09 February 2009

There has never been anything false about chili

A few months back, the Web was afire with President Obama's chili recipe. Just to note, I never grow tired of saying President Obama. President Obama. President Obama. See?

I digress. Once the chili recipe hit the Web, it seemed to garner some extreme opinions that closely resemble the polarization of our political landscape. It seemed everyone was either professing undying gratitude for a chili recipe that didn't require copious amounts of water from which to quell the fires of spice or decrying Obama's chili as a fake that dare use beans in a dish so obviously owned by the state of Texas (can you sense a bit of sarcasm in there? I thought you might..).

I happened to love this chili, which is a little tamer than the chocolate infused version I so often make, but after growing up in the Midwest, I feel I have a little 'splainin to do. Being the nerd that I am, I did a little research at the Washington State University Library to determine where chili came from and how it has been adapted regionally throughout the United States. Chili con carne (literally "peppers with meat") is the official dish of Texas, where beans, tomatoes and any other added ingredients are strictly verboten. Of course as one can tell by the name, its origins are not in the United States, but rather Mexico, arguably either in the 1840s or 1880s. Basically, the dish consists of meat (most often beef), onion, garlic, cumin and chili peppers, and at its first inception was a way to stretch quantities of meat through leaner times. Often the dish was served by reusing leftovers and dished up at local cantinas.

The first documented mass tasting of chili by Americans (at least that I could find) was at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, held in my dear Chicago, but before this mass exposure, women called "chili queens" served it up in San Antonio during the 1880s. Emigrants from Texas to other states and other American folk who saw the potential of chili to feed the masses began opening chili shops around the States, and thus, a collective "YUM" was uttered round America.

The controversy over the inclusion of beans in chili stems from a fight between two men: H. Allen Smith and Wick Fowler. Both writers, Fowler a journalist and H. Allen Smith a writer of fiction and nonfiction works including The Great Chili Confrontation, embarked upon the first chili cookoff in October 1967 at Terlingua, Texas. From what I could gather, ol' Wick Fowler dubbed the famous line: "If you know beans about chili, you know chili ain't got no beans."

Years later, the controversy over beans rages on, and most people commenting on the Web would probably despise Cincinatti style and Louisville style chili. Cincinatti style includes both beans and cheese often over spaghetti while Louisville style has tomatoes and is plated over spaghetti.

Growing up, I have fond memories of the chili my mother made, which included pretty much all of the above: meat, kidney beans, tomatoes, cheese, saltine or oyster crackers crushed over the finished product and served over a steaming heap of macaroni pasta. It was cheap, it was hearty enough to fill up three very tall and energetic children and my father, who ate chili like some people drink water. To this day when I make the dish, I can remember my mother's kitchen. She made it when we were under the weather physically, on Halloween after traipsing around for hours in rain or snow soaked costumes, and basically any time the seasons shifted gears to fall or winter. My dad also turned me on to one of the best chili joints in Chicago, Bishop's Chili. Give it a try the next time you're in my Windy City, and don't forget to hug Lake Michigan and give a fist bump to the Art Institute for me. Just be aware: it has beans.

I don't know beans about chili and I don't purport to be an expert, but beans are cheap and I'm a grad student. Considering that the dish itself came about because poor folks needed a way to stretch out their meat supply, this is no time to be advocating purist snobbery. So screw the purists, I'm adding beans! Obama's chili recipe is pretty close to my mom's, but it is definitely a milder version than most might be used to, given that there aren't actual chili peppers included in the recipe. Now for your viewing and cooking pleasure, I give you....Obama Chili.

**Note: All chili history information gleaned from H. Allen Smith's The Great Chili Confrontation and this site, which also provides the history of the dish even before the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Obama's Chili (with beans suckers--from this site)
Obama family chili recipe

1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
Several cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground turkey or beef
1/4 teaspoon (each) of ground cumin, ground oregano, ground turmeric, and ground basil
1 tablespoon chili powder
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Several tomatoes, depending on size, chopped
1 can red kidney beans

Sauté onions, green pepper and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add ground meat and brown. Combine spices together into a mixture, then add to ground meat. Add red wine vinegar. Add tomatoes and let simmer, until tomatoes cook down. Add kidney beans and cook for a few more minutes. Serve over white or brown rice. Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, onions and sour cream.


Jessica@Foodmayhem said...

Wow, I had no idea chili was that controversial, well maybe a little, but more about the different regions, I didn't know that beans or no beans was an issue.
Thanks for the history lesson.

Mo Diva said...

I learn something new everyday!

EMC said...

This is what I love about food and scholarship--they often go hand in hand!