Nothing comforts the soul and excites the taste buds like a bowl of chili.
It is scooped into bowls at tailgate parties, scout dinners and Halloween parties and chili competitions heat up nearly every weekend throughout the fall. Wait and try to purchase chili beans on your way home from work on that first cold, rainy day and the grocery store shelves may be nearly bare.
Chili is traditional American food, dating back to early days in the Old West, and it conjures up imagines of cowboys and cattle drives. Yet, while steeped in history, chili is as trendy as a current restaurant menu. Every pub, bar, upscale restaurant and down-home diner ladles up seasonal bowls each fall.
Everyone, it seems, loves chili, but perhaps no food simmers with as much controversy as what constitutes a great “bowl of red.” Is it thick or thin? Sweet and child-mild, or does the dish sizzle with chili pepper, cayenne, chile peppers and hot sauce? Are there chunks of beef, ground beef, pork, chicken, turkey or no meat at all?
The number one question, sure to get an argument going — are there beans in your chili and if so, what kind?
Roxanne Wyss, my business partner, and I consulted with a chili seasonings company for many years. As we traveled, taught and spoke with media, it quickly became clear to us that we could guess with almost 100 percent accuracy what state or region of the country a family came from by the kind of beans they put — or didn’t put — in their chili. Think about the chili you enjoyed in your childhood. What kind of beans do you remember?
Red kidney beans suggest your roots go deep in the Midwest. Those of us from Kansas City and the surrounding area cling fast to a chili made from ground beef, tomatoes, red kidney beans and a mild seasoning.
Are pinto beans in that chili of yours? Families who come from Oklahoma and maybe Colorado often add pinto beans to a one-pot chili.
Are there pinto beans, but are they cooked in a separate pot? Those from New Mexico pride themselves on chili made from chunks of meat. Beans, such as pinto beans, are simmered in a separate pot, even though they are often served with the chili.
Whoa! No beans in your chili? Does your family come from Texas? Texans pride themselves on spicy chili made from coarsely chopped beef, onions and spices, but no beans. Even tomatoes might be an optional ingredient for their adventuresome chili.
Do you only serve chili on spaghetti? Are you from Ohio? Cincinnati chili is served on spaghetti and may be topped with beans, cheese, chopped onion.
Are black beans your choice? Yes, black beans are now a favorite and came to the U.S. along with the popularity of foods from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. They, along with other beans and vegetables such as corn reflect that chili is an ever changing, evolving dish.
No matter the kind of chili you enjoy, get ready now, for soon a cold wind will send shivers and nothing will comfort and warm you like a bowl of chili.
Kathy Moore is one of two cookbook authors and food consultants that make up The Electrified Cooks. Her most recent cookbook is Triple Slow Cooker Entertaining. She develops the recipes for the “Eating for Life” column for The Kansas City Star and is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier. She blogs at pluggedintocooking.com