Among 80 million avocados and billions of chicken wings, Americans will eat untold gallons of chili during February's biggest game day. But how chili became a staple of the football table is as murky as the dish itself.
Chili is an excellent representation of the type of mishmash
cuisine we group under the term "Tex-Mex". Like many dishes of the
genre, chili trends spicy and tastes vaguely as though it comes from some
Southwestern border town.
But the stories of chili's origin are as plentiful as recipes for the dish. The International Chili Society, one of the largest food-contest organizations in the world, proposes several possible tales. Among them is the possibility that the Aztecs, in a fit of rage, cut up invading Spanish conquistadors, “seasoned chunks of them with a passel of chile peppers, and ate them.”
"Never has there been anything mild about chili," the Society observes.
But in direct contradiction to the ICS's grisly tale of the Aztecs, who hailed from what is now South Central Mexico, Linda Stradley of What's Cooking America says that chili did not originate in Mexico.
Stradley draws support for this claim from the 1959 Diccionario de Mejicanismos, which she says defines chili con carne as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.”
Ask the Commish
Joe Cahn, also known as the Commissioner of Tailgating (The Commish for short) doesn't see any reason for splitting hairs over chili. “I like onions and cheese on my chili,” said Cahn. “I've had people smack me in the head over it.”
But Cahn doesn't care. A former cooking-school teacher, he long ago traded his chef whites and the trappings of the kitchen for the lure of the open road. In his 40-foot RV, Cahn travels between National Football League games, eating and cooking his way through tailgating traditions.
Chili is one dish that varies from city to city, according to Cahn. New Orleans cooks, for example, like to add alligator and shellfish to their recipes. And Denver cooks often favor chili verde, which incorporates green chile peppers and pork.
“Chili is chili, whether it's traditional or with elk, moose or alligator,” says Cahn. “Should we have beans? That's the fun part — there's so many variations, and it's what tastes good to you.”
No Beans About It
The International Chili Society might beg to differ with Cahn's assessment.
The ICS takes a particularly strict stance on the subject of beans, defining traditional red chili as “any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of beans and pasta, which are strictly forbidden.”
Those are strong words for an ingredient many home cooks think of as a chili essential. But these are no church cook-offs.
Carol Hancock, the winner of the 1985 World Championship Chili Cookoff and CEO of the ICS, knows all about the strict guidelines. But she also says that the ICS sanctions home-style competitions, where the rules are so loose that even beans are allowed.
“Anything goes, as long as it tastes like chili,” says Hancock. Though the chili must have “chile pepper flavor", there are no further restrictions, she says. "It's what people cook for the big game or Sunday dinner.”
So, what does chili taste like? Hancock says it might not be exactly what you think. Real deal chili should taste like chile powder, not chili seasoning.
What's the distinction?
“Chile powder is made of dried ground peppers,” she says. “Chili seasoning is when they combine chile peppers with garlic, onion, pepper, bouillon, whatever.”
Hancock's world champ chili recipe used chile pulp. “I actually took two types of chile pepper, boiled them, and used the pulp so it delivers that rich, red brown color of a bowl of a Texas red, if you will,” she says.
Game Day The Commish Way
Though the Commish always plays fast and loose with his chili, this year he'll be happy with just about anything hot and warming, beans or no.
That's because he'll be watching the first of the national bowl games ever to be played in a cold-weather environment from the stands of Metlife Stadium. “It's chilly in New York," he said. "What better thing to eat than a bowl of chili.”
Though the vast majority of the football faithful will be watching from cozier environs, chili is an ideal game-day dish, says Cahn.
It's the "biggest party day of the year," he says, so something that's perfect for self service allows the host more time for visiting with friends.
Cahn recommends keeping chili warm in a slow cooker, especially since people tend to come and go and eat to the tide of commercials. “It's ideal because we can keep it warm and the toppings make it easy,” he says.
But above all, like in football, strategy is key.
“Chili needs to be in a separate place than the television because people always get up to eat right during a big play,” Cahn says.
And, even if a big chili bean debate breaks out, at least it won't block the TV.
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