the menus of the 19th-century “Chili Queens” for whom San Antonio later became famous. These brightly dressed women sold chili to passersby in the city’s Military Square, warming their pots over mesquite fires beside wagons hung with colored lanterns. Visitors were delighted with them, though author Stephen Crane (from New Jersey) commented that their food tasted like “pounded fire-brick from Hades.” O. Henry, who lived in San Antonio in the 1880s, set a short story, “The Enchanted Kiss,” among the Chili Queens, featuring a sinister conquistador who had been kept alive for 400 years on chili, gruesomely concocted from “the flesh of the señorita.”
Others argue that chili may be far older than the Chili Queens. Rudy Valdez, a member of the Ute Indian tribe, won the world chili championship in 1976 with a native recipe that he claimed dated back 2,000 years. The original chili, according to Valdez, “was made with meat of horses or deer, chile peppers, and cornmeal from ears of stalks that grew only to the knee.” Tellingly, he adds, “No beans.”
Most food historians—among them chili expert Frank X. Tolbert, author of the classic A Bowl of Red—agree that chili likely originated in Texas. (Some Mexicans are more than ready to concur: a Mexican dictionary of 1959 defined chili con carne as a “detestable food falsely called Mexican, sold in the United States from Texas to New York.”)
Popularized at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where Texas wowed tourists with its San Antonio Chili Stand, the dish spread quickly across the country. By the 1920s, cookbook recipes for chili called for beans; by the 1940s, tomatoes were a common ingredient. Tomatoes—like beans—have no place in chili, according to traditional chili purists, and have aroused almost as much ire. “Putting tomatoes in chili is the equivalent of dousing raw oysters with chocolate sauce,” sputtered one Texas journalist.
To the credit of the chili factions, however, none has (so far) attempted to ban the ingredients of the other by law, which puts them one up on the chowder people. (In 1939, Maine chowder proponents, outraged by the fast-and-loose vegetable behaviors of Manhattan, attempted to pass a bill making it illegal to put tomatoes in clam chowder.)
The International Chili Society, on the other hand, in the spirit of live and let live, has come around on beans: as of 2012, beans are a permissible ingredient for chili in the annual World Championship Chili Cook-Off.
Chili is wonderful food: eclectic, expansive, multifaceted, imaginative, and accepting of change. The more it absorbs from the outer world, be it beans, bourbon, or espresso, the richer and more interesting it becomes.
And, as Pat Garrett said of Billy the Kid, “Anybody that eats chili can’t be all bad.”
So, how do you like your chili? Tell us in the comments section below. To kick it off, here’s one of the earliest printed recipes for chili, found in the 1896 Manual for Army Cooks and designed for an individual mess kit:
Old Army Chili
1 Tbs. hot drippings
1 cup boiling water
2 Tbs. rice
2 large dried red chile pods
1 cup boiling water
Flour, salt, and onion optional
Cut the steak into small pieces. Put in frying pan with hot drippings, cup of hot water, and rice. Cover closely and cook slowly until tender. Remove seeds and parts of veins from chile pods. Cover with second cup of boiling water and let stand until cool. Then squeeze them in the hand until the water is thick and red. If not thick enough, add a little flour. Season with salt and a little onion, if desired. Pour sauce over meat-rice mixture and serve very hot.
- DeWitt, Dave, and Nancy Gerlach. The Whole Chile Pepper Book. Little, Brown, and Company, 1990.
- Jamison, Cheryl Alters, and Bill Jamison. Texas Home Cooking. Harvard Common Press, 2011.
- Smith, H. Allen. Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do. Holiday, August 1967.
- Tolbert, Frank X. A Bowl of Red. Dolphin Books, 1983.
Lead photo is from Flickr.