Chili Today…

So the weather got cooler this past week and Mark came home from work one day to say they’d been discussing chili in the break room.

“I told them,” he said, “that we make spaghetti sauce, and that then, often, we’ll use the leftover sauce as a base for our chili. And they were like, ‘Seriously? Spaghetti sauce?’

“And I said, yes. It’s so good; you should try it.”

But he said they were not entirely convinced. Someday, some cold fall day when the wind is howling and everyone in Mark’s office is feeling tired and overworked, I thought, we will mix up a big batch of chili, pour it in the crockpot, and send it into work with him. And Mark’s colleagues can see what they think: does spaghetti sauce make the best chili or what?

And there’s so much to look at in just that little snippet of conversation Mark reported, so many connections. Because yes, when the temps drop and the tomatoes ripen, making chili is definitely on the table—although I’ll eat chili any time, any temp.

And the talk about using spaghetti sauce,—well, that makes me think of my brother Dennis, and that makes me think that chili is not just a dish you sauté up, stir things into, simmer, and serve.

Chili is a complicated dish with a complicated history, and it is one of my favorite things to eat.

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My mother started with onions minced in the old metal grinder she clamped to the table (some among us could not tolerate the texture of chopped onion). She sauteed that mush in the big pot while she chopped up the hamburger with the butcher’s knife that my step-grandmother, dead before I was born, had given her.

That knife was old, but my father kept it sharpened; it still sliced and diced with ease.

Usually, the burger was frozen. We were not always, in my growing up years, good about advance-planning details like, “Defrost the ground beef.”

But Mom was undeterred. She’d put the frozen slab of meat on the chopping board, and she would whale at it, two-handed, with that butcher’s knife. Whack! Whack!

Shards of frozen meat would splinter off from the mother ship. Mom would grab them and throw them in the pot with the simmering onion gruel.

The slab diminished. Now, it was a cube. Whack! Whack!

I thought of the farmer’s wife, and the tails of the unfortunate mice, and at this point, I often discreetly left the kitchen.

Whack! Whack!

A good time to watch TV for a while…

When the cube became a nubbin, Mom would throw it into the pot, small enough now to thaw quickly and quickly brown with the rest of the simmering meat and the soft, fragrant onion.

Then it was safe to come back and see what that base was going to become.

My mother would add tomato sauce and seasonings, and we would watch expectantly.

Some of us rooted for spaghetti sauce.

Some preferred sloppy joes.

Still others liked what we called goulash then. I know better now, having moved closer to the capital, the source, of the dish made with burger and tomato and elbow macaroni. That was a staple dish from Marzetti’s restaurant in Columbus during the Great Depression, when it would fill the bellies of hungry workers who didn’t have much money to spend.

Not goulash, at all; that’s a whole other dish. The elbow mac and burger and tomato sauce dish: that, I now know, is called Johnny Marzetti. (Just please look in Joy of Cooking if, for some odd reason, you’re tending to doubt me.)

Those were all good dishes, tasty dinners. But the one I rooted for most was chili.

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My mother’s chili was mild and pleasant, and it always had dark red kidney beans in it. I loved those beans; I think, to me, they were like the chocolate chips I loved to find in my cookies—kind of a reward.

(And here’s one of the ways chili gets so complicated: There are those, especially those from Texas, where most say chili originated, who maintain that beans have no place in real chili. They have even written songs to get that point across like this one by William Clark Green and company called “Don’t You Put No Beans in My Chili”: https://youtu.be/Df0FmkQKQCg 

Mark, I have to tell you, would tend to agree, but to me this is a non-negotiable point. I like the song, but MY chili has to have beans.)

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Sometimes, to stretch the chili further, Mom would serve it on pasta. I liked that too, although I wouldn’t learn until I became an Ohioan that Cincinnati had made pasta part of their chili equation long before.

We have watched a chef make Cincinnati chili on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, and I about jumped out of the little gray loveseat when I saw him throw a whole lotta of raw burger into a boiling red sauce. WHAT???!!!!

But, according to simplyrecipes.com, the no-browning, no sauté-ing, method is part and parcel of what makes a chili Cincinnati chili. And once again, there are no beans IN the stew. But if you have it served five-way (two-way is the chili served on spaghetti noodles, and additions rise from there), that means you’re having warmed up kidney beans, chopped onions, and melting shredded cheddar on the top of your dish.

