The Exotic Journey of Chili

One of the ways that’s guaranteed to get virtually all Texans mad at you, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or politics, is to start telling them what chili is supposed to be. In New Orleans, you don’t make friends talking about what gumbo is supposed to be either.

Yet in my life as a food writer, I have regularly done the latter – and I’m about to try doing the former. Not because I know better, in any sense. And not because I believe anybody is dead wrong, ever. It’s just that when you eat the same dish in a lot of people’s kitchens, the people all tell you this is the only way. But then, so do the next 5,749 people, all making the same dish differently.

Plus, I simply enjoy the variety – and a bit more exoticism than I ever imagined.

If you wonder why Texans don’t look to the Old Country of Mexico for the last word on chili as it relates to beans, it’s because chili as we know it has no Old Country. It, or something quite like it, was logically a staple of the vast cattle ranches of South and West Texas, and also was ladled from the chuckwagons feeding cowhands on cattle drives to the north. Quite a few early versions are known to have included beans – just not the version hawked by the iconic Chili Queens on the streets of San Antonio at the start of the 20th century.

According to many food historians, the no-bean approach was largely a function of this chili’s multiple uses – over enchiladas, tamales, Frito pie and many other things, where the beans would have produced something less smooth and saucy. Today in this country, nobody has chili dogs with beans either.

As for the chili powder-cumin spice blend, that seems too exotic to have crossed from Mexico. The best theory is that the taste for such things arrived with settlers from the Canary Islands, who had grown to love the flavors of Morocco. So chili is a classic recipe invented in Texas under the influence of Mexico, using spices borrowed from the spice routes of North Africa.

TRES FRIJOLES CHILI WITH HONEY CORNBREAD

There are plenty of venial sins when you talk about Texas chili, but the only mortal sin might be adding beans – which is kind of weird when you consider how many Texans put, use or add beans with everything else. I figure it’s because chili was born on ranches and cattle drives, and that version was popularized in San Antonio.

Honey Cornbread:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal

¼ cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 cup heavy cream

¼ cup vegetable oil

¼ cup honey

2 eggs, lightly beaten

Chili:

4 slices thick-cut bacon

3 pounds ground beef, regular or chili grind

Salt and pepper

1 large onion, diced

2 jalapenos, diced, with or without seeds as desired

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 ½ cups Fischer & Wieser’s Salsa a la Charra

1 can cooked black beans

1 can cooked pinto beans

1 can white beans

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground oregano

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

2 cups water

½ cup lager beer

1 cup shredded cheddar and Mexican blended cheese

Bake the Cornbread: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease a 9 x 9-inch baking pan. In a bowl, stir together the flour, cornmeal, sugar and baking powder so they form a well in the center. Stir in the remaining ingredients to form a smooth batter and pour this into the baking pan. Bake until golden brown, 22-25 minutes, testing with a toothpick in the center. Let cool in the pan on a rack. But into squares. 

To make the chili, brown the bacon in a large pot or kettle, removing when crispy. Brown the ground beef in the bacon grease until almost cooked through. About halfway through, add the onion and jalapenos, stirring to incorporate. Add the garlic and cook just 1 minute more, being careful not to burn. Add the salsa and three types of beans, followed by the chili powder, oregano, cumin and paprika. Stir to mix with the beef. Crumble the bacon and return to the pot.

Add the water and beer. Bring to a boil, cover pot and reduce heat, letting chili simmer for about 1 hour (2 if using chili-grind beef). Add additional water if liquid evaporates, and more at the end of cooking to reach your desired consistency. Spoon the chili over each square of cornbread and top with cheese. Serves 8-10.

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