I Don’t Know Beans About Chili – But Let’s Talk About It Anyway

Is there a better meal for a crisp fall day or a cold winter afternoon than a hot, spicy bowl of chili? I don’t know why I have waited until the beginning of spring to write about it, but maybe it is because there is still snow on the ground here and I am craving some warm comfort food.

You have surely noticed that there are two different kinds of food – the kind that everyone more-or-less agrees on how to make and that is some variation on the same theme – like chicken soup or beef stew. Then there are the foods that no two people make in the same way. In my experience, chili is one of the second kind.

Chili is one of those foods that came out of the area around the Texas-Mexico border and was well-established as a thing well befrore 1900. A little research shows that there were references to stews flavored with chilis in the 1500s, and there are recipes dating to the 1850s. It seems that “the chili parlor” became a thing around 1900. This phenomenon began in the southwest but migrated north and eastward so that they were not uncommon in the midwest by the 1920’s.

Chili ingredients are all over the place. There are purists who say that proper chili is all meat and no beans – that beans were only used by poor people to cheaply stretch the number of people they could serve out of a chili pot. Others consider beans essential and a few even kick meat out of the pot entirely. Unless they replace the beef with something like turkey. Some regions, like Cincinnati, Ohio, are known for a chili that is served over spaghetti, while others consider that habit to be akin to heresy – while crumbling crackers on their pasta-free chili instead.

There are even sanctioning bodies for chili cookoffs across the country. The International Chili Society has been waving the chili flag since 1967. And will have two different chili cookoffs in Indiana this year. Although how a Chili Society that has no cookoffs scheduled outside of U.S. borders can be called International is something that requires some investigation. If that bothers you there is also the Chili Appreciation Society International which claims to have cookoffs outside of the U.S. I wonder what would happen if both groups found themselves in neighboring tents at an event.

When I grew up my mother would make chili from time to time. I hated my mother’s chili. I know, this is starting to become a theme here. I didn’t hate it as much as I hated her potato soup, but then nothing was as bad as the potato soup. My mother’s chili consisted of some hamburger, some beans, and way too many onions – which she chopped up to about the size of an average fingernail. Yuck.

When I lived on my own, the only chili I made was from a can – and often spooned over hot dogs. As I thought back, I have to give Mom props for making chili herself and not buying cans of it like I did (and like she did with so many other things, like gravy). But my chili situation improved after I got married. Marianne made chili the way her mother had, and it was quite good. I was surprised the first time I watched Marianne make it – her family recipe started with Campbell’s Chili Beef soup. This, I thought, was cheating. I had to admit, though, that once everything else was added (meat, beans, onion, garlic and other spices) it was actually quite good, and became a regular staple at our house in the winter months.

Until tragedy struck and Campbells discontinued the basic ingredient. Really, Campbells? Isn’t there a clause in the social contract between food companies and food buyers that requires old products to remain on the shelves? I’ll bet we would see a lot fewer new, stupid products if it was against the law to ever discontinue the old ones. But I digress.

With Campbells having sabotaged our family chili recipe, we had to go about inventing a substitute. We tried a product by the Bush bean people called “Chili Magic” and started from there. Here’s a secret – Chili Magic is not really magic. It is nothing more than spiced beans that are a good start to a pot of chili. Ground beef, more beans (Marianne is clearly not of the anti-bean camp), crushed and diced tomatoes and spices aplenty have resulted in a recipe we are quite happy with. And Bush’s? Don’t even think about discontinuing your Chili Magic, or we will have words.

I have joined the chili heretics from Cincinnati in liking my chili over a bowl of pasta of some kind. But then I like pasta in almost everything, and it is not as messy as crackers. Marianne is more of a purist and takes her bowl straight up. We agree on the need for plenty of shredded cheese on top. Are you hungry yet? I know I am.

It is interesting that I seldom order chili when I am out somewhere. OK, unless I go to Skyline Chili, a Cincinnati-based place that specializes in Cincinnati-style chili, whether in a bowl over spaghetti or slathered on a hot dog and mounded with cheese. Otherwise, it is one of those dishes that you are never quite sure what you will get, and I tend to shy away from those when I am staring at a menu with plenty of choices.

