The Beans About Chili
A bowl of [Texas] chili is a bowl of blessedness.
Besides “Remember the Alamo,” the first rule of Texiquette is: Beans do not belong in chili. Don’t get me wrong, I like beans—pinto, black eyed, green, refried, and black. I don’t like lima, just ask my momma and big sister—but that’s a different story for a different time. I even, on occasion, like chili and beans. What I won’t put up with, however, is beans in chili. It’s simply un-Texan.
Normally, I would address the relationship between beans and chili at a more chilly time of the year, in keeping with the old saying: “When it gets chilly outside, Texans get chili inside.” But recently, I’ve been in a running row with some folks about the inappropriate usage of beans in chili—a kerfuffle not uncommon to yours truly. And since some people are so contrary as to insist on floating upstream, I figured I’d better pop their inner tube once and for all. But before that, some background is in order.
The hullabaloo began with the publication of a picture by Traces of Texas, who is one of the best sources of vintage Texas photographs and Texas quips you can find these days. Y’all ought to follow him—all true Texans do. Anyway, the image he posted was from famed photographer Russell Lee of a Texas cowboy in 1939 serving up a heaping plate of chili in the wilds of West Texas, somewhere outside of Marfa.
Of course, anyone with eyes to see can see that this cowboy has a delicious plate of flour tortillas, ranch style pinto beans, and a mess of beautiful Texas red. In other words, he has chili and beans, not chili with beans. But some folks are just blind to the truth and will continue to insist that not only is this cowpoke eating chili with beans, but that true, authentic Texas chili must include beans.
You’d think we could turn to some law or some edict written down in some dusty old book somewhere to settle this dispute. After all, in 1977 the Texas Legislature declared chili the national dish of Texas. In House Concurrent Resolution No. 18 they wrote:
WHEREAS, One cannot be a true son or daughter of this state without having his taste buds tingle at the thought of the treat that is real, honest-to-goodness, unadulterated Texas chili; and
WHEREAS, Texans continue today the tradition begun in San Antonio 140 years ago of making the best and only authentic concoction of this piquant delicacy; and
WHEREAS, President Lyndon B. Johnson commented that “chili concocted outside of Texas is a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing,” and Will Rogers described Texas chili as “the bowl of blessedness”; and
WHEREAS, Texas has been the site of the annual International Chili Cook-Off since 1967 and is the home of the 1976 World Champion Chili Cooker, Albert Agnor, of Marshall; and
WHEREAS, It is customary for the legislature to designate certain state emblems in recognition of this state’s great heritage and rich resources; and
WHEREAS, The beauty of Texas trees and flowers is represented by the pecan and bluebonnet and the mockingbird is emblematic of our abundant and varied wildlife, but the internationally esteemed cuisine of this great state had received no official recognition and has no official symbol; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED by the House of Representatives of the State of Texas, the Senate concurring, That the 65th Legislature in recognition of the fact that the only real “bowl of red” is that prepared by Texans, hereby proclaims chili as the “State Dish of Texas.”1
The Legislature’s chili resolution is fine, as far as it goes—but it doesn’t go far enough. Like all true politicians, which is to say, scalawags with the backbone of a chocolate eclair, making sure not to offend anyone who might vote for them, they failed to define exactly what goes into Texas chili, which has led to a lot of confusion as to what it is and isn’t, and what can and cannot be included.
So we have to rely on tradition. And the traditional way of making Texas chili is to include any number of pulverized, dried chilis like ancho, pasilla, and chipotle, mixed with spices like pepper, salt, cumin, cayenne, paprika, and oregano. You can include tomatoes and onions and garlic, if you like. And of course, chili must have meat, usually beef.2 The professional chili chefs who compete at the granddaddy of all chili cook-offs—The Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff3—use Tri-Tip beef.
The one thing they do not put in their chili: beans.
And this is where the argument starts. Does real Texas chili include beans or not? Those who compete and win in Terlingua have settled that question. The answer is no. But there are always the hold outs and heretics. So, let me remind all y’all that chili is short for chili con carne (chili with meat), not chili con carne y frijoles (chili with meat and beans). And “anyone who knows beans about chili,” as Paul wrote to the Chilinthians, “knows there are no beans in chili.”4
The true keepers of the wooden spoon have this verse memorized and immortalized it in their chili-loving hearts and in their chili-heated bowls.
But, because we live in a free country and Texans are a freedom loving people, what anyone does after being served a steaming bowl of real, authentic Texas chili, is . . . well, that’s their own dern business. If they want to desecrate one of the greatest gifts of God by throwing in beans, fine by me. I won’t serve it to them that way, but they can mix their beans and their chili (the freaks).5 I’ve been known to garnish my chili with cheese and a slice of jalapeño on top. My wife likes to put in Fritos to make Frito Pie. I’ve known some tender tongues and sensitive stomachs to give my chili a dollop of sour cream to cool the inferno. Add some pickles and crackers, or tortillas, on the side and you are ready to consume some pure Texas goodness.
But make no mistake about it, if y’all want a real, 1836% authentic bowl of Texas red—as the Chili Queen intended—y’all can have chili without beans, chili and beans (on the side, as the cowboy in Russell Lee’s photo does), but never chili with beans.
This is not without its controversies, since there have been serious efforts to amend this resolution in favor of Texas barbecue. But as they say, that’s a skunk to skin for another day.
To all my vegetarian and vegan friends—if I have any—meatless chili does not exist. Y’all can call a bowl of red spices mixed together with vegetables “chili,” but it isn’t. It’s red spiced vegetable soup. No office meant, but that’s just the way the chili cooks.
Founded by Frank X. Tolbert in 1967. And Frank knew what he was talking about since he wrote the book on Texas chili—the only authentic chili in the world: A Bowl of Red (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1994).
I know of the South Texas tradition of putting beans in chili. But it wasn’t because it was desired. Rather, it was a necessity to stretch the dish when meat was scarce.
Texas writer Elmer Kelton said it best: “Fistfights have been known to erupt between those who advocate adding beans to their chili and purists who insist that it is blasphemy akin to spitting on the churchhouse floor. Red beans add body and go a long way toward satisfying hunger, but lots of chiliheads maintain that this is like compromising the purity of a good woman. If beans must be served, they say, put them in their own bowl.” W. C. Jameson, Chili from the Southwest: Fixin’s, Flavors, and Folklore (Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005), viii.