Wick Fowler wrote those words. Jerry Jeff Walker sang those words. Don Day doubted those words.
I was never really popular as a kid. Except for about every two weeks on Thursday. Because it was about every two weeks on Thursday that I would get up in the morning and find a large Corning Ware bowl almost overflowing with water and kidney beans the color I wanted my first car to be.
My mother was a dietician. It was the fancy name that cooks called themselves in those days. And, unlike regular moms, fancy cooks made chili. About every two weeks on Thursday.
I would wait until lunchtime to announce my sighting of the soaking beans. After I saw what Billy Stewart and Stevie Ware had in their brown paper bags. Because after Billy and Stevie knew about those beans, Billy would offer me half of his date square and Stevie more than one bite of his apple.
It would be decided then and there that we’d all be going to my house after school to watch Bandstand. And when Dee Dee Sharp would come on, Billy and I would go into my parent’s bedroom, open the closet door to reveal the full length mirror and practice our mashed potatoes. Meanwhile, Stevie would put on his Buster Keaton face and always say the same thing: “You guys are nuts, absolutely nuts.”
At about five, my mom would come home and, after first complaining about how the crepe soles of our Clark’s desert boots were pulling up the pile of the carpet, she would order us out of her bedroom while she took off her girdle and stockings.
Back in the rec room (beside the never quite started fallout shelter) we’d watch in awe as a kid called Crazylegs mash potatoed to Freddie Cannon’s Tallahassee Lassie and Stevie would say, “That guy’s nuts, absolutely nuts, more nuts than you”. And we’d hear the hissing sizzle and smell the meaty aroma of the ground chuck in the fry pan. Then the chop-chop-chopping of Mom’s prized Henckels against the tropical teak cutting board. And, if Mrs. Findley wasn’t on the party line as she almost always was, Stevie would call his mom to ask if he could stay for dinner. And ask her to then go across the street to ask Billy’s Mom ’cause they didn’t have a phone.
My mom would yell “come ’n’ get it” in her best Hattie McDaniel voice. And, as long as it wasn’t rate a record time, we’d beeline to the formica and chrome dinette set with red naugahyde seats. And we’d sprinkle the Balderson’s medium cheddar over this everest of mostly beans in the blue Melmac bowls while Billy or Stevie would wish “my mom was like your mom”.
It was almost 50 years later when I attended my first Chili Cookoff in San Miguel de Allende. I’d just sampled about 30 contestants’ chilis and there was not a single bean to be seen. I couldn’t help but wonder. What would Billy and Stevie have thought? What would my mom have thought? Never mind them, what did I think?
I found the internet overflowing with facts, figures and, probably, a few fables about the right or wrongful place of beans in chili. The experts seemed to be divided into two camps.
The Texans (with an assist from New Mexico) and their story of the “Chili Queens” in San Antonio versus the rest of the world who give credence to origins everywhere from Cincinnati to the Canary Islands.
I found mentions of chile from such notables as Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, who described chili as “pounded fire-brick from Hades,” and O. Henry, who, in the 1904 short story The Enchanted Kiss, pays homage to “the delectable chili-con-carne, a dish evolved by the genius of Mexico, composed of delicate meats minced with aromatic herbs and the poignant chili colorado” found in the street markets of San Antonio.
Plus there was one more thing I learned in my research. It seemed like a Chili Cookoff may have actually been responsible for the loss of those beloved beans from the chili of my youth.
Most of that logic comes from an article in a 1967 issue of Holiday magazine called “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do” (now there’s self-confidence). The author, H. Allen Smith, was a New Yorker and, like many a non-Texan, a non-believer in chili without those delightful legumes.
His description of chili’s ingredients (“fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt, and sizzling scorn”) is one of the best descriptions of anything edible I’ve ever read. And one of his summary statements was “To create chili without beans, either added to the pot or served on the side, is to flout one of the basic laws of nature.”
