Texas style chili is the stuff of legend. Some people refer to it as chili con carne, but in Texas it’s just called ‘chili’. The ‘con carne’ part is a given, and there is no need for the “Texas style” qualifier because Texans proudly refuse to entertain the idea that there are other styles.
An entire culture and ethos exists around chili that is in many ways similar to barbecue culture. There are rules, methods, arguments about what makes it great, and closely guarded recipe secrets. Chili masters compete fiercely in chili contests for #1 bragging rights in much the same way that barbecue pit masters compete in barbecue competitions.
Conceptually it’s a pretty simple dish: a kind of thick stew-like concoction made from dried chili peppers (ground into a powder, or reconstituted in hot water and pureed) and beef, slow simmered until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. That’s the essence of it. Surely it also has a few other herbs and spices (amounts and types varying recipe to recipe), and probably some onion and garlic, maybe an acid (vinegar) or a sweetener (brown sugar), and perhaps (although not necessarily) even a bit of tomato product and/or a pinch of masa as a thickening agent. That’s pretty much it. Of course it’s the infinite variability of these ingredients that complicates the game.
Notice that beans are conspicuously missing from the list. This is actually kind a of big deal, which brings to mind a favorite Texas pastime: when they aren’t remembering the Alamo, or talking about how much bigger stuff is where they live, Texans absolutely love to act horrified by the suggestion that it’s somehow acceptable to put beans in chili. Now I have to confess that I’ve sampled a lot of chili with beans in it throughout the country in my day. Heck, I even made vegetarian three bean chili for a vegetarian girlfriend once and thought that it was quite good (allspice and apple cider vinegar put it over the top). But that shit don’t fly in Texas. In Texas there are rules to making chili, and while you can get away with taking some license with ingredients here and there, there simply are no damn beans in chili! End of discussion. It’s a specific rule unto itself at most chili cook offs–just to be crystal clear about the matter. And while we’re at it, you don’t eat chili over spaghetti with cheddar cheese and raw onions like those damn Yankees up in Cincinnati.
This chili ethos is well reflected in a 1976 song “If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans,” written by Ken Finley and adopted as the official anthem of the International Chili Society:
You burn some mesquite / And when the coals get hot
You bunk up some meat / And you throw it on a pot
With some chile pods and garlic / And comino and stuff.
Then you add a little salt / Till there’s just enough
You can throw in some onions / To make it smell good.
You can even add tomatoes / If you feel like you should
But if you know beans about chili / You know that chili has no beans.
If you know beans about chili / You know it didn’t come from Mexico
Chili was God’s gift to Texas / (Or maybe it came from down below)
And chili doesn’t go with macaroni / And damned Yankees don’t go with chili queens;
And if you know beans about chili / You know that chili has no beans.
At any rate, I’ve sampled chili here and there over the years and found the quality to vary from disgusting (that runny, greasy ground beef and chili powder flavored glop they slather on ‘chili dogs’ is technically chili con carne), to mediocre (bad Tex-Mex restaurants), to absolutely sublime (made by proud chili snobs). Recently I decided I probably ought to figure out how to make it. And thus the Texas Chili Project was born.
Caveat Emptor: I’m Not from Texas
Louisiana has its gumbo, Maine has its lobster rolls, and Florida has its key lime pie. But in Texas chili is the official state dish! It’s a big deal, and like its brethren, barbecued brisket, it’s definitely a point of state pride. Consequently, Texas chili is one of those specialized regional dishes that one is lead to believe that only a native can cook properly. I am not from Texas, nor have I ever lived in Texas, and I fully understand that to Texans this admission immediately makes me suspect. However, I don’t think that this means that I can’t make a batch of kick-ass “Texas rules” chili. Making great food isn’t a matter of being born in a certain place. It’s a matter of being a good cook. So if my chili is off in some way, it’s likely because there is some subtle indigenous rule I’ve unwittingly broken. And if I have, people from Texas, I welcome you to enlighten me as to the error of my ways. I’m here to learn.
The History of Chili
Yeah, that’s right. The history of chili. Let no one say I’m not serious about my cooking.
Cooking with chilies, meat, and herbs was certainly not unknown to Inca, Aztec, and Mayan culture. However, from what I’ve been able to discover, the dish we know as chili con carne originates with the “chili queens” who served it food cart style to working men in San Antonio’s Military Plaza as early as the 1860s. If you want to go back to roots, here is an original chili queens chili recipe (containing both pork and beef, and heavy on the suet) from back in the day, courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures. Eventually chili caught on as a popular cattle trail food, and cowboys spread the chili gospel until ‘chili joints’ serving up a “bowl of red” popped up all over the American Southwest.
It’s also a big deal to Texans to insist that chili is not Mexican in origin. It’s bad enough that Santa Anna’s troops killed Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie at the Battle of the Alamo. Texas won’t allow Mexico to claim chili, and as it turns out, Mexico doesn’t want to make that claim. This is, in fact, how Texans who have a dog in this fight make their case that chili isn’t Mexican. They point to various Mexicans, like this guy, who proudly disown this dish as a “northern concoction” that they’d rather not be associated with. Now as far as arguments go, that’s pretty weak. In the end it really doesn’t matter as it’s largely a facile debate about modern nation states and patriotism. You’ve got some native people (Payaya Indians) living in Yanaguana, right? Then in 1691 some Spaniards show up and, being hardcore Roman Catholic colonial imperialists, they set up a mission and rename the place after St. Anthony of Padua. Suddenly Yanaguana is San Antonio, a town in Nueva España. But wait, by 1821 it’s a town in Mexico (¡Viva México!). Wait, by 1836 it’s a town in the Republic of Texas (Remember the Alamo!). Wait, in 1845 the Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States of America (Bob Wills is still the king!). All of these outside influences have an impact on regional cuisine, and chili is from San Antonio. The end. But I digress…
At the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago (i.e., The World’s Fair), Texas operated a San Antonio Chili Stand, which helped introduce chili to other parts of the United States. Soon people were putting it on Hot Dogs, hamburgers, french fries, omelettes, and spaghetti, substituting tomatoes for the chilies, and yes, some times even adding beans and elbow macaroni (chili mac). And there you have it. Chili took on all of the weird regional variations we know today, most of which is dog food, and most of which causes Texans to cringe in horror.
