The first food story I ever wrote for Serious Eats was an unwittingly heretical review of what a Boston-area restaurant and I foolishly called an oyster po'boy. The Louisiana precinct of the Regional Food Authenticity Police promptly informed me otherwise, which didn't diminish my appreciation for Tupelo's excellent fried oyster sandwich but did scare me away from tackling any foods that weren't either nationally ubiquitous or explicitly Northeastern.
This narrowing of my beat didn't bother me at all because, guess what? Lobster rolls and pizza! But then SE's fast food correspondent got busied up with sugar water and grad school, and now here I am trying to fill his supersize shoes.
Though most fast food aims for broad pan-America accessibility, I've noticed that a lot of it has regional pretensions, and I now find myself teetering at the edge of a greasy slope, one false move away from sliding into a hot vat of "What do you know about Cajun popcorn shrimp, you very handsome Yankees devil?"
So when the boss suggested an investigation of Wendy's chili, I initially begged off with pleas of fear and ignorance. Texans take chili too seriously and I didn't want to be the sacrificial ground cow for an army of Hosses looking to be outraged at the notion that a Northerner could have anything worthwhile to say on the matter.
The more I thought about it, though, the more ashamed I became of my cowardice. I eat a lot of chili; it's one of the yardsticks I use to measure a pub's commitment to food. A $4 investment in a cup of chili will tell you a lot about how hard a humble booze-and-chew operation's kitchen is trying.
I'm not a chili pedagogue, so I'm not on the lookout for anything specific when it comes to spice level or viscosity or meat-to-bean ratio. I'm just checking to see how far removed the cook's chili is from the Sysco can. Is it just a monochromatic dirty orange mush flavored with chili powder and hidden under a wet cheddar blanket? Or are there distinct chunks of different things that have at some point known the knife?
And does Wendy's have the right to call their spicy red beef-and-bean stew "chili"? I say yes, they do, which emphatically and forever closes that case, and now we can proceed.
Wendy's is the only fast food chain near me that offers chili and I needed a basis for comparison, so I started my research with a can of Hormel. The most important part of judging fast food is first fixing it in a reasonable context, and I think it's fair to say that Wendy's chili should be better than the leading canned version.
Well, enjoy the low-set bar, Wendy. Hormel is just terrible. It looked OK to my naked and stupid eye, because they managed to engineer a nice deep orangey-red color, and it's very thick. I've had good and bad chilis of all consistencies, but thick bowl-foods generally look more appealing than thin ones, so I got suckered into thinking a few forkfuls of the Hormel might be the perfect fuel to get me on my way to Wendy's.
The Hormel is light on beef, which is a fatal flaw when the scant meat is supplemented with mushy, characterless "red Idaho beans" (says the label) and "textured vegetable protein" (those fake-meat soy crumble things). I could actually tell the difference between the smaller soy chunks and the larger beef nuggets, which was a pleasant surprise, but the solid mediocrity of the beef was not nearly enough to save the chili. The overall texture was pasty and gummy, and the only discernible spice flavor was onion powder.
I dumped that mess down the disposal and walked to Wendy's, licking stray dogs and pay phones along the way to cleanse my palate. The first thing I noticed about Wendy's chili is that it costs little more than the canned crap: $2.19 for about 12 ounces (my pint-looking cardboard container was curiously under-filled), compared to $1.99 for 15 ounces of filthy Hormel. Plus Wendy throws in four saltines and all the napkins and plasticware you can steal.
Wendy's chili isn't much to look at, but it tastes leagues better than Hormel. It's much thinner, but the sparse beef is augmented by plenty of small red kidney beans and pinky-gray pinto beans, and there are cursory bits of tomato skin, onion and, in a huh?-but-harmless touch, celery.
The red beans were so overworked that they nearly popped when bitten, but the pinkish ones were heartier than expected. The beef tasted like it was supposed to, and the chili had notes of garlic and cayenne powders along with the onion.
To make sure my unexpectedly agreeable reaction to Wendy's chili wasn't just Hormel backlash, I headed for the 7-Eleven across the street. You may scoff at the meat sludge that comes from the 7-Eleven condiment station, but the company is headquartered in Dallas, so if they call it chili, it's chili.
It's very bland, and if not for the textural contrast it wouldn't be easy to distinguish from the corn chip on which it sits, but if you close your eyes and think of the Alamo, you can conjure a faint hint of cayenne, which means 7-Eleven chili is better than Hormel.
But it's not as good as Wendy's version. I don't know that I'll ever order Wendy's chili recreationally, but it's not bad considering the price and the competition.