This summer, I took a class on “Reading and Writing Food” at Columbia. Over the next few weeks, I will post a sampling of essays composed for that class.
In My Chili-Charmed Life
In the life of a cook, a single dish can mean more than simple sustenance, deliciousness, or even family. Matzoh brei, tuna fish casserole, cornichons and pate, mint iced tea or waffle cones or roasted chicken with a fine mourning veil of black truffle stuffed under the skin—these foods define identity, a most private self; the food has been invested with a totemic force; it is the excessive metaphor surpassing the pale shadows of real things. Red chili slicked with beef fat is a me that surpasses myself: a being that, once animated, embodies my essential kernel of experience more than words reliably express.
I learned to make chili under my dad’s tutelage. More properly, we learned to coax articulate flavor from peppers and ground meat together. Without recipe or rigorous experimentation, we searched for the perfect chili—a spoonful of fat and flesh bound into miraculous unison, a soup curdled into immortality. Balancing starchy beans against hunks of beef (or pork or turkey or chicken) and perpetually-summer-fresh canned tomato product is an infinitely amusing challenge. Chili Sundays featured our never-same creations, oyster crackers, shredded cheddar out of a resealable plastic bag, Prairie Farms sour cream, and diced red onion. After I went to college, I developed my own chili style. My palette trends towards hotter colors; my palate favors ashcan smoke that draws chipotle and adobo into post-domestic clarity. I paint in Hopper’s and Bellow’s culinary strokes; I cook in the neo-St. Louis school. Yet, my chili enunciates my personality without predecessor or allusion. I am my chili, which can only itself be described in circumambulatory figures.
Somewhere in St. Louis, a chili pot still simmers on low. Now, however, another pot reduces towards perfection somewhere in a New York dorm. I know I’ll often stop and think about my family’s chili dinners, but in my life, I love my own chili, too. Continue reading