Chili Con Carne is a quintessential American food. Relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare, and able to accommodate an infinite number of variations while remaining essentially the same dish, it lends itself to individual cooks adding their secret ingredients and chili cook-offs where anyone can cook up a batch and compete with fellow chili-heads. Furthermore, it probably originated in what is now the United States. The history is murky and full of legend. Some historians claim African immigrants brought a similar stew with them. But it does seem to have emerged in Texas as trail food feeding the cowboys on cattle drives. Meanwhile, from the early 1800’s in San Antonio, entrepreneurial women called “chili queens” sold chili in the public squares putting their own individual stamp on the recipe—an early version of the food truck.
Today each region of the country has its own traditions of chili-making that give rise to heated arguments about the proper way to make chili.
I’m not going to debate the origins of this dish, settle questions about authenticity, or decide which version is best.
But I want to explore the question of whether there is an aesthetics of chili—what do we appreciate when we enjoy this dish? To that end, I’ve chosen two vastly different approaches to chili by well-known chefs.
The first by Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is rich and meaty, using cubed beef ribs, lots of umami boosting ingredients, and (in my version) just a few beans slowly cooked for many hours. The second is a less time consuming, ground beef chili with spiced butter by the modernist chef Heston Blumenthal.
The Best Chili Ever by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
If I had to choose one theme or focal point that defines chili it is the resonance of dried chili peppers and meat. Both are essential to the dish but various versions differ in how they play with that relationship. All the other ingredients should add to that resonance and not distract from it. This recipe has many ingredients with strong flavors—chili peppers, tomatoes, soy, chocolate—but it is cooked for several hours giving all those flavors time to meld into a unified taste sensation. What is remarkable about this dish is that, when it is ready to eat, I cannot pick out distinct, individual flavor notes from the ingredients. The overall quality is a deep, rich, intense meatiness. Even the earthiness of the pureed chili peppers has been transformed; there is no vegetal or fruity flavor note that stands out. The tomatoes, the chocolate, soy all absorbed into the thick broth permeated by beef essence. The spice/chili flavor permeates the cubes of beef; the sauce acquires the intensity and brawn of the beef. There are no real layers or dimensions although it leaves you with the impression of great depth.
In aesthetics, one mark of a great work, whether it be a painting or piece of music, is its unity—a sense of harmony or wholeness with all elements pointing in the same direction. This is what this recipe achieves in spades. Certainly the umami enhancements—soy, tomato paste, anchovies, and marmite (for which I substituted dark miso)—contribute to this unity as they collectively give the impression of expansiveness on the palate. I tried the recipe without those ingredients and it tasted thinner with the vegetal aspect of the tomatoes more prominent. There is a sense in which this version of chili is uncomplicated with a single flavor note standing out; but the richness and intensity of the broth suggests a hidden complexity, about which I say more here.
The main change I made to the recipe was to cut out 2/3rds of the beans. The Texans have this right. If you’re aiming for bold, intense meatiness, the beans become distracting. I do enjoy a few to provide textural contrast but not so much that attention shifts to them. Condiments provide all the flavor contrast you need and add freshness to a dish in which the ingredients have been cooked to squeeze out any hint of freshness.
I don’t know if it is the best chili ever but it certainly achieves great intensity, unity and depth. Many theorists would argue these are the most fundamental aesthetic categories.
Chili with spiced butter by Heston Blumenthal
This chili, by celebrated British chef and master of modernist cuisine Heston Blumenthal, is a whole different matter. The beef is ground eliminating the chew and softening the texture, adding a granulated, almost powdery mouthfeel. Because the kidney beans are larger than anything else in the bowl their prominence increases the perception of pliability.
There are no dried chile peppers in the broth. It is dominated by tomatoes and red wine which gives the broth lots of bright acidity and a winey flavor that thankfully stops short of being sour and takes on some meatiness from the ground beef. The addition of piquillo peppers produces vegetal spikes that contribute to the impression of bright freshness. There are few spices in the broth, except star anise, which punches up the intensity of the meat, and the cooking time is only about 1 hour, enough time to eliminate green notes from the tomatoes but not enough time to acquire much depth. When the spiced butter is added the chili begins to taste like chili. The spiced butter includes chili powder, smoked paprika, ketchup, cumin and Worcestershire sauce as dominant flavor notes and they all are discernible when the butter is mixed into the sauce in sufficient quantities.
So what is the point of adding spices via butter? The butter adds lushness to the texture as counterpoint to the sharpness of the acidic sauce, but what is interesting is that the spiced butter creates a separate flavor layer as well. The spices don’t fully integrate into the broth but seem detached from the whole though complementary and so give the dish increased complexity. It is easy to pick out distinct flavors of chile powder, Worcestershire, some smokiness from the paprika, and the clove flavors of the ketchup that remain distinct from the wine/tomato flavors of the broth as if you’re tasting in stereo. Whereas the Lopez-Alt recipe has the unity and depth of intense meatiness, Blumenthal’s recipe has more variety with many different flavor notes complementing each other but remaining distinct with many attention shifts as one savors the dish. Condiments such as sour cream, lime cheese, or avocado used judiciously increase the complexity and contrast.
And that is the aesthetic aim of this dish, to create complexity and contrast like a counterpoint melody in a Bach fugue.
So which dish is best? The bold intensity and depth of Lopez-Alt’s recipe is remarkable and soul stirring. Blumenthal’s is interesting and tasty. But, like a Bach fugue, I can take it or leave it.