THE CHILI COOK-OFF

~ Posted by Samantha Weinberg, October 31st 2012

It was a wet weekend, there was nothing in the fridge. I was at the kitchen table reading Simon Hopkinson’s Stove Notes on how to make the perfect chili. "Yum," my son said, "I love chili." And so, following the recipe minutely, I went to the butcher for coarse cut beef shin, bought some more spices and dried oregano ("if you're making a large pot of chili, I would advise buying all the spices in one fresh batch"), and started chopping, simmering and stirring. Half an hour from the end, as instructed, I tipped in a tin of red kidney beans.

There were smiles that night as we tucked in, the steaming chili heaped over rice, with a dollop of crème fraîche and chopped onion (the last avoided, naturally, by my son, 12, and daughter, 10). The chili was subtle, with layers of flavour—the rich meat nuanced with cumin and refreshed by the oregano. But as we ate, the children carefully picked out every bean and popped them in a little bowl. "I don’t see the point of them," my son said. "They don’t taste of anything and they’ve got a funny texture."

The two of them weren't alone. The following week a comment was posted below Hopkinson's article: 

Chili NEVER contains beans.

I’m a sixth generation Texan and anyone suggesting that beans of any variety should be anywhere near a bowl of chilli will be tarred and feathered, or worse.

"Texas Red" is strictly a mix of beef (preferably diced chuck) and lots of spices.

The reader, Mark Embrey, went on to mention his personal recipe, a "variation on a Terlingua cook-off winner".

The Terlingua cook-off started in 1967; its home is a ghost town in southwest Texas where an all-night vigil is held on the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) to commemorate the mercury-mine workers who died from influenza and gunfights in 1918. This year, the cook-off final is on Friday, and an estimated 10,000 cowboys and "chilli-heads" are expected to converge in their RVs and teepees for eating, music and an ugly-hat contest.

There is a list of the prize-winning recipes on the Chili Appreciation Society and it's clear that they are heavily reliant on desiccated ingredients (1tbsp granulated onion, 2 tsp granulated garlic, ½ tsp powdered onion, ½ tsp jalapeno powder, and bouillon measured by the teaspoon), as well as copious amounts of cayenne pepper, administered to the brew in several "dumps".

I chose the 1994 winner and worked through the recipe to the best of my ability (onion powder didn’t feature in my local supermarket and I balked at the idea of MSG). It was a four-hour process and, by way of a control, I cooked Simon Hopkinson's version again in parallel. When both were ready, I blindfolded the family and spoon-fed them each dish, carefully avoiding the beans in the Hopkinson one.

Hopkinson’s was again appreciated, while the Texan one was greeted with more of a splutter. "Whoa!" said my daughter; "too hot for me", while my husband liked it initially: "Tonnes of flavour, makes my eyes water", though wasn’t so keen on the "rather bitter aftertaste". I quite liked the blow-your-socks-off effect, but only smothered in sour cream and grated cheese.

"What would be perfect," my son said, "would be the Hopkinson version—but without the beans."

Samantha Weinberg is assistant editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors' Blog include James Bond's office flirtation and Currently, I'm loving cardamom