The Hungry Engineer

No Beans - A Texas Chili Cook Off

15 Oct 2008

Texans can be a passionate lot. Everything is bigger in Texas. When someone asks you where you’re from, and you tell them “Missouri”, they ask you what part of Texas that’s in. And don’t even try to talk about football unless you have a thick skin and 30 minutes to spare. Well, I’m here to tell you that Texans are passionate about their chili, specifically as it relates to the absence of what in my mind is a key ingredient.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in what in Texas is considered to be “The North”, but I had (prior to moving here) considered beans a primary chili ingredient. Texans, on the other hand, steadfastly refuse to besmirch their chili with anything so pedestrian as beans. While I’m keen on enjoying a steaming bowl of meat-only chili once in a while, I’ve never been willing to cook any at home. In my mind, if I was taking the time to make chili, I was going to make it my way, and that meant I was using beans and I was eating it with crunched up saltines and shredded cheddar cheese. Some of the chili I ate this past weekend has me reconsidering my stance on that particular issue.

Last Saturday, I had the great pleasure of attending the 2008 Hardeman House of Hellfire Chili cook-off. We traipsed through a furniture store parking lot to enter a private back yard via a somewhat covert but well-marked gate. Ah, there’s nothing like the fine fall weather to make you want to head to an outdoor chili cook off to sample bowl after steaming bowl of chile infused chili. Too bad we don’t have any of that fine fall weather here yet. It was a blistering 90 degrees outside as we imbibed probably a dozen different versions of variously seasoned and spiced chili. But never you mind my whining about the heat – lets talk about the chili. Most of them were very tasty, and there was actually a nice variety of flavors and textures represented in the samples. And the wacky names folks came up with for their chili were half the fun. The winning entry was called Outhouse chili. Other contestants had nice tame chili names like “Riddle Me This” and “Renegade Red”. We had a friend who entered his as “Whup muh’ ass” chili. I have a friend who insists that chili without beans is nothing more than filling for Sloppy Joes, but these chilies blazingly defied that categorization (well, most of ‘em anyway). There were thick, meaty chilies that were comprised of a variety of slow cooked ground and cubed meats – many of which made glorious use of various chiles. There was a strangely soupy chili with a hint of sweetness – we’re guessing maybe maple syrup, but can’t be sure. There was an intensely spiced (though not “spicy”) venison chili whose flavors unfolded slowly as you worked your way through your sample bowl. All in all, the contest was lots of fun, and my favorite part of the event was that all proceeds went to the Blue Dog Rescue here in Austin.

I should point out that I don’t think there was a cracker to be found in the place. Most of the booths had tortilla chips, diced onion, and some cheese with which to dress your chili. A couple of them had cornbread. Many folks eat Texas chili on Frito Pie - a delightful layering of Fritos, chili, and cheese, often eaten right out of a split Frito bag. I tried asking around a little more about the lack of bean inclusion. I was told that historically beans were just filler - poor man’s chili. If you’re in a cattle-rich state like Texas, why on earth would you take up precious space in your chili with beans.

Now after all this talk of Texas chili, it would be fantastic if I could post for you my very own recipe … except that I haven’t made any yet. Did I mention that it’s been awfully hot here and that until recently I insisted on having beans in my chili? I really do want to make some though – and it is finally starting to cool off a bit around here (only in the 80s today and not even supposed to hit 80 tomorrow – woohoo!), so I expect I’ll get around to it really soon. In the meantime, here’s a recipe that looks really good. Once I do finally make some chili, I’ll definitely let you know.

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