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Lake County News, California – Mensam Mundum World Table: Chili a bowl of controversy




The origin of chili is mysterious, but one thing is for sure there are strong thoughts about what constitutes the proper version of this essential consolation food. Photo by Esther Oertel.

Who would have thought that the blessed chili that warms the belly and the heart would be controversial? But it is.

Beans or not? Are tomatoes acceptable or anathema? Only when and how was he born? These questions cause concern and disagreement among many chili enthusiasts.

But why in the world am I even talking about chili in the middle of a heat wave? Well, because fathers!

Since today is Father’s Day, let’s dig into a figurative bowl of what is, at least for me, one of the most fatherly foods on the planet.

I also happen to be one of those people who thinks that a good bowl of chili is comforting, soulful and delicious, regardless of the season.

Some people are spicy purists, while others like to experiment. Purists believe that chili should not include much more than meat, hot chili peppers and spices. (Certainly not beans!)

Those who experiment add all sorts of things to their chili, including some that do not sound very unusual (molasses, beer or coffee, for example), and some that I find really unexpected (like peanuts, heart artichoke or bamboo shoots).

There is a sharp division in the world of chili regarding beans, especially whether or not the addition prevents them from being real chili.

Texas journalist and chili cook Wick Fowler said (louder), If you know chili beans, you know chili has no beans!

This is not surprising coming from a Texan, where in 1977 the legislature voted to make the bean-free dish, known there as a red bowl, its official state dish. The proclamation says that the only real red bowl is the one prepared by the Texans.

The International Chili Society, which oversees approximately 150 chili dishes each year, allows the use of beans and other non-traditional ingredients in one of four chili categories in its competitions. Hopefully this solves that: chili can also be called chili with beans.

Personally, I like spicy beans. In fact, if not for the beans, I could not make chili at all as I prefer the vegetarian versions rather than the meat-laden ones.

Kassie Koontz, who along with her husband Reuben own and operate the Koontz Mercantile in Middletown, agree that the beans belong to the chili, at least in her version.

Koontz is the current cooking champion for annual chili at Middletown Middle Center. She also won second and third place ribbons in both races before that.

It favors a mix of three types of beans: black, red and white. The white beans are cooked and digested as a thickening agent, while the other two, the two of the heart, remain intact, adding structure.

Koontz recommends using the freshest meat possible as it makes a big difference in flavor. It grinds its own from the hang they buy every year through the FFA high school chapter.

Koontz shared another secret: a surprising ingredient in its chili is brown sugar. Its sweetness balances the heat coming from the chili spice and also serves to thicken the chili. Between white beans and brown sugar, there is no need to use a thickener like flour masses.

Although they grow chili peppers in their home garden, they are not ready by the time they cook around in May, so she uses a combination of any chili peppers that look good in the local market, Hardesters.

The pandemic prevented the senior center from holding its annual competition this year and in 2020. We all hope it will return in 2022.

Beef is the meat of choice for most chilis, but as you might expect, chili is made with almost everything venison, buffalo, pork, chicken, spicy sausage, goat, and even skunk, crab rabbit and snake of noise.

Chili peppers in Australia are made with kangaroos, in Norway chili is made with clouds, and in Alaska, mocha is preferred.

As for the history of chili, no one is completely sure exactly how and in what form it was born. There are almost a dozen theories that try to answer this question. I will throw some just for fun and you can determine what you think is most believable.

Some say the dish comes from Mexico. In a 1568 edition of The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, author Bernal Diaz del Castillo describes an Aztec stew made from the remains of sacrificial invaders, hot peppers, wild tomatoes and oregano.

Personally, I very much hope that chili did not originate that way.

Another tale tells of a 17th century Spanish nun, Sister Mary of Agreda, whose soul, the story goes, was transported from Spain to Texas by angels while her body was in a trance. While there, she preached to the Jumano Indians and in return was given a recipe for a spicy stew, made from game meat or antelope, onions, tomatoes and chili peppers. The recipe, which Sister Mary recorded, was the first written version of chili con carne.

Others cite laundries, or laundry women, which served the Mexican Army in the 1830s and 1940s as the first producers of chili.

They also cooked Chuckwagon on the cattle trails of the American West. These on-the-go chefs pressed dry beef, fat and chili peppers into easily transportable bricks which were rebuilt in boiling water over fires for diligent cowboys.

Or, as another story goes, did you bring chili to Texas in the early 18th century from transplants from the Canary Islands?

In this scenario, King Philip V of Spain hoped to prevent French settlers from expanding west from Louisiana by sending canary islands to settle in San Antonio. Apparently, the Canaries added abundant amounts of cumin, a key ingredient in today’s burns, to their slow-cooked stews, which also included meat, chili peppers, garlic, and wild onions.

It is possible for the spicy cuisine of the Canary Islands to influence 19th-century Chili Queens, who sold spicy spices at San Antonio Military Square to passers-by for decades, eventually leading to the dish’s widespread popularity.

To further complicate the issue of chilis origin, Rudy Valdez, a member of the Colorados Ute Indian tribe, won the 1976 World Chili Championship with a local recipe he claimed to date 2,000 years ago.

Perhaps chili versions have been developed in a variety of countries at different times.

Whatever happened, one thing about the particular chili continues to evolve and grow thanks to chefs experimenting with techniques and ingredients. At the same time, purists ensure that their time-honored version of chili remains the same.

I am pleased to offer a recipe today from Six Sigma Ranch and Winery of Lower Lake, which, in addition to wine, sells farm-raised meat in their tasting room.

Farm manager Christian Ahlmann tells me that they currently have ground ground beef available to make this chili.

The recipe was developed by their rehearsal room manager, Mr. T, who also happens to be an excellent chef.

Six Sigma Chili by Mr. Ts Kitchen


1 pound Six Sigma ground Beef
Finishes 1 pound Six Sigma bacon
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large onion, cut into cubes and cut in half
2 ounces tomato paste
1 can of printed tomatoes
2 cans of red beans in kidney
2 cans of cinnamon beans
Salt and pepper to taste
Cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper and paprika pepper to taste
Optional toppings: cheese, jalapeo and sour cream


Chopped brown bacon ends up in a large pot. Remove when it becomes crispy.

Remove half of the bacon fat and cook the ground beef in the remaining fat.

Move the fried beef to one side of the pan and add the garlic and half the onion on the other side. (Reserve the other half of the onion to fill.) Cook until the onion is translucent.

Add to the pan the fried bacon, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes. Stir until included.

Drain the beans and add to the pot. Bring to a boil and reduce heat.

Season to taste. (Do not be afraid of aromas remember, salt is your best friend until it is your worst enemy.)

Cook for an hour.

Spoon into bowls, add fillers and enjoy!

Recipe by Tameron Detrinidad (Mr. T).

Esther Oertel is a passionate home writer and chef from a family of chefs. She grew up in a restaurant, where she started creating recipes at an early age. Shes taught culinary lessons at a variety of places in Lake County and previously wrote the Veggie Girl column for Lake County News. Recently sells teaching classes at Sur La Table in Santa Rosa. She lives in Middletown, California.

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