Smith’s article of course did not go unnoticed in Texas. Dallas newspapermen Frank X. Tolbert and Wick Fowler (the originator of those words in my headline) took action that was well described by Kriston Capps in her article “There Are No Beans In Chili” on slate.com:
“Tolbert and Fowler challenged Smith to a ghost-town cook-off. The bean question would be settled in Terlingua, a former mining outpost near the Mexican border, on October 21, 1967. In what came to be known as the Great Chili Confrontation, Fowler represented Texas; Smith spoke for New York and the rest of the wide world. Three judges would decide the outcome: Terlingua Mayor David Witts; San Antonio brewmaster Floyd Schneider; and Hallie Stillwell, a judge from Alpine, Texas, who just happened to be Smith’s cousin.
“Schneider pulled the lever for Fowler’s Texas chili. Stillwell, who of course knew her cousin’s recipe by its bean-y texture, voted for Smith. The swing vote, Witts, took one bite of Smith’s New York bean “chili” and declared himself poisoned. His taste buds were ruined, he sputtered, according to accounts of those who were present. Witts was unable to try the other chili in good faith. No winner was declared.”
I believe it was the following year that the ICS, the International Chili Society, banned the use of beans in all sanctioned Chili Cookoffs. But then, over forty years later, surprise, surprise.
As proud as Texans are, with that yellow rose pinned directly over their heart and that insensible footwear pulled over their feet, they will bend. And in 2012, they bent further than I ever imagined they would. In 2012, the International Chili Society’s World Chili Cook-Off added a new division. Believe it or not, chili with beans.
Now we have a Chili Cookoff coming up in San Miguel in a few days. And I have made the difficult decision to come out of retirement (difficult because there’s actual physical work involved). Now this is not a sanctioned tournament for the world championship. For the last few years, San Miguel’s cookoffs have been independent affairs. So it has its own separate rules.
Today, I received my copy of those rules. And there is no restriction against including beans (though there is a rule stating “no rice or macaroni”). And if you do use beans, you’re not put in some separate, obscure division. You get to play with the big boys. So what to do? Should I return to my youth and include beans? They are the cheapest way I know to fill a pot.
I did a little espionage. With a sneak into the kitchen of prime young contender Stefania Chavez at Vinos + Tapas, I discovered that she has black beans on her ingredient list.
I thought of Jerry Jeff singing those words in the headline (I still get a little misty when I hear his “Bojangles”). I thought of U.S. Politics. And that line about “as goes Ohio, so goes the nation”. And I thought of San Miguel Chili Cookoffs and how many Texans there are tasting and scoring. And I thought of a new line about “as goes Texas, so goes the winner of a cookoff”. And so I’ve decided to join the big brimmed hat, shiny buckle and pointy boot crowd. I am now an official has-bean. I will be cooking without frijoles.
Oops, that’s not exactly correct. For as Don Day’s Wife will tell you, “Don Day doesn’t cook, he just takes credit for cooking”. Perhaps that’s why, this year, Don Day’s Wife is sitting on the sidelines. But don’t ever think that Don Day is stupid enough to fly solo.
I’ve enlisted the services of recent San Miguel arrival and almost retired chef, Mark Tamiso (Mark already knows he’ll be doing all the prep. He doesn’t know yet that I’ll probably try to take all of the credit). Mark spent some time cooking in Austin so I knew he’d only be interested in doing a traditional Texan bowl of red. And that’s what we’re making.
We’ve bought one of the best looking pieces of brisket I’ve ever seen at La Carniceria Nueva Aurora and it’s now bathing in a brine that includes pasilla and ancho chiles.
So please come to our stand and come hungry. We’re called The Chili Dawgs. And please, after tasting our chili, don’t tell me it would have been better with beans.
The 2017 Chili Cookoff will be held on January 28 at the Hotel Aldea in San Miguel de Allende. Doors open at 12 Noon. Tickets are available in advance for 200 pesos at Solutions, Recreo #11 and La Victoriana, Hernandez Macias #72 or for 250 pesos at the door on the day of the event. And if you need another reason than good chili to go, it’s now been confirmed that the Spy Boyz will be reforming and rocking at the event.