Wednesday, November 11, 2009


October was National Chili Month

…the bedrock of Tex-Mex cooking
As I write this post, I am deeply contemplating the phenomenon that is Chili. I can’t help but wonder if there is any other dish that inspires such devotion and enthusiasm and yet provokes such controversy and debate? I’m not about to claim any sense of objectivity or neutrality here. After all, I am a natural born Texan and I do appreciate the gravity of that responsibility! If there is one item to point to as the bedrock of Tex-Mex cooking, it is Chili.

…proof of the true origin
Chili as we know it, undoubtedly originated in the experience of the Southwestern cowboy/vaquero culture. It was traditionally a stew of chili peppers, spices and beef or whatever meat was available. There is also a longstanding tradition of Chili being cooked and sold on the streets of early San Antonio by the “Chili Queens”, but proof of the true origin is hard to come by.

…one of the more important issues in the free world
Not only is there little agreement as to the origins of the dish, there is absolutely no universal definition of Chili even within the Lone Star State itself. The truth is that most Texans consider the Chili that they grew up eating to be true Texas Chili. I think that this is probably true for just about everyone regardless of their region of the country or their style of chili. In an endless argument about what is “real” Texas Chili almost everyone has their opinion: add tomatoes or not, thicken with flour, Masa or nothing, the cut of the Chili meat, types of chili peppers, mix of spices and seasonings, beef stock water or beer and of course, one of the more important issues in the free world…beans or no beans. Did I mention that I am available for a cabinet level appointment as Chili Czar?

“Each of us knows that his chili is light-years beyond other chili…”
To quote a famous Chili man, H. Allen Smith, “That is the way of Chili men. Each of us knows that his chili is light-years beyond other chili in quantity and singularity; each of us knows that all other Chili is such vile slop that a coyote would turn his back on it.” What makes this statement especially hilarious to me is the fact that it is just the way I feel. I really do think that my version of Texas Chili is the best that I have ever tasted. Apparently, I have a lot of company; everyone seems to think that their chili is the best.

…some aberration from the city of Cincinnati
There is not even agreement in my own castle, as I married a girl from Ohio who has her own ideas about the meaning of Chili. First of all she insists on kidney beans in her Chili and then rambles on about some aberration from the city of Cincinnati served on top of spaghetti and then layered with a bunch of other stuff. In my horror I retreat to a statement from the 36th President of these United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, “Chili concocted outside of Texas is usually a weak, apologetic imitation of the real thing. One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of Red. There is simply nothing better!”

“No talking to imaginary people”
I have to admit that one of the first things that I do after arriving in the city of Austin is to make a beeline to The Texas Chili Parlor for exactly the same reason. This hole in the wall restaurant has been an Austin institution since 1976. Located just a short distance from the state capitol and the University of Texas campus it is still a haven of funky atmosphere and local color. Now, here is a proper bowl of chili, made with chunks of beef, tomatoes and seasoning. Crackers, chopped onion, grated cheese and jalapenos are served on the side and of course, no beans. How could you go wrong in a place whose rules include “No talking to imaginary people?”

…thousands of chili recipes
Check the internet and you can find literally hundreds if not thousands of Chili recipes (or at least they claim to be Chili recipes). Vegetarian Chili, White Chili, Black bean Chili, Peggy Goldwater’s Arizona Chili, New Orleans Style (served over rice), and Cincinnati Style (we won’t go into that again). There is even a Tennessee dish that is a survivor of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville named Petros, which is a layered creation of corn chips, chili, cheese, green onion, tomato, black olives and sour cream. Except for the black olive part I actually like Petros quite a bit, they remind me of a dish (not quite so complicated) that my Mother used to make back in the 1950’s called a Frito Pie.

…deer meat by itself and beef in my chili
I am part of a Texas clan descended from Choctaw ancestry and hunting was a huge part of our family’s culture. Therefore, I had the opportunity to sample Venison (deer meat) Chili many times, although I actually prefer my deer meat by itself and beef in my Chili. I also enjoy making Chili Verde New Mexico Style, which although it is muy delicioso in my book, it is not classical Chili, but rather chunks of pork stewed with green chilies, onions, tomatillos and herbs and spices.

Although, I never had the opportunity to share a bowl of Chili with President Johnson, I do have his favorite homemade Chili recipe.

Pedernales River Chili
(Pronounced Per-duh-now-lees by Central Texans)

4 lbs. chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well trimmed chuck)
1 large onion
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp. ground oregano
1 tsp. cumin seed
6 tsp. chili powder (more if needed)
2 cans tomatoes with green chilies
Salt to taste
2 cups of hot water

Put chili meat, onion and garlic in large heavy boiler or skillet. Sear until light-colored. Add oregano, chili powder, tomatoes and hot water. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer about one hour. As fat cooks out, skim.

... the recipe sounded really tasty, but…
Well now, I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that the high art of Chili making is a partisan issue, even though tons of the stuff has been served at political gatherings at least since Texas entered the union. It was my intention to post a recipe for the Bush Families’ favorite chili, but I simply couldn’t find a specific recipe for their favorite. I did find a recipe in White House Chef cookbook by Chef Walter Scheib. Chef Scheib served as chef for both the Clintons and the G. W. Bushes. The chef’s recipe is called Three-Bean Chili and at the request of Mrs. Bush, contained no meat. I admit that the recipe sounded really tasty, but I’m simply not willing to recognize it as real Texas Chili.

“I absolutely swear to you that this is true!”
So, I went back to the Reagan years and found this recipe right away. The only real argument that I would have with the “great debater” would be the red wine (well, he was from California), the beef base (nasty, awful, salty junk) and the beans (at least they used pinto beans). I never had the chance to share chili with President Reagan either, although I did once enjoy a Martini with him! I absolutely swear to you that this is true!

President Reagan’s Favorite Homemade Chili

Serves 16

½ cup bacon drippings
2 cups chopped onions
4 chopped garlic cloves
2 pounds coarsely ground beef
4 cups canned whole tomatoes, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 Tablespoon salt
4 cups cooked pinto beans


Using a 1 ½ gallon pot, melt bacon drippings. When hot, sauté onions and garlic cloves. Add ground beef and chili powder. Stir until meat is well browned. Add red wine (optional). Add salt, beef base, tomatoes, bay leaf and sugar. Simmer chili meat, covered, for 20 minutes, stirring often. Add pinto beans to the meat. Simmer chili for 1 hour, covered over low heat, stirring gently from time to time. Test for flavor.

…my definitive recipe
So… I doubt that anyone really follows a recipe to the letter. I know that I seldom measure the ingredients (unless it is for publication) and each batch of chili is slightly different. Keeping that in mind, here is my definitive recipe for some mighty good chili.

Chef Joseph’s Texas Chili

1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 ½ lbs. coarsely cut ground beef (the coarser the better)
2 green peppers, chopped
2 white onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced and mashed
¼ cup Masa (corn flour)
One 12 oz. bottle of beer (room temperature)
3 or 4 Jalapeno peppers, minced (or to taste)
1 28 oz. can of stewed tomatoes
1 Tablespoon Oregano
2 Tablespoons Ground Cumin
2 Tablespoons chili powder
1 Tablespoon Sage
1 Tablespoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Tablespoon Smoked Salt
2 Tablespoon parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons Red Wine Vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
3 1/2 cups beef stock

(1) In a large soup pan, heat olive oil and brown meat in batches and set aside. Add chopped peppers, onions and garlic to hot grease and cook 4 or 5 minutes.
(2) Add Masa and cook over a low heat for another five minutes, stirring often- it will stick!
(3) Add beer, minced Jalapenos, and tomatoes; bring to a simmer and stir in the browned meat.
(4) Continue simmering and add the rest of the ingredients. Cook a low simmer for two hours, stirring often. Do not let the chili stick or scorch!
(5) Taste for seasoning and serve with crackers, chopped onions and grated cheddar cheese. If desired serve a pot of pinto beans on the side, but NEVER add beans to Texas Chili.

…the pride, honor and glory of the Republic
Texans are fanatics about their chili (which is as it should be). The elements that contribute to the authenticity of this recipe are the following: Coarsely cut beef, Masa (corn flour), Jalapeno peppers, cumin and chili powder and no beans. Undoubtedly, there are a few (misguided) purists that will object to several of my ingredients (green peppers, tomatoes, mixture of herbs?), but I say let them share their complaints and inferior chili recipes with the coyotes! The truth is that I’ve tasted a whole bunch of awfully good chili concoctions in my day. However, the fun of the argument eternal about what is real chili is just too much fun to resist. Never do I forget that when I make Texas Chili; the pride, honor and glory of the Republic rest squarely on this old cook’s shoulders!

Beans on the side, Damn it!