For years, I’ve had an exceptionally liberal definition of the term “chili” referring to the food.  I’ve had chili with beans and chili without beans. I’ve had white chili and red chili.  I’ve had chili with meat and chili without.  I’ve had chili with beef, turkey, and even other sorts of meat. And aside from the fact that it was chili according to the person who made it, was that it was always a soup or a stew where (chili) peppers provide the primary flavor component.

Thus, with my chili liberal elite blinders on, the fact that people have near-religious feelings about chili didn’t even cross my mind as I posted this picture of a batch of chili to Facebook.

I insist that this is, in fact, “chili”

Objections to this particular batch of chili that I heard included:

  • Chili may not have beans
  • Chili may not have carrots
  • Chili may not have mushrooms.
  • Chili may not have distinguishable bits of veggies in it at all
  • Chili may not have any other meat than ground beef

I’ve posted blasphemies before and didn’t get the same sort of backlash that I got in the wake of that photo.  It’s been over two weeks and my friends are still making snarky comments about it.

Surprisingly, none of my snarky-ass friends came up with this
and I had to do it myself.  Sad.

I firmly believe that although it may not please everyone, my definition of “chili” as a particular type of soup or stew is the most applicable and useful way in which use the term.

A CAVEAT PRESAGING A CONCLUSION

As with so many areas of language and culture, but especially in the realm of food, it’s difficult to offer a succinct, universally applicable “definition” of what counts as a particular type of food.

Part of the problem is that people (some would say I am one such person) will make things and just call them by a particular name and demand that others accept that name even though that name is reserved for other things.  

That video has been making the rounds with many people commenting that the addition of a ton of veggies negates this dish’s standing in the category of “mac and cheese.”  I’m fine with people calling that dish “mac and cheese” even if I think the addition of those veggies is an exercise in gilding the lily.

Here’s another example: Milk Sorbet.

Sorbet does not have milk.  If it has milk, it’s not a sorbet.  So, how can you have “milk sorbet?”  You can’t. 

The recipe I linked to there is what I would call a “Philadelphia-style ice-cream.”  Why? Because a Philadelphia-style ice-cream is, in essence, milk, vanilla, and sugar.  No eggs!  You can dress it up with other ingredients, but the inclusion of milk and the exclusion of eggs are the defining characteristics of this frozen treat.  (BTW, if you make that recipe, I would recommend adding a tablespoon or so of alcohol like bourbon or vodka because Philly-style ice-creams will freeze unscoopably hard without it.)

And, yet, there’s someone calling this “sorbet.” They probably think it’s a sorbet because it doesn’t have eggs and I suspect there are a lot of people who use the term in that way. I don’t think that use of the term is widely accepted enough to justify it, though. So, I’m just going to say they’re wrong.

Some will argue that I am being similarly subjective by seeking a broader definition of “chili;” however, I think the horse has already left the stable.  I’ll explain that later.

Further, in the realm of “food” there are a lot of silly rules.  For instance, many people already know that “champagne” is a bubbly sort of wine from the eponymous region of France.  If you made a bubbly wine with the same sort of grapes anywhere else in the world, you could not call it “champagne.”  Kobe beef has similar strictures on the use of the name.

I would submit that the only reason such narrow definitions maintain any level of integrity in the marketplace is through the use of courts and police powers and not because such names make sense to consumers or reflect a logical use of the name.  I’m willing to accept such names and their limited definitions, though, because I tend to be a “descriptivist” about this sort of thing and the name doesn’t change my enjoyment of the food.  “A chili by any other name tastes just as spicy.”

But it’s primarily because I’m a descriptivist that I think it’s time to acknowledge that in the finicky, arbitrary, tradition-driven, often regionally-influenced, frequently-illogical world of food the term “chili” should be applied to a much broader set of dishes.

Although I doubt this post will change anyone’s mind, I hope my friends who read this will at least understand that my application of the term “chili” is not unreasoned madness and that the thing that should be regarded as most important is the enjoyment the dish brings more than the name.

A FEW IDENTIFICATIONS

Chili is a “sauce” according to Merriam-Webster

I’m not going to go through every definition of “chili” available out there.  I’m just going to explain my own.

Chili is a soup or stew
where the primary flavor element
comes from (chili) peppers.

Soup vs Stew
My understanding is that the difference between a soup and a stew is the amount of broth.  Soups have a lot of liquid compared to the other, chunky elements.  In fact, a soup can consist of liquid only.  Stew, though, has a considerable amount of other elements like vegetables and meat with only just barely enough liquid to cover them.

If I wanted to restrict my definition, I’d insist that chili is a stew because the extreme majority of exemplars from the category that I’ve had have had very little liquid by comparison.  But I can imagine a chili with a bit more liquid and someone would reasonably say it’s “soup.”  So, I allow that it might be a soup or a stew

Another reason I say “soup or stew” is because you’d conceivably be willing eat a bowl of it as a dish by itself.

I don’t think it’s accurate to call “chili” a “sauce” because a sauce is something you top other foods with in order to add flavor and moisture.  Gravy is a sauce. Marinara is a sauce. 

Some people put chili on hotdogs like it’s a sauce, but I see that as a derived application and not a defining means of consumption. You can pull nails with some hammers, but “pulls nails” is not part of our definition of a hammer.

Some people serve chili over rice, corn bread, pasta, and all sorts of other things.  Those are all probably tasty options, but, again, killing a fly with a hammer doesn’t change the hammer into a “fly-swatter.”

So, again, chili is a soup or a stew because 1) it has a significant liquid component and 2) it can stand alone as a dish unto itself.

