Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Food and Place, volume 6 (Houston)

Houston! Texas!


Charles Whitson and his lovely wife, Karin, taught me how to make chili. They’re Texans, though when I worked with them we lived in Ohio. Whenever we traveled to Houston (usually on the way to or from Hunstville, home of Sam Houston State University and one of the grimmest prisons I've ever visited), we’d get some chili or some barbeque or some Tex-Mex. The Whitsons also taught me to make tortilla chips and to appreciate Jerry Jeff Walker and David Alan Coe.

Texans themselves disagree on what real Texas chili is. It’s a big state (just in case you had somehow forgotten), big enough for clear regional differences. Plus Texans tend to hold strong opinions on nearly everything and usually aren’t shy about expressing them. That’s what I liked about Molly Ivins. So I have to take pains to point out that the following chili recipe is but one version of Texas chili and I do not presume that it is THE recipe. It is damn good, though.

Texans argue (mostly amiably) about many chili details:
  • The kind of chilies to use. It's a key ingredient and there are many, many choices, most of them fine choices, indeed.

  • Tomatoes. None at all, or tomato paste or tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes.

  • Thickness and thickeners: masa harina, plain old white flour, or none. Purists says that one should never put a lid on a chili pot. Let it cook down and if it gets too thick, just add some cheap beer or a little water and keep stirring.

  • Meat. There really isn't much disagreement here. Beef it is! And coarsely ground or chopped. Not hamburger! Chicken chili and turkey chili sometimes show up at cookoffs, but really this is a beef dish. Some people add a little chorizo.

The most vocal and heated arguments are about beans. According one classic text on the subject ("Chili Madness" by Jane Butel), a fair number of Texas chili aficionados eschew beans.* She favors no beans or beans on the side, but if you have to have beans, she says use pinto beans because at least they are southwestern, whereas the ubiquitous red kidney bean found in most mass-produced chili is just weird.

I cast my lot with the anti-bean faction. Some good beef in a potent but pleasing mix of spices – that’s the essence of chili. In season, venison is an acceptable substitute for beef, but please do not try to sneak turkey or chicken or zucchini or tofu into my chili. You hear?

The annual chili cookoff at Terlingua, Texas is legendary. In about 1981, a small group of Texas ex-pats and friends** in the Twin Cities sponsored a chili cookoff. We even imported some Shiner and some Lone Star. This was the winning recipe, prepared proudly by yours truly:

Hell Hath No Fury Chili

3 tbs lard [sure, you can use butter or cooking oil, but lard works better and it's at least a bit more healthy than bacon drippings]

2 onions, chopped [yellow onions are preferable to white; red onions are an affectation]

6 pounds of beef, coarse chili grind or chopped by hand [round steak or flank steak works well; save the ground beef for hamburgers or meatloaf or hot dish]

4 garlic cloves, diced

4 or 5 tbs ground hot red chili [best purchased in the Mexican market or the Mexican section of your local supermercado]

2 or 3 tablespoons of a mild red chili pepper [the McCormick's generic works fine]

1 tbs ground cumin/comino

1 tsp ground Mexican oregano [don't substitute Italian; it's different]

3 or 4 small tomatoes, finely chopped

3 cups [more or less] water or beer

1 cup masa harina [this is to thicken the chili, but don't use the whole cup, just use enough to get the consistency you want]

Use a big ol' pot. Melt the lard and cook the onions in it until they're just translucent. In a bowl, mix the beef and the garlic and the spices together, then put that in the pot with the onions. Cook it and stir it until the meat is browned pretty well, maybe 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the water, turn down the heat and let this mixture cook slowly and gently for a good hour (or longer of you have that luxury). Add some masa harina if you think the chili should be thicker or some water if you think it should be thinner.

This should give you a spicy, tender version of beanless chili, which you can serve with some black beans on the side, some corn bread or tortillas, and cold beer.


Next stop: Kansas City or New Orleans.

* Some Yankee snob once asked Carroll Shelby, automotive icon and Texas chili expert, "Do you eschew beans?” and he replied “Hell no, I don’t even eat ‘em.”

** My parents met and married in Texas, but I don't guess that makes me a Texan.


Rob Hardy said...

Brace yourself for this: since my younger son became a vegetarian, I have to make chili with beans and bulgur instead of beef. Ain't even what you would call chili. But I'm going to try your recipe one of these days...

Jim H. said...


Our only daughter is a vegetarian, so we do have veggie chili at our house when she's home. I kind of like it, but would never admit that in public.

She goes to school in Los Angeles and my impression is that it's easier being a vegetarian in California than in Minnesota.

Bleeet said...

I just throw mushy tomatoes and chili peppers at a heifer and then lick the hide. Mmmmm... pure chili.

Yes, I'm making fun of your chili snobbishness.

If you only ever think there's one way to make real chili, what's the point of having contests?

Isn't this antithetical to your pro-buckthorn stance, in that manner?

I think you need a full diversity of chilis to make the world go fart! Ride the rainbow, boy!

Damnit, Jim! You're nothing but a chili fascist!

Well, I got news for you, bucko... this is a chilocracy. The Constitution was established to guarantee you and me freedom of chili!

Get with it!

Jim H. said...


My father-in-law was one of those stolid, tradition-bound Minnesota Norwegians. He always went to several lutefisk dinners around Christmas. He definately had his favorites, offering up very pointed critiques of lutefisk suppers he thought didn't measure up. He was a charming lutefisk chauvinist, and he always enjoyed those meals. I'll eat damn near any old chili any old where, but that doesn't mean one chili can't be the best of the lot.

Happy Festivus!

Bleeet said...

Oh... well, lutefisk.... that's a fish of a different, more putrid color.

There IS only one good lutefisk; that's the lutefisk someone else already ate.

Chili with a lutefisk base... there's an idea. Texwegian cooking?