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Cook Like a Texanist

It’s time someone had the courage to ask the most controversial question in the state: To bean or not to bean?

By December 2016Comments

Illustration by Tim Bower

If you are reading this, the world must not have come to an end after all. I am especially relieved. Because if the final ruination of all mankind had occurred, it would have been yours truly who would have been blamed. See, curiosity recently got the best of me, and I did one of the most unspeakably un-Texan things a Texan could ever do. I made a big ol’ pot of chili. With beans.

Oh, put the rope away. And don’t try to tell me you haven’t wondered what would happen yourself. Every Texan has had the no-beans-in-chili mantra so thoroughly drilled into him that we presume, en masse, to have been born with the knowledge that chili, at least Texas chili, or real chili, as it is referred to around these parts, includes nary one bean among its ingredients. Ever. But why is this? And what happens when it does?

Chili con carne originated in Texas and is, to the disappointment of barbecue enthusiasts everywhere, the official state dish. Indeed, steaming bowls of red were being served on the plazas of old San Antonio way back in the nineteenth century by women we’ve come to know as the Chili Queens. The historical record tells us that these maiden chilis didn’t have beans. Thus, neither have subsequent batches. But the resolution dubbing chili our state dish, which gives a nod to the Queens, did not codify any specific recipe, or even make mention of beans at all. The fact is, unless you’re a contestant in a cookoff, where beans are considered “filler” and are strongly frowned upon, there exists no official ban on beans.

The recipe I’ve used for decades is a hybrid, based partly on that of famed Dallas newspaperman and chili buff Frank X. Tolbert, who penned the seminal chili book, A Bowl of Red, in 1953, and partly on my memory of my dad’s unwritten recipe. I break it out about the time of the first cool snap and utilize it throughout the winter. It does not call for beans. And for the record, I had, until this exploratory batch, never once cooked a pot of chili with beans. Ever.

So when the idea for this experiment first struck me, I wondered how a person would even undertake such a mixture. I turned to trusted cookbooks for a chili-with-beans recipe, to no avail. A look at the internet offered only strange Midwestern formulas that included beans but also weird components like minced bell pepper and a celery stalk. What are we making here, fajitas and Bloody Marys? I was on my own.

But having been warned against my plan by friends (“Have you lost your mind?”), colleagues (“We’re going to get a lot of letters”), culinarians (“The beans will turn to mush”), and my beloved wife (“You’re an idiot!”), I was a little worried. Would the beans really turn to mush? My inner gastronome told me to keep it simple, so I decided to go with canned beans, which I would add late in the process, hoping they would hold their form.

My trip to the grocery store was fraught. As I filled my basket with three pounds of lean chuck, beef suet, dried anchos, fresh garlic, and cumin seed (if you don’t already roast and crush your own cumin, the Texanist highly recommends that you start), my palms began to sweat. I almost chickened out but then pulled myself together at a tray of cheese samples before pressing onward to the beans. I had settled on pintos, thinking they were a better option than kidney, black, or—yuck—navy. Eden Organic Pinto Beans (no salt added) looked to be a contender. Until, that is, I examined the listed ingredients. Organic pinto beans. Okay. Water. Okay. Kombu seaweed. What the #%*@?! Seaweed, although not as expressly disparaged as the beans themselves, felt like an abomination too far. I went with another high-dollar, low-sodium, no-seaweed brand. And then picked up a box of saltines, an onion, cheddar cheese, and a few fresh jalapeños for garnishment. And a six-pack of Mexican suds to wash it all down.

As I waited in the checkout line, my panic returned. Here I am with a cart full of provisions that are obviously about to be made into a delicious Texas-style chili. So what’s with the beans? “Sir, do you realize that you have included beans among all of your chili fixings?” “Can I get a manager to register nine?” I started fidgeting, scratching the back of my neck, and glancing at my watch a lot. I put my sunglasses on. I must have looked like a criminal, though neither the checker nor the sacker raised even one eyebrow. Still, I felt dirty all the way home.

While cooking, I kept rationalizing to myself that although traditional Texas chili is a simple and unadulterated potion in its preparation, it is very often enhanced post-preparation. See chili dogs, Frito pies, decorated eggs, chili rice, smothered enchiladas, chili-cheese fries, et cetera. I had nothing to apologize for or be ashamed of. But I hesitated when the time came to add the beans. I questioned the whole endeavor. The missus stood over me and chimed in, “You’re going to ruin it.” Sweat beaded on my forehead. Was I about to wreck a perfectly good pot of chili?

