Bowl of Dread

Food evokes strong responses. The taste, the smell, the mouthfeel—our reactions to a dish are visceral and profound. Paul Burka, for instance, does not like chili.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Chili. A classic Texas dish, some would say—but not I. 

I loathe it. What is it about a bowl of red that appeals to the palate, anyway? Surely not beef suet, an essential ingredient in old-time recipes. Chili is the most overrated, overhyped variation on beef stew ever concocted by man. Such is my disdain, in fact, that 35 years ago I wrote a Texas Monthly cover story denouncing it as “third-rate swill” and sat for a photo with a bowl of the stuff emptied over my head. My protest was prompted by a misguided decision of the Sixty-fifth Texas Legislature, which, in a moment of collective insanity, had voted to declare chili the official state dish. This was a travesty, akin to naming catfish the official state seafood. Had the barbecue lobby been caught napping? Had the voting machines in the House of Representatives malfunctioned, as they are wont to do? Had the highway to Lockhart been shut down?

None of the above. It so happens that Texas had found itself at a moment in history when chili fanatics were beginning to spread their false gospel: that chili is an art form; that it is our last link to the legends and ways of the open range; and that, to that end, the chili cookoff came into being in Terlingua circa 1967 not as a publicity stunt but to celebrate the virtues, real or imagined, of a bowl of red.

Let us reflect for a moment on the relative merits of chili and its rival for culinary fame, the brisket. Chili, as I wrote those many years ago, violates every principle of good cookery. Its basic ingredient is grease; the object is to reduce the beef to a tasteless mush. If the essence of fine cuisine is to bring out natural flavors, then the apotheosis of chili demands their obliteration. I suspect that most “chili heads,” as they are known, would get as much gastronomic satisfaction from fifteen minutes of sniffing chili powder as they get from downing a spoonful of chili.

The ideal brisket, on the other hand, can inspire raptures on the beauty of a strategically placed ribbon of fat, not to mention the accompaniment of a sauce to tempt the culinary gods. And let us not overlook the role of the master carver, whose exacting mission it is to pierce the center of the slab of beef, to sever the perfect slice therefrom. The greatness of brisket lies in its ability to hold its flavor and temperature for hours, if necessary, and to maintain its integrity as a solid piece of meat. At last, the moment arrives for the slices to be piled high upon a plate. This is the true test of brisket, the point every barbecue aficionado awaits, the fulfillment of the pitmaster’s art. This is how Texans were meant to dine. Ah, blissful gluttony!

Top that, Kansas City! Stick to ribs, Memphis! Cut the coleslaw, North Carolina! There is no food more unambiguously identified with Texas than the brisket. When LBJ and Lady Bird famously hosted German chancellor Ludwig Erhard at the presidential ranch, in 1963, they served brisket. Had chili been on the menu instead, the NATO alliance might have fallen apart.

In an effort to elevate barbecue to its rightful throne, I joined with several friends some years back to form the Texas Barbecue Appreciation Society. We sent questionnaires to lawmakers asking if they were willing to override the Legislature’s previous action and recognize the true importance of brisket. Rumors were rife that chili heads had greased some palms to skew the outcome of the original vote. There were also serious issues to be resolved. Was barbecue authentic if it was cooked in a gas oven? Should sausage be regarded as barbecue, or did that designation belong solely to brisket? Unfortunately, most legislators did not find these weighty questions worthy of debate, and the Texas Barbecue Appreciation Society reluctantly moved to disband. 

We were years ahead of our time. If a vote to name our state dish were held today, barbecue would prevail in a landslide. What civilized Texan is not familiar with the fine brisket at Snow’s BBQ, or at Franklin Barbecue, or at Pecan Lodge? Meanwhile, chili cookoffs, I’m happy to report, attract relatively small hordes to the Big Bend region these days. Barbecue, at last, has found its way to the pinnacle of Texas cuisine.

Which is why I now call on the Legislature to undo the grievous error of signing chili into law as the official state dish in 1977. I hereby nominate the honorable Charlie Geren, a state representative from Fort Worth who happens to own the Railhead Smokehouse, to carry the legislation. If he needs help drafting it in the interregnum, I am available. When the next session begins, in January 2015, I expect it to be House Concurrent Resolution 1. 

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