That barbecue is not Texas’s state dish is a travesty. Paul Burka first made the argument decades ago in his scathing article “I Still Hate Chili” claiming that “never has the legislature so abandoned its sworn duty to enhance the public welfare as when it certified chili as the official state dish.” More recently he fired the first shots in Texas Monthly’s very real effort to finally right the wrong from 1977. That’s when the chili lobby used a considerable amount of Pearl beer to convince the legislature that chili was the true culinary representation of Texas. Per Burka’s latest blog post, our mission is clear. Texas Monthly will “lead the charge to replace chili with barbecue as the official state dish in 2015 when the 84th Legislature convenes.”
This is not an argument about which food is more Texan. Neither chili nor barbecue originated here, but only one is truly representative of our state. As Burka writes in his recent article Bowl of Dread, “There is no food more unambiguously identified with Texas than the brisket.” The rest of the country agrees. Every recent list of iconic foods of the states, whether it’s from the Cooking Channel or Deadspin, lists smoked brisket for Texas. Earlier this year, the Houston Press released a list of the thirty essential Texas restaurants to visit before you die, as voted on by prominent Texas food writers. The score? BBQ: 5; chili: 0.
This past weekend I took a trip to South Texas. Highway 281 down to McAllen is dotted with tiny towns like Premont (pop. 2,772), Three Rivers (pop. 1,883), and George West (pop. 2,482). Despite their small size, I wasn’t surprised to find that each had a barbecue joint (Three Rivers has two), nor was it shocking to find nary a chili parlor. Where barbecue is demanded, barbecue is supplied. And the same goes for chili.
With a population over 19,000 Alice, Texas, along the same route, is basically a metropolis in those parts. Of course it has a barbecue joint, but the only result in a search for chili in town was for mega-chain Chili’s. Their history is no doubt tied to the famous chili competition in Terlingua, but these days the Chili’s name is synonymous with baby back ribs. If you want to see the event that spawned the Chili’s chain then you need to head to the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff the first weekend of November. Just get there early enough for the Friday barbecue competition.
If you’re going to take a chili road trip, chances are it’ll be to Terlingua. People just don’t travel the state looking for great chili, while the barbecue road trip has become weekend sport in Texas. I also can’t remember the last time I heard someone make a passionate argument about their favorite chili restaurant. As for a similar argument for a barbecue joint, I’ve probably gotten three emails while writing this telling me that I’m an idiot because I don’t like someone else’s favorite barbecue joint.
Although I don’t share Burka’s disdain for chili (I like it enough to make it at home regularly, without beans, of course), now is the time to give brisket the exaltation is deserves. It is the single iconic food of Texas. Besides, the best chili I’ve ever had was a batch that I made with leftover smoked brisket.
It is simple. Brisket should be the state dish. It even makes chili better.