Pot Luck

Texas Chili: A Frozen Bowl of Red without Beans

Whole Foods is selling plastic tubs of frozen chili concocted by Frank X. Tolbert, Jr. who also goes by the name, X squared. It's made out of ground beef instead of beef chunks and it's a little short on salt for my tastes, but otherwise it's a decent bowl of red. There are no beans in it, of course.


Frank the second used to make the chili at the family chili parlor in Dallas. His dad, newspaperman Frank X. Tolbert, wrote the book on Texas chili. And as you might imagine, the book and the chili were ridiculed by non-believers in New York.

When A Bowl of Red was first published in 1966, the classic Texas chili it described was dubbed "a bowl of slop" by New York critic H. Allen Smith. Smith, who was raised in the Midwest, wrote an article in Holiday magazine titled "No One Knows More About Chili Than I Do." The first chili competition in Terlingua, Texas was a cook-off between Frank X. Tolbert and H. Allen Smith. The contest was declared a tie by the mayor of Terlingua who liked all the tourists it brought to town. The mayor cleverly proposed that Tolbert and Allen meet again the following year to break the tie. Thus the chili cook-off tradition was born.

As the Southwest Review noted, "Tolbert's classic history of chili...and his famous chili cook-offs in tiny Terlingua, Texas... created a worldwide subculture devoted to this noble dish." In the 1970s and 1980s, the chili cook-offs rose in popularity and divided into several circuits, each with thousands of participants. But by the 1990s, they had devolved into redneck beer busts with little attention to culinary details and a whole lot of fart jokes.

In an interview, X Squared told me he brought out his frozen chili because he thought that the time was right for serious food lovers to consider chili anew. I hope he is right. But, of course, anytime you talk about Texas chili, you get into the same old arguments with all those people around the country that know more about chili than we do. And you have to explain why Texans are so offended by beans in the chili.

Texans love chili and they love beans. If you want to make a one-pot meal with ground meat, canned tomatoes and kidney beans and call it chili, I, for one, will be glad to eat a big bowl. The thing is adding beans to the chili pot is like adding spaghetti to a pot of Italian red sauce with meatballs. You can do it--but it's a lot smarter to make a big pot of red sauce and meatballs, put some of the sauce on the spaghetti, put some more on a meat ball sandwich the next day and then make lasagna with the leftovers. It's the same with Texas chili.

The French make mother sauces like béchamel and then add ingredients to create individual dishes. It's the same idea with chili. Texas chili doesn't have beans in it because it is the Tex-Mex mother sauce. As I explained in Temples of Tex-Mex, early Tex-Mex restaurants were essentially short order cafés where every dish started with chili con carne.

Next week, I'll share some recipes that might explain how cooking with chili became such an important part of Texas foodways. Maybe then we can give the bean thing a rest for a while.

-- Robb Walsh

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh