My Quest to Duplicate Canned Chili in my Kitchen

Orrin Onken
8 min readNov 9, 2018

I developed a love for canned chili in my college days. It was cheap and convenient — necessary attributes for student food — but, unlike the tuna casserole I ate for the same reasons in those heady days, I never lost my taste for chili from a can. I went to college in the Great Northwest where Nalley’s chili reigns supreme. I still live there. Over the last forty years I have tried Hormel, Stagg, Campbells and many other brands of canned chili but always returned to Nalley’s.

By canned chili, I mean the original Nalley’s chili con carne with beans. Nalley’s, like other brands, offers a product without beans, with cheddar cheese, with jalapeno and turkey chili, but the rock on which the brand is built is Nalley’s original chili con carne with beans. Deeply satisfying, whether on burgers, on hot dogs, or just in a bowl, my pantry is never without it.

The Mystery of Canned Chili

I am a home-cooking geek. I have two sous vide devices, carbon steel pans, a chinois for broth-making, and a ton of other pretentious cooking implements. I sharpen my kitchen knives on a Japanese water stone. In my pantry, I have duck fat, Chinese black vinegar, a pound of dried porcini mushrooms and Red Boat fish sauce. I follow cooking gurus on the web at America’s Test Kitchen, Chef Steps, Serious Eats, and Amazing Ribs. I spend way too much time thinking about and fussing around with food.

One day, for no reason, I began to ponder the mystery of Nalley’s chili. It struck me that what is in those cans doesn’t seem to be chili at all. When I eat it, whether on something meaty or straight from a bowl, I don’t taste the flavors that are traditionally associated with southwestern chili. No chunks of beef, no cumin, or chili powder and certainly no chilies. (Here I distinguish between ‘chili,’ the southwestern American meat dish, and ‘chili,’ the spicy fruit of the genus, Capsicum.) The beans are prominent and the ground meat, if that’s what it is, adds a pleasing texture to the rich brown sauce in which it is submerged. Nalley’s chile consists of beans submerged in a salty, beefy sludge. Whatever it may be, I love that sludge.

Out of this pondering came the challenge. Could I, with all my fancy cooking apparatus and a well-stocked pantry, create in my…

Orrin Onken

I am a retired elder law attorney who lives near Portland, Oregon. I write legal mysteries for Salish Ponds Press and articles about being old.