Sunday, November 6, 2011

An evolution of chili.

(Vegetarian) Red #43. © Ryan Schierling
I never really thought about chili much before we moved to Texas. I certainly enjoyed it in every sort of variety, be it homemade or canned, but never considered it or regarded it as I do now – which is to say with the same reverence the French have for their mother sauces, the Italians have for cheese and wine, the Spaniards have for paella and tortilla española. 

I have come to realize my history with chili con carne has three and one-half distinct phases. 

The first phase: Childhood. 

My mother's winter-time chili was a thick tomato-sauce-based vehicle for ground beef and onions. Mildly spiced with dried McCormick chili powder and cumin, it was the chili con carne of my formative years and off only a few herbs and spices (and, sans beans) from her similarly-prepared spaghetti sauce. It is what I sought to recreate when I started learning to cook in my early 20s. 

The second phase: Learning to Cook (or, A Stock Pot and a Wooden Spoon). 

When you move away from home, you are free to eat what you want, when you want, and you will. But there are times when you want the comfort of home, you will make a phone call and you will work to recreate the dishes of your youth. 

For a number of years after I left home, I didn't eat meat. Being a vegetarian wasn't a health-related or a conscience-appeasing meat-is-murder kind of decision, it was a financial one. I made so very little money, and meat was usually the most expensive item on my grocery lists, so I just stopped buying it for a few years. I made a lot of soups and stews, and vegetarian chili was one of the first stock-pot-meals that evolved from my mother's recipe into my own. 

I used cheap dried beans soaked overnight, vegetable broth and fresh jalapeños, lots of onion and diced tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, and the freshest chile powder and cumin I could find. It took some trial and error to get where I wanted with it, but learning how to correct seasonings and temper the heat of the fresh chiles was invaluable. Knowing to let a young chili simmer longer or sit in the fridge overnight, or adjusting a dirty chili that tasted too heavily of chile powder and cumin with additional acid or a sweet component, took longer to figure out, but I got there. 

Learning how my tastes had changed as I'd gotten older and how to satisfy them was even more important. 

The third phase: Texas is the Reason (or, Where Chili Came From). 

According to legend and lore, chili was first made in Texas some time in the mid-1800s, in San Antonio. It was not much more than dried beef, beef suet, dried chili peppers (usually chile piquin) and salt, which were pounded together into trail-friendly bricks that could be rehydrated by boiling. 

150 years later, everyone has a heated opinion about chili in Texas. 

If it is Texas Red, there can be no beans. There can be no tomatoes. There can be no onions or garlic. There is only beef, chiles and enough liquid to simmer the beef and chiles in. There are no recipes for red, there are only arguments between self-appointed chili connoisseurs about how it should be made. 

Around here, chili competitions are like beauty pageants for kids (chili and child are only separated by one letter). Your kid probably doesn't really care if she wins or loses, but I'll tell you what, if your little darling comes out on top, you're never going to shut up about it. Your friends, enemies, family, neighbors, congressman, the Quik Stop owner down the street (who is from Cincinnati and insists that chili be served over spaghetti and has cinnamon and cloves in it) will know that your child (your chili) is undisputedly the best of the best. Thereby making you the best. Or something like that. 

My favorite quote about Texas red is oft-recited from John Thorne, describing a seemingly dangerous (albeit delicious) gustatory gamble. 

"It can only truly be Texas red if it walks the thin line just this side of indigestibility: Damning the mouth that eats it and defying the stomach to digest it, the ingredients are hardly willing to lie in the same pot together." 

Found an autographed copy of A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert. © 1972

Always researching, I found a well-read but autographed fourth-edition 1972 copy of Frank X. Tolbert's "A Bowl of Red" at Half-Price Books, and have been working my way through lovingly-told tales of the history of chili con carne. It is a Texas education of the highest order. 

I am continually learning, so the additional half-phase is constantly evolving: Assembling the chili construct. 

Twenty years of making chili has given me a wealth of, well… at least two decades of experience, indigestion and occasional trouser noise, but I will tell you – I almost never make chili the exact same way twice, even when I write a recipe down. Adjustments... there are always adjustments. Sometimes I use beef, or bison, or pork in a chili verde, and sometimes I roll sin carne. Frequent tastings reveal needs – a squeeze of agave, a hit of lime juice at the finish. However, there are two rules I always follow. A puree of rehydrated dried chiles (usually ancho, sometimes pasilla) must be used. Fresh chiles (usually jalapeño, sometimes serrano) must be used. Beyond that, all bets are off. 
Ancho chiles, pre-chili. © Ryan Schierling

Today, I am working a "vegetarian" batch that includes: Two pounds of small red beans. Six ancho chiles, toasted in a cast iron skillet, seeded and rehydrated for 20 minutes in boiling water, then pureed with a cup of the soaking liquid. Eight fresh serrano chiles, chopped with seeds and membranes intact. Five long sweet red peppers, seeded and chopped. Four homely little farmers market red bells, seeded and chopped. Three small onions, diced. One head of garlic, minced. One 28 oz. tin of Cento petite diced tomatoes. 16 oz. of beef stock. A cup of black coffee for me, and one for the chili. A shot of tequila for me, and one for the chili. A palmful of dried Mexican oregano. Cumin. A hit of Saigon cinnamon. A good squeeze of agave. Salt. Lime juice and minced fresh cilantro. 
The fresh. © Ryan Schierling

Depending on where you are from, it might not be your chili, but it is one of a million good chili variants out there. I have come a long way from my roots, and from the roots of Texas chili, but I know the efforts a proper chili recipe takes and the efforts a proper chili cook undertakes. And I supremely respect that. 

So make your chili well. Make your own history. 

And make sure to share it.


  1. I recently received a copy of Frank X. Tolbert's book as well, and to my surprise, it is also autographed as yours is. Have you read the other two books in what many consider to the the "holy trinity" of chili books? They are:

    The Great Chili Confrontation by H. Allen Smith (which I've read)
    With Or Without Beans by Joe E. Cooper (which I have not read)

    These might be some good additions to your library, if you are into food history/anthropology like I am.

    1. "The Great Chili Confrontation" looks like an easy find, but that 1952 "With Or Without Beans" is $250 on! 1 copy available! That's got to be a serious holy grail kind of tome... going to have to scour the Goodwills and thrift shops here in Austin and see what I can find. Thanks for the tip.


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