Chili tastes are personal, often inflexible and loaded with preconceptions — the political party of culinary offerings.
For some people raised in Texas, the notion of beans is akin to cat food, dismissed as filler. Some chili cooks believe flavor rises and falls on cumin levels; others say the story begins and ends with dried chilies. Some like a rich, beefy stock, and there are those who extol the entanglement of bacon.
Poultry and venison have their place (beef purists blanch), and vegetarian chili is met largely with guffaws except by the people who smilingly bring it to potlucks.
Serving rituals vary.
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Oyster crackers on the side? Some have never heard of it, but maybe. Rice? Often! My Texan mother-in-law always served chili over spaghetti, a bit of Cincinnati craziness that confused and unnerved me, but I am perfectly at peace with chili dumped over a bag of corn chips, known as Frito pie. (Some regions refer to this as a “walking taco,” but I would prefer you do not.)
Yet just as much of our nation craves bipartisanship on the major policy debate of the day, so, too, do many chili lovers wish to end the crazy decades of rivalries. They believe it is time for us to embrace every form of this warming bowl of red soul food, be it venison-laced, processed cheese-topped, bean-adorned, beer-laced, spicy or mild. My husband has even learned to live with beans. He just does not discuss it.
“I don’t disagree with anyone’s chili,” said Robb Walsh, a Texas food historian, the author of “The Tex-Mex Cookbook” and a restaurateur. “If you are making a one-pot meal and you want to put beans in it, that’s fine. If chili is part of your cuisine, like Tex-Mex, there are other things you will want to do. It’s not as if any of this is some sort of wild-eyed opinion.”
Actually, depending on who’s talking, that is exactly what it is.
Chili, like barbecue, is put through its annual paces in hundreds of chili cook-offs across the country
. Families often compete over generations with recipes heavy on custom chili-powder mixes or spice blends. Some do fast boils to evaporate the liquid early for a short-cooked pot of meat; others prefer less liquid and slow cooking, often for more than three hours.
“For a lot of people, their chili powder is a closely guarded secret,” said Kris Hudspeth, the spokesman for the Chili Appreciation Society International, one of three chili cook-off sanctioning bodies.
The rules for these cook-offs can run for pages, and concern everything from the purpose of cook-offs (almost always to raise money for a cause) to the manner in which the chili can be cooked. In some cases, like those of the Chili Appreciation Society International, no filler is permitted.
While judges and winners vary in their opinions of what makes a winning bowl of chili, on two things they agree: It must have beef, and chilies must be present and accounted for up front.
Chili powders are crucial to a chili’s heat, flavor and intensity. “Some use anchos, some use a blend of different peppers,” Hudspeth said. “It’s all about what that cook’s particular palate is and the tweaks they make to the powders throughout the year.”
The issue of beans has been resolved over the years by the International Chili Society, which oversees roughly 150 cook-offs a year and which has broken its contests into four categories: traditional red chili that may contain no “fillers” or even garnishes; chili verde, which generally contains pork or chicken with tomatillos and green-chili powders; salsas (if they say it’s chili, I guess it is); and home style, a chili that is permitted to contain anything from the cook’s pantry, a sop to the undisciplined chili maker (I’m raising my hand here).
Red chili is not required to contain beef, but if you want to win, yours will. “We have never had a winner in 47 years that used a different type of meat,” said Carol Hancock, the chief executive of the group, and a previous chili cook-off champion.
“It can be cubed, shredded or ground, but it’s beef,” she said. “We don’t care, but that’s just what’s been winning.”
My own chili journey ends in the homestyle category, an amalgam of recipes I have tried and loved over the years. I toss in coffee and chocolate for complexity, hot sauce for kick and, yes, beans. Because I like them.