When I was a boy of ten in Decatur, Illinois, my mother gave me twenty cents every morning—half of it for carfare to school, the remaining dime for my lunch. I could have spent that dime on candy or ice cream, but I can’t recall that I ever did, because it was at this magic and benign moment in time that I discovered chili.
Day after day I went to Chili Bill’s joint a couple of blocks from the school, sat at a scrubbed wooden counter, and for ten cents got a bowl of steaming chili, six soda crackers and a glass of milk. That was livin’!
I have been a chili man ever since those days. Nay, I have been the chili man. Without chili I believe I would wither and die. I stand without a peer as a maker of chili, and as a judge of chili made by other people. No living man, and let us not even think of woman in this connection, no living man, I repeat, can put together a pot of chili as ambrosial, as delicately and zestfully flavorful, as the chili I make. This fact is so stern, so granitic, that it belongs in the encyclopedias, as well as in all standard histories of civilization.
That is the way of us chili men. Each of us knows that his chili is light years beyond other chili in quality and singularity; each of us knows that all other chili is such vile slop that a coyote would turn his back on it.
My brother Sam believes that he should be given the Nobel prize for chili-making. He and I didn’t speak for a year and a half because of our clash of views on chili-making. Word got to me that Sam was telling people that our Pop had called him the greatest chili-maker in all Christendom. I knew this to be a falsehood; my father has said that I was the greatest. My sister Lou tried to deescalate our feud by saying that pop actually had remarked that he was the greatest chili-maker in the civilized world.
Brother Sam has gone along for years making chili without so much as a whiff of cumin seed in it, and cumin seed is as essential to chili as meat is to hamburger. I was at Sam’s house once and in a moment of fraternal feeling ate a spoonful of his foul chili. I remarked helpfully that it had no cumin seed in it and Sam said that I could leave his fireside and never come back. “One bowl of your chili,” said I, “would pollute the waters of the Great Salt Lake.” And off I stomped.
Thus began the feud, and it came to an end only after news reached me that Sam was warring on another chili front. He and I both believe that proper chili should be soupy, with lots of broth. He has a friend named VanPelt who composes thickened chili, Texas style. My chili and Sam’s chili are eaten with a soup spoon; VanPelt eats his from a plate with a fork. Sam and VanPelt broke off relations for a while after a highly seasoned argument over thin-versus-thick. Van Pelt contended that Sam’s chili should be eaten through a straw and Sam said that VanPelt’s lavalike chili could be molded into balls and used to hold down tent flaps in a high wind. I was proud of my brother after that; he stood firm against the wretched sort of chili that is eaten from a plate with a fork.
I voted for LBJ in 1964, but I now renounce that vote, for I didn’t know of his evil ways with chili. Down on the Pedernales, the President has his chili put together by Mrs. Zephyr Wright or that piebald old character Walter Jetton, who spends his time at the ranch barbecuing up a storm and talking in an ignorant fashion about chili. Miz Wright serves chili without beans. Walter Jetton has two recipes: in one he ignores beans, in the other he adds beans and then thickens things with cracker meal. There’s an old Texas saying that originated in the cow camps, concerning any range cook whose grub was consistently miserable. Of him the cowhands would grumble, “He ain’t fit to tote guts to a bear.” That, precisely, is what I say of Mr. Cracker Meal Jetton.
You may suspect, by now, that the chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt and sizzling scorn. The quarreling that has gone on for generations over New England clam chowder versus Manhattan clam chowder (the Maine legislature once passed a bill outlawing the mixing of tomatoes with clams) is but a minor spat alongside the raging feuds that have arisen out of chili recipes.
A fact so positive as the fact that chili was invented by Texans will, by the very nature of its adamantine unshakability, get shook. Lately it has become fashionable to say that chili—contrary to all popular belief—was first devised by Mexicans and then appropriated by the Texans. Some of the newer cookbooks come right out and say that chili is the national dish of Mexico. In Elena Zelayeta’s Secrets of Mexican Cooking it is asserted that the popular Mexican dish, Carne en Salsa de Chile Colorado—meat in red chili sauce—is much the same as the chili con carne of Texas. “It is a famous Mexican dish,” says Señora Zelayeta, “that has been taken and made famous by the Lone Star State.” This lady, one of the most respected of contemporary authorities on Mexican cuisine, then proceeds to destroy every shred of her authority by suggesting that a can of hominy goes well in a pot of chili.
On the other hand, if there is any doubt about what the generality of Mexicans think about chili, the Diccionario de Mejicanismos, published in 1959, defines chili con carne as “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican, sold in the U.S. from Texas to New York.” The Mexicans in turn get told off in a 14th Century English Herball, or General Historie of Plantes, in which is written of the chile pepper: “It killeth dogs.”
