So, here’s what happened: By the Christian calendar, January 6 is the feast of Epiphany. In western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, the holiday is built around the gospel of Matthew’s story of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. As such, it’s considered the end of the Christmas season. Epiphany Eve is sometimes known as Twelfth Night, a party day often marked by the sort of gender and social order reversals found in the plot of Shakespeare’s play by that name. There are likewise a number of customs connected with the feast itself, such as an Epiphany cake. (The Three Kings cakes eaten in New Orleans from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday are a well-known example.)
This year, January 6 fell on a Friday. So, my wife and I decided that on the following Sunday, we’d have a little open-house Epiphany party for our church family after morning worship. The party would be low-key: Come have a piece of cake and other goodies. But it was also really cold that weekend. Between the actual air temperature and a 20-mph wind, it felt like 4ºF outside. We live next door to the church, but I thought that anyone who was hardy enough to walk over to our house deserved something warm in return.
That meant chili, the perfect food for an open-house on a cold day. If we got more people than we expected, we could stretch it with smaller portions, and if we got fewer people, we’d have usable leftovers to eat or freeze.
So, on the Friday before, we went grocery shopping for our little event. (Chili tastes better a day or two later.) My wife asked me what kind of crackers to buy for the chili. I said something like, “Oh golly-gosh, we shan’t be serving any gosh-darn crackers with my chili.” Something that should have sounded like that, anyway.
I didn’t want people to willy-nilly start jamming soda crackers into my chili. In the first place, I season my chili carefully. Since this batch was for a diverse group, I held back a bit on the heat, but also set out a couple of bottles of hot sauces for those who needed more heat, and also set out Mexican sour cream and shredded cheese for those who needed even less heat. I wasn’t going to be a complete soup Nazi. Adjusting the spiciness to personal tastes was ok with me. However, introducing a bunch of salt from the soda crackers would change the taste before the eater had a chance to appreciate my work.
In the second place, my chili is thick, not soupy. Adding soda crackers would just make it dry and mealy.
My Epiphany chili, fit for a King or three.
Of course, the first person I served asked for crackers. It was a church thing, so I couldn’t be as blunt as I’d been in the grocery store, but I stuck to my guns. I’d made cornbread, and suggested that as a substitute, but no, no crackers. I pointed out that the chili was already thick and didn’t need crackers, but that if he wanted, he could add some of the Ritz crackers we’d put out on the cheese plate.
I ended up getting a lot of unprompted compliments on the chili, which was gratifying. But I was thinking about it again the next day when someone in a social media cooking group asked, Do you put crackers in your chili? I didn’t do a count, but it was pretty obvious that most people do add crackers.
So maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always thought of crackers as something that goes with soups, not stews. A thin, soupy chili might well warrant some crackers. But my chili is already more of a stew than a soup. For the same reason, I avoid the large kidney beans most restaurant chilis use. They’re too dry and mealy for me. I usually use two or three different kinds of smaller beans instead. My Epiphany batch used black beans, pinto beans, and red beans.
Still, I wondered if I was missing something, so I did some research. In the process, I didn’t find out anything particularly convincing about soda crackers in chili, but I was reminded of just how controversial every other aspect of chili-making can be.
Pride of place, of course, goes to the Texans, who would take one look at my chili and declare, “Son, that’s not chili.” There’s no disputing that the original stews known as chili con carne were made of chile peppers and meat, and did not include beans, tomatoes, or any other vegetables or grains.
It’s not my usual chili, but here’s my simple Texas-style chili, sans tomatoes or beans.
Some Texans have gotten pretty possessive about this. Kriston Capps, in a 2015 Slate magazine article, came within an eyelash of invoking the unwritten laws of political-correctness in protecting the integrity of Texas chili: “Chili is a local specialty with a specific history. Please find another name for your spiced vegetable stew.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t France, and our English language is notoriously unregulated. Outside of Texas, that “spiced vegetable stew” with tomatoes and beans has been called “chili” for too long to undo it. That would be like the Peruvians complaining to the French that it’s insulting to call a potato a pomme de terre, because it’s a potato and not an apple in the dirt. The Texas folks are right, but they’re a hundred years too late.
