By: Lynn Ogryzlo 

Chili con Carne sounds authentically Spanish. But how could it be? The Spaniards had never even seen a chili before they reached America. Often referred to as just ‘chili’, it is in fact, authentically Texan!

The original recipe consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chili peppers and salt, which were pounded together, formed into bricks and left to dry, which could then be boiled in pots on the trail (or made into small houses, I was told). As well as the chili capital of the world, Texas is obviously the centre of the Wild West and – wild stories.

Thank goodness for the emergence of small, family-run chili parlours or chili joints as they were later called. It started in the 1800s, chili parlours could be found throughout Texas offering up steaming bowls of delicious Texas Red. Each establishment usually had a claim to some kind of secret recipe and each one was completely different from the other. Everyone had their favourite, including Frank and Jesse James.

As the story goes, the James brothers loved chili so much, they are said to have eaten a few bowls of Texas Red before robbing banks. At least one town was spared from their shooting and looting because of the local chili parlor. Apparently, Fort Worth, Texas had a chili joint just north of town and the James boys rode in there just for the chili, vowing never to rob their bank because “any place that has a chili joint like this just oughta be treated better.”

The official dish of the state of Texas (declared in 1977) chili is found on menus throughout the state, especially in the city of Terlingua, the chili capital of the world. In an average year the state hosts some 16 chili competitions per month; this means there’s a cook-off somewhere in the state every other day, year-round!

The Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-Off takes place the first Saturday in November and is the “granddaddy” of all chili cook-offs. It’s a four-day festival where over 200 teams compete for the coveted title of Chili Champion (of the world!). This long-standing Texas tradition was first held in 1967 as a competition of wit as well as chili and today the competition still stands strong among others throughout the state.

Chili’s fame grew worldwide. It was the San Antonio Chili Stand at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, when the dish first began to spread beyond the Texan borders and people all over the USA began to adopt their own version of the fiery, beefy concoction.

Traditional Texas chili is a meat stew in a fiery sauce of chilies, onions, and various spices such as chili powder, oregano, paprika, cumin and cayenne pepper. Beef is the customary meat in chili, but it can be made out of anything. Like religion and politics, no one can agree on the one true chili.

[box type=”shadow” ] Ogryzlo’s Espresso and Chocolate Chip Chili

¼ lb double smoked bacon, diced                    2 28 ounce cans tomatoes, diced
1 lb chorizo sausage, sliced                                 1 28 oz can tomatoes crushed
11 lb strip loin steak, diced                                 1/2 can smoked Chipotle peppers
1 lb ground beef                                                    1 28 oz can red kidney beans
1 lb ground pork                                                   1 28 oz can white kidney beans
3 cloves garlic, minced                                        1 28 oz black beans
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced                 1 28 oz romano beans
1 yellow pepper, seeded and diced                   4 tablespoons (60 mL) molasses
1 green pepper, seeded and diced                    ¼ teaspoon (1.5 mL) soya sauce
1 pablano pepper, seeded and diced                1 tablespoon (15 mL) red wine vinegar
1 onion, diced                                                       ½ cup (125 mL) espresso coffee
2 stalks celery, diced                                           ½ cup (125 mL) dark chocolate chips
2 tbsp (30 mL) smoked chili powder              ½ cup (125 mL) beef stock sea salt
1 tbsp (15 mL) coriander
1 tbsp (15 mL) cumin
1 tsp (5 mL) crushed chilies
1 tbsp (15 mL) oregano, dried

In a large stock pot over medium high heat, add bacon, sausage and steak and cook for 5 minutes or until almost cooked through. Add the ground beef and pork and cook, stirring for 8 to 10 minutes until the meats are thoroughly cooked and beginning to brown on the bottom of the pot. Add garlic, vegetables and all the spices and cook for 10 minutes until the juices from the vegetables evaporate and brown bits on the bottom of the pot release onto the meat. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 2 hours. Season to taste and serve hot. Makes enough to serve a party of 12 to 16. [/box]

I interviewed a dozen chefs on their chili philosophies and found 12 different styles. Some argued for chunks of beef, while others insisted the beef must be ground. Some said beans, especially red kidney beans are perfectly appropriate; others insisted that beans are nothing more than cheap filler. Some said chili must be made of pure Texan beef, while others were committed to the presence of lamb, mutton, chicken, duck, or anything else imaginable. On a previous trip to Texas I was told, “real men don’t eat chili made with fur or rice”. Don’t ask – I have no idea, but I’m told only a real man would understand.

Chili’s restless, ornery, masculine nature is the reason men have made a special effort to proudly claim it as their dish. The word itself calls to mind army camps, cowboy’s and Western Texan towns.

Chili can be sweet, bitter, hot, fresh and fruity with a predominant robust, meaty, beefy flavor. The beans should be tender, creamy, and intact and it should all be bound together by a thick, deep red sauce giving it it’s name “Texas Red”.

The great thing about chili is that everyone can make it. It’s a dish that requires very little culinary skill. This is probably an upsetting concept to those who labour long and hard coming up with complex recipes for the many chili cook-offs that go on across this country.

Chili making may not be the culinary art that, say, a good soufflé is. But no one learns anything about making chili unless his or her recipe has been challenged. First, the challenge is to improve the recipe for oneself and then with other chili-makers in competitions, until they get their own true bowl of red perfected.

With no real rules to abide by, you can design your own pot of chili. A great winter tradition, you can make chili as simple as meat, tomatoes and spices or go gourmet with my favourite recipe that has a whopping 31 ingredients!

Why so many? Let’s take a closer look at some of the ingredients and what makes them better. Take chili peppers for example. A good understanding of the different peppers and their flavours, will improve a chili. The best chilies like Cascabels have some complexity and elegance, while others like the Pequin or Arbol, are simply about the heat. Costeño, New Mexico and Choricero have fresher flavours of red bell peppers while Chipotles are all about the smoke. Ñora or Guajillo have a natural musty, charred wood, smokiness and Ancho, Mulato, and Pasilla will lend flavours like sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chocolate, and coffee. A great chili is about a blend of pepper varieties; it’s the subliminal flavour that keeps you coming back to the chili pot.

Let’s talk meat for a minute: it is after all the biggest source of contention amongst chili lovers. Some insist on ground beef, while others prefer larger, stew-like chunks. Ground or chunks, I find it’s more of a browning issue than size. Anyone who’s tried to sear a pot of ground beef knows all about the liquid pooling in the bottom of the pot, effectively drowning the meat forcing it to gurgle and spit in its own grey-brown juices. It just never browns properly and tastes like boiled meat. But chunks of meat will sear better, giving chili a nicer flavour and chili makers an edge over the competition.

A word about beans: True Texas chili has no beans. But, since we’re not in Texas, I like a variety of beans in my chili from Red Kidney to Black and Romano beans. So go wild, mix it up and do what you like.

My favourite chili includes chocolate and espresso. No, no this isn’t going too far and the result is not a dessert chili. Contrary to first impressions, chocolate and coffee really play up the beefy flavours while adding a complexity and a luscious, elegant texture that plays deliciously well against the boost of boldness from molasses and soya sauce. Yes, this is my chili.

Chili’s fame grew worldwide and so did the stories. One story claims during the early 1950s, several members of General Dwight Eisenhower’s staff were reported to have flown regular shipments of chili to Paris, France. The chili came from one of the best-known Texas chili parlors, Bob Pool’s Chili Joint and it was sent to their Paris quarters to satisfy the palates of homesick Texans. Paris! Even Billy the Kid had a soft spot for chili and was reported to have said, “Anybody that eats chili can’t be all bad.”