Jordan has it firmly fixed in her mind that there’s a connection between wintry weather and chili. Let there be the slightest forecast of snow, ice, sleet, even freezing rain, and she issues a call for chili. So far, today’s predicted storm has missed us, though it’s darn cold and damp. In the TCU area, we had a sudden burst of rain early this morning and a slight brush with sleet in the late afternoon. But storm or no, all the chili fixin’s are on my worktable.
Christian usually makes our chili. He’s an excellent cook and, unlike me, studiously follows a recipe. He likes to experiment to the point that I’m not sure he’s used the same chili recipe twice. But Christian is entertaining clients at the rodeo every night this week, so I am the default chili maker.
Me? I just make it the way I always have. No recipe—just onion, garlic, ground meat (I’d love to have chili-grind venison but that is not to be), diced tomatoes, beer, and chili powder. If we need more, I’ll just add some more tomatoes or tomato sauce. Oh, and beans, added just before serving but given enough time to heat. We like to garnish it with chopped red onion, grated cheddar, and sour cream. Terlingua folks would shake their heads in despair at my chili which violates all kinds of rules.
I do know about Terlingua chili. My neighbor goes to the Original Chili Cookoff every year, even judges some events, and is a chili purist. He has criticized my chili mercilessly, calling it “stew, not chili.” But I can one-up him, because I have written a whole book about chili.
Texas is Chili Country explores the origin of chili—no, it’s not Mexican. In fact, food scholars in Mexico are fairly disparaging of it. Truth is it probably traces back to Native American cooking and the pemmican they made using what they could forage. Today’s Texas chili probably originated at some trail drive chuck wagon where the cook or cousie, as he was called, threw some peppers into the stew. The first public appearance of chili came in the 1880s when the chili queens of San Antonio sold their wares on various plazas in that city.
Chili was sold in solid bricks in the early twentieth century and was popular because it was filling and inexpensive. But it was also damned as the devil’s food in some areas, specifically McKinney, Texas. Then came canned chili. True aficionados denounce canned chili but even chili guru the late Frank Tolbert found a few brands acceptable. The most famous of them all is Wolf Brand, and the fascinating story behind it includes real wolves and the fact that a Spanish-speaking grocer saw the wolf on the label and thought it was dog food.
Chili really came into prominence in this country with the development of cook-offs, a development directly credited to Tolbert, although there had been low-key cookoffs before he planned the 1967 event at Terlingua. You see, Tolbert had a new book, A Bowl of Red, and the first cookoff was a publicity stunt for the book. It was also a circus, with outrageous characters in costume and debatable judging. It’s gotten better over the years.
Cookoffs are now big business nationally, with strict entry qualifications—participants must win local contests to qualify. Two rival organizations sponsor annual events—the Chili Appreciation Society International and the International Chili Society. For fifty-four years, the Tolbert family has organized the “Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off.” The other one, they claim, is a johnny-0come-lately.
But fully half the book is taken up with recipes that I collected from sources far and wide, and if the Terlingua folks are upset about the beans in my chili, I hope they don’t read these. Cincinnati chili is served over spaghetti; Skyline, an eastern brand that markets several prepared packages, incorporates cream cheese; one recipe includes three kinds of chiles, espresso, dark chocolate, and anchovy fillets among other ingredients. Greaseless chili is for those watching their cholesterol, and Zen chili is for those… uh, with Zen inclinations. You can make white chili, lamb chili, low-cal, vegetarian. And there are recipes for related dishes like chili pie and Coney dogs. There’s no end to the possibilities.
But you know what? Our plain and basic chili tonight was darn good.