The Rise of Plant-Based Chili

Amy Kumler

America’s favorite chili used to be chile con carne, the chunky, Texas-style dish of beef, chiles and Southwestern spices. These days it’s just as likely to be based on beans. Here’s how the shift happened, and what this could mean for our health—and that of the planet.

How far back does chili go? Some say at least 500 years, with Aztec chile stews. Others point to the cowboys on the Texas frontier, who compressed dried beef and chiles into bricks to be rehydrated in boiling water. Still others think it came to this country with immigrants from the Spanish Canary Islands, who brought spicy stews to San Antonio in the mid 18th century. Most accounts credit the fabled Chile Queens of San Antonio with elevating chili to cult status. Starting in the late 19th century, these women, gathering in San Antonio’s plazas in the evenings, sold aromatic bowls of chile-sauced, cumin-spiced meat from lantern-lit chili wagons. They were a huge attraction there well into the 1930s, and their style of chili was a huge hit at the 1894 Chicago World’s Fair. People went crazy for it, and it wasn’t long before bowls of Texas chile con carne were popping up across the country.

Although some regions had distinct and beloved variations on Texas chili (like Cincinnati’s chili spaghetti and New Mexico’s green and red chile sauces), it was this meat-heavy style—no beans allowed—that dominated America in the mid 20th century. Annual chili cookoffs in Terlingua, Texas, fueled the craze for this beefy “bowl o’ red” (the cookoff’s anthem is a song titled “If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans.”)

But as everyone knows, chili today is just as likely to have beans mixed in, or, increasingly, to be all beans and no meat at all—unless you’re deep in the heart of Texas, and even then, you can probably find a beany version or two. That’s because chili reflects a gigantic shift in our eating habits that seems to be gathering momentum every year, away from meat and toward plants.

We started down this path in the 1960s with counterculture vegetarianism, or at least a small group of us did. But it wasn’t until the arrival of “plant-based” eating, introduced by the 2005 book The China Study, that eating more vegetables started to seem less hardcore, less “fringe,” and more accessible to all. The book made a compelling connection between eating mostly plants and good health. And it didn’t kick meat out the door—just advised eating less of it. Suddenly everyone was welcome at the table.

The conversation spread, helped by Meatless Monday campaigns, by other best-selling books like Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, with its famous subtitle—"Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much”—movies like “Forks Over Knives,” which helped bring vegan ideas to the mainstream, and by food-industry think tanks like the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change, which encourages plant-based cooking and eating throughout America’s restaurants.

But maybe the biggest driver of plant-based eating is environmental. From climate scientists, we now know that conventional feedlots (as opposed to pastured, grass-fed systems) account for between 14 and 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Plants, especially legumes like beans, have the ability to draw down those emissions and give us a way to combat climate change.

That is why, at Provisions, we’re all about bean-based chili—whether it’s ours, from the café down the road, or your own favorite recipe. This kind of “bowl o’ red,” infused with cumin and chile and full of plant-based protein and flavor, is good food in more ways than one.