Cooking meat in liquid is about as old as any cooking method we know. And mixing meat with chiles and other ingredients was common among the Inca, Aztec, and Mayan civilizations.
However, the chili best known today had its roots in Texas on long cattle drives in the mid-1800s. In the late 1880s, “chili queens” popularized the dish in and around San Antonio, serving up bowls of chili warmed by mesquite fires from colorful carts. In 1893, chili had its breakout moment at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago where the San Antonio Chili Stand sold bowls of “Texas red” to people from all over the country and the world.
In 1977, chili con carne (chili with meat) became the official dish of the state of Texas. Today, the International Chili Society (ICS) sanctions 200 chili cook-offs around the country.
From the notorious James brothers and outlaw Billy the Kid to Will Rogers, Elizabeth Taylor, and Lyndon Johnson, stories, legend, and lore abound about the affection, and even obsession, people have for their particular favorite chili.
And as universal as its appeal, you’ll never find the perfect chili recipe, or you may find a million of them.
To Bean or Not to Bean
The biggest bone of contention about chili is whether or not to include beans. A staple of Tex-Mex cuisine, beans were added to or used instead of meat when times were tough and beans were used to extend available stores of meat.
But there are those fervent chili lovers who simply can’t fathom chili with beans. In its rules for competition, the ICS states that the inclusion of beans or pasta in traditional red chili is “strictly forbidden.”
True Texas red also does not include tomatoes. It is simply meat, chiles, salt, oregano, garlic, and other spices.
So aside from chili purists, this cherished dish takes on the personality of whoever cooks it and his/her choice of traditional or non-traditional ingredients.
For most, beef is the first choice for making chili, but lifestyle preferences lead to all sorts of variations, including white chili made with turkey or chicken, and even vegetarian versions. When it comes to competitive chili-making, you’ll find that many cook-off champions choose tri-tip, a nicely marbled cut from the bottom sirloin with good beefy flavor.
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy interpretations of serving chili comes from Cincinnati, OH, where influences of its German immigrant population flavored chili differently with such spices as cinnamon and cloves and served it with a very nontraditional ingredient: spaghetti. In this fashion, the chili is constructed in steps, depending on personal preference. First, there’s chili all by itself in a bowl. Two-way chili adds spaghetti. Three-way chili adds cheese. Four-way chili adds onions. And five-way chili adds beans.
What’s your favorite chili recipe? Have you ever attended a chili cook-off or tasted a prize-winning chili recipe? What are your must-include or must-not-include ingredients?