On Chili and Gumbo and Writing in Genre

chiliI forgot to write a post for Monday. I don’t know why. I’m late today, but this time I do know why–I can’t think what to write about. The only thing that comes to mind is the Chili Cook-off we had at church last Sunday night. Not particularly writerly, but still . . .

The saying goes like this: Real chili doesn’t have beans. And any real Texan is supposed to know that. But MSB and I, both born and raised in Texas, put beans in our chili. So does that makes us artificial Texans? Nah.

I heard someone on the Food Network give out a chili recipe that had very little to do with actual chili. I mean, she called for ground turkey–seriously?–and still called it chili. Another recipe called for ground turkey, butternut squash, and–get this–chia seeds. Like chuckwagons on the cattle trails came equipped with squash and chia seeds. But the most bizarre? A side dish of quinoa and pine nuts.

These dishes are not chili. They should be called something else.

With all the odd recipes out there, the debate over whether or not chili includes beans seems moot. I believe the recipe varies depending on what was handy on the cattle trail in the 1800s. Beef, onions, spices, chili peppers were basic. Got leftover beans? Throw them in. Leftover corn? Take it off the cob and slip it in there. Both of these were available. Cheese and sour cream are iffy, but, okay. I can deal with that. I think expedience determined the ingredients, but I don’t think ground turkey, butternut squash, or pine nuts were part of cattle trail food.

Then there’s gumbo.

My brother-in-law was teasing me one day years ago. He asked if I knew how to make Cajun gumbo. Well, of course I do. We live close enough to the Louisiana border that I know several Cajun recipes. He ordered me to list the ingredients, and I did–but when I said “tomatoes,” he jabbed a finger at me. “No! Cajun gumbo does not have tomatoes!”

I did some research, and (much as I hate to admit it), he’s right. At least to the extent I have discovered, Cajuns tend not to have veggies beyond what’s called the trinity (onion, celery, bell peppers). Creole cooking includes veggies. Even though I believe the gumbo recipe varies, depending on expedience and availability, just like the chili recipe, I have been calling my gumbo “Creole” gumbo ever since.

Something dawned on me while I was typing all this . . .

My publisher rejected The Final Ride because it isn’t driven by the romance, and I can’t claim it to be a romance novel, because the romance conflict isn’t central to it. They’re absolutely right. The Final Ride is a sequel to Give the Lady a Ride, following Talon and Patricia as their relationship grows. The romance between the two is an ingredient in it, but the story doesn’t follow the formula–recipe–for a true romance.

Genre fiction is like that. There are certain components that must be present to be labeled as that genre, and if the story doesn’t follow the basic recipe, it must be called something else. Some of the ingredients can be different, but the major components must be present.

Despite the writer’s natural rebellion against being pigeon-holed, this is not a bad thing. It’s a necessary marketing tool. When a reader goes looking for a mystery, he wants a mystery, not some literary conundrum posing as a mystery.

I didn’t follow the recipe, but then, Give the Lady a Ride, my award-winning debut novel, also didn’t follow the recipe. It received a very beautiful, very encouraging rejection letter from Harlequin, which boiled down to “Loved it, but it’s not romance”–same kind of letter The Final Ride received. All this leaves me with an identity crisis, because now I don’t know what to call my books.

It’s like that weird “chili” recipe. There comes a point when the ingredients are so different, the final dish should be called something else–but what would one call a “chili” with butternut squash and chia seeds?

What should I call my stories? I’m thinking “Contemporary Women’s Fiction.” I’ll leave it at that.

Now–beans in chili? Tomatoes in gumbo? Let the debate begin . . .

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Cooking and Recipes, Misc., write tips, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to On Chili and Gumbo and Writing in Genre

  1. Pegg Thomas says:

    LOVE beans in my chili! And Fritos sprinkled on top. But then … I’m a northerner born and bred. Gumbo is just what we call the spring mud up here.

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  2. C Hope Clark says:

    I could almost eat meatless chili, but I use venison in mine, with lots of beans. As for gumbo, cannot imagine it without tomatoes. Frankly, give me my okra fried or over roasted first. The gummy okra goes on field peas. As for your genre, some of that is even up for interpretation. Some have called my mysteries cozies though I’ve avoided being pigeon-holed in that subgenre. I have blood and gore and people die on the screen, yet because I am a woman writer and have a woman protag, I get labeled. I’ve even told my publisher I did not want a woman’s cover on my books for that mislabeling. I had an agent one time who mentioned my first mystery being romantic suspense. I objected. Her answer: “Honey, we sell it under whatever genre a publisher wants to call it.” Maybe you don’t have the right publisher….

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    • We have venison chili too–an acceptable version, since it’s red meat. Which, in my mind, is the point.

      Some people call your novels “cozy”??? Sounds like a bunch o’ folks who don’t know what the word means. I don’t really see yours as romantic suspense, either. But maybe you can pick up new readers with the alternative tags.

      As for me, my publishing history is so bizarre, I’m learning to embrace going solo. I can legitimately call myself a hybrid, so beyond that, I’m not fighting it anymore. I’m too old and arthritic to jump the hoops.

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  3. Gay Ingram says:

    I’d go with the Contemporary Women’s Fiction.I had to leave off the Contemporary with my latest Not Bound By Blood as it relates the relationship of two diverse women through their adult lives.

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  4. I’ve only recently heard the no beans in chili debate, but that’s the only way I’ve ever had it! I always thought real gumbo had to have okra in it, which in my opinion is kind of gross. Now I love fried okra, but boiled is like, (I’m sorry) snot. In my (other) writing I’ve had the problem with, is it YA or is it MG. Writing can be so confusing at times.

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    • I think that’s the point–you like what you’re used to. As for okra in gumbo, as long as there is enough broth, it’s good, but I’m not a fan of plain boiled okra. Too slimy. Shudder.

      YA and MG can be confusing. Then you throw NA into the mix, and there ya go. Let’s *really* get confused!

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  5. Pingback: On Chili and Gumbo and Writing in Genre | Foodfhonebook

  6. Ok, my chili always has beans and is mild slattered with sour cream and shredded cheese. I love to break up corn bread in it too. So I guess mine might be called yankee chili. Chili without beans is just a sloppy joe without a bun. 🙂 Anything made with butternut squash is just soup.
    Now the subject of genre , in my humble opinion can also be in the eye of the editor. I had a sci-fi flash fiction rejected because it wasn’t sci-fi enough. Not sure what that meant. It was wriiten with the Twilight Zone model in mind. You know with the surprise twist at the end that clues you in. So, someday I’ll find somewhere else to send it.
    Genres are morphing. Even romance isn’t wholly about romance. Why do you think they have Suspense Romance, Mystery Romance and even Fantasy Romance. Keep writing what you write you’ve already got a track record to prove readers are interested in a story with more than romance.

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    • Sloppy Joes without the bun! Ha!!!

      Yes, each genre has its subgenre, that’s true, and “mish-mashes” or “smash-ups” are getting popular. Who knows what’s what these days?

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  7. K.M. Weiland says:

    I was going to rebel there at the beginning, because I *love* beans in my chili! But then you came back from the Dark Side in the second paragraph there. 😉

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  8. Hmm that’s definitely a tricky one! Contemporary women’s fiction probably works. Genre will do that to you :/

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  9. ceciliamariepulliam says:

    Perhaps that is why I like your books, Linda. They are not the classical romance. The usual angst in the traditional genre drives me nuts. A few pages in, I want to slap the characters and tell them, “Get over it already!” Whatever genre yours ultimately end up in, I love them. (And, I prefer my chili with beans. 😉)

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