Bay Area Bloggers
Blue Bottle Clown College
Emily Chang's eHub
Hewn & Hammered
Jill's Definition of Weblog
Le Blaugue à Beleg
Loïc Le Meur Blog
Tonx Dot Org
Send Me Email:
coffeeblogger (at) doublesquids.com
On an unusually hot day last week I wanted to eat something substantial but not heavy in a local restaurant. I ended up sharing a salad and ordering a huge glass of ice tea and a cup of chili, a food that I usually ignore. The chili was just right for the occasion, and I realized that chili is a dish worthy of more attention. This blogpost is the result of that attention. (I also cooked and just ate some homemade chili just before writing this last night.) Chili, of course, is the standard American English name for chili con carne, meaning a sauce made from a Southwestern capsicum pepper combined with meat. (The Spanish spelling is "chile con carne.") Chili, the dish, is a proletarian workhorse in the USA, eaten by the cup or bowl in diners and road-houses, with saltine crackers, spread on frankfurters (sausages) in a "hot dog" bun, even eaten on spaghetti (in Cincinatti, Ohio), and available as an instant meal in cans. There are several things I find especially fascinating about chili: the seemingly infinite variation in its recipes and preparation, and the quest for its origin. But first a personal story.
In eighth grade (late 1950's, small-town Pennsylvania) girls took courses in cooking and sewing ("home economics") while the boys learned woodworking. However, my school had a special crossover program where the boys learned how to cook simple dishes and sew a woodworker's apron, while the girls learned to make a jewelry box. The first recipe taught to us boys was a peanut butter sandwich. A week later came the next lesson: that's right, chili con carne. It was made with ground beef, and ingredients I now avoid in my chili: onions and canned tomatoes. Even so, it was delicious.
An organization called the Chili Appreciation Society International sponsors an annual chili "cookoff" in a Texas town called Terlingua, near the Mexican border. Contestants come from other chili cookoffs including the men-only Chilimpiad, also Texas-based.
And this leads to the question about the origin of chili. Is it Texan, Mexican, or from somewhere else? My opinion is that chili is quintessentially Texan, and this Mexican culinary website apparently agrees, calling the dish "estilo tejano." I will present my evidence for the Texas hypothesis, but first I think a more definitive description of the dish is in order.
As the name implies, chili con carne is basically chili with meat. Chili is New World genus of the nightshade family, whose name was derived from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, who called it xilli and cultivated it 5000 years ago, as found in pots from archaeological digs. The chili pod is now, of course enjoyed worldwide. In Thailand, for example, meat is combined with chili peppers, but the result is not chili con carne. What makes the Texas dish unique is the sauce, prepared from dried long red chilis that have been rehydrated, giving a distinctive flavor that is not merely the "hot" burning sensation of the capsaicin contained in the pepper. Adding tomatoes to the chili and meat, as my eighth-grade cooking teacher advised, merely extends the red color of the sauce without adding to the chili flavor. Chili powder, made of ground chilies with other ingredients, is a convenient way to add some chili flavor, but there are better ways, including starting with dried chilies (New Mexican dried red chilies may be the best), soaked, pureed, and cooked.
Then there is the question of additional ingredients. I consider myself a chili minimalist, but I cannot conceive of making chili without garlic. Perhaps that I because I am Jewish. Oregano and/or thyme can't hurt. In addition to herbal condiments, there is the bean question. I consider beans to be an optional ingredient, but a valuable one for texture and fiber content. The chili I made last evening contained ground beef, canned Las Palmas brand red chili puree (saving hours of prep time), and a can each of black beans and pinto beans, garlic, and a pinch of thyme (I couldn't find my oregano). I started it with sauteed chopped celery and I would have added chopped green bell pepper if I had any. Vegetarians, of course, could make chili with vegetables and beans without the meat.
OK, Texas. Wikipedia tells me that women sold chili on the public square in San Antonio in the 1880's, amd there was a "San Antonio Chili Stand" at the 1892 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. "Chili Parlors" have long thrived in Texas, including Dallas, and Wikipedia says that chili con carne is the official Texas state dish.Permanent Link to This Entry | | Technorati Tag: Chili blog comments powered by Disqus Comments (View)
Send the URL for this item to your Twitter Friends!
Word search for recent posts to Jonathan's Coffeeblog:
"The meaning of life and other trivia." Copyright ©2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 Jonathan David Leavitt. All rights reserved.
Every page now has Seesmic/Disqus video commenting. Scroll to the bottom to see or post video comments. There are also Haloscan comments at the end of each separate blogpost article. To read a text-only version of Jonathan's Coffeeblog on your iPhone or other mobile phone, click here. Or to see the graphics with less text, click here.