Saturday, March 26, 2011

Chili Rules

Perfect.  The weather, the blue skies, the grand old buildings in the Kissimmee Historic District.

Top, the historic Osceola County Courthouse and bottom, the newly restored Carson-Bryan House

At the moment of writing this, there are 311,047,635 people in the United States.  Let us assume that one half are adults, and that three-quarters of those adults cook for self or family on a regular basis.  That brings us down to 116,642,863 people.  And let's assume further that 85 percent of those home cooks have a favorite recipe for chili.  Which means there are, at any one time in the United States, approximately 99,146,434 recipes for chili.  Let's call it 100 million, because that base number keeps going up. Go ahead, wrap your head around that: 100 million chili recipes.  Booyah!

I don't know if there is any other food preparation that evokes the kind of emotional response raised by a discussion of what constitutes the best, or most authentic recipe for chili.  Not even barbecue, and that is, you will excuse the expression, a very hot topic.  But there are a lot less people who practice the art of barbecue at home, in part because of the need for specialized equipment. 

On the other hand, anyone can prepare chili at home, using ingredients from your favorite supermarket, and whatever pots and pans you already own.  The other thing is that chili falls into the comfort food category, and most folks have a very personalized view of what brings them comfort.

I speak from long years of experience in the chili arena.  My ultimate comfort chili is the same chili I have been preparing for close to 35 years.  I got the original recipe from the 1975 Doubleday Cookbook, tweeked it just a bit, and have continued to prepare what is, to my mind and taste, the perfect bowl of chili.  Which has not prevented me from trying other recipes, but in the end I always come back to old faithful.

There is nothing "authentic" about old faithful, by the way.  As we all have been told, ad infinitum, "real" chili was born and raised in Texas, most likely around San Antonio, and NEVER includes beans.  So it seems I do not make "real" chili, and ask me if I care.  I like what I make, and so do my boys, and that is why Cory made a specific request for chili. 

I would like to visit San Antonio someday, not necessarily to taste the chili, but to try out their puffy tacos.

I've never been to San Antonio, although I had family living there for forty years.  My Great-Uncle Max and his wife, my Aunt Ella, relocated there from Brooklyn in the early 1920's.  I suppose he viewed it as a business opportunity - he started the Albert Hat Company there - but, romantic that I am, I like to imagine he moved there to get away from his slightly crazy family.  My Uncle Max was a very fine gentleman, and I always enjoyed his too-infrequent visits.  Somehow, when he was part of a gathering of his slightly off-kilter siblings:  my mother, my Aunt Ceil, Uncle Red, and Uncle Abby, they all seemed a little bit more normal.

Seated, left to right: Aunt Ella, her daughter Aline, Aline's husband Mike, Aunt Mildred, Uncle Red. Standing, left to right: Uncle Max, Aunt Ceil, my Uncle Marty, Cousin Marcia, my Pop, Mom, and Aunt Helen.  The date was February 18, 1967, the event was my brother's bar mitzvah.

As I said, I have tried a number of other chili recipes over the years, and have a small list of favorites in addition to old faithful.  Top of that list is something called Kickin' Chili from Emeril's Potluck Cookbook.  If I didn't already have an absolute favorite, this would be Number One on my list. Four bottles of dark beer go into that recipe (wheeeee!) and when I can get it, I prefer to use Turbodog. I also really like the White Chili recipe from Better Homes and Gardens' Crockery Cookbook (more of a soup than a stew, but really tasty), and Nigella Lawson's Quick Chili from Nigella Express.

Besides the comfort factor, the great thing about chili is that it makes a perfect dish for entertaining.  As a much younger married woman, anytime I planned on feeding a crowd, my menu included chili.  It also included my baked ziti and sausage and peppers.  Kind of an entertaining holy trinity.  I might have a lot of other dishes, variety being the spice of life and all that jazz, but the core menu featured those three. 

And now ... a Chili Story.  I should make my friend Mark tell this story, but here goes:  I was going to throw a baby shower for my friend Sandy, Mark's wife, who was pregnant with their first child.  At the time, Rob and I lived in a rather nice one bedroom apartment in Howard Beach with our cats Ira and Minerva.  Because this was going to be group of around 10 women, rather than a crowd of 35 (the number we'd invited to our apartment shortly after we married in 1978), I concentrated my menu on the baked ziti and sausage and peppers.  Mark's part in this little surprise was to get Sandy to our apartment, and he did so by telling her they had been invited over to dinner, and I was going to make my famous chili.  He had assumed, based on past experience, that I was going to include chili on the menu, but in another example of  "deviation is treason," I let creativity trump consistency.

The hat was a hit, and I know Sandy enjoyed the shower, but there was always that lingering disappointment over the lack of chili.  Lingered for 30 years or so ... seriously, I have no idea why it took so long, but I finally did make it up to Sandy a few years ago, when she and Mark, and Kathy and Alan, were guests at our house here in Florida.  Chili was very definitely on the menu.

Left to right: Rob, Alan, Sandy, Kathy, me, and Mark

Chili is a glorious enigma.  It is a perfect stand alone dish.  Chili purists can and do enjoy it without fuss, fanfare, or accompaniments.  At the same time, a perfect bowl of chili makes the ideal canvas for presentation of many other flavors.  Rice is nice, but I like to go whole hog with macaroni and cheese, cornbread (or corn casserole), homemade guacamole, and an array of toppings like lettuce, tomato, onion, grated cheese, sour cream, black olives, and a big bottle of Tabasco.

We're going on a chili journey this weekend!  Beans and all.

Cook like there's nobody watching, and eat like it's heaven on earth.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes ... the old, "Let's go to Cindy for some Chili" ploy. :-)