In the end, the chili with beans turned out real nice—with intact beans. Mrs. Texanist, initially so against my plan, was duly impressed, and the adolescent girl Texanist enjoyed it as much as a thirteen-year-old can enjoy anything put in front of her that isn’t Snapchat. I’m not ashamed to say it: This was some good chili.

Adding beans may be disqualifying on the cookoff circuit and distasteful to chiliheaded purists, but it turns out that it’s not at all as calamitous as you had imagined. The truth is, chili with beans is aromatic, piquant, and delicious, just like chili ought to be.

The Texanist’s Little-Known Fact of the Month: All the high school football state championships in Texas will take place between Wednesday, December 14, and Saturday, December 17, at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington. The price of admission for each day is $15. If the Texanist’s math is correct, that’s a grand total of $60 for a dozen championship football games, or just five bucks a pop. That calls for an end zone dance.

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  • AustinBBQ

    I must say that I was conceived, born and raised in Texas by like Texans and we grew up in Texas. There are over 250,000 square miles in Texas and to say that making chili with beans is un-Texan is plumb ridiculous. Just because you don’t see beans in an old recipie means nothing….I’m in my mid 60’s and we all put pinto (there is no other) beans into our cold winter supper.

    This notion of no beans was started by a bunch of yahoos down in what’s barely Texas, Terlingua. Maybe competition chile is sans lentils but Texas chili can and many places does have the complimentary pinto.

  • Mr-DJ

    As long as they are identified properly:
    1.) “Chili” – (which has no beans). And …
    2.) “Chili with Beans”
    Thank you very much!

    (4th generation Texan from South Central TX)

  • Jed

    if you must, ranch-style (pinto) beans are the most texan-est beans.

  • RH

    The wounded flamingo knows not of what he speaks.

  • Michael

    I’m curious–if you crush and roast your own cumin, why would you use canned beans? I make a pot of beans almost every week, and haven’t used the canned variety for years. Check out ranchogordo.com for a great selection, including pintos. And you don’t have to worry about seaweed….

  • Lin Sellman

    blasphemer! heretic! philistine! if you would like to make a nice meaty, zesty vegetable soup, feel free- but DO NOT CALL IT CHILI! read my lips- “NO BEANS EVER!” what’s next? donald trump as champion of the common man and POTUS?

    • Kozmo

      Here, here! Call out those heretics for what they are — bean-swilling Yankee tooters!

      And add some sippin’ tequila or mezcal to those Mexican suds, plus fresh tortillas, for the only accompaniment a bowl of True Red needs.

      Put them beans in a bowl for the dog!

  • Walt Longmire

    I enjoyed the good read, guy. As a person from Illinois, I lived in Texas for about 10 years. I had grown up eating chili from my early days at a place called “Den Chili” and another called “Dew Chili.” The originators of those shops claimed that THEY originated chili con carne, but I will allow your claim to stand; I don’t know and don’t care.

    In Texas, in the early days, I tried eating the “chili,” but soon gave it up, calling it a kind of chili-fied soup. It was certainly not the chili I had grown up with. The Texas “Red” stuff is what we put on chili dogs as a sauce. But as it is made in Texas, it would never fly here. It is true that the quality of chili depends just a little on your choice of beans, but beans are a necessity if one is to fix chili. In my ten years in Texas, I ate little of what was there called chili.

    But there is a lot of other things that Texans like that I did/do not, so it is neither here nor there as to what I might think — or Texans might think. Just eat what you like.

  • ForemanScottyLives

    This native Texan used to work with a woman who moved to Houston from St. Louis, bringing her favorite recipes along with her.

    For one potluck lunch, her offering was chili with beans – served proudly over spaghetti.

    It wasn’t bad – proving, in my experience, you pretty much can’t ruin chili.

    So no point in being a snob about it.

  • Scott Campbell

    This argument is way out of whack. The line about chili dogs, chili rice and chili pie says it all. People have always adulterated their chili, and I use that word loosely because in my opinion many of these additions are fine. Except saltines. I converted to tortilla chips ages ago 🙂