I asked McKinney, Texas-based food scholar Sharon Hudgins why she thinks chili inspires such passion. Here is her insightful answer:
“Chili in its purest—that is, Texas—form is easy and inexpensive to make, but when it’s done well, it has layers of flavors that provide both psychological comfort and gustatory pleasure. The meat protein makes you feel full in the stomach and powered up for whatever comes your way. The chiles provide the heat that give the dish its capsaicin kick, setting off your endorphins and making you feel good on a higher level than just having a full stomach.
The subject of chili is as controversial as Texas is big. Even Texans don’t agree about the ‘correct’ composition of this dish. Those who like to add pinto beans (and even tomatoes) to it are shunned by the purists—but a substantial segment of the population persists in thinking (rightly so) that chili with beans is a pretty good combination, too. The real rub is when Texans are served chili from other places, such as Cincinnati chili with kidney beans (!) and spaghetti (!!).
And don’t even let a true Texan get near a bowl of California chili, with its effete additions of black olives, avocado slices, shredded cheese, and sour cream. In my humble opinion, I think this is a really seductive combination of ingredients—but I can’t admit it because I still have to live in Texas. However, I do think that every time you add another ingredient to the basic recipe of meat, chiles, and onions, you’re diluting those fundamental flavors and creating a dish that’s different from what many Texans consider a true ‘bowl of red.'”
Sharon Hudgins is an award-winning author of four books and more than 700 articles published in magazines, newspapers, scholarly journals, and on the Web. A former editor of CHILE PEPPER magazine, she has written several articles about chili powder and chili-the-dish. Currently she is the food editor of EUROPEAN TRAVELER and the food columnist for GERMAN LIFE magazine, USA. She also lectures on culinary, historical, and ethnographical topics on tours offered by National Geographic Expeditions, Lindblad Expeditions, Silversea Cruises, and other tour companies. Her travel memoir, THE OTHER SIDE OF RUSSIA: A SLICE OF LIFE IN SIBERIA AND THE RUSSIAN FAR EAST, is now in its third printing, and she is writing a sequel about her further adventures in Russia. So far, she has survived 35,000 miles of travel on the Trans-Siberian railroad and several servings of raw mare’s milk in Mongolian gers.