By: SHO SPAETH of Serious Eats
To write about chili is to court controversy; few subjects in American culinary life are so contentious. Chili is for Americans what paella is for Spaniards, or Bolognese is for Italians. It seems like everyone knows exactly what they think chili should be, and everyone knows that everyone else is wrong.
I make no claim to any expertise (or preference, really) with respect to chili. I didn’t grow up eating it, nor have I always understood why people get so worked up over what is, in the end, merely a delicious stew. But I have enjoyed chili, and I have tasted several varieties, and anything that inspires such heated debate deserves a closer look. And so, in the interest of broadening my understanding of this uniquely American phenomenon, I set out to discover and define the different types of chili my fellow citizens like.
What people are generally referring to when they say the word “chili” is chili con carne, a dish made by stewing red meat (either ground, chopped, or left in discrete chunks) in a chili-pepper-based sauce that almost invariably contains cumin.
The origins of the dish are unclear, but according to the International Chili Society(ICS), it’s generally accepted that cattle drivers in the Southwest created and popularized it. While it’s difficult to pin down any definite source for those claims, there is verifiable historical evidence of so-called “chili queens,” women who set up chili stands in Military Plaza in San Antonio, Texas, in the 1880s, although they had likely been selling chili in the plaza for some time before that.
From those humble origins, chili spread across the country, due in part to innovators like Lyman T. Davis, the founder of Wolf Brand Chili and the first person to sell canned chili,* and William Frederick Gebhardt, who came up with the idea of pulverizing a blend of dried chilies specifically for making chili. More recently, chili’s popularity has been driven largely by chili cook-offs, which first became widespread in the 1950s and 1960s. (The first World’s Championship sponsored by the ICS was held in Terlingua, Texas, in 1967.)
Chili cook-offs are, of course, competitions, and, while different regions of the country no doubt had strong opinions about their chili long before the advent of such competitions, cook-offs have helped to codify different styles of chili. Each chili cook-off sponsored by the ICS must have separate judging categories for “Traditional Red Chili,” “Chili Verde,” “Homestyle Chili,” and, incongruously, “Salsa”; Homestyle Chili is the only category that permits the use of “fillers,” such as beans and pasta. The other main sanctioning body for chili cook-offs, the Chili Appreciation Society International, makes no mention of different chili categories in its rules, but adamantly proscribes beans and other nonstandard ingredients, like macaroni, rice, and hominy.
The popularity of chili cook-offs was cited in a joint resolution, introduced on September 26, 1991, in the United States Congress by then-Representative James Inhofe of Oklahoma, as a compelling reason to designate chili the official food of the country. The text of the bill offers other rather convincing arguments as well. Chili, it said, “is an indigenous American cuisine that was created, refined, and approaches perfection only in the United States”; chili, it went on, “is a succulent, distinctive blending of meats and spices that has economically nourished countless millions of Americans since its inception in the 19th century”; chili, it noted, “embraces the highly individualistic traits of America’s heritage through its infinite varieties, highly personalized blending of ingredients, and many adaptive uses.”
Inhofe, who now represents his state in the US Senate, cannot claim credit for this idea; similar joint resolutions had been introduced by other members of Congress in the previous seven years. Representative Manuel Lujan Jr. of New Mexico unsuccessfully introduced several bills in the 1980s to name not only chili, but also “chile,” the country’s official food. In 1988, Representative J. J. Pickle of Texas introduced legislation of his own, calling for “chili without beans” to be labeled the official food of the United States, a bold yet ultimately futile move to impose upon a nation Texas’s preferred chili-and-meat stew.
One of the more head-scratching aspects of these resolutions (aside from the obvious cui bono) is the idea that a dish as hotly debated as chili could be accepted as a national food by anyone, let alone the fractious body of Congress. Despite the codification of different chili styles for chili cook-offs, people across the country engage in passionate arguments about not only the fundamental ingredients of the dish but also the literal spelling of its name. The same cannot be said of burgers and fries, pizza, or chicken breast.
And yet, perhaps these lawmakers were onto something way back when: If there’s anything that current events have shown us, Americans seem to be in agreement that America is great, just so long as it is an America run in the way they want. Regional attitudes about chili appear to be very much the same.
Thus, despite attempts on the parts of many, including the International Chili Society, to specifically define different styles of chili, there are far more than the three categories it allows into competition. Here’s a short list of the types that any aspiring chili expert should know.
Chili Con Carne, a.k.a. Texas Red
The chili that was invented in San Antonio is said to be a bowl of “red”: tender, individual stewed chunks of beef swaddled in a spicy, cumin-spiked sauce made from red chilies, which lend the dish an appealing russet hue. Texans take this heritage very seriously. While those joint resolutions failed in the US Congress, the Texas legislature made chili the state dish back in 1977. The text of the resolution is characteristically spirited: “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,” it says. The next clause goes further, declaring that only Texans produce the “best and only authentic concoction of this piquant delicacy.” The resolution concludes by saying that “the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans,” before proclaiming chili the state’s official dish.
There’s a little bit of sleight of hand going on in this, and it’s not very deftly done, but the intent is clear: In Texas, it’s not chili unless it’s a bowl of red. The main rule of thumb is that it definitely cannot contain a filler of any kind, the most warned-against offender being beans. A healthy debate persists over whether tomatoes can be included, and a chili recipe published in the New York Times in January 2015 merited a full-article rebuttal in Texas Monthly, which targeted in particular the inclusion of coriander seed. In the end, the only way you’ll ever know whether something is a true Texas chili is if you’re Texan, at which point you can fight with other Texans about what does and doesn’t go in the dish. For the rest of us, “no beans” is about as definitive as it gets.
