By Chef Matthew O'Connell
Having just returned from my bachelor party in Austin, I can tell you that Texans take their chili seriously. As a native Virginian though, I didn’t grow up with anything resembling the stewed delicacy common throughout the region. The stuff I grew up with contained seasoned ground beef, tomatoes, and beans but I’m pretty sure serving that would get me shot in the Lone Star State. Trying to shake off the weekend’s fun while waiting for my plane that fateful Sunday, I was left to ponder one of those really big questions that’s plagued Americans for generations. What is a “real” chili? Who’s really in the right here and what am I actually allowed to put in this stuff? It is my sincere hope that my research and musings on the subject will eventually shed some light on what that actually means.
One of the greatest features of America is the cultural diversity displayed throughout its various regions. Naturally, this diversity leads to variability in dishes that we consider essential to our identity as Americans. Pizza seems so simple but have someone in the Bronx discuss the merits of NYC water on dough with a native Chicagoan and fisticuffs are sure to ensue. Barbeque is no different. From Texas to Virginia, there are varying levels and characteristics of sweetness, acidity, smoke, and spice that make each region’s fare unique. Don’t even get me started on Alabama. Who put’s mayonnaise in a barbeque sauce? Apologies for my digression, that question will have to wait for another post. Getting back to the point at hand, hot dogs, beer and burgers – all American staples - all have a similar regional diversity and chili is no different. With several varieties of chili interspersed throughout American culture, which cuisine reigns supreme?
Cincinnati Chili – Cincinnati is to chili what Alabama is to barbeque sauce. In short, they’re both weird and nobody quite knows what to make of them outside of those regions. While they both may be delicious, they definitely don’t fit in to their respective categories as traditional preparations. Cincinnati chili starts off as most good chilis do with stewed meat - ground beef, in this case – but that’s when all Hell starts to break loose. Instead of actually putting chili in there, these Ohioans decided to add tomato, cinnamon (!?!), and a combination of spices usually Mediterranean in origin. I’ve even seen recipes that add chocolate but this doesn’t seem to be a universally accepted ingredient. The end result is served over spaghetti “5 way” with onion, cheese, and beans and, in truth, has more in common with a ragu than any chili that I’ve ever come across.
Hot Dog Chili – Coney Island dogs are served throughout the United States and typically contain hot dog chili, onions and various other accoutrements such as mustard or cheese. Most people assume they originate in New York due to their name but this is a fallacy. Although many of the immigrants that created this dish had their first hot dog on Coney Island after coming through Elllis Island, they waited until their move to Detroit and its outlying areas to really make it theirs. Between 1910 and 1920, restaurants and stands run by Greek and Macedonian immigrants began to sell their version of a hot dog topped with saltsa kima – the same meat sauce used in preparations of moussaka and pastitisio. They had to come up with a name for their delicious creation and Coney Island apparently had just the right mix of nostalgia for the creators and brand recognition for their patrons. At some point, the meat sauce took the name chili due to its loose resemblance to its Southern cousin. In spite of the name, I would argue that hot dog chili is more misnomer than anything due to the absence in most cases of actual dried chili and its closer resemblance to the Cincinnati style.
Carne Adovada/Chili Verde – Given its proximity to both Texas and Mexico, Southern New Mexico does have a red chili that is extremely similar in flavor profile to that of Texas. Carne Adovada (or Adobada) is a braised or stewed preparation containing some ratio of chilis (usually guajillo or dried New Mexico chili), onion, garlic, and spices. It differs primarily from Texas’ Chili con Carne in that it utilizes pork shoulder as its protein source. Although delicious, Carne Adovada is not what New Mexico is primarily known for; that would be chili verde. One of the major differences between this dish and the more famous red version is the presence of fresh Hatch green chilis versus their dry red counterparts. This chili stewed with a number of spices, cilantro and tomatillos makes for an excellent item to be paired with Navajo fry bread or used as a filling in a burrito.
Chili con Carne – This is the original – the real deal, so to speak – and it always contains some combination of dried chilis, spices, and stew beef. Otherwise known as chili con carne, it does not, has not, and will not ever contain beans. The history with the tomato is a bit more complex but most hardcore Texas chili disciples will tell you that they don’t belong anywhere near a bowl of red. Born in Texas, this dish is uniquely American despite its Spanish name. Outside of a few towns in Mexico who pander to American tourists, you will not find this dish on any menu for the simple fact that they didn’t invent it and don’t really like it.
Chili Beans – This is the great debate in the chili world. To bean or not to bean? From my research, I am fairly certain that the original chili recipes dating back to the 19th century did not contain beans in any way, shape, or form. In those days, dried beef and an array of dried peppers and spices were packed for consumption by cowboys when driving cattle to their next destination. They would build a campfire, heat a pot, and dump all of these ingredients in with some water. Hours later, they would have a spicy stewed concoction to sate them after a hard day’s work. Beans don’t really come into the equation until the Great Depression struck America. At this point, families were trying every way to save some money and one of the easiest ways to do this was to add beans. Inexpensive and nutritious, beans bastardized one chili after another over the years as families attempted to stretch their meals further. To the beans credit, it wasn’t wholly out of place in the stew with its ability to soak up flavors and the addition of it as a textural element. I don’t think anyone would argue those facts.
The debate mainly boils down to a matter of tradition. Texans have had a fierce sense of pride dating back to the time when their state was a republic. You don’t defend the Alamo with such fervor and then allow outsiders to take one of your national treasures and turn it in to some hideous monstrosity. In this respect, I tend to agree with the Texans. It’s their dish and what they say goes. Alternatively however, the culinary landscape is full of thieves and always has been. Cuisines develop as cultures exchange ideas and improve upon them. For this reason, one could (and many do) argue that chili beans are merely a necessary and delicious evolution of an iconic preparation. Although I personally prepare my chili sans bean, I would argue that they’re neither right nor wrong. There is a place in the world for them; it’s just not in Texas.
For more information on the chili bean argument, check out the articles below: