To Bean or Not to Bean | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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To Bean or Not to Bean

This weekend I went to a chili cook-off called Bands N Beans in Lake George, New York, which is almost certainly not the place where chili was invented. Where it did originate is anyone's guess, though folks in Texas seem to feel pretty proprietary about it.They also feel pretty strongly about its ...

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The heat is on at a New York chili cook-off. Photograph by Lisa Bramen.


This weekend I went to a chili cook-off called Bands N Beans in Lake George, New York, which is almost certainly not the place where chili was invented. Where it did originate is anyone's guess, though folks in Texas seem to feel pretty proprietary about it.

They also feel pretty strongly about its definition. Recipes for chili are plentiful and varied but apparently among Texans and other chili purists, improvisation is frowned upon. In particular, beans are legume non grata, as is anything resembling a vegetable. In fact, the California-based International Chili Society, which sanctions hundreds of chili cook-offs and holds its own world championship (which it claims is the largest food contest in the world), explicitly bans beans.

Up here in Yankee territory, though, all manner of chili perversions were on display at the (non-sanctioned) cook-off (which, incidentally, was a fundraiser for the Lake George Arts Project, whose wonderful gallery you should check out if you're ever in the area). There was pulled pork chili, white chicken chili, prime rib chili, smoky turkey chili, even— gasp!—vegetarian chili.

Being a Yankee of a moderately herbivorous bent, I tasted only a few of the entries. My favorite was a vegetarian white bean chili made by the Gourmet Café in Glens Falls, New York, which was seasoned with ancho chilies and fresh cilantro (luckily, the cilantro was subtle enough to keep this avowed cilantro-hater from gacking) and topped with a roasted poblano-tomatillo salsa and tortilla strips.

My omnivorous boyfriend sampled almost everything, and he declared the best chili by a long shot to be that of Tony DeStratis and Rex Patt. The rest of the crowd agreed, voting the duo's unusual offering to top honors. DeStratis told me the winning chili featured pork and beef meatballs with cilantro and lime, dark beer, three kinds of chilies, and seasonings, including his secret ingredient, toasted cardamom. DeStratis's name sounded familiar, and I later realized I had mentioned him in my recent post about Cooking the Tree of Life.

Although northern New York did not invent chili, we do have a chili-like regional dish called a michigan dog (usually lower case, despite what Wikipedia says), a hot-dog topped with a special meat sauce. If you're ever en route from New York City to Montreal and are feeling peckish around Glens Falls, you can try a cousin of the meaty condiment on what is referred to here as a "dirt dog," at New Way Lunch (aka Dirty John's, not to be confused with the nearby diner called—I kid you not—Poopie's).
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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