August 12, 2010

Will the Real Texas Chili Please Step Forward?

The evolution of Texas chili, Part III of a 4-part series

One of the questions asked is why chili is such a popular dish? Chili is a cultural heritage, much as is chicken fried steak. Both represent a means to create a sustaining meal out of very inexpensive ingredients.

At the time of the First World War, the Chili Queens of San Antonio were providing a steaming bowl of tasty chili, served up with onions and tortillas for only a dime. Chili joints started to appear all over Texas, and within a few years chili parlors had become a familiar sight in most Western and Midwestern states.

By the depression years, there was hardly a town anywhere in the country that didn't have one. Often these joints were no more than a tin roofed shed or a small room with a counter and stools. In those years, the chili joints often were the difference between starvation and staying alive. Chili was cheap and crackers were free. There are historians that have said that chili may have saved more down on their luck people from starvation than the Red Cross.

Regional differences produced many styles of chili, some unique only to its particular geographic area.

The city of Cincinnati produced a particular style of chili that is very different from the stuff that originated in Texas. Created in 1922 by Macedonian immigrant, Tom (Athanas) Kiradjieff, Cincinnati chili is also called spaghetti chili.

Kiradjieff ran a hot dog and Greek food joint called the Empress. Because Greek food was not popular and the business was a dismal failure, Tom and his brother John created what they called spaghetti chili. Made with different combinations of Middle Eastern spices, this “chili” was served a variety of ways. The spices were certainly not Texan, but the spaghetti is the main difference. 

The people of Springfield, Illinois make a chili that they take very seriously, even spelling it differently than the rest of the world. Springfield’s "chilli" originated with Dew Brockman , the founder of a joint called the Dew Chilli Parlor. It is said that Dew argued with his sign painter, who wanted to spell it the correct way.

His spelling may have been off, but Dew’s “chilli” was a hit. At one point, somewhat more than a dozen parlors and scores of saloons were serving up the stuff to hungry patrons and in 1993 the Illinois General Assembly unanimously proclaimed Illinois as the "Chilli Capital of the Civilized World."

Chasen's Restaurant in Hollywood, California made arguably the most famous chili. Stories tell of limo chauffeurs, actors and actresses showing up at Chasen's back door to pick up quarts of the secret recipe chili. Fans included the likes of Jack Benny, J. Edgar Hoover, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Chasen's delivered chili to Clark Gable while he was in the hospital. Rumor has it that Chasen's chili was the last thing Gable had to eat before dying.

Chasen’s is gone now. Owner Dave Chasen did all the cooking and kept the recipe a secret even when Eleanor Roosevelt tried to pry it from him. In 1973 it died along with him and the joint soon closed.

Chili parlors from Seattle, Washington to Washington, D.C. have tried to brand their special chili as the true and correct recipe. Tomorrow we will learn why they are mostly wrong, and why Texas chili is still King.

But then we have the bean controversy...

Texans are passionate about this question. Texas chili does not have beans… period. So why then do others use beans? Two possible reasons have been proposed.

First, chili is a meat dish. The meat is intended to provide protein. It is possible that some enterprising cookie somewhere in ages past had an insufficient supply of meat, and desiring to supplement the protein in the dish, dumped in some beans. My guess is that he was promptly tarred and feathered.

The greater likelihood is simply cultural. Beans were a crop requiring cultivation to some degree, and were therefore somewhat on the scarce side in the desert southwest. Over time the diet a people consumes becomes ingrained in the societal fabric. If they didn’t grow up with beans in the chili, they would be disinclined to add them in the future.

So the bean controversy remains speculation, but as you will see in the next installment, Texans are passionate on the subject. I did find a page with a somewhat interesting view of the topic, although I certainly wouldn't recommend the included recipe (bloody mary mix? Give me a break.)

Other than this I can offer no explanation, and neither can I find any reference that is anything less speculative.

To be continued tomorrow…


Old NFO said...

REAL chili does not have beans... :-)