I’m locked in a struggle with a can of beans. It’s not that I can’t get it open - it’s a question of whether I want to. It’s a struggle of morals, ethics, definitions and tradition.
I make pretty good chili, and I’ll throwdown with anyone. I love the jovial trash-talking and the tasting and the guessing of the “secret ingredients”. I love the good-natured questioning of whether my competitor’s dishes even qualify.
Before we ask what makes good chili, let’s ask a more basic question - what makes chili? There are all kinds of concoctions out there with ingredients as varied as meat and tomatoes and beans and cinnamon and chocolate and coffee and beer and bananas, but are they chili? The Official Chili Handbook talks about how the purists see chili as meat and spices, period. Many formal competitions adhere to this rule. Put anything else in it, and it’s not chili anymore - it’s soup. It might be really tasty. It might earn you a Michelin star. But it ain’t chili.
Chili came from Texas. It’s their state dish. It’s their tradition that the rest of us have co-opted, and messed around with, as though we had a right to. If you wanna get a Texan good ‘n’ riled, try to make a case that it’s OK to put beans in chili. While onions and peppers are generally allowed because of their spicy attributes, debates have raged within the chili community over things like tomatoes, beans,and beer, and whether it’s OK to serve it over pasta, like they do so proudly in Cincinnati. The Texas tradition is clear that chili is meat and spices only, and to introduce other ingredients is to disrespect that tradition.
To sharpen the point further, “meat” is the red muscle fiber from a four-legged mammal: beef being the truest interpretation because in Texas, beef is what they do. Pork, elk, buffalo and venison make a darned respectable soup, but I wouldn’t enter them into serious competition. Poultry, likewise, is a non-starter, and “vegetarian chili” is a contradiction in terms. By definition, it simply doesn’t exist.
Those who gave us chili have a tight and conservative view of what is acceptable, and what is not. There’s something that really appeals to me about Texas-style conservatism: traditions are the foundation of society and definitions are clear. There is right, and there is wrong. There is black, and there is white. There is chili and there is soup. You’re either one, or you’re the other, and you know where you stand. I love the conservative approach because of the simplicity it brings to life. Complicated nuance is removed from social, political and victual situations. Rules are harsher, but clearer. Sources of moral code - like the US Constitution and the Holy Bible and the Official Chili Handbook - are upheld in their literal sense. A judgmentalism comes into play, and I’m particularly good at that.
But there are those who have taken the Texas Chili Tradition and tried to change it into something unintended: altering the rules to fit their tastes and acting as though it’s an improvement that we all should buy into. Show me someone who insists that their spicy bean soup is “chili” and I’ll show you a “draw the circle wider” liberal for whom inclusiveness trumps tradition. The new dishes they create can be hard for a traditionalist to swallow - especially when the new dishes come with side-order accusations of bigotry and stupidity. “If you don’t accept my new interpretation of your old tradition, you’re either dumb or a hater.” It’s not the kind of presentation which inclines one to taste. In fact, it can cause one to lose their appetite, and question the integrity of the cook. It can cause one to rally back to the time-proven custom.
And that’s my struggle:
I’m a conservative traditionalist …
I don’t want my steadfastness called into question …
I don’t want a reputation for pliable morals …
I like beans in chili.
I have a huge respect for the tradition of chili, and for tradition in general. Tradition is the basis for most of our etiquette. Tradition is what helps us to interact in efficient and predictable ways; for example, tradition is what has us approach each other and stick out our right hands to shake, rather than fumbling ambidextrously. Imagine re-thinking the handshake tradition and demanding a more open-minded approach. You might be right that it’s more fair, but you’re gonna get some pushback. It’s gonna take some time to catch on. Don’t call us haters because we don’t get it right at first. We’ve been doing it the other way for a long time and it’s worked for us.
But now I’m mixing my metaphors when I should be stirring my soup. This is about beans and chili, not shaking hands. I don’t mind at all when people try out a piece of another’s culture, that kind of experimentation is how we broaden our minds. But it gets sticky when the guy from New York City tells the Texans they have to do it his way, now. In making new presentations to the pure chili crowd, you can’t just redefine their recipe for them, and tell them to like it. You can’t just say, “From now on you have to have the beans, you have to like the beans and you have to pay for the beans”, because eventually the Texans will tell you what you can do with your beans.
A great proponent of fairness once proclaimed, “I have a dream”. I do too, and it’s similar. I have a dream of Texans and Beaners sitting down over a bowl of … something … to talk this out. I have a dream of Beaners realizing that most of us don’t hate their soup, but we’re an independent folk and we resent their insistence that we change our recipe. Likewise, I have a dream that my conservative fellows learn to open up and appreciate the adventure of new flavors - every time I’ve done that I’ve been blessed. There’s gotta be some common space at this table, and if we’re smarter than the can of beans, we should be able to find it.
PS: I expect some people to hate this little essay. Well, hate-on, my brothers and sisters, and tell me about it in the comments below. I’m tough and well-fed. I can take it. Just keep it polite because there are children starving in Africa. I won’t block you for your opinion, but I will block you for bad manners.