I am a frequent visitor in Mexico, and once, in a sportive mood, I decided to introduce chili into Mexico, get the Mexicans to making it in their homes and setting up chili joints along the highways. I have a good friend, once a novice bullfighter that failed at that trade, who is maître d’hôtel of a large restaurant. When he found out what I was doing, he spoke to me in soft and liquid accents: “If I ever hear you spick the words of chili con carne one more time in our beloved raypooblica, pues, I am not in the custom of spitting in the eye of gringos, but I will spit in your eye with glory and speed and hardness.” He didn’t make it with the bulls but I felt that he could make it with me, and so I gave up the chili-con-carnization of Mexico.
One present-day dabbler in chili lore has come up with a shocking discovery which he believes is proof that chili con carne had its origin in Mexico. Cited as the classic work by Bernarl Díaz del Castillo, which chronicles the invasion of Mexico by Cortez and his conquistadores in the 16th Century. Díaz reports that he witnessed a ceremony in which some of his Spanish compadres were sacrificed by Aztec priests, and then butchered; chunks of conquistadore meat were thrown to the populace, and these people rushed home and cooked them with hot peppers, wild tomatoes, and a herb that apparently was oregano. That, my friends, is seriously set down as the true origin of chili. I dislike having to say it, but if you are going to adopt this recipe, it must begin, “First, catch yourself a lean Spaniard.”
I know of only one Texan who has the facts straight on the origin of chili—Charles Ramsdell, author of an excellent history of San Antonio. It is clear from his delvings, as well as my own, that chili con carne had its happenings in San Antonio. Was it a dish contrived by Mexicans of old San Antonio de Bejar? No. Was it put together by white Texans? Not at all. You’d never guess in eight centuries. Chili was invented by Canary Islanders. In the 1720’s the Spanish were in command of the town, which they had founded, but the French were pushing in from the east, and an appeal went out to the King of Spain to send some settlers. The king obliged half-heartedly, shipping sixteen families out from the Canary Islands. They established themselves in rude huts on the spot now known as the Main Plaza. In their homeland, these people were accustomed to food made pungent with spices. They liked hot peppers and lots of garlic, and they were acquainted with oregano. So they looked around to see what was available in foodstuffs in their new home, and they came up with a stew of beef and hot peppers and oregano and garlic and, I make bold to believe, tomatoes and onions and beans. It is my guess, too that they managed to get hold of some cumin seed, which comes chiefly from North Africa. That’s the way it happened, and any Texas historians who dispute me can go soak their heads.
There are fiends incarnate, mostly in Texas, who put chopped celery in their chili, and the Dallas journalist Frank X. Tolbert, who has been touted as the Glorious State’s leading authority on chili, throws in corn meal. Heaven help us one and all! You might as well throw in some puffed rice, or a handful of shredded alfalfa, or a few Maraschino cherries.
Let it be understood that I am well disposed towards Texans and enjoy visiting their state; I’m tolerant of all their idiotic posturing, of every one of their failings, save only this arrant acclaim of superiority in the composing of chili. Mr. Tolbert of Dallas, who appears to be spokesman for the group called the International Chili Appreciation Society, declares that acceptable chili should contain no tomatoes, no onions, and no beans. This is a thing that passeth all understanding, going full speed. It offends my sensibilities and violates my mind. Mr. Tolbert criticizes Lyndon Johnson’s chili recipe because it leaves out beef suet and includes tomatoes and onions. Yet the President’s chili contains no beans. To create chili without beans, either added to the pot or served on the side, is to flout one of the basic laws of nature. I’ve been told that when I was a baby and it came time to wean me, I was fed Eagle Brand milk with navy beans frappéed into it. Thereafter, all through childhood and adolescence, I ate beans three or four times a week. If Chili Bill, back there in Illinois, had served his chili without beans, I would surely have deserted him and bought chocolate sodas for my lunch.
Texas has at least one chili scholar owning a glimmer of intelligence: Maury Maverick, Jr., son of the former Mayor of San Antonio and Rooseveltian Congressman. The younger Maury is a lawyer, and a true chili man in one respect—he speaks out against other chili cooks saying, for example, of California chili: “With all that goddamn sweet stuff in it, it’s like eating a strawberry sundae.”
As for Southern California, my friend Fred Beck, a gourmet and semi-professional wine taster, adduces evidence to suggest that Los Angeles is the chili capital of the world. (The title, by the way, is claimed by San Antonio and by the little town of Terlingua in the Big Bend country, and lately by Dallas.)