But enough about history and macaroni. Let’s get to the chili recipes.
Some Observations About Chili Recipes
In my quest to develop a decent, authentic chili recipe I’ve noticed a few things about chili recipes–things that are…disappointing. This is the section where I probably stick my foot in my mouth and get in trouble with certain Texan chili aficionados.
I was curious to find out what cut of beef was popular in chili. I really didn’t know. It could have been brisket for all I knew (some folks do use brisket). Most recipes I see, however, are made with sirloin or chuck roast or tri-tip roast, or a roast I’ve never even heard of called a ‘blade’ roast. But here is where it get’s strange (to me).
While some chili recipes council cutting the meat into small cubes (the size varying according to the preferences and logic of the author), I’ve noticed that a lot of chili recipes begin with ground beef. Granted, they stipulate “chili grind“, which differentiates itself from hamburger by being a courser grind. Maybe this is a Texas chili faux pas, but this just seems wrong to me. I don’t care if it’s ‘chili grind’, you’re making hamburger soup. It makes me think of that greasy chili people put on chili dogs. I’d rather have a chili with a slightly more stew-like texture. Granted, it’s more labor intensive to dice three pounds of beef with a knife, but I’m betting it’s worth it. I wonder if simple laziness is the primary reason for grinding it instead. At any rate, I don’t want this for my chili. I’ll dice my beef by hand, thank you.
Packaged Processed Ingredients?
I’ve noticed that some award winning chili recipes are made from various packets of purchased and prepared chili powders and spices mixed into a pile of hamburger. I’m thinking here primarily of CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) competition chilies. The recipe ingredients lists look something like this:
2 tsp Mild Bills Onion Granules
¼ tsp Mild Bills Cayenne Pepper
2 tsp Wylers Beef Granules
1/8 tsp Mild Bills Cayenne Pepper
1 Tbsp Mild Bills San Antonio Original Chili Powder
1 Tbsp Mild Bills Cowtown Light Chili Powder
With all due respect for the good folks at Mild Bill’s, who probably make top notch product (it certainly wins a lot of chili contests), I just don’t think dumping a mixture of powders from store bought packages into a pot is cooking. Where’s the mortar and pestle? Where’s the knife and cutting board? Where are the dried chilies? I can appreciate that this is largely a complex chemistry experiment, and getting the blend and amount of packet ingredients takes a lot of patient and meticulous trial and error. But just like the ‘chili grind’ hamburger, this just seems wrong. It seems more akin to preparing a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, except instead of adding the packet of cheese sauce you add many packets of subtly different cheese sauces.
I wouldn’t think of making Thai food with a purchased jar of prepared curry paste–not for company anyway. I’d make that curry paste from scratch. I also concoct from scratch the various masalas when I cook Indian food. And if quality gumbo requires stirring flour and fat constantly for an hour until you have a chocolaty brown roux, then that’s what I do. I’m a “from scratch” kind of guy, because I think the artistry, care, and attention to detail are reflected in the quality of the end product. You can taste the love. Cooking from scratch is what distinguishes cooking as an art form from “throwing something together for dinner”. With all due respect to Sandra Lee’s Famous Kwanzaa Cake, any monkey can pour a jar of processed glop into a pan or open a packet of seasoning mix.
This being the case, while I’m not opposed to using some ground spices, I’d prefer to roast and grind my own spices when I can. And instead of chili powders, I prefer to buy whole dried chili pods, stem and seed them, re-hydrate them, and grind them into a paste. This is cooking, right?
I’ve noticed a lot of chili recipes have Goya Sazón in them, which is a seasoning bouillon cube that reputedly imparts a “Latin American” quality to foods. It consists mainly of MSG, and also has Coriander, Annatto, garlic, salt, and tricalcium phosphate. Is this somehow essential? It pops up in recipe after recipe. While some people claim to be sensitive to monosodium glutimate, I have no serious qualms about it. It imparts an umami flavor, and umami is good.
The Matter of “Dumps”
I’ve also noticed that the timing of adding certain ingredients appears to be significant, at least to the competition chili cook. All of those spice mixes and chili powders are divided into “dumps”, which are added at various stages of the cooking. I read one explanation stating that things like coriander or cinnamon can burn, so you want to add them later. That makes a certain amount of sense I guess, so I’ll keep this in mind. But some of these dump divisions seemed like alchemy to me, like something a Shakespearean witch would find important when adding eye of newt and Wolf’s Bane to a cauldron of witch’s brew. For my initial batches I’ve decided not to dwell on ‘dumps’ too much.
In the end, maybe ‘competition chili’ recipes with their packaged powders just don’t fit my scratch cooking ethos. So the chili I make will be a more rustic style. I’ve experimented with two batches of chili thus far, and to my taste I’m thinking I need to go even more “from scratch’. I’m even considering making that original chili queens chili recipe from the Institute of Texan Cultures.
Steven Heikkila, November 2013