Beans or No Beans? Where did Chili Begin?
Updated: May 10, 2021
Chili is one of those dishes that is quintessential Texas. I know, I know, there are other Chili-centric locations. Cincinnati has a type of Chili, and there is a Chilli, spelled with two “L’s” in Springfield, Illinois. Even a restaurant in Hollywood called Chasen’s claimed a famous version of the comfort food. However, no one disputes the delicious dish had its origin in the Lone Star State. As a native Texan, I’m proud that our Official State Dish is Chili, declared by the Texas Legislature in 1977.
Chili con carne, or chili, as we know it today, got it’s start by being more of a meat stew and sauce for other dishes. While Chili was influenced by the Mexican residents living in and around San Antonio in the 1700s and 1800s, Mexican citizens did not claim Chili. As a matter of fact, elite Mexicans refused to be associated with it. Robb Walsh, an expert in Texas foods (and my favorite food historian), wrote in The Tex-Mex Cookbook that the dishes with beans, chiles, and corn products were considered low-class street foods. While Chili may not be Mexican in ancestry, no one can dispute that Chili was born in Texas.
Beans or No Beans?
This is a rhetorical question. Of course, there are no beans in chili. My husband, who grew up in San Antonio, ate beans in his chili, but only because his mother was from Illinois. She put beans in her chili. So, I think this proves my point…real Chili is from Texas, and it has no beans.
The recipes of chili con carne from the 1800’s were not only a dish meant to be consumed solo (or with a few crackers), but the spicy beef stew was also used as accompaniment in other Mexican, er uh, Tex-Mex dishes. Chili con carne was used then and now on enchiladas, tamales, almost anything you believe sounds good.
Beans do not work in chili con carne, especially when used as a sauce for other dishes. As a matter of fact, my Daddy used to order cheese enchiladas at Los Tios with chili gravy. Chili gravy is made from the skimmed off oil from the top of a pot of chili, mixed with flour, and water or beef stock.
I’m certain tried and true variations of chili have existed over the decades, including ones that had beans. However, I will stand by my statement, Texas Chili should not include beans.
The Chili Queens were women in San Antonio, mostly Hispanic, who would set up open-air Chili stands in San Antonio’s Military Plaza to sell their fare. They were likely laundry women by day, but then restauranteur by night. Their chili con carne recipes most likely originated from the Canary Islander settlers who brought many spices to Texas and made a Chili-type meat stew. The Chili Queens chili stands became well known. Not only did San Antonians visit the Chili Queens, but tourists, cowboys, and Texas Rangers would come as well.
President Johnson, like any good Texan, loved his chili. When he was President, his chili recipe was so requested that Lady Bird Johnson had cards printed with the recipe. Though LBJ supposedly preferred venison to beef, I have seen the famous Pedernales Chili recipe only mention beef. The chili was named after the Pedernales River, which flows next to the LBJ Ranch. Note: no beans in his recipe.
Terlingua Chili Championship
My favorite story about Texas Chili comes from the West Texas Town of Terlingua. Carroll Shelby (the race car guy) and David Witts owned 200,000 acres in Brewster County, including the town of Terlingua. About this time, H. Allen Smith wrote an article in Holiday magazine called Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do. Let me point out that Smith was from Illinois and promoted adding canned pinto beans into his chili recipe. When this article was published in August 1967, the Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI) challenged Smith to a chili cook-off. The event took place in Terlingua on October 21, 1967. In addition to Smith, Wick Fowler (Texan, author, and chili expert) were the cooks.
The event provided a great deal of banter back and forth on what Chili really is. Wick Fowler laughed, "I have read most of Smith's books...He is a very funny man. The funniest thing he ever wrote was that chili recipe."
There were three judges with each cook choosing a judge, and CASI naming the third judge. San Antonio brew master Floyd Schneider, was chosen by Wick Fowler. Schneider voted for Fowler’s classic Texas Chili. Hallie Stillwell, justice of the peace from Alpine, Texas, was the second judge. She also happened to be Smith’s cousin. She voted in favor of her cousin. So the story goes, the final judge, David Witts, took one bite of Smith’s chili and spat it out! The Chili Championship was said to be a tie.
Also present was Frank X. Tolbert, writer for the Dallas Morning News and Chili connoisseur. Tolbert, who wrote the book Bowl of Red, chronicled the whole affair that went down in Terlingua. Tolbert knew Chili, and said Smith’s recipe was more a bowl of vegetable stew than real Chili. The Terlingua International Chili Championship still continues to this day. And, CASI, founded in 1951, continues to coordinate the event.
If you are interested in reading a 1967 account of the first Terlingua Chili Championship, read The Great Chili Championship Fix by Gary Cartwright. Characters like Tolbert, Smith, and Fowler aren’t around these days. Reading about this era brings me happiness and joy. It’s worth reading to transport you to a different time and have a chuckle.
I love Chili! I grew up with my mom preparing the dish with no beans, and I cook the spicy dish for my family regularly. I am partial to the Wick Fowler recipe. It never disappoints.