By John Thorne, editor/publisher of Simple Cooking
P.O. Box 58, Castine, ME 04421

Visit John at the Simple Cooking Website

As published in the September/October 1990 issue of Chile Pepper Magazine

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Chili, chili con carne, Texas red - whatever you call that savory concoction of meat, grease, and fire - is the natural child of the arguing state of mind. There's no recipe for it, only disputation, and almost anyone's first thought after a taste of somebody else's version, no matter how much it pleasures the throat, is that they could make it better.

Chili naturally brings out that attitude. There's something contentious about Texas red, something so restless, rootless, and just plumb wild, that you never come to terms with it for long. Even your own chili - however good it is - keeps you wrangling. That's because it can only truly be Texas red if it walks the thin line just this side of indigestibility: damning the mouth that eats it and defying the stomach to digest it, the ingredients are hardly willing to lie in the same pot together.

Chili's restless, ornery nature is why men have made a special effort to claim it as their own. Until recently, it was men who wrote about it and mostly men who made it - or argued their women into fixing it for them. The word itself calls to mind army camps and cowboying and oil-town chili joints crowded with hurried men pouring coffee into their saucers to blow it cool. This isn't to say that women don't like chili or that they can't make it as good as men, only that there is something about chili that draws men to it, especially men who otherwise don't have much interest in cooking at all.

These men, at least the ones who first claimed chili and made it their own, did not much agree on anything. They recognized in chili their own fractious nature - and this is why its essential character, not any specific ingredient, makes for a real bowl of red. There is no way of making chili, no food or flavor, not even a cooking implement, that can be named as essential to the dish that won't provoke argument, at least about quality, amount, or kind. But no one who ever tasted the dish once would ever have a problem knowing it again.

Chili-making, then, is not the culinary art that, say, good barbecue is; anyone can make a passable bowl of red by following the recipe on a chili powder can. But no one learns anything about making chili until they pick an argument with that recipe. And they have to go on arguing, first with themselves, then - long and persistently - with other chili-makers, until they get to their own true bowl of red.

This is why the best books on chili throw in recipes only as a reluctant afterthought. A printed chili recipe is pretty much a useless thing. And it is also why Texans insist that no one else but them can put up a decent bowl of it because only the Texas chili-maker has been forced to fight his way to his version over every inch of chili-making territory, honing it to perfection through constant disputation: either spoken or through sheer force of example.

Anyone familiar with this kind of Texas talk -- a cagey verbal tussle devised to nurse a long-neck or two through the hotter part of an afternoon -- will know that while it may be friendly enough, it also has a sharp -- even mean, maybe -- edge. Each discussant is always looking to outmaneuver his opponent, preferably before an appreciative audience, head over heels into a mesquite patch. And chili has this same quality. It is social food edged with a suspicious rejection of mere socializing. Almost anyone is welcome to pull up and have a bowl if they can stand the heat of the substance on their spoon. Otherwise, the good ol' boys are going to have quite a laugh.

Nowadays, we do not immediately take to this kind of rancorous individualism and ists sheer cussed refusal to go along. But chili was fathered by the sort of person who, if he didn't populate the West as much as myth would have it, certainly came to popularize it: the tough and silent solitary man. Sometimes he really did ride alone as a mountain man, a sheepherder, or an outlaw. But even when he traveled with companions such as a ranch hand or dog soldier, he was still a loner at heart. His survival was in his hands alone -- and sometimes not even there.

Because, if survival were only a matter of skill, the men who rode the range would have been sober and God-fearing to a man. But, with on doctors, spare parts, or second chances, on moment of bad luck could claim the chips of a lifetime's worth of cautious behavior. Even a strong man got tired of those odds, and a weak man got restless in mind. He constantly justified to himself why he should not be claimed, or, if he was, how he might escape at someone else's expense. It might or might not be good to be shifty in a new country, as a popular fictional character declared, but it was sometimes absolutely necessary.

So, whatