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If you want to start a real argument among American food lovers, bring up the subject of chili, everyone has an opinion about this well-known dish.

"Like the Alamo, chili is a feature of Texas everyone knows," says Billie Bledsoe, the former food editor of the San Antonio Express-News.

"What is more, every Texan has the best recipe for it and probably one or two ancestors who knew the guy who invented it. Chili is a strictly Texan dish; you won't find it south of the border."

Bledsoe goes on to point out that "chili meat is most often mature, muscular beef (neck or shoulder), sometimes goat, venison or rabbit. The important thing is that it should be solid enough to withstand long cooking."

The meat is usually in small cubes, but there are those who use it chopped, shredded or even ground, she says.

Some folks add onions, Bledsoe says, and some add fresh tomato. Chili peppers can also be used. Or other spices -- from bay leaf to paprika. Chili may be served with or without beans.

"These variations make each new bowl of red an adventure," she says happily.

Well hurray for adventure. Here are three chili recipes -- each one is served in a different city.

BILLIE BLEDSOE'S CHILI 3 pounds cubed beef 2 tablespoons vegetable oil or lard for cooking
4 cups water
1/3 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons ground cumin
5 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons salt
4 cloves garlic, pressed
3 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons paprika
1 can (6-ounce) tomato paste
Sugar to taste

Cook meat in oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven until gray in color. Add water and simmer for 30 minutes. Add cayenne, cumin, chili powder, salt, garlic, oregano, paprika and tomato paste. Simmer at least 2 hours or until meat is tender. (A pinch of sugar helps to bind the flavors and mellow them.)

If mixture seems too thin, pour off some and mix with flour to thicken, then return to the pot and stir.

Serve steaming hot in a bowl, with minced onion on top if you like and crackers or tortillas. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Following is a recipe from another part of Texas, from the food editor of the Dallas Morning News. "You may need to tone down the seasonings to suit more tender, non-Texas palates," she warns.

3 pounds beef chuck roast, cut into small stew-size chunks (including fat)
6 tablespoons chili powder
3 tablespoons ground oregano
6 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon cayenne
Water (1 1/2 to 2 quarts)
1/3 cup cornmeal

Brown meat in a cast-iron Dutch oven, adding extra fat only if necessary. Add chili powder, oregano, garlic, cumin and cayenne. Stir to coat meat. Add water and stir. Bring liquid to a boil and simmer, covered for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Make a thick paste of cornmeal and water; add to chili stew. Stir to prevent lumping. Remove lid and simmer 30 to 45 minutes longer to thicken and reduce stew to desired consistency. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Chili may be Texan in origin but at least one other location in the United States has taken it over. That is the city of Cincinnati, where the stuff is always served over spaghetti with shredded cheese on top and oyster crackers on the side. This is called "three-way chili."

"Four-way chili" has chopped onions.

"Five-way chili" contains kidney beans, too.

2 medium onions, chopped
1 quart water
1 can (16-ounce) tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 bay leaves
6 servings hot, cooked spaghetti
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 1/2 carton (11-ounce) oyster crackers
1 cup chopped onion (optional)
1 can (16-ounce) kidney beans, heated (optional)

Combine ground beef, onions and water in a saucepan. Simmer until beef turns brown. Add tomatoes with liquid, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, cumin, allspice, salt, cayenne, cinnamon, garlic powder and bay leaves. Cover and simmer 3 hours.

The fat will float. If there is time, chill chili and lift off fat layer. Or, spoon off fat.

To serve basic three-way chili, spoon chili on spaghetti and top with cheese. Pass crackers. For four-way, add chopped onion. For five-way, spoon heated kidney beans on top. Makes 6 servings.