I like tripe in my chili. I just do. And though this column is all about demystifying and celebrating offal, I feel I need not explain my preference for tripe in my chili. Not to chili purists, not to anyone. Too many people make chili in too many different ways for any one recipe to reign supreme.
Why is this? Maybe because chili has a story, a history rife with legends of the western frontier and the great American southwest. For the first half of the twentieth century, there were such places as chili parlors. In decades before, chili queens sold their fare on the streets of San Antonio. (The chili parlors had their own secret recipes, of course.)
This is the mystique of chili. Add to that its ubiquity. It crops up as a dish in fast food joints and diners across the country, sharing little commonalities but for the usage of chili peppers. Even beans, which I had always thought of as integral to the dish, are forsworn in a lot of Texan circles.
My conception of chili was formed in the early years by Ben's Chili Bowl, a joint in D.C. where a dark (dare I say sanguine?) sludge of chili was ladled over its signature half-smoke, a half-beef/half-pork smoked sausage in a steamed bun. Ben's chili also came as a topping for cheese fries, or it could be served up in a bowl by itself, though I could never face the prospect of eating a whole bowl of chili without the aid of cheese and starchy foodstuffs. The chili was spicy and full of ketchup-y flavor and like all great chili stews, defied exact analysis. It was just great chili, and it was somehow perfectly acceptable to eat it tepid over cheese that had congealed and fries that were soggy.
This to me is the lure of chili. Disagreements about its nature run deep, and there is no use trying to convince someone with one conception of chili to accept another conception.
For those looking for a discussion of the parameters of chili, see this post or this one on Serious Eats. Quite briefly, chili must 1) taste like chili peppers, 2) be meaty 3) have creamy beans, if using beans, and 4) be bound by a thick and flavorful sauce.
I ascribe to all these parameters, broadly defined. More often than not I want tripe in my chili rather than meat, or both. Tripe and beans is such a classic pairing, so why not tripe chili?
Tripe, as you may recall, is the stomach of various ruminants (grazing animals.) You can use honeycomb tripe or rumen. Both are accessible at ethnic markets, butchers shops, and farmer's markets these days. Honeycomb may be the more recognizable with its trademark hexagonal shape. I also like rumen, the part of the stomach that looks like a hairy sponge or sea anemone. If I can find both cuts for my chili, I'll use both. You'll see the difference between the two cuts more clearly when they are cooked.
To get the tripe to a point of such succulence, it must be cooked over low and slow heat. You could say the same for beans, but on a shorter time frame. Between beans and tripe, the latter is much harder to overcook. To ensure that both reach their exact point of tenderness, I simmer my tripe beforehand until it is already tender and good to eat. Then I add the tripe to the chili pot a half hour before the beans reach their optimal tenderness. If you time it correctly, all of it can be done in one pot over the course of several hours, but I often par-simmer my tripe, then devote myself to a session of chili-making on another day.
Tripe chili. The heart of the dish is the ancho, the guajillo, the chipotle chili pods. Nothing is as integral to chili as the chili (except maybe for the beans, if you ascribe to the beans component of chili), but tripe is the perfect canvas on which to paint your spicy red trail. The sauce pools in the hexagonal compartments and seeps into the rumen's tendrils. I like the way the grated cheese melts as streaks of pristine white until you dip your spoon into the ruddy stew. This, of course, is in no way a justification or defense of why I think every bowl of chili could be bettered by tripe. It's just the way I happen to like it.