“Ah, waiter. There’s a bean in my chili.
So goes the encounter that every Southerner dreads when he orders a bowl of red and is served chili with beans.
There are certain missteps in the South that are unforgivable. Asking a girl out without first agreeing with her father is a no-no. Bringing a guest a glass of unsweetened tea is a big no-no.
But serving chili with beans is a no-no when it comes to giving someone ketchup when they ask for barbecue sauce.
Growing up in Ashdown, Arkansas, we may not have had much, but we had enough common sense to reserve beans for their own bowl, lined with a big piece of cornbread and a few slices of cheese. white onion. Beans are good, but not in the chilli.
Why? Because history tells us so.
People may disagree about the place of beans (or other vegetables) in chili peppers, but there is a pretty solid consensus that chili peppers are American, with a strong Mexican influence. And chili is a big deal, not just in Texas, but all over the United States.
The roots of chili date back to the 1800s. The ingredients, beef, fat, chili peppers and spices, were easy to transport. So it was easy to take chili with you in a brick that could be pieced together on a cattle drive, wagon train, or anywhere else.
The biggest consideration in making chili a culinary focal point was cost. It was cheap to make.
But one thing has remained constant and clear: no beans in the chili.
Former President Lyndon B. Johnson knew good chili. He knew the Texas pepper. He had a favorite recipe that used a leaner cut of beef (probably because he had a problem with his ticker and his doctor told him to eat less fat). He often spoke of wanting to return to Texas in a “bowl of red.”
His speech on chilli (without beans) attracted so much attention that his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had cards made with the chilli recipe. So when the White House was asked about it, they could be given instructions on how to do it.
But precise instructions on how to make chili haven’t stopped those who aren’t from the South from trying to do it their own way. They still think it’s okay to put pintos, kidneys or some other legume in your chili.
Southerners have heard the argument that adding beans to the chili stretches the food so it lasts longer. For a family trying to make ends meet, that might seem like a valid argument. But no beuno. We don’t buy it. Give your child extra crackers or a piece of cheese if you need to stretch things out.
And the arrogance of those who think they can circumvent the rule is quite staggering.
In an attempt to scare off chili imposters at the pass, in 1977 the state of Texas declared chili the “state food.” He did so, “in recognition that the only true ‘bowl of red’ is the one prepared by Texans.”
But a few years later, in 1993, a group of yahoos in the state of Illinois attempted to declare Illinois to be the “chili capital of the civilized world.”
Bless their hearts.
First of all, there’s not much civilized about the Illinois chili (it contains beans), and you don’t spell the chili with two Ls. We’ll give them a pass because they also don’t put sugar in their tea or ask a girl’s father for permission to take her out for a no-bean chili and an L.
The original name for chilli is “chili con carne”, which means “chili with meat”. They didn’t name it “chili con frijoles”.
So when the weather turns cold and you feel like making a big bowl of red, please, for the love of all things sacred, do it the right way.
Show the world you know the beans on the chili.
John’s new book, Puns for Groan People, and his books, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now Vol. 1 and vol. 2, are available on his website — TheCountryWriter.com. You can also send him a message and listen to his weekly podcast.