So how did beans (and tomatoes) wind up in chili? Once chili left Texas, it was inevitable that it would be influenced by existing “spiced vegetable stews.” Long before chili came along, there were the Brunswick stews of Virginia and Georgia, Kentucky’s Burgoo, and the various gumbos of the Low Country, Gulf Coast, and Creole and Cajun Louisiana, along with the various Pepper Pot stews from Jamaica to Philadelphia. Historically, these dishes featured considerable local diversity and took advantage of whatever was at hand, often including tomatoes.
Most modern Brunswick stews no longer include rodents or other critters. I used chicken and pork in this batch. It’s not chili, but you can see the family resemblance
Chicken and Andouille Gumbo, with okra. Gumbos are the prototypical stew of the Low Country, Gulf, and Cajun/Creole regions, and more coastal versions would include seafood.
For gumbo lovers, the argument is over okra, not beans. People who like okra maintain that “gumbo” comes from the word for okra in several West African languages. People who hate okra claim that it comes from a Choctaw word for the sassafras leaves ground into the filé powder used as a thickener instead of okra. (For the record, I like both kinds; in part because fresh okra isn’t always available in my part of the country. My next batch used filé instead of okra for precisely that reason.) But at least both sides will admit that the other’s gumbo is still worthy of being called gumbo.
Adding beans was likewise inevitable. Chili was designed to be a cheap source of protein. In the 1850s, dried beef, fat, and seasonings were being pressed into bricks that could be easily transported on cattle drives, and then prepared in the field by putting them in boiling water.
Chili was also served in Texas jails, since the stew was comparatively nutritious, yet tasty, and could be made with cheap cuts of meat that would be tenderized in the stewing process.
At that point, beans are also a cheap source of good protein, and adding beans would stretch the chili even further. That trailhands might also be served beans isn’t exactly a myth that Mel Brooks created for his infamous campfire scene in Blazing Saddles.
Once again, different parts of the country have their preferred bean dishes. Remember the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercial? “You got chocolate on my peanut butter!” I can almost imagine the same thing happening in Louisiana when a bowl of Texas chili met a bowl of Red Beans and Rice:
Red beans and rice from our Christmas dinner last month
Pinto beans and cornbread, an Appalachian favorite, may be the preferred “soul food” bean dish in the north, and certainly resembles northern chili:
I made these pinto beans and cornbread for my Dad’s 96th birthday party
I’ve been told that it’s a “southern thing” to add meat to my bbq baked beans, and some have mistaken it for chili. I use chili powder and cumin, but it’s got too much brown sugar and molasses to be mistaken for any sort of chili. Still, the family relationship is undeniable:
The point is that, like it or not, it was inevitable that when Texas chili hit the road, tomatoes and beans (and other stuff) would splash into it.
Chili, of any sort, is also versatile. In some restaurants, it’s made as a creative way to use up leftover hamburgers or other meat. It can be prepared as a sauce and turned into chili dogs or half-smokes:
The chili sauce I make for hot dogs or half-smokes is, in some ways, closer to Texas chili than it is to “my” chili, since it has no beans and only a small amount of tomato sauce. It’s also unapologetically on the greasy side
It’s also a handy way to feed a crowd. A few years ago when my church had a summer evening Vacation Bible School with an “Old West” theme, I made three pots of “chuck wagon stew” that wound up feeding 80:
A couple of times a year, just for fun, I even add corn to make my “Hawkeye Chili,” with the black beans and sweet corn representing the colors of the University of Iowa:
So whether we call it chili or…something else…it’s a tasty, cheap, easy, fun, and versatile. Just don’t stuff mine with soda crackers, por favor!