Kitchen Myths

Facts and fiction about food and cooking, by Peter Aitken

“Real” chili cannot contain beans or tomatoes

You hear this on a regular basis, mostly from Texans. The fact is that many delicious traditional (and non-traditional) chilis are made with beans and/or tomatoes. Of course, some places do horrid things with chili (may God have mercy on Cincinnati). There is in fact some basis for this myth. Traditional Texas-style chili is usually made without beans or tomatoes, but that’s just one regional variant.

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10 responses to ““Real” chili cannot contain beans or tomatoes

  1. Michelle Samspon April 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Let me respectfully disagree. ‘Cincinnati chili’ is actually not chili at all in the Texas sense, it developed from a dish popular at Greek restaurants, so it has a different origin completely. I don’t even consider it part of the ‘chili’ family. And I do like it. If you really wanted to taste horrid chili you should have been around in the 70’s to eat my mother’s concoctions, which resembled neither type and included both beans and overcooked spaghetti.

  2. fluffywarthog April 8, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    This myth has a lot to do with demographics and ethnic tensions in Texas and the South in general. Chili has been a staple of Mexican, Tex-Mex, and American cuisine from decades to centuries. At its most basic, it’s chiles, water, and meat or beans.

    Traditional Mexican dishes and stews typically use meat cooked in chiles with little water, or bean soups. The migration of chili into Tex-Mex cooking created this ‘artificial’ standard of chili as a matter of separating Anglo diners from Mexican or Tejano ones, even though the food was much the same. Up until the middle of the 20th century, beef was still expensive for most Americans, and the generally wealthier Anglos used the presence of meat in dishes to discern Tex-Mex food from Mexican food. Beans were far cheaper (but usually healthier), and were considered the food of African- and Mexican-Americans, unfit for consumption by whites.

    When beef cultivation exploded in the 40s and 50s, far more people across different ethnic boundaries could afford to include meat in meals, but they also tended to stick to their traditional recipes. With the growing popularity of Mexican-leaning food in America, white Texans sought to restrict the definition of their food by adopting the “no beans” standard, and used it to preserve the social restrictions they had enjoyed previously.

    The standard of “real” chili is primarily a localized ethnic one, rather than a general rule about food. I grew up in the North and had never had chili *without* beans before coming to Texas; it’s just a matter of culture.

  3. Vanessa August 15, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I’m from Texas and I’ve always had chili with beans, so go figure. I’ve seen chili without beans, but have always thought that was kinda strange…

  4. badge August 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Greetings from San Antonio! I have never heard of this Myth. All of my chili recipes include beans, and I have never had chili in Texas without tomatoes or beans! Now I’m somewhat interested in varying one of my recipes to see what happens! Yummmmmmm chili!

  5. CaliOak September 20, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    Does this go all the way back to mole?

  6. Mikewood November 7, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    The whole beans and chili thing is quite simple and I think everyone is missing the point. It’s called chili because of the dried and powdered chilies that give the dish its distinctive color and its name. This is afer all a dish made for poor peoples. It’s spicy and flavorful to hide the fact the chili meat is older poorer cuts from an animal that may have been slaughtered several days ago and has begun to turn sour. Chili con carnie is quite simply chili with meat and little else. “Borrachos” or borracho beans are likewise powdered chili with some meat and beans. So put yourself in the wilds of Texas some 200 years ago. What’s for dinner? All we have is some old meat that is going bad, some dried spices to hide the taste and some dried beans. They might all go into the pot together with some flour to thicken the grease or the beans might be made on the side. Either way it’s not worth arguing over. As for tomatoes, can you imagine those poor starving farmers stewing a tomato? Fresh tomatoes would have been a treat and eaten fresh like apples.

  7. R. September 22, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Cincinnati Chili is quite good. It’s based on Greek recipes and spices and has a long history. The fact that it is different than Texas-style chili doesn’t mean it’s bad or not chili.

  8. Pingback: So I'm going to use some beans in chili. What kind? - Page 2 | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page 2

  9. My name March 12, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    Anyone that claims “real chili has no bean or tomato” is brain washed; Texas chili is not real chili.

  10. Carlos "chili" de la Huerta June 21, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    IF you think that chili has tomatoes and/or beans, then you have NEVER eaten chili, … it’s that simple.

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