The Cincinnati chili was invented by a couple of Macedonian immigrants, brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff, in 1922. They chili-ed up a kind of stew they grew up eating, maybe making theirs the first trendy fusion restaurant.  And they added another layer to the chili controversy. To some people, Cincinnati chili isn’t “real” chili. And to some Cincinnatians, nothing ELSE is real chili.

As I mentioned, chili is complicated.

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So, in my own personal chili history, I liked my mother’s chili, and I liked Campbell’s Chili Beef soup. And that was all I thought about chili until, in college, I went to visit my friends Mary Jane and Maryellen at the University of Buffalo. The whole weekend was pretty interesting, but the relevant memory here is that we went to a restaurant called Gatsby’s, and I ordered the chili.

It was probably the cheapest thing on the menu, and I probably ordered it because I was perpetually broke in those days, but I am so glad I did. The waiter gingerly brought the dish—the kind of thick, ceramic, handled bowl one could stick under a salamander— on a tray, and he warned me that it was hot.

I looked down and saw a bubbling crust of oozing cheddar cheese. That was almost half an inch thick, and, when my spoon plunged through it, I scooped up a red stew, rich in meat and tomato and hot, spicy peppers, chunks of onion, and hallelujah, beans.

There was a frosty glass of beer. There was a bowl of impossibly fresh corn chips. I ate, and I put down my spoon to rest my hand on my chest and close my eyes. That was so I could better hear the angels singing.

That bowl of chili from Gatsby’s—well, it taught me that eating chili could be darned near a religious experience.

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And now, as I research chili and its roots and its legends, I find that chili as religious experience is not such a stretch. Maybe, the recipe for chili was a celestial gift.

According to whatscookingAmerica.net, in the 1600’s, there was a Catholic nun in Spain called Sister Mary Agreda. Sister Agreda never physically left Spain, but she was known to go deep into meditation, and then her SPIRIT would leave her body and do the traveling she must have longed to do.

She was known to the natives of what is now the southwestern United States as “la Dama de Azul”—the Lady in Blue. She must have visited more than once because they seemed to have known her pretty well, but on one visit, she gave the southwesterners a recipe involving chili peppers, venison, tomatoes, and onions…the first written recipe, in other words, for chili.

Other people maintain that some Canary Island immigrants brought a chili recipe to San Antonio, Texas, in the early 1700’s. Whichever is true—immigrants or apparition, and I’ll tell you, my jury is out,—chili became a San Antonio dish. It was a favorite thing to serve on long trail journeys—cowboys and pioneers loved it; they could make big pots of it from ingredients that could mostly be dried and carried along and then reconstituted. And, by the 1880’s, there were chili queens in San Antonio, lady street vendors serving what aficionados dubbed ‘bowls of red’.

San Antonio set up its Chili Stand at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and then chili’s fame spread throughout the United States. Just to be sure people remembered where it originated, though, Texans made chili their state dish in 1977.

Oh, and I should mention Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood, California, where, from 1936 to the year 2000, the chili was legendary. Studio people, chauffeurs to actors to executives, would line up at Chasen’s back door at night to buy big buckets of the chili. Legend has it that Clark Gable ate Chasen’s chili the night before he passed, and he died the happier for it. Legend also says that, when she was filming Cleopatra in Rome, Elizabeth Taylor had quantities of Chasen’s chili shipped to her.

Chasen’s declined to share the recipe, which slipped out of common culture when the restaurant closed.

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And let me make an important distinction here: chili is United States food, not Mexican food. Mexicans will tell you that. In fact, in the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, a 1959 publication, the authors emphatically reject chili as a Mexican dish. Here is a rough translation of what they wrote:

Chili is “…a detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the United States from Texas to New York.”

So, just in case anybody’s wondering, chili is U.S. food. But I don’t think it’s detestable at all.

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I started using spaghetti sauce as the red in my chili the year after my brother Dennis died. Dennis’s idea of a great meal to feed guests was a huge pot of long-simmered chili and casing hot dogs—preferably Sahlen’s hot dogs—grilled over hot coals. It WAS a great meal, and Dennis’s chili was always really, really good.