And if I go to a chili cookoff, it will be as someone who is only there to eat but not to cook. I suspect that anyone who shows up a a chili cookoff with a few cans of Bush’s Chili Magic will become the subject of some some chili connoisseur’s blog – something about how the world is going to pot and that there are no standards anymore. That connoisseur might have a point – but then when I have a full belly of Marianne’s chili on a cold day I won’t really care.


30 thoughts on “I Don’t Know Beans About Chili – But Let’s Talk About It Anyway

  1. It’s not haute cuisine, but a Wendy’s chili with a couple packets of their hot seasoning is one of my fast food go-to’s.

    A lot of my friends are grossed out by the notion that Wendy’s apparently incorporates left-over burger patties into it but I never understood that disgust. I always thought that was typical of making chili.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although my Mrs likes it, Wendy’s version has never appealed to me. But I will admit that it’s been a long time since I’ve tried it. I think I remember something about green peppers, an ingredient that I don’t think belongs in chili. But perhaps I need to try it again.
      I am there with you on the creative use of leftovers.


    • +1 on the Wendy’s chili! I’ve been craving it this winter so have averaged a bowl every couple of weeks. No issues with the leftover hamburger in the chili, either. It’s interesting how different Wendy’s restaurants prepare the leftover burgers, though. Most will chop it into small chunks about the size of the beans. The Wendy’s near my work, however, will include one or two big hunks of the patties. It’s not unusual to find a piece that’s 1/4 of a whole patty. It’s a good chili day for me when this happens!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Chili seems to be one of the few things in which there is no wrong answer – although not every answer holds appeal for everyone.

    Long ago I was looking at chili recipes in a cookbook belonging to Mrs. Jason. Several of the recipes called for chicken broth as a starter, which seemed rather out of the scope of things.

    At Casa de Shafer, we tend to use ground pork since Mrs. Jason has issues with beef, but never turkey or chicken. We will also take leftover chili, add a spot of sugar, and put it over pasta which is either spaghetti or elbow macaroni.

    A kitchen trick for those who easily get heartburn and/or reflux is to add a dab of baking soda into the mix prior to adding beans or meat. The taste is unchanged but the acidity is lowered considerably.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with Jason on that, there really is no wrong answer which makes me question the need for chili regulating bodies. Everybody just relax and enjoy your chili

    I was home alone one night this week so made bachelor chili. We’d had beef tacos the night before, so I took the leftover taco meat, onions and peppers, added some leftover tomato sauce and a can of beans. Simmer for a half hour and voila! something that isn’t fantastic but is hot and edible.

    Mrs DougD is usually scornful of my bachelor cooking techniques, but only when she witnesses them. When she got home later she ate the rest of the chili without complaint 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Chili is one of those things, like pizza, that can be wildly different depending on where you grew up, and people have a tendency to love the chili they had as a kid. My mom made a pretty good chili, but later in life, opted for one of those chili mixes that came in a little paper bag at the grocery store. Actually some of those have pretty good chili. Haven’t been happy with most canned chili, it can be all over the place, and you might have to add so much additional stuff, you might as well make it from scratch.

    Of course, you get some of your best chili from chili diners. We have a place called Real Chili where I live that is pretty righteous chili. When my brother lived in the Cincinnati area, I used to drive down from Chicago and it always resulted in a trip to Skyline. The mole based Cincinnati chili is a different taste from Texas style chili, but I love it, especially on their pint-sized chili dogs smothered in shredded cheese. When I moved to Indianapolis, I was happy to frequent the Skyline chili on the north side, and actually won about a years worth a free chili there, which I was happy to use up!

    Some rules for me? It better be thick enough to use as grout when building an adobe house! If it’s like a bowl of soup, you have been badly misinformed. Beans? Sure, I was used to it from when I was a kid. Decent beans might be the only healthy thing in the bowl. Pasta? Maybe, it depends. I wasn’t raised with it. There was a thing called Chili-Mac when I was growing up in Chicago; it had elbow macaroni in it, and was a little too soupy. Elbow macaroni, or spaghetti pasta under a thick chili, like Skyline, is OK. Chunk or cubed beef vs. ground beef? There are people from the southwest that will tell you that chunk or cubed beef is the only way chili is made. Maybe, but if it’s a poor quality very chewy beef, maybe not for me. Chili Dogs? I think Skyline sets the standard here. I’ve had more than a few chili dogs from chain restaurants with weak, runny substandard chili over a two-bit hot dog (not something to pass off on-a guy from Chicago). Maybe the rule of thumb here, is that if you aren’t getting it from a chili restaurant, it’s probably going to be cheap canned chili that’s not so good. Shredded cheese, yep, oyster crackers, yep, but a rule of thumb here is that usually the cheapest oyster crackers at your grocery store, the off brand or house brand, is better than the expensive, puffed up oyster crackers.

