In My Chili-Charmed Life

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.


For the last meeting of our class, every student prepared a dish of personal significance. Maxi made cherry clafoutis (pits-in of course), Joanna a pasta salad (dressed with “gravy” and ricotta salata)—but most glorious of all was my professor’s “Very Good Chocolate Cake,” which, after she filled it with blackberry jam and topped it with a pound of ganache, was very good indeed.

Working in a dorm kitchen requires compromise: I used powdered onion and garlic (because I have no counter space for dicing) and skipped any elaborate pepper preparation (no toasting here). The following recipe may not be the absolute easiest chili formula available on the Internet—that honor goes to “open a can of chili and serve.” Mine is, however, the best tasting easiest chili recipe around. If you’re interested in my more difficult chili recipes, check out Pulled Chicken Chili or Hillbilly Chili.

What you’ll need:

1.7 pounds ground chuck
1 tbsp olive oil
1 can tomato paste
1 can stewed tomatoes
1 can kidney beans
1 can pinto beans
1 can chipotles in adobo sauce
4 tbsp chile powder
2 tbsp cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp onion powder
salt and black pepper to taste

How do I make it?

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Brown the ground chuck, mixing with a spoon occasionally to ensure even cooking. Add the tomato products, chipotles, beans, and all the spices (except salt and pepper). Stir vigorously. Cook for 30 minutes over low heat, stirring every so often to prevent any chili from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Taste the chili and then add salt and pepper to taste. Remember, the chili will cook down further, so do not over-salt. It’s easy to add more, not so easy to take it out. Cook for 2 hours over very low heat, stirring to prevent burning. Serve when most of the liquid has evaporated and the chili has a pliable, paste-like texture. Favorite accompaniments include saltines, sour cream, and shredded cheese.


Filed under College Life, Columbia University, Recipes

2 responses to “In My Chili-Charmed Life

  1. I love chili and love trying new recipes for it so I was thrilled to find this one! Buzzed!

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