Traditional Texas Food
Articles about Texas' most famous foods
by John Raven, Ph.B.
Goodbye, Old Friend Chili
The iconic dish of the new world, chili, is dying a slow and painful death. Chili has been on the decline for some years; now it is terminal.
Chili is being degraded by the very thing that made it so popular, the chili cook-off. In the beginning, chili cook-offs were designed to promote and improve chili. The whole purpose of a chili cook-off is to find the best chili made that day. The chili cook-offs were begun by people who genuinely loved chili.
Today the majority of the "chiliheads" who enter the contests are turning out what I call Dip-and-Snip hamburger soup. They start with some hamburger, brown it so it will hold together and then stew it in liquid until it is done. They dip off the grease that has cooked out, and then the chili seasonings are added, and the hamburger is broken up to resemble chili grind. The favored instrument for breaking up the hamburger lumps is a pair of kitchen shears.
You cannot make chili from hamburger. The best you can do is chili sauce. I can say this as I have thirty-nine years of experience in the making and history of chili.
In , Tom Nall and Bob Wilson won two consecutive cook-offs using precise cubes of meat about three-eighths of an inch in size. That started the cubed meat chili tradition. After the political split in , the cooks lobbied for and got some "chili grind only" cook-offs. That eliminated the need for them to cut up the meat and discard the connective tissue and fat. It was probably cheaper, too. How does this lead to the downfall of chili, you ask.
The cook-offs are recruiting civilians off the street to do the preliminary judging. I have long asserted that I can take judges off the street who like chili and get the same winners as the "trained" judges. But, the important phrase here is who like chili. The civilian recruits I have talked to say they do not necessarily like chili, and some said they had never tasted chili, but just wanted to see what it was like. So they sample the Dip-and-Snip and go away thinking it was chili.
Chili Cook-Off NewsflashA good friend of mine who has been in the chili world even longer than I have. She was a finals judge at one of the big chili cook-offs in Terlingua last month. She reports that ninety-five percent of the "chili" on the final table was of the hamburger Dip-and-Snip variety. Her most polite comment on it was "Yuk!" She said there were two chilis with real meat in them. One of these received her highest score; the other got a high score just because it wasn't hamburger soup.
Chili Recipes & ArticlesMeanwhile, back at the ranch, I looked up a couple of important chili recipes to see what kind of meat was called for.
Texas chili has no beans. As Texas is the birthplace of chili, chili has no beans. In the formative years, chili cook-offs were judged by so-called "celebrity" judges, usually five or six local individuals with name recognition. With seldom more than thirty entries turned in, this worked as well as anything. When the number of contestants grew, it was necessary to have preliminary rounds. At first, knowledgeable chili heads in attendance were picked to judge. They could be members of the cooking teams, but no cooks were ever allowed to judge their own product. (Except for me one time, and I won third place.)
I suppose that even team members got tired of judging chili several times a month or, in some cases, every weekend. That is where the civilian judges started coming in.
Today at chili cook-offs chili is supposed to be judged on aroma, red color, consistency, taste and aftertaste.
Aside from the high/low judging, you have the problem of using the same final judges at a local cook-off year after year. The same judges will usually pick the same winners, if they have the same cooks. The ideal would be to use chili heads for the preliminary judging and civilians for the final judging. I think using chili heads for preliminary judging would weed out much of the garbage that shows up on the final table.
Now we have another ogre appearing on the chili cook-off scene. You can now go to school and become a "certified chili judge". This will mean that you pay someone fifty to seventy-five dollars to tell you what is good chili. It will result in all the chilis being clones of each other. That is pretty well what is happening now, but you would have a card telling the world you have been to chili school.
Raven's solution to the chili problemDivide the world into chili divisions. The sanctioning bodies would have eleven cook-offs in each division each year, one per month. The divisions could have as many unsanctioned cook-offs per year as they want. Once a year there would be the big Super Chili Bowl cook-off. It would be an open cook-off with a separate competition for the winners of the division competitions. The winner would get a nice chunk of change, plus bragging rights to being World Champion Chili Chef.
Right now, I'm going to Dairy Queen and get a hamburger made of one-half inch cubes of good beef.
I have spoke.
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