Does Real Chili Have Beans?

If I put beans in this chili, is it still chili?. (Photo: Aimee M Lee/Shutterstock)

I'm often perplexed by the passion people express about food. I'm not talking about the type of passion that someone has over a perfectly cooked burger topped with blue cheese and caramelized onions paired with a nice red wine. I totally get that. I'm talking about the type of passion that makes people fight over the "right" way to make something.

One such fight is about chili. Should chili have beans? Many people will point to Texas as the place where chili began, and in the early days of chili, no beans were mentioned. An early description of what became known as chili was written in 1828 by a man named J.C. Clopper. According to National Chili Day, he wrote about a dish he observed when visiting San Antonio, Texas:

When they [poor families of San Antonio] have to lay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for the family; it is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat--this is all stewed together.

I suppose if someone is going to say that chili doesn't have beans in it, Clopper's description would be a good one to use: equal parts peppers and meat. I found a recipe on Serious Eats Food Lab for Real Texas Chili Con Carne that seems similar to this. It looks authentic to me — if authentic means meat and chili peppers. There are no beans in this version. No tomatoes or chocolate, either, two ingredients many people put in bean-less chili.

Read the comments, though, and you'll find that some people think the recipe on Serious Eats isn't really chili because it recommends using optional cumin, cinnamon, allspice or dried oregano.

I came here expecting to applaud you for making real Texas chili... Cinnamon?! Allspice?! I leave disappointed.

Even people who agree that real chili can't have beans don't agree on what should be in the bean-less version. Add beans into the mix, and things can get ugly. Slate did a piece earlier this year titled "Beans Do Not Belong in Chili." The author argues that the dish has a specific history and that it's ignorant to call a dish with beans chili. She specifically calls out Mark Bittman for saying chili has slow-cooked red beans it. The piece received a whopping 1,500 comments. I read about half of them, and people are definitely opinionated. Many believe they have "proof" one way or the other.

Beans in chili: Aberration or evolution?. (Photo: Ken Weinrich/Shutterstock)

I posed the "does real chili have beans" question to my friends. Most of them responded that they believed real chili didn't have beans because they'd been told that, but all but one friend also said they didn't care. They put beans in their chili.

My friend Sharon summed it up nicely: "I've heard that real chili doesn't have beans, but screw it. I like beans in my chili."

So if everyone is putting beans in their chili, except for perhaps some chili purists (and most of them seem to be from Texas), what's the big deal with calling it chili? The first pizzas most likely didn't have pineapple on them. Does anyone doubt that a pizza with pineapple is still a pizza? The addition of certain toppings doesn't make it not pizza. So why does the addition of beans to chili make it not chili?

I've read several articles on this. I've read hundreds of comments. I've asked my friends. I've given it some thought. My conclusion is, "Yes, real chili has beans." We can say original San Antonio chili doesn't have beans, but chili can have beans. It doesn't have to, but it can. Food, like language, evolves. Sentences didn't used to end with prepositions. Now it's acceptable — and it's still a sentence.

Now, let's get down to the next divisive question. What's the proper way to eat that chili, regardless of the bean content? I say chili needs to be mixed together with mashed potatoes. Let the comments begin ...