    And you are correct about this seems like a run up to winter rather than spring, but good chili is good anytime, even in July. I knew a guy once that ordered a bowl on the hottest day of the year because he want to “work up a sweat”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of great observations here. All of these comments got me to a Wendy’s for a taste of their chili. Not perfect, but any port in a storm, right?


  5. I have not tried Skyline, but one of the Chili on Spaghetti variations is almost always my order at Steak N Shake. With oyster crackers please.

    My other favorite is Tony Packo’s in Toledo OH. Two chili dogs with no onion there and sides of chili & macaroni & cheese.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I must be a chili connoisseur because the whole idea of chili in a can makes me queasy….canned meat full of preservatives? I did try Tim Horton’s canned chili once, and the meat tasted just as chewy as in the restaurant version. I’ve not tried Wendy’s though I’ve heard it’s good, and it’s interesting they use the leftover patties so at least you know it’s real. I’ve never heard of the pasta thing. I use the Clubhouse Chili Seasoning package, the regular not the extra spicy, lots of extra lean hamburger in chunks which I semi-fry first., two cans of red kidney beans and 2 cans of tomato sauce, (not tomato paste or diced tomatoes – I hate those red chunks floating around). and have to admit I now make a decent chili for someone who never used to cook much. A big pot with plenty of leftovers is perfect for freezing and makes a quick meal those nights you don’t want to cook. I’ve noticed lately that restaurants are now into serving chili with corn bread, which I tried recently and found very good.


    • Joni, yes on cornbread, but you’re starting down a whole other rabbit hole with that! My mom was from the south, and her traditional southern old family recipe for cornbread contained cornmeal, buttermilk, baking soda, some spices and odds and ends, and not much else. Soft cake-like cornbread with flour and sugar (known in my family as yankee cornbread), is not acceptable, and considered an abomination!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Andy, I know it’s popular in the south, but cornbread is not something you ever see here in Canada, but it was at Ribfest last summer, and then my friend made some from scratch and gave me some and I liked it. So when I saw a prepackaged mix in the grocery store from ARVA flour mill, a local artisan flour mill, I bought it and it was quite good, just as good as the homemade, of which I am sure there are lots of family recipes. The ingredients on the box were simple….I always read ingredients…..flour, cornmeal, buttermilk powder, white sugar, baking powder, egg powder, salt….but no spices so maybe I’m eating Yankee cornbread!?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Marianne liks a mix by Jiffy – a brand of inexpensive mixes, and whether it’s Yankee cornbread I can’t say. But I guess I’m a Yankee, so it’s OK. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni, the giveaway is flour and sugar….no flour and sugar in “real” southern cornbread, according to all the old folks in my family. Poor southerners did not have flour and sugar to toss about! My mom used to tell me stuff like the Chicory Coffee everyone was wowed about after a trip to New Orleans, was poor people coffee, because chicory was a coffee extender. If you had money, you had real coffee without an extender in it!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Marianne likes cornbread better than I do, so cornbread often accompanies chili at our house. And it’s been a long time since a can of chili has been opened around here.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pursuant to Dans Packo’s entry above, they have a wonderful website, and Hungarian sausage and chili kits can be ordered for shipping! Chili can also be ordered separately. Worth looking at for a mouth watering tour!


    We had an unseasonable cold snap here, and now this entry is making me want to go down to Real Chili on the Marquette campus and snag a bowl!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Until the Wendy’s comment I was going to say I almost never eat chili. Wendy’s was smart to offer chili as a side because fools like me believed it was healthier than their french fries (and probably drew me to their restaurants more often). I do think chili needs to stand alone (no pasta), and must have beef and beans to be legit. The Staggs canned variety is pretty good. Then again, I have no homemade recipes I can point to by comparison. My mother’s occasional prep of chili was remarkably similar to your mother’s. She could do a lot with cans of tomatoes.


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