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By and large, the word “chili” refers to a food; the word “chile” refers to the hot peppers that make the food interesting (the exception is in the state of New Mexico, where “chile” is used to describe both).
Two major categories of chili (again excepting the distinct “chile verde” associated with New Mexico) have their devotees.
Texas chili, supposedly the original chili con carne and a staple food of the cowboy and range man, is one variety, the only one that excites true chili purists.
Cincinnati Skyline chili, invented by a Greek immigrant in 1922, is an entirely different kind of food, with different spicing (cinnamon for example) and different eating traditions.
Comparing the two, or claiming that one is “better” than the other, is a useless exercise, on the line of saying that ice cream is better than pizza; the foods are that different. The use of beef and the fact that both types can be classified, roughly, as stews is about all they have in common.
Neither food, incidentally, has any connection with Mexico (though Mexican-Americans have played a part in chili history). Chili in all its varieties is strictly an American dish.
Texas chili aficionados agree on three major precepts of chili making. The meat is cut or shredded into small chunks rather than ground like hamburger. The chilies are roasted and ground from scratch and commercial chili powders are not used. The spice cumin is essential for the real chili flavor. A good mix of lean and fat meats is preferred. The chili is slow-cooked to bring out all the flavors.
The same fanatics disagree in three essential areas. Some are rustic purists who believe true chili should contain nothing but beef (or buffalo meat or game), chile peppers, and perhaps some onion and garlic. Others are not averse to adding beans, tomatoes, or masa harina (a type of ground corn flour) as a thickener.
No one knows exactly how hot chili peppers came to be combined in a stew with chunks of meat (though cowboy chuck wagon cooking supports one theory), but the dish’s rise to popularity is better known; it has a strong connection with the city of San Antonio, Texas. Between about 1880 and the 1930s, women known as “chili queens,” usually of Mexican heritage, competed to sell the best chili out of their chili wagons in San Antonio’s central Military Plaza. By the time the city “cleaned up” the chili queens for sanitary code violations in the 1930s, chili parlors had spread across the country.
Chili became an ideal budget dish during the Great Depression and remained popular, eventually spawning milder varieties. The kind of chili marketed today in cans, except for some specialty brands, is made from ground rather than chunked beef, and is usually made with a tomato base. This is the kind of chili used to top chilidogs and chiliburgers all over the country. When served as a separate dish, it almost always contains beans and is frequently topped with cheddar cheese and chopped onions. Like soup, this type of chili is served either in a cup or a bowl.
The International Chili Society sanctions chili competitions all over the United States; the chili they are talking about is based strictly on chunks. Contestants may use no pre-cooked ingredients (other than certain canned items like tomatoes) and are given a minimum of three and a maximum of four hours to do the cooking. Judges consider good flavor, texture of the meat, consistency, blend of spices, aroma, and color in each of the categories. The 2006 finals, sponsored by the ConAgra Corporation, took place in Omaha, Nebraska amid much fanfare and media coverage; the festival atmosphere, and the chance to taste a up to 400 varieties of chili, drew thousands of paying spectators. The winner in the “Traditional Red” chili category walked away with $30,000.
Cincinnati Skyline chili has its own lore and peculiar vocabulary. Order it alone, and you will be eating one-way chili. Two-way chili is served over spaghetti. A three-way adds cheese; a four-way adds onions. Go all out, and add beans on top of this, and you will be enjoying a five-way.
Chili powder is sold in the spice sections of American supermarkets; it tends to be relatively mild by the standards of people who like “hot” foods. Instead of having a base of ground chile peppers, which provide great depth of flavor in addition to heat, commercial powders may use only the less subtle cayenne pepper, usually with some cumin, garlic and a few other basic spices. Like most processed spices, the powder tends to lose flavor and potency rapidly on the shelf. Quality chili spice mixtures are available, of course, in specialty stores.
Chile verde is a Mexican pork stew, usually made with onions, potatoes, garlic and green chiles. New Mexican green chile stew includes similar ingredients but uses the incomparable New Mexican green or Hatch chiles rather than the frequently used (and abused) jalapeños, which have heat but little flavor depth. Nearly every Native American pueblo and tribe in the American southwest has its own recipe for green (or red) chile stew. These stews differ from the dish known as “chili” in that the chiles used are fresh rather than dried, although dried chiles may be added for spicing.
In New Mexico, green or red chile (with an “e”) is a mixture of chopped, fresh chiles used as
a topping, filling or side condiment to many of the region’s distinctive dishes.