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Down with noodles, chili snobs unite

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By Jerianne Strange

 I am a chili snob. I admit it.

Growing up, chili was a combination of ground beef, kidney beans, tomatoes and seasoning. It was a comforting and known dish my mom served often enough, a dish I shared at friends’ homes and occasionally ordered when eating out.

Imagine my surprise when – on my first trip to Kentucky – I ordered a bowl of chili only to have it come with noodles mixed in it.

Noodles! Spaghetti, to be exact!

I looked at my not-yet-then husband and said: “There’s spaghetti in my chili.”

His reply: “That’s how they do it down here.”

There are chili purists who insist the best creation must not have any beans and will feature a sturdy beef – no ground beef – but some solid chunks of a roast or brisket. Go to a real, sanctioned chili cook-off (yes, these are real competitions) and you’ll find as many different recipes as you will opinions as to which is best. 

I am pretty sure they would be aghast to find noodles of any kind in a pot of chili.

Chili buffs in Texas say the stuff we call “chili” was created there. Others say cooks on cattle drives came up with the idea for the hot meal. I have yet to find a clear answer. 

In some regions, the great debate is not where chili originated or just what can or cannot go into a pot. No, the real argument focuses on whose chili is best. Friendships have ended over that very question. Competitors travel across the United States to take part in contests aimed at determining whose is best. 

It’s been said that Will Rogers, a native of Oklahoma, judged a town by the quality of its chili. He sampled chili in hundreds of towns, especially in Texas and Oklahoma and kept score of which he thought were really good. He supposedly called chili “a bowl of blessedness.”

In Claremore, Okla., the winner of the annual Chili Festival Mid-American Chili Cook-Off receives a trophy, awarded by the Will Rogers Memorial Museum, which is engraved with a statement made by the beloved performer/social commentator. It reads: “Sure do love my chili.”  – Will Rogers, 1927”.

I have taken part in several amusing workplace chili cook-offs, where the top prize was the bragging rights that your chili had been voted as “the best.” Much of the judging was based on personal preference, as there really are no hard and fast rules about chili.

Around here, the bigger question seems to be whether a chili should include noodles or not.

Thanks in part to Fort Knox, we have a diverse culture in this region. On several occasions, the noodle/chili topic has come up. For those not raised in these parts, noodles in chili is different. For others, it’s downright wrong.

Many years ago I was introduced to Cincinnati chili, which is a culinary creation all of its own. It starts with ground beef and tomato sauce, so the finished chili has a thinner consistency. The big difference, though, is the spices – an unusual blend that includes cinnamon, chocolate or cocoa and allspice. It is distinctly different, but if you grew up on Cincinnati chili, it would be the expected taste.

It’s not just the spices that set Cincinnati chili apart. How it is served makes this chili experience a unique and very personal one. 

Start with the chili base. Then there’s the spaghetti, grated cheddar cheese, diced onions and kidney beans. If you are in a “chili parlor” in northern Kentucky or in Ohio, you order your chili a particular “way” and the number that precedes the way determines which ingredients are included in your chili. 

If you order a bowl, you get chili in a bowl. Ask for “two-way” and you’ll get chili served on a bed of spaghetti; three-way is spaghetti and chili topped with a mound of shredded Cheddar cheese; four-way is spaghetti, chili, cheese and either onions or kidney beans; five-way features spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions and kidney beans.

It’s different, but you know ahead of time, unlike my first serving of chili here in the Bluegrass state.

Chili may be a favorite on the cold-weather comfort foods list and there are probably as many different chili recipes as there are chili enthusiasts.

But try as I might, I cannot put noodles in my chili. Some things are just wrong.