Join the Chili History Debate

Featured Article, Food, Hometown Cooking
on September 30, 2012

Americans’ love affair with chili started more than 150 years ago in an area of the Southwest that now is Texas. Although details are fuzzy, historians agree that the first pot of chili was nothing more than meat, hot peppers and onion. In her book Chili Madness, Southwestern cooking expert Jane Butel writes that

chili was the food cowboys ate as they “won the West.”

With only a handful of ingredients, chili was a dish meant for doctoring. It was only a matter of time before cooks began tinkering with it in their kitchens. The farther you move from Texas, where chili is the official state dish (called a “bowl of red”), the greater the variations, according to Butel. In Cincinnati, Ohio, chili is served over spaghetti and topped with chopped onions, grated cheese, kidney beans and oyster crackers. In Louisville, Ky., it’s sprinkled with broken tamales. In Kansas City, Mo., it’s mixed with macaroni and called “chili-mac.” New Mexicans make “chile,” which is a thick, spicy sauce used as an ingredient in recipes or to garnish other dishes.

Purists say chili with beans isn’t the real thing. This has led to grumbling by bean-eaters in California and the Midwest who like kidney beans in their chili and Texans who use pinto beans.

The battle over who makes authentic chili came to a showdown in 1967 in Terlingua, Texas, when a small group of chili lovers, called “chiliheads,” decided to settle the matter at a cook-off. The competition ended in a tie. By 1970, the International Chili Society (ICS) was formed, and the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff was scheduled annually. The competition includes two categories: red chili (meat with red chile peppers) and chile verde (meat with green chile peppers). This year’s cookoff took place Oct. 5-7 in Charleston, W.Va.

Matt Timms, who has judged ICS contests, has organized chili competitions, called Takedowns, in Boston and New York for the last 10 years. Unlike ICS, which has strict rules (no beans, rice

or pasta), Timms leaves the definition of what makes a good chili to his cooks. Years ago, “chiliheads” would have winced at the thought of vegetarian or turkey chili. But in keeping with the times, cooks are making delicious chili with lean turkey and lots of vegetables. “There are no rules,” Timms says.

“Just have fun with it.”