Is Chili Soup? Making Sense of the Hot New Food Debate.
Every now and again, a stupid question rocks the culinary world to its core, causing intense debate that rages until the conversation is finally killed by logic or exhaustion. Is a hot dog a sandwich? (No, it isn't.) Does Chicago deep-dish count as pizza? (It does!) How the hell do you pronounce LaCroix? (Not French-ly.)
Recently, a post on my goofy cousin's Facebook page resurfaced another often-debated question: Is chili a soup? The question seemed innocent enough, but the labyrinthine chain of responses he got really threw me for a loop. Reposting it via my own feeds continued the debate's infinite, cumin-scented spiral. Some argued vehemently that it is indeed a soup. Others claimed it was a stew. Still others maintained it is neither, existing in some slow-cooking netherworld of its own. Everybody had an answer. But which was right? How could this idiotic debate come to an end?
In an attempt to end this debate, I went down the rabbit hole, consulted experts and '90s pop stars, and came up with the best answer I could. Presented here, a blow-by-blow discussion of whether chili is, in fact, a soup.
First off, some definitions
At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical high-school valedictorian that my mom wishes I were: Webster's dictionary defines soup as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food." Soup is, weirdly, also defined as "an unfortunate predicament," which is what we find ourselves in at the moment.
Stew, meanwhile, is defined as "fish or meat usually with vegetables prepared by stewing." It's also described, weirdly, as "a district of bordellos," which is also what we find ourselves in at the moment. Look, Mom, I'm never going to be Andy Fotenakes like you wanted, OK!?
Anyway... one could make a case, easily, for chili being either, especially since the definition provided by Webster's for actual chili is "a thick sauce made of meat and chilies," which is really restrictive and appears to have been written by somebody who has never been to a chili cook-off. So, yeah, thanks for nothing, Webster. The dictionary, I mean. Not Emmanuel Lewis, who deserves our eternal gratitude.
Answering this question is going to be tougher than it initially seemed. But since chili is a food for the people, let's take a look at some of the common arguments for and against chili being a soup.
Chili comes in a million styles. How can you lump it into one category as "soup"?
True, there are a TON of styles of chili: Texas's meaty variation, Cincinnati's spaghetti-ruining version, the one who sang the best verse of "Red Light Special..." look, we could Bubba from Forrest Gump this shit all day. Some chili is chunky, some is beany, and some is runny. That makes chili relatively difficult to classify. But you know what? Soup's pretty damn diverse, too. If bisque can sit on the same shelf in Terrell Davis' mom's house as clam chowder, chicken noodle, and cream of mushroom, well, this argument is largely void. Variety is the spice of life AND of chili.
Chili doesn't usually have broth or stock, and therefore it is not a soup.
This argument is pretty weak, if we're being honest. In a sense, the juices from the meat commingle with the veggies, tomatoes, and various spices to create something that might resemble a stock as the chili slowly cooks. Still, the absence of broth or stock does not mean something is not a soup. See: tomato soup.
You can't put soup on a hot dog.
This is a solid argument for chili as its own thing, actually, especially when you consider the drastic differences in chili varieties that nonetheless lend themselves well to hot dogs. Thick and meaty chili in DC and the relatively runny version that finds itself on Detroit Coneys find common ground on tube meat. You can't exactly pour a bisque or a ladle of chicken noodle on a dog, which makes a strong case for chili not being soup. That said, can we someday perhaps discuss the virtues of dipping hot dogs in soup?
Soup is a side. Stew is a meal. That means chili is a stew.
Wait, pho, ramen, and menudo are stews? Better start calling some consulates. Soup can be a meal. And chili can be a side. This argument is a wash. Or a Seinfeld episode, come to think of it.
Actually, some chili does have broth... so that means it's a soup.
Look, if we're about to declare gravy a soup, then fill my thermos the hell up! But stock doesn't equal soup. Gravy isn't a soup, and it's not acceptable to sit down with a bowl of it as a meal. Yet.
It's served with crackers, and therefore a soup.
Oh, come on. Is peanut butter a soup?! Is cheese? (Trick question: cheese soup is delicious.) Saying a cracker helps designate something as soup is about as logical as saying that everything with tomato sauce on it is pizza.
