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March 2001 Issue
A bowl of near ecstasy
by Rossana S. Tarantini
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There are some fragrances that evoke feelings of comfort and well being in my mind whenever I smell them. Not surprisingly, they all revolve around food:
  • The unmistakeable scent of a long simmered tomato sauce.
  • The "down-to-earthiness" of onions and bacon sautéing for a pan of home fries.
  • The "feel-it-in-your-bones" healing of a pot of home made chicken soup on the back burner.
But I think the one thing that makes me feel that "all is right with the world" is the fragrance of a pot of chili simmering away the afternoon over a low flame. A smell that is redolent of all that is wonderful: cumin, oregano, chile, tomato and a blend of other flavours that marry exceptionally well.

It's really hard to pinpoint the exact moment when chili became a passion for me. They say most things are learned at the mother's knee, but with all due respect and apologies to mom, the closest we ever got to chili at home was dad's bi-weekly can of "Mary Miles Chili con carne". It's funny the things you remember, but I do remember never even being slightly tempted to try it back then.

Whenever it started, I admit to being a die-hard chili-head. The only other food I really feel this strongly about is onion soup. And though in both cases I am firmly entrenched in the belief that no one makes it better than I do, I am constantly compelled to try any other version that I come across. It's almost an obsession, but ooooohhhhhhhhhh, what a tasty obsession!!

It's my considered opinion that anyone who doesn't list chili among his or her favourite dishes, has never tasted good chili. And that is such a sad state of affairs. There IS no other perfect food. There is nothing as comforting and tummy pleasing. And, there's no other food that has engendered such controversy and passion as chili. Few other foods have a society dedicated to their appreciation, newspapers and magazines devoted solely to their preparation and enjoyment. No other food has well known chefs arguing over exact formulations.

A little light research told me the following interesting, little known, chili facts and information:

  • The first chili organization, The Chili Appreciation Society, International (CASI), was founded in the 1950's.

  • In 1966, Frank X Tolbert published a book called A Bowl of Red. In order to promote it, he and some friends organized the first chili "cook off" in Terlingua, Texas. The main attraction was to have been CASI chief cook Wick Fowler going up against well known restaurateur Dave Chasen. When Chasen fell ill, H. Allen Smith, a humourist who had written an article entitled "Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do" was enlisted. The competition ended in a tie.

  • In New Mexico, chili is pure. They traditionally serve a red chili puree or green chili stew with chunks of red meat and serve stewed beans on the side. Heavy on chile, light on meat, a New Mexico chili never contains any additional vegetables.

  • In Texas, and almost everywhere else, chili is coarse ground beef, chile, garlic, cumin and onions, sometimes including beans and tomatoes.

  • Two-time world champion C. V. Wood says that his secret is to soak the spices in beer. In fact, he advises simmering the spices in the beer then cooling them in the refrigerator overnight before adding them to your pot.

  • Frank X. Tolbert advises using only beef, onions, garlic, chili and cumin.
And, as varied as are its proponents, so too is the "quintessential" chili recipe. It's a never-ending debate. Do you add beans or not and if so are they red, kidney or pinto beans? Do you add corn flour to beef up the consistency? Do you add other meats or just use beef? Vegetables: some, lots, or none? There's a very dear friend of mine who says of chili: It must have beans . . . it must have beef and pork . . . it must have tomatoes . . . and lots of spices . . . no other vegetables . . . and nothing else . . . Of course, he hasn't tasted mine yet.

Good, bad, or indifferent, everyone has his or her own pet theory, I'm sure you have a favourite recipe as well. Try some or all of the following recipes. I picked some of the best chili minds to come up with them. The first one is my own recipe and I defend it to the death, but I have come up with some very good alternatives from friends, family and even further afield. Have a pot luck chili taste testing (invite several friends to bring their "never fail" version -- recipe included) and find one you absolutely love, or marry some of the best of each to come up with your own signature chili.

Either way you'll have some fun and great eating too!!

Oh . . . and remember something else my friend says: The most wonderful thing about chili . . . it's like sex . . . you don't have to be really good at it to enjoy it and the worst I've ever had was wonderful!!

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