Mr. Beck tells me that chili was once called “size” in the town known to him as Lil-ole-ell-ay. “Size” came into usage by way of one Ptomaine Tommy, once proprietor of the largest and best-known chili parlor in the city. Ptomaine Tommy served straight chili and an epical Southwestern variation, a hamburger smothered with chili. He had two ladles, a large and a small. When a customer ordered straight chili, he got out the large ladle. When he wanted the other, he usually said, “Hamburger size.” So Ptomaine Tommy put up one sign that read HAMBURGER SIZE 15c, and another that read CHILI SIZE 20c. Other chili joints followed suit, and before long chili was know throughout Los Angeles as “size.”They’d say, “Just gimme a bowl of size.”
Mr. Beck speaks, too, of the era when the architecture went kooky in Los Angeles, and commercial structures were designed to suggest the nature of trade conducted within. There was a building on Pico shaped like a coffeepot, with steam issuing from its spout. A weenie stand on La Cienega was a large and hideous representation of a frankfurter. Then came the chain of Chili Bowls. It was quickly noted by the always perceptive Angelenos that these structures were shaped like giant chamberpots, sans handles, so it became customary to say, “Let’s drive over to the pot for a bowl of chili.”
During my probings into the story of chili I stumbled on a fact that made my heart leap. There is a town called Chili in my state, New York. Texans pay not even lip service to their chili, for they have no town of that name. As for the New York community, just west of Rochester (there is also a North Chili nearby), I was soon disillusioned.
I telephoned my friend Judge Ray Fowler of Rochester, “Why did they call the town of Chili by that name?” I asked him.
“Never heard of it,” he replied. “How do you spell it?”
I spelled it.
“Oh,” he exclaimed, “ you mean Chy-lye. The early settlers named it in honor of Chile’s breaking away from Spanish rule.”
“So,” I said, “they misspelled it and then mispronounced it. And it has nothing whatever to do with chy-lye con carne?”
“Nothing at all.”
Just writing about this makes me disconsolate, so let us pass on to the chy-lye that comes in a bowl. The secret of making superior chili lies first in the ingredients and second in the genius of the cook. Nothing should ever be measured. Experimentation is the thing. Those blessed Canary Islanders in San Antonio wouldn’t have known a measuring spoon from an electric carving knife. Spanish cookbooks never issue peremptory orders, for that would not be polite. They speak of “maybe fifteen centavos’ worth” of parsley, a handful of so-and-so, and maybe a bunch of butter, and a few “teeth” of garlic if you have some in the house.
My daughter follows my haphazard methods and turns out chili that is the sensation of her set. She says she passes my recipe along to her chili-loving friends, and converts the ignorant to it, and all hands proclaim it to be the best of all possible chilis. That’s what she tells me. Whenever I hear those heart-warming reports I feel so bucked up that I give her a trip to Mexico or Puerto Rico. Much the same thing happens in the case of my son, though he tells me he composes my chili with the doors locked and the shades drawn. He lives in Texas. For a time I wanted to establish that lovely tradition, the old family recipe, a secret that wild horses couldn’t drag out of my descendants. A family is not a true entity unless it has in its archives a fabulous secret recipe. But my formula is out, and rapidly spreading, so I give it to the world.
CHILI H. ALLEN SMITH
Get three pounds of chuck, coarse ground. Brown it in an iron kettle. (If you don’t have an iron kettle you are not civilized. Go out and get one.) Chop two or three medium-sized onions and one bell pepper and add to the browned meat. Crush or mince one or two cloves of garlic and throw into the pot, then add about half a teaspoon of oregano and a quarter teaspoon of cumin seed. (You can get cumin seed in the supermarket nowadays.) Now add two small cans tomato paste; if you prefer canned tomatoes of fresh tomatoes, put them through a colander. Add about a quart of water. Salt liberally and grind in some black pepper and, for a starter, two or three tablespoons of chili powder. (Some of us use chile pods, but chile powder is just as good.) Simmer for an hour and a half or longer, then add your beans. Pinto beans are best, but if they are not available, canned kidney beans will do—two 15-17 oz. cans will be adequate. Simmer another half hour. Throughout the cooking, do some testing from time to time and, as the Gourmet Cookbook puts it, “correct seasoning.” When you’ve got it right, let it set for several hours. Later you may heat it up as much as you want, and put the remainder in the refrigerator. It will taste better the second day, still better the third, and absolutely superb the fourth. You can’t even begin to imagine the delights in store for you one week later.
I deem it a pleasure to have given you my recipe for chili. I can only say in conclusion that some people are born to the tragic life. There are three distressing physiological mistakes made by nature: the vermiform appendix, the prostate gland, and the utter inability of many people to eat chili because of delicate digestive tracts.
I really bleed for them. ◊
Note: After the publication of this article, the Chili Appreciation Society International invited H. Allen Smith to Texas for a chili cookoff. Gary Cartwright documented the hilarious results in “The Great Chili Championship Fix,” an excellent Sports Illustrated piece.