True chili is spare. It consists of ground beef and chile powder. Anything else is not chili. Repeat: not chili. And if it has beans, it’s not only not chili—it’s an abomination.
This is the Texan mantra when it comes to a bowl of red, and we get madder than a wet hen upon spotting a can of kidney beans slipped into a recipe. But Robb Walsh, longtime chronicler of Texas food traditions, cookbook author and former Houstonia food critic, thinks we need to let it go. “We’re the ones who are being a little closed-minded on the subject,” he says.
Walsh ought to know: he spent months on the road researching the dish’s roots for his latest offering, The Chili Cookbook. After a disappointing start in San Antonio—“Where I couldn’t find a single chili parlor!”—he sampled interesting regional variations in the US and even abroad. At Gold Star Chili in Lexington, Kentucky, he tried the popular Cincinnati style, seasoned with cinnamon and served atop spaghetti, as well as a surprisingly good no-beans Tex-Mex-style chili. And in Prague, of all places, he studied the connections between goulash with sweet Hungarian paprika and our own local specialty made with ancho chile powder.
A bit closer to home, at Tolbert’s Restaurant & Chili Parlor in Grapevine, northwest of Dallas, owner Paul Ryan, grandson-in-law of legendary Texas chili champion Frank X. Tolbert, reported that the “north of the border” chili—a bowl of Tolbert’s original Texas red served with pinto beans—was his favorite, admitting, “My grandfather would turn over in his grave.”
His peregrinations led Walsh to an epiphany. “All of us like to think of ourselves as regional experts, that we get to make the definitions,” he says, but emphasizes that “it’s not determined by my prejudices or your prejudices, but the way it’s being used in common language.” In other words: those ersatz chilis with beans in them, or made with chicken, or no meat at all? They’re chili too, like it or not.
“I’m not opposed to anybody’s chili,” laughs Walsh. “I had a helluva time driving all around the country and eating them all.” Nevertheless, he says, “I didn’t go back to El Real and change the way we make chili,” referring to the Lower Westheimer restaurant where he’s part owner. There, the cooks still use chopped chuck, bacon drippings and chile powder to make their Texas red, also known as “the mother sauce of Tex-Mex,” says Walsh. It can be thinned out with chile gravy for enchiladas, tossed atop a pile of Fritos with cheese for a quick meal—anything, really, except eaten as a meal in and of itself. After all, that’s where beans come in.
Not only does The Chili Cookbook contain a few recipes featuring beans, but it offers a good number of other unconventional—to Texans—varieties. “My mind was broadened,” Walsh says of his discovery, for example, of a lamb chili that had none of the “gaminess that some people don’t like.” The taste was tempered, he says, by the dried ancho chiles and other spices within the powder, the strong flavors combining to make a whole even better than the sum of its parts.
No one’s taking away those testy Texas traditionalists’ bowls of red, of course. But “being open-minded is being open-mouthed,” Walsh says. “You might end up trying something you really like.”
What Twitter thinks:
“HEB sells Chili Beans, so yes.” —@caleb_buchanan
“As long as you don’t call it Texas chili. Or good chili.” —@TosshiTX
“Speaking for Houston, no, it is not, absolutely no, not under any circumstances.” —@TxArch
“As long as it tastes good, yes.” —@scorpio2002
“REAL Texas chili does NOT have beans!! What’s next? Asking people to serve it over spaghetti? #zerostars #chilifail” —@CrazyKazi