The Democracy of Chili

It's the season for the most divisive and most unifying dish there is.

Fall is the time of year when we make our choices known: we choose what we stand for, what we value, what we want to say about ourselves. We choose between integrity and self-interest, between perfection and practicality, between tradition and revolution. Our choices are both deeply personal and the matter of intense public debate, and there’s no other time on the calendar when we can make them so clearly.

Of course, I’m talking about chili season.

Chili is the perfect culinary uniter, and that’s because there’s no clear agreement on what it is. It can be mild or blazingly spicy, fussily complex or insultingly simple. It can basically be a bowl of meat, or it can just as easily be vegan—and not in the “I’m putting a steamed whole carrot on a bun and calling it a bratwurst” way, but in an honest-to-god-delicious, most-people-couldn’t-tell-the-difference-if-you-didn’t-tell-them kind of way. No one is excluded by chili, but no one has exclusive claim to it.

Chili is like freedom; we all believe in it, but we have different ideas of what it means.

There’s an emotional connection, too: just as something might unexpectedly stir patriotic feelings in one’s chest—whether that be the sun-sparkled cliffs of a national park, the soaring of a bald eagle overhead, or the quadrennial gathering of your fellow person in the cautious exercise of civic responsibility—the dawning of chili season is an emotional one, one spurred by a set of meteorological conditions that we can’t quite define but all understand innately to be “chili weather”.

Not just chilly weather; chili weather.

There is no perfection to be found here. I’ve long been a devotee of the website Serious Eats, a culinary outpost that takes a semi-scientific approach to recipe-building, one that appeals to my nature as someone who likes to make things more difficult than they need to be for the sheer sake of doing so. I adore their ridiculously detailed chili recipe, one that’s got several dozen ingredients and takes multiple hours of careful, thoughtful labor to pull off exactly as written. Several years ago I made it for an office chili cook-off, confident that it was, as advertised, The Best.

I came in second, losing to someone who had thrown five things in a crockpot, and in that moment felt the pain of every technocratic policy wonk to ever lose an election to a guy named “Trey”. Democracy is at the whims of the people, and the people didn’t want to hear me expound on the careful layering of umami elements any more than they want to hear about funding mechanisms for expanded health coverage.

Of course, I’m no innocent here, either: I often troll people by mentioning my enjoyment of Cincinnati chili, a dish whose claim to the name is controversial to many. I do enjoy it, as much as I enjoy any other weird, esoteric regional dish, because there’s so few things that are uniquely regional anymore. But it’s not at all what I think of when I heard the word “chili”, any more than I would expect that if I said the name “Elvis” you would first picture former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Elvis Grbac.

Cincinnati chili is a perfectly fine dish with its own oddball platform, a Macedonian-influenced allspice-tinged spaghetti sauce that also uses chili peppers. It that’s fifth candidate on your ballot, the one who’s just here to talk about cryptocurrency, and you can take its flier and smile and nod at it and not vote for it when push comes to shove.

how it feels adding the 18th pump of sf vanilla to a passion tea with heavy  cream : starbucks

Cincinnatians, not caring what you think

So, what is chili?

The only thing that can truly be agreed upon is that there should be chili pepper in it somehow, but even that brings on more questions. Powdered, dried, or fresh? One kind, or many kinds? Lightly spiced or tongue-tingling? That’s before we even debate the meat, the beans—yes, beans!—or the tomatoes or whatever else your depraved heart might desire. You can insist with all your might that one thing is right, that WELL IN TEXAS THEY DO IT THIS WAY, but Texas is a big state with a lot of people in it and I’m not one of them and you’re not in my kitchen, so if I think mushrooms go in chili, just try and stop me.

(I do not think mushrooms go in chili, but I know otherwise normal people who do.)

In fact, I have no clear idea myself. My recipes have evolved in the same way my politics have throughout my life, and there are things I feel more strongly about this year than I did in the past and things I once felt strongly about that now I can’t imagine why. Chili is the most (small-D) democratic dish there is, a dish that can always be changed but can never be perfected, one that relies on people with good intentions carrying the torch for future generations to appreciate.

So, this fall, let’s embrace one debate where it’s actually worth hearing both sides.

I’ll tell you what I think, and you can tell me what you think. We can learn from each other, and we can never, ever put mushrooms in chili, unless we want to.

What’s your favorite chili recipe? Please share it with us all in the comments, and we can all politely yell at each other for our culinary sins. I’ll add mine as the top comment.

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