Warm Up Your Fall with a Bit of Chili
Along with changing leaves and cooler weather, October brings a host of culinary delights: apple cider, pumpkin pie, fresh pecans. But perhaps no dish is more indicative of the change of seasons than that cold-day favorite, chili. This soup/stew hybrid has a long and storied history, and its recipe varies widely and is hotly debated in serious chili circles. And come autumn, chili cookoffs seem to be everywhere – as formal competitions, fundraisers, and annual community events. So how did a simple bowl of comfort food become such a cultural icon, and how can you incorporate it into your family’s fall traditions?
Like many traditional American dishes, the precise origins of chili are unclear. Some argue that a similar meal of stewed meats, chiles, and vegetables was a staple of native peoples in what is now the American southwest. Others claim the recipe was first published by Spanish missionaries, specifically a nun named Sister Mary of Agreda. Still another camp claims the dish has Mexican origins, though a rough translation from the 1959 Diccionario de Mejicanismos defines chili con carne as “a detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.”
What we do know is that chili was – and still is — a favorite of American cowboys, particularly when traveling. This makes perfect sense. Trail cooks could concoct “bricks” of dried meat, fat, spices, and vegetables that could be reconstituted with water over a fire. It’s said that some of these cooks even planted patches of oregano and peppers along the trail so they could harvest fresh ingredients on future trips. Ingredients necessarily varied. The meat involved could be beef, venison, or even, in early days, bison. Sometimes no meat was available. Onions, which were inexpensive, plentiful, and long-lasting, were usually included; tomatoes and peppers were also common. Spices were up to availability and the whim of the cook. The only requirement was spicy chiles or, later, chili powder.
In most cases today, chili cooks are limited only by their own imaginations in terms of ingredients. Yet the debate over the “right” recipe is fierce. While most commercial chilies use ground meat, many chili aficionados insist it should be chopped instead. What about beans? Pinto or kidney? None at all? And then there’s verde chili, made with a green base rather than a red one. Cincinnati-style chili is served over spaghetti, is usually topped with chopped onions, kidney beans, and shredded cheddar cheese (and sometimes sour cream), and comes with a side of oyster crackers. Designer, chicken, and white chilis are more popular than ever.
These clashing opinions meet on the cookoff battlefield where the general public and professional judges settle matters. Officially, anyway. Chili historians (and yes, they really exist) generally consider the first chili championship to be a 1967 challenge in Terlingua, Texas, although newspaper archives refer to a chili cookoff fifteen years earlier at the Texas State Fair. Today, several official associations, including the Chili Appreciation Society International, host literally hundreds of cookoffs throughout the U.S. and Canada, some on official “circuits.” The chili cookoff has also become a popular community event and fundraiser. Prizes, entry fees, and rules vary. Some are just for fun. Others remain quite serious.
Looking for a little chili fun this season? Whip up a batch of your own at home and feel free to experiment with different ingredient combinations. Or taste a variety of recipes and support a worthwhile cause at a local event such as the Chili Fest and Competition on October 20, sponsored by Fayetteville Main Street and the Fayette Shriners. For more information, visit www.fayetteville-ga.gov.