And then he died much too young, and then we put together, that next year, a family calendar with a special recipe on each page. So we had my mother’s Fudge Delight recipe on the December page, and the recipe for Holiday Sweet Dough (which made up the sweet rolls she made and frosted every Easter) in April.

Dennis’s chili recipe was the October recipe, because it was the month of cooling weather and also, by chance, because it was Dennis’s birthday month. My niece Shayne transcribed the recipe from her father’s crabbed handwriting and from her memories of talking with him about it. She wrote, “You have to use spaghetti sauce. Dennis insists that that is essential.”

And so I started doing that. We’d make a big pot of pasta sauce, and the next day, I would use some of it to simmer up a big pot of meaty, bean-studded chili. Dennis was right. Spaghetti sauce makes it GOOD.

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Chili is a dish that contains chili peppers and a meat base (I always thought “chili con carne” meant chili with corn, but I was silly and misinformed.  Con carne means with meat, although there can be many vegetarian interpretations of chili, too), Sho Spaeth tells me in “Divided States of Chili: A Guide to America’s most Contentious Stew (https://www.seriouseats.com/guide-to-chili-styles-types-of-chili-recipes).

By Spaeth’s definition, white bean and chicken chili is chili, and so is chili verde. Illinois has its ‘chilli,’ and Springfield, Illinois, proclaims itself “Chilli Capital of the World.” Because ‘Chilli’ has meat and peppers, it is chili, too.  

People will argue about what real chili is, and where real chili comes from, but I think one of the best things about chili is that it can be so very different, so uniquely personal.

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The last time we made chili, a week or two ago, we used a rich red sauce made from homegrown tomatoes (thank you, Terry and Paul, for the seeds!) that we had over pasta the night before. Great gardeners left goodies on the break room table at Mark’s office, and he brought home banana peppers and jalapenos, and those went into the chili we made, too, along with farmer’s market onions. And I think carrots add a certain sweetness to a dish, so when I was saute-ing up the veggie base, I added two carrots, finely chopped.

We did throw a little ground beef in, but the real ‘carne’ presence came from a chunk of pork shoulder, cooked all day in the crockpot. We shredded that up and stirred it into the chili pot, and then we let that pot of goodness simmer for an hour or two.

Thirty minutes before dinner, I opened up a can of dark red kidney beans and stirred them in. And we served that simmering stew up with grated extra sharp cheddar melting on top.

And, oh, that chili was good. We scraped our bowls clean, and still had enough left that I could freeze two little containers to take with me to work.

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The next time—who knows?—our chili might have chunks of slow-simmered beef brisket, or tender chicken, or ground pork. And some people might look at it perplexed and say, “Chili made from spaghetti sauce? Chili with zucchini in it? That’s not REAL chili.”

But the charm and the wonder and the controversy of chili can carne is this: if you have the meat and you have the peppers, the rest, my friend, is up to you.

6 thoughts on “Chili Today…

  1. Kim Allen

    Good Morning! What a good read! I have not had chili in years, but my favorite part is the flavorful tomato base so spaghetti sauce base sounds delicious. Maybe I will have to try something. I can visualize the scene in Gatsbys You are such a good artist! The cooler nights and crisp mornings are making me think of soup as well. Looking forward to your fall blogs!

    1. And I’m looking forward to your fall nature’s art, Kim! Just back from a morning walk on the local campus with the boyos; noticing the Japanese maple trees is losing its leaves already…and kind of wishing I had brought some light gloves! Autumn is beginning…and I think tonight’s a chicken tortilla soup night…

  2. Judy Kirst

    My Chili is light red kidney beans, onions, sweet green peppers, crushed tomatoes with puree, can of stewed tomatoes, ground beef and packet of chili seasoning. If I have left over rice, I will throw that in the pot. Great story Pam. I can picture Aunt Jean working hard getting that meat cut into pieces. Stopping briefly to sip a cup of coffee and rest her arms.

  3. My mother’s chili was runny, bland and served over rice. My husband’s chili is meat and tomato and lots of bean varieties and FULL of spice. Takes a full day to make a huge pot of it. Like huge and then we freeze it in portions to bring out. Makes about 6 family size portions!
    Interesting education about chili.

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