The Primary Flavor Element
This seems to trip up a lot of people.  They seem to believe that “primary” means “only.”  That’s a misunderstanding of what I mean in my definition of the term.  And if you think about it, even the most traditional chili recipes include more flavor components than just peppers.

So, I think as long as the most prominent flavor in the stew is (chili) peppers, then you have chili.  If you layer in other components, that’s fine, but the primary flavor is from the peppers.

I like mushrooms in chili because it gives a nice, meaty element distinct from other veggies and the meat.  I feel like it makes the chili “rounder” and more robust.

I like carrots in chili because it gives nice, little pops of sweetness amid all the spice.

I’ve used parsnips before because they’re like spicy carrots and give another little kick plus texture.

I’ve used squash before because of the texture and also to mellow it out a bit more.

As with my own creations, I’ve had chili in various restaurants and chili cookoffs and always, always, always the primary flavor element is (chili) peppers.

This is also why “meat” is not mentioned in my definition.  You can have vegetarian chili.  An all-veggie stew in which the primary flavor component is peppers.

Some have suggested that I call my dish “spicy stew” instead of “chili,” but that is such a nondescript name as to be meaningless.  You’d know it’s a stew, but not much else because there are zillions of spices out there and that doesn’t tell you which spice to expect. When you took a bite, though, you’d immediately say it tastes like chili.  So, is “chili stew” a better name for it?  Maybe for some people, but saying “chili stew” is like saying “PIN number” and “ATM Machine.”  It’s a name straight from the Department of Redundancy Department.

(Chili) Peppers
In most commonplace recipes, the distinctive flavor of chili comes from the use of chili powder.  But people are probably wondering why I write “(Chili) peppers” instead of just “peppers” or “chili peppers.”  I write it that way because of some ambiguity around what a chili pepper is versus other sorts of peppers.  And I’m allowing for some confusion around that.

When we say “chili pepper” we’re referring to fruits like bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, ghost peppers, and the rest.  Genus Capsicum, family Solanaceae.

Black pepper, the table seasoning, comes from a different sort of plant, though.  Same for other sorts of peppercorns. I usually put a fair amount of black pepper in my chili as well, but it’s not the primary flavor component.

It probably creates more confusion than it helps for me to write “(chili) pepper” all the time, really.  I could just say “peppers” or even “chili peppers.”  But since I wrote it that confusing way elsewhere and I’ve been writing it in that confusing way this whole time, I though I should explain.

THE NATURE OF THE TEXAN CONFLICT

My husband insists that chili has to have beans in it.

Image result for it's not chili if it has beans
One of my snarky-ass friends DID share this one with me, though.

I’ve been trying to tell him about this mythical land called “Texas” for years, but he’s not having it.  He grew up eating chili with beans in it and he refuses to think of anything without beans in it as “chili.”

He also tells me that chili “really ought” to have ground beef rather than chunks of meat like stewing beef.  I have managed to convince him that this is OK, but it MUST have beans.

You’d think living with and even marrying someone with such fanatically narrow views of what counts of “chili” would have prepared me for the outrage I sparked on Facebook.

There are certain contexts in which I think it is proper and necessary to insist on a much narrower definition of the term “chili.”  And the main reason I can think of is the chili competition.

If you allow people to just make any pepper stew and enter it into your chili cook-off, you’d have a VERY hard time judging things because the offerings would be all over the map.  So, you have to try to narrow the set in order to offer more consistent, objective bases for your judgments.

The regionality of food also justifies some narrowing of definitions.

If you made a chili with beans and tried to call it a “Texas-style” or “Texan” chili, you’d just be wrong.  Texan chili has no beans.  This sort of specification happens a lot in food.

And so on.

There are even some people who say that chili shouldn’t even have tomatoes!

This all gets into my caveat above.  When it comes to food, people have strong feelings and they’re willing to die on the hill of CALL IT WHAT I SAY YOU CAN CALL IT.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHILI

Cribbed from Wikipedia:

Chili originated from what is now northern Mexico and southern Texas.[2] Unlike some other Texas foods, such as barbecued brisket, which is associated with white men, chili largely originated with working-class Tejana and Mexican women.[2] The chili queens of San Antonio, Texas were particularly famous in previous decades for selling their inexpensive chili-flavored beef stew in their casual “chili joints”.

Food Republic has a very brief summary of the history along with several descriptions of regional requirements because no sooner did chili arrive on the scene than did people start modifying it to meet their own wishes and needs.  The only consistent aspects of all these variations are that they are a soup or stew where the primary flavor element comes from peppers.

CONCLUSION

Food Republic also offers this gem of a statement regarding the titular question for this post.  What is Chili?

Chili con carne is perhaps the simplest single pot stew, the quintessential campfire cuisine and the original tailgate meal. Before the days of brats and beer koozies, 19th century Chili Queens of San Antonio stewed it in open air wagons while mariachi minstrels entertained stockmen, soldiers, rounders and prowlers. The rich history of chili bubbles with Americana. Yet the jury is still out on proper chili cookery. No chef, cowboy, historian or state legislature is going to mint the decisive recipe, try as they might. Worse, no matter how you cook chili there are plenty of pernicious pepper partisans who will tell you “it ain’t right.” Don’t let them stop you.

Which brings me to the conclusion I announced above.

I realize that people have strong feelings about what is and is not chili.  But I don’t know what is gained by insisting that the term “chili” be a species of “pepper stew” rather than the genus.  Furthermore, such narrow definitions don’t align with the history nor common usage of the term.

It might be a source of fun memes and ribbing among friends on the internet, but there is more chili in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in such narrow philosophies.  And the only things that are common among these platonic ideals of chili are that they’re all soups or stews where the primary flavor element comes from (chili) peppers.

Here’s what REALLY matters, though: the chili I made was delicious!  And I hope yours is, too.