Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Chili: the official dish of Texas

As the weather turns cooler, Texas thoughts turn to chili.

Actually, chili is always on the minds of Texans regardless of the temperature. It is, after all, the official dish of the state of Texas.

Surprised? What? Did you think it was barbecue? Tex-Mex? No way. It’s chili, hands down.

Will Rogers called chili a “bowl of blessedness” which gets him forgiven for being born in Oklahoma. True Texans know that chili is NOT made with beans. Beans, my friend, are for Yankees. That little nugget of truth was even sung about by Ken Finlay in his song If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans.

“You burn some mesquite and when the coals get hot, you bunk up some meat and you throw it on a pot.

“While some chile pods and garlic and comino and stuff, then you add a little salt till there’s just enough.

“You can throw in some onions to make it smell good.

“You can even add tomatoes, if you feel like you should.

“But if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.

“If you know beans about chili, you know it didn’t come from Mexico.

“Chili was God’s gift to Texas, or maybe it came from down below.

“And chili doesn’t go with macaroni, and (darned) Yankees don’t go with chili queens; and if you know beans about chili, you know that chili has no beans.”

Chili and Texas are one. They are inseparable. But not all chili is from Texas.

Ohio, it seems, is also home to a kind of chili.

Years ago, I was in Cincinnati shooting with the fire department for a training video company for which I worked at the time. The firefighters knew I was not just from Texas; I was a 6th generation Texan. So they wanted to take me out for true chili. We went to Skyline Chili, and I made the mistake of complimenting them on their fine spaghetti sauce. Then I asked when I got to sample the chili.

Oops.

I was roundly and soundly educated on the difference between Texas chili and Cincinnati chili.

In my recent chili research, I learned from whatscookingamerica.net that Cincinnati chili was created by a Macedonian immigrant, Tom Kiradjieff. He started a Greek restaurant there in 1922, but no one knew anything about Greek food back then. So he created a kind of “chili” made with Greek spices. His creation included spaghetti, chopped onion, red kidney beans and shredded yellow cheese. He served it with oyster crackers and a side of hot dogs served with more shredded cheese.

It’s fine stuff, but I doubt it’s ever had a song written about it. If you know differently, please let me know.

Let’s get back to Texas chili.

The red stuff is so revered by Texans that there are a multitude of chili cook-offs year-round in Texas. I’ve even been a part of a chili cook-off team. We made what we called Cow Chip Chili. I can’t repeat our slogan. It’s disgusting. But the chili was five-star excellent. To this day, I only know part of the recipe. We all only had parts. Only our team captain knew all the ingredients. And, no, I won’t reveal even my miniscule part. That would violate the Texas Chili Code of Ethics.

Chili cook-off teams are part culinary genius and rabid silliness. Teams are judged on the quality of the product and the craziness of costumes, presentation and on theatrical sketches that border on bad Vaudeville routines. The Cow Chip Chili team was made up of otherwise “normal” people who dressed up as cowboys (and one cowgirl, thank you very much) and engaged in gunfights about six times a day throughout the event.

I knew of one team out of Houston that had a contact at NASA. Their chili cooker was sided with tiles from the Space Shuttle for insulation. Yes. Really.

That just goes to show that in Texas, chili is serious business.

The granddaddy of all chili cook-offs is the Terlingua International Chili Championship sponsored by the Chili Appreciation Society International, Inc. If you don’t believe me, visit chili.org/terlingua.html and see for yourself.

Each year on the first Saturday of November CASI holds the ultimate celebration of chili at Rancho CASI de los Chisos in Terlingua. Rancho CASI is located on the north side of Highway 170, eleven miles west of Study Butte and 7 miles east of Lajitas.

The four-day celebration begins each year on Wednesday before the big weekend, and culminates on Saturday with the Terlingua International Chili Championship. It's a Texas tradition of epic proportion - complete with an annual proclamation from the Governor declaring “Chili Appreciation Society International Day” in Texas.

So while Tex-Mex cooking and barbecue certainly are staples of the Texas diet, no other dish holds the same almost religion-status as does Texas chili. I once asked my father what sealed the deal for him proposing to my mother. After reciting the long list of reasons he loved her, he paused reverently and whispered, “Her chili was better than my mother’s.”