The perfect chilli con carne in the heart of Texas
Cowboys take a break at the Dixie Dude Ranch after their morning’s riding. (Myles New)
A genuinely global dish, chilli con carne required the culinary input of three continents. It came into being in the Tex-Mex border badlands, when men were men, with catering skills to match: a dish so simple that even a weary, halfcut cowboy could rustle one up, yet so devilishly tweakable that with no more than a heavy hand on the powder tin and a couple of pardners, he had himself the makings of a palate-flailing campfire duel. Every chilli has a tale to tell, and it usually ends with someone in a gasping mess.
Though chilli is Mex by name, it's purely Tex by nature. In fact, south of the border the dish is something of an embarrassment: a 1950s epicurean guide to Central America defined it as "a detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the US from Texas to New York". Texans, in contrast, are proud of their association with "a bowl of red" - in 1977 the dish was enshrined as their official state food.
Twice the size of Germany, the Lone Star state is vast: the quest for the ultimate chilli might as well start in its capital. In an ultra-conservative state where half the population goes to church every week and there are twice as many guns as people, Austin is an outcrop of pink hair amid the rednecks - an easy-living university town where intellectual slackers, pregnant punks and IT millionaires co-exist in harmony. There are more live-music bars on 6th Street than anywhere on earth, but if you're looking for a yeehah Texas honkytonk, look elsewhere. The semi-official civic slogan is "Keep Austin Weird".
It's a pocket of bohemia, and indeed Bohemia: many of the wheatfields that engulf the city were planted by 19thcentury Czech immigrants, part of a million-strong central European influx whose cultural legacy across southern Texas has survived. In the farmlands northeast of Austin I drive through a series of comatose old villages with names like Heidenheimer, Schwertner and Walburg, where the only place still trading is an indoor biergarten, bedecked with Bavarian flags, cuckoo clocks, beer steins and military memorabilia. The waitress apologises that her wurst-centric menu finds no place for my epicurean quarry. "But come on - you can't eat chilli without beer!" It's a point emphasised at the Texas Chili Parlor, which I gravitate to that evening. "People come asking for Perrier or Evian," says waitress Marta, '"and I tell 'em the only bottled water we serve has got malt and hops in it." When sometime Austin resident Quentin Tarantino was location-spotting for his film Death Proof, he didn't have far to look for a chilli joint with attitude.
Other than a couple of tweaks to the house rules ("NO DRAFT, NO FRIES, NO TALKING TO IMAGINARY PEOPLE"), the TCP is just as it was the day it opened in 1976. "Our chilli won't be changing any time soon," says Marta, cheerily slamming down a bowl of the house red. "Chunks of beef shoulder, chilli powder and whatever, broth and a little masa harina [tortilla corn flour] to thicken it all up." Part of that whatever is a splash of Shiner Bock, a local beer created by immigrant German brewmasters. But it still seems a strippeddown recipe. No onion? "That comes on the side." Cheese? "On the side." Tomatoes? A narrowing of the eyes. Beans?
If to bean or not to bean is the question, in Texas there is only one answer, typically delivered at length and in a tone of outraged disbelief. The essence: no beans.
With a confidence borne of years of Tabasco abuse, I've plumped for the double-X chilli, a mid-strength choice that is awarded a "beware" on the menu. I dunk in one of the crackers and take a bite. It bites back: the fulsome, salty tang of long-simmered meat sauce is soon brutally frogmarched away from my tastebuds by the capsicum heavy mob. A table of ample regulars eyes me with happy malice, but they tilt their Shiners in approval when I go for a second mouthful, then a third.
Next morning, I drive southwest to the city that counts itself the crucible of chilli. San Antonio is nearly 100 miles away - a trip to the shops by Texas standards - but culturally it feels further, with two-thirds of the citizenry of Hispanic origin. The border might be a four-hour drive south, but this is where Tex and Mex collide.