Chili in Illinois isn’t chili: It’s “chilli,” with two l‘s. The origins of this spelling are a matter of some conjecture, attributed either to an error by a sign painter at one of the state’s original chili parlors or to a desire to mirror the spelling of “Illinois.” According to local lore, the state capital of Springfield is also the state’s capital of chilli, as that was where Joe DeFrates, a legendary figure in the history of American chili (“the only man ever to win the National and the World Chili Championships,” according to the ICS), first started serving up his signature recipe, which consisted of tender ground beef, Hunt’s canned tomato sauce, a secret spice mix that included chili powder, and a dash of Tabasco.
The people of Illinois take their chilli just about as seriously as Texans take their chili, as evidenced by the passage of a joint resolution in 1993 by the Illinois House and Senate proclaiming the state “The Chilli Capital of the World” (perhaps a less provocative claim than if they had used the traditional spelling). More controversially, the Illinois General Assembly declared the city of Taylorville, which has a lively chilli cook-off scene, the “Chilli Capital of Illinois” in 2016.
Unlike many of the other chilis on this list, Cincinnati chili’s origins lie not in the Southwest but in New York and Greece. When the Greek-Macedonian immigrant brothers John and Tom Kiradjieff arrived in Cincinnati in the early 20th century, they, like many other Greek immigrant restaurateurs at the time, sold coneys, or hot dog sandwiches slathered with a spiced meat sauce. (Coneys** and coney sauce are a separate yet still chili-related regional specialty, most popular in Michigan but prevalent across the Midwest.) While the stew also relied on cumin, beef, and some chili pepper, the brothers added ingredients that were more at home in a Mediterranean kitchen, like paprika and allspice, as well as the style’s distinctive combo of cinnamon and chocolate.
Another distinctive feature of Cincinnati chili is that it’s most often served on spaghetti, along with a generous helping of bright yellow shredded cheddar cheese. The chili follows a specific serving style, referred to by locals as “ways,” ranging from one to five. One means just chili; two means chili and spaghetti; three means chili, spaghetti, and cheese; four means chili, spaghetti, cheese, and beans or onions; and five means everything, including both beans and onions. In keeping with the hyper-regimented ordering style, there are other rules, including how the chili should be served (on an oval plate); how to eat it (one among many: use your fork to cut, not twirl, the spaghetti); and the necessity of developing your own style over time.
Oklahoma chili is, by all accounts, very similar to the Texas bowl of red. The main exception is that Okies are far less militant about the exclusion of ingredients like beans and masa. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society’s account of the history of chili, Oklahoma has never met a chili it didn’t like. Oklahomans embrace both the Texas and the Cincinnati styles, along with coneys and coney sauce. Perhaps because of this open-armed attitude, it’s rather hard to pin down exactly what the state’s chili style is, so I turned to a born-and-bred Oklahoman (my sister-in-law) for some insight. Her response? “Is Oklahoma chili a thing?” Yes, yes it is. And, although it’s hard to define, it’s (almost!) certainly got beans.\
Chile verde differs from its rustier cousins in a few ways: The go-to meat is pork, tomatillos make their way into the sauce, the chili peppers are fresh, and the stew typically doesn’t include cumin. For some, particularly the residents of New Mexico, chile verde isn’t chile verde unless it’s made from Hatch chilies***—any of a variety of chilies grown in and around the village of Hatch in that state. While the ICS describes “chili verde” (yup, with an i) as “any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with green chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of BEANS and PASTA,” one of the defining elements of a true New Mexican chile verde is the smoky flavor that comes from roasted Hatch chilies, which lend the stew both a hint of bitterness and welcome peppery sweetness. The result is a rich green sauce, fortified by melted fat, surrounding tender chunks of stewed meat.
White chili is a chili insofar as it contains meat and has a chili pepper base, but it is the one chili that typically includes shredded poultry, either chicken or turkey. White chili is similar to chile verde in that it, too, starts with a base of fresh peppers, but it charts its own path with the inclusion of white beans, and is more often than not served with a pile of shredded cheese.
Vegetarian chili is an innovation that arose from the vegetarianism craze of the 1960s and ’70s. A meat substitute is sometimes used, but adding beans or other vegetables, like sweet potatoes (which contribute not only great flavor to a chili but an interesting texture as well), will often suffice to make a dish that’s every bit as piquant and complex as more conventional chilis. Of course, given that vegetarian chili isn’t a style so much as a meatless variation on the dish, it can be made with a fresh- or dried-chili base, and there are no proscriptions against any ingredient other than meat.
Carne adovada is the only entry on this list that is almost definitively not a chili; it is, in fact, more of a cooking method than anything else. A rich, red chili-pepper-based sauce spiked with oregano (and, significantly, only sometimes flavored with cumin) is used both to marinate and stew pork, resulting in extremely tender individual morsels or shreds of meat. (As with chile verde, which is also rooted in New Mexico, the proper spelling of “chili” for this dish is with an e.) Carne adovada is served any number of ways—as a stew, or as a filling for burritos and sopapillas—perhaps outnumbering the many ways in which Americans across the nation enjoy their chili.