The Great Chili Debate: Beans Or No Beans?

Which side are you on? Where you are from probably influences your chili preferences.

To bean, or not to bean. When you're making a pot of chili, that is the question. And depending on whether or not you're from Texas, there is a very definitive answer. Mainly, if you're from Texas: NO. If you're from elsewhere: Maybe.

We here at Southern Living straddle both sides of the fence on this red-hot (ahem) issue. We've published recipes for all types of chili, from a chunky, long-simmered beef chili, to Slow Cooker Turkey Chili using Northern beans. So, is there a correct answer to this bean or no bean debate? Here's more about this historic dish and why there are plenty of reasons to love it—no matter how to make it.

two bowls of chili with two cups of beer
Will Dickey

History of Chili

While food historians debate the origin of chili in the United States, many think it was popularized in San Antonio in the 1900s by the Chili Queens, a group of women who sold a spicy meat stew around the city's Military Plaza. According to the International Chili Society, which runs several world-famous chili competitions: "The Queens, who were, for the most part, Mexican, made their chili at home and then loaded it onto colorful little chili wagons, on which they transported it to the plaza, along with pots, crockery, and all the other gear necessary to feed the nineteenth-century night people. They build mesquite fires on the square to keep the chili warm, lighted the wagons with colored lanterns, and squatted on the ground beside the cart, dishing out chili to customers who sat on wooden stools to eat the delightful and fiery stew."

In her cookbook United Tastes of Texas, author Jessica Dupuy writes that even though people created the dish long before, chili does have strong ties to Texas: "While many Texans might choke on a spoonful of their own bowl of red at the notion, the origins of chili really come from south of the border, in South America. The term 'chili' is short for 'chili con carne,' which translates from Spanish as chilies with meat. It's s simple phrase that most people misinterpret, placing more importance on the meat rather than the chilies. But without chilies and their integral role in the vast majority of Mexican food, our modern-day chili would be little more than a boring bowl of sautéed meat."

WATCH: How to Make Instant Pot White Chicken Chili

Chili's Popularity and Recipe Adaptations

Chili parlors spread across the country in the mid-1900s, and the dish started taking many different forms. These adaptations included some with beans. Today, chili is considered a regional dish—served over spaghetti in Ohio, spooned onto Coney-style hot dogs in Michigan, and made with green chiles and pork in New Mexico, to name a few.

The ICS defines Traditional Red Chili as "any kind of meat, or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices, and other ingredients. Beans and non-vegetable fillers such as rice and pasta are not allowed."

If that sounds a bit uptight, the ICS's Homestyle Chili competition defines chili as: "any kind of meat, or combination of meats, and/or vegetables cooked with beans, chili peppers, various spices, and other ingredients. Homestyle chili may be any color." However, it does specify that "Beans are required," so bean lovers, enjoy!

Whether you fall in the beans or no beans camp, chili is one of the most satisfying ways to feed a hungry crowd. Especially when served with a hunk of cornbread on the side. Or is it Saltine crackers? That's a debate for another day…

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What type of beans does a traditional chili recipe use?

    Just as there are several variations of what is considered "real chili," this dish uses several bean varieties. Some popular options include kidney, black, pinto, cannellini, or canned beans. 

  • What is the most popular chili competition?

    According to the International Chili Society (ICS), this organization is the country's largest sanctioning body for chili cook-offs. The World Championship Chili Cook-off (WCCC) occurs annually and features nationwide competitors.

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