Chili is often listed as the soup of the day on menus, so it's soup.
Restaurant menus also often call Salisbury steak "special." Don't trust menus for the final answer to anything.
Chili soup is a thing, though.
Campbell's makes cheeseburger and cheesesteak soups. Those aren't sandwiches, friend. Don't get hung up on semantics. Chili soup is a totally different thing, even if you're saying chili is a soup.
What the experts say
Picking those above arguments apart logically doesn't outright kill the argument for chili as a soup, but it's not looking good. Still, these are but the comments of your average chili-eating public. What do the experts think? A quick survey of a bunch of hotshot chefs in my orbit meted out even more blows against the idea of chili unexpectedly showing up at a reunion and claiming to be a black-sheep third cousin of minestrone.
"Chili is a totally different product. It's a mixture of ground meat, beans, a meat broth," says celebrity super-chef Chris Cosentino of San Francisco's Cockscomb and Portland, Oregon's Jackrabbit. "Definition here: 'chili: a spicy dish made of ground beef, hot peppers or chili powder, and usually beans.' They are totally different."
Fellow Top Chef alum BJ Smith of Portland's Smokehouse Restaurants, followed a similar argument and made a strong case for chili as neither soup nor stew. "Chili is its own thing and should almost be its own food group!" Smith says. "Sure either is a great utilization of products, but you can't bring soup to a chili contest or put it on a hot dog."
Sarah Schafer of Portland's Irving Street Kitchen says that calling chili a soup is a surefire way to mess with Texas, which we generally are advised not to do. "Chili should be thick and filled with meat, no beans and lots of cheese and white onions!! If it's brothy, and watery it's ruined," Schafer says. "Common misconception but don't even try to tell a Texan that it has beans, it will get ugly."
"It's clear that chili, like these other foods, has a bit of an identity crisis."
Meanwhile, the folks at Campbell's seemed to smell the chili sharks circling the oyster crackers, and while they remained uncommitted to really declaring chili a soup or stew, they did offer a surprisingly nuanced response that warmed my heart the same way a bowl of Chunky Italian Wedding does in the dead of winter.
"We've heard a lot of debate around topics like this. Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is cereal a soup? It's clear that chili, like these other foods, has a bit of an identity crisis," says Campbell's vice president of marketing Lynne Vandeveer. "To this we say, be who you are and focus on who you want to be. If chili wants to be a soup, be a soup. If cereal wants to be a soup, be a soup. We welcome any food or beverage that wants to be considered a soup with open arms. You do you, chili."
But Bri Toland, Vice President of the International Chili Society -- perhaps the strongest authority on the matter -- threw the final nail in the chili pot. Frankly, we're prone to listen to international societies on matters around which they've organized. "It is the official opinion of International Chili Society that chili is not and should not be considered a soup," Toland says.
"True chili is not too thin nor too thick, making it neither a soup nor a stew," continues Toland. "Chili is most often served in a bowl, although it should not run (as soup would) if served on a plate or atop chili-marriage favorites such as burgers, hot dogs, or omelets. Bowl or plate; spoon or fork -- chili is definitely not a soup."
Case closed. Or is it?
Oh, and for the record, we reached out to the person we swear chili had to be named after, and this was her reply:
Way to skirt the question and deflect the scrubs!
Final verdict: Is chili a soup?
Chef Javier Canteras of Portland-based Spanish restaurant Urdaneta sums it up nicely: "At the end of the day, chili is chili and chowder is chowder. If your chili is a soup, you're doing it wrong." And he's right! But here's the thing: Chili is also a state of mind, something that defies definition and is defined by the person who cooks it. For many, it's a signature, which is why most chili recipes have a name attached (e.g., Jackie Gleason's chili recipe).
To that end, I echo Campbell's sentiment: You do you, chili. And if that means getting served a bowl of brothy, runny chili... well, that means I'm probably not going to be eating it. Call it what you want, though, even if what you want to call it is soup. You'll be wrong, but you'll probably still be happy.
We have bigger things to argue about in this day and age. Chiefly, whether gazpacho qualifies as salsa.