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Cooking the Classics: Texas Chili

Cooking the Classics: Texas Chili

A look at the original Texas chili recipe, an icon of Texas cuisine - like so much of the food of the southwestern United States, chili is of Mexican origins.

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There ain’t no chili like Texas chili. What is Texas chili, you ask? That’s what I was aiming to find out. Like so much of the best food of the southwestern United States, chili is of Mexican origin. Chili con carne sounds like it would just be chili peppers with meat, and those are two important components. But chili is a meal in a bowl, with a single important distinction between Texas chili and all the rest. Most chilis have beans to beef up the dish, with the assumption that meat (like beef, which might otherwise beef up the dish) is hard to come by and/or expensive. The everyman variation of chili is a bit of meat, for flavor, and you fill up on the beans. But since everything is bigger in Texas, and it is the beef capital of the United States, meat is plentiful and there ain’t no room for no beans in this here chili.

There was a brief internet storm when The New York Times published a Texas chili recipe that included coriander seeds and chocolate, which locals considered outrageous (and a bit precious and hipster-y). At least there were no beans included, they sighed. Proper Texas chili is about unpretentious heartiness. To whit, award-winning Texan chef Randy Evans flavors his chili with “cumin, chili powder, onions, garlic, a little tomato paste…and masa,” the corn starch that acts as a thickener (no masa, and you have something more saucy than stew-y. But the co-author of the Times article, Robb Walsh, had a history-book comeback to the anti-coriander-seed activists. Coriander and cumin both arrived in Texas via the immigrants from the Canary Islands, who settled in San Antonio in the 18th century.

Mexican or Texan? Some chili differences

The Mexican version is surely the oldest, and requires only chili peppers, meat, and tomato to be a true chili con carne (beans, cumin and other staples are optional later additions). We can point to an 1850 recipe for dried beef, suet, dried chili peppers and salt, pounded into a block and left to dry—these could be loaded onto wagons and boiled into pots while traveling. It actually sounds pretty good, if you need something “to go.” But the chili craze really took off after the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where the San Antonio Chili Stand doled out portions to the rest of America that had not traveled to that storied Texan city to try it themselves. I only wonder why it wasn’t until 1977 that the state of Texas finally got around to making chili the official state dish. Through the first half of the 20th century, and as early as 1904, Texas was lined with “chili parlors,” diners that featured their own special recipe for chili. These popped up throughout the Midwest through the 1920s, after Charles Taylor opened one in Carlinville, Illinois (though he advertised his product as “Mexican chili.” 1922 saw the opening of chili joints in Cincinnati, launching their own chili style, developed by Macedonian immigrants, who plonked the chili down on either spaghetti (in lieu of ragu) or atop hotdogs. They also added Mediterranean spices and even cinnamon to their chili, intentionally making it saucier.

But while there are many opinions (there’s even a Chili Appreciation Society International—which forbids beans and marinating the meat), there is one most-famous, generally-available chili recipe, which is the one I tried to make. It’s the one that Lady Bird Johnson made for her husband, President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Johnsons were mid-century Texans par excellence, so I’m inclined to think that they know what they’re doing. The only oddity is Lady Bird’s elimination of suet, which is fair enough, as she wanted to keep her husband alive and well as president (since he’d had a heart attack while a senator). Lady Bird had so many requests for her chili recipe, that she had cards printed up with it, to mail to those who wrote in. She called it Pedernales River chili, but it’s Texas chili to me—or at least as Texan as I can get, over here in the middle of the Alps, where I live.

What separates chili from goulash (which is the chili equivalent as beloved meal-in-a-bowl over here, in the middle of the Alps)? It’s really only the flavoring, as chili tastes like chili if it has a) cumin and b) chili powder in it. I’ll be using chili powder and crushed cumin seeds, as per Lady Bird’s instructions, though I quite like real chilis (she suggests “2-6 generous dashes liquid hot sauce” and I suppose I could swap chopped chili in without losing my authenticity). Ground beef, onion and garlic are browned, then dotted with cumin, oregano, chili powder, canned tomato, hot sauce and salt. Then you simmer for an hour and you’re done. Now that seems a little too easy. I manage not to get anything wrong the first time through (a small miracle in my slippery kitchen), and it tastes good. Not complicated, not subtle, but good and warming. Maybe next time I’ll try it with some beans…and maybe a little coriander and chocolate…

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