The Chili Controversy

Since this post is about chili variations, the historical roots of chili, and using vegetarian meat substitutes, it does have two mentions of meat.

There’s a cold front that’s supposed to move in soon, like any time now…I’m waiting…any time now…So I’m making vegetarian chili in the Crockpot. There’s a lot of controversy about chili here in Texas. Everyone has very strong ideas about what chili is and isn’t and how it’s supposed to be made. Chili was a competitive sport long before food preparation competitions took over food network television shows. (Why I don’t like this trend in food TV is food for another blog post.) Setting aside the vegetarian or non-vegetarian issue for the moment (I’ll return to it in a minute) the big thing that causes the most arguments that I’ve witnessed (and participated in) is whether authentic chili should have beans in it or not. Purists say that it isn’t chili if it has beans, even though most people’s perception of chili usually includes beans. Purists say that beans should be served on the side. Typically these arguments —which literally don’t amount to a hill of beans — pit native Texans (keepers of the flame of authenticity) and non-Texans.

I’m a native born Texan and my family has lived here in the Lone Star State since before it was a state (and before it won its independence from Mexico, too). We make our chili with beans. I can hear the gasp of horror now. There are two simple reasons for this that is probably not unique to our family. First of all, my family going all the way back was poor and had a lot of mouths to feed until my generation. (I’m an only child and middle class.) Beans were filler, a way of stretching out meager resources for a lot of families. “Authenticity” wasn’t an issue: it was about making enough to feed a big family as cheaply as possible. Beans were very cheap. The other reason is that until my mother got a crockpot: we often got our chili out of cans. She got a crockpot back in the ’60s and it was at this point that I really remember chili being something she made herself. I won’t say she didn’t make chili before then, but the crockpot made it easy for a working mother. Her recipe — which I’ve looked for in her few cookbooks to no avail — is a fairly mild version, but we all liked it. It had beans in it. I’ve now made so many modifications to that original recipe that the only thing recognizable about it is that it has beans and is made in a crockpot. So, no, my chili, even before I started experimenting with vegetarian versions, was not “authentic”. However…

If I wanted to be really snarky and quibble about it I could make an argument that most chili without beans that is made these days isn’t all that authentic either. Here’s the thing: recipes and food preparation changes. It’s sort of like language in that way. What’s considered good usage of words and grammar has changed quite a bit in the past couple hundred years and the same is true of many recipes. First of all, “recipes” as we know them is a fairly recent invention. You look at old cookbooks and you’ll find that they don’t tell you how hot the oven should be or what size pan you should put something in. I’ve got some from the early twentieth century which have the technique (add this to that, then). Really old recipes were just a list of ingredients. So, a lot of food culture is passed via people in the kitchen together and people change things to suit themselves. The original “chili” was too hot for the anglos who encountered it, so they added other ingredients to moderate the flavor and fit their own expectations of how food should be prepared. I read an old account from back when what is New Mexico was still a territory. It told of the natives making “chili colorado” which was a stew consisting of extremely hot red chili peppers cooked in a big pot over a fire all day with dried buffalo (or other) meat. So, if you’re talking authentic chili, it not only doesn’t have beans, it doesn’t have tomatos, it doesn’t have spices and it’s made with jerky. Back when I was taking Spanish in school I learned that what we call chili was properly “chili con carne”. That’s “chili with meat”. I suppose that chili with beans is “chili con frijoles”, but either way it’s clear —to me, at least—that the “chili” is a thing unto itself separate from both meat and beans. Chili refers to the chile peppers which are stewed in water. Add beans and it’s “con frijoles” add meat and it’s “con carne”. I’m not an Expert on food history, but that’s what I’ve picked up from books and school.

So, I really don’t care if you make your chili with beans or not. As far as I’m concerned the main reason to leave beans out of chili is to make chili dogs or Frito Pie. I suspect that the addition of beans to chili came about due to economic concessions. My grandmother lived through the great depression. Anyone who did learned to “pad” out food to make it more filling. Beans are cheap and nutritious. They’re half of what vegetarians call “a complete protein”. A legume and a grain makes a complete protein (look this up online; it’s more than I want to get into here). Besides crockpot chili we sometimes had “chili beans and rice”. That’s what my grandmother and mother called it. It consisted of pinto beans cooked with chili powder then spooned up and served over rice in a bowl. It’s really good, too, depending on the chili powder you use. My memories of this staple go back further than my memories of homemade (or canned) chili do.

I tend to make up my own variations on chili powder. It changes depending on the availablity of various types of ground chili powder, but has contained ancho, habanero, chipotle, paprika, hungarian hot paprika, and chili pequin (which is native here and my favorite chili powder ingredient). I don’t use all of these and often use a base of my favorite store-bought chili powder (the one my family used for chili beans and rice and the original chili we made) and then tweak it with something extra that’s a bit hotter. Chili pequin or “turkey peppers” grow wild and seed themselves in my garden via birds. They will winter over unless we have an unusually bad winter. When I’ve got enough of them I dry them and crush them in a small mortar and pestle that I got just to use to crush dried chilis. I don’t crush them until I’m ready to use them. I’ve made really good chili using chili petine as the only chili seasoning. (I also add cumin to my chili. Most chili powders contain some cumin and most chili recipes call for the addition of cumin. Cumin in many ways contributes the savory spicy flavor we most associate with chili while the chile’s themselves contribute both distinctive flavor and heat.)

For a long time when my mother made chili I picked out the green bell pepper that the recipe called for. I don’t know why. I just went through a phase where I didn’t like it. She took to cutting the bell peppers in slices so that it would be easier to remove. At some point I decided that the bell pepper was okay and have left it in the recipe ever since. I’ve tried using red bell peppers for the color in chili, but the flavor of the chili seems “off” when I do that. There’s a little extra “bite” that green bell peppers add that red bell peppers (which are “sweeter”) don’t have. But it won’t hurt anything to add a red bell pepper along with the green, if you wish.

I continue to experiment with my chili recipe. The first few times I tried to make vegetarian chili, I simply left out the meat. It wasn’t good. It was like a watered down version of chili beans and rice. After I discovered Smart Ground, I started using that as a ground beef substitute and it works well for a number of recipes, including chili. Spicy dishes which originally contained meat are often the best to adapt to a vegetarian meat substitute because the spices are the dominant flavor and the soy product (or other meat substitute) soaks up the flavors. If a dish is flavorful enough no one cares whether it has meat in it or not (unless they’re just looking for something to complain about or have a thinly veiled anti-vegetarian bias). I knew someone years ago back when ground turkey was the next big thing in healthy eating, who said loudly and often that he didn’t like turkey as a substitute for beef, that it didn’t taste good, Blah, blah, blah. I made both spaghetti and chili with ground turkey (On different occasions) without ever telling him and he ate it up, and asked for seconds. He never knew he was eating turkey. It may be easier to tell you’re not eating meat when you use a vegetarian meat substitute, but if the food is highly seasoned (and I don’t just mean hot) and well-seasoned, then most people will like the food just fine. If you’re unsure about substituting something for meat (eg: you’re just not sure about this vegetarian thing), then chili is a pretty good thing to try because whether you make it with beans or without, if you’ve got a good chili recipe, you really can’t go wrong even if there’s no “carne” in the chili con carne. 🙂

Upcoming recipes: My Vegetarian Chili With Beans and My Vegetarian Chili Without Beans (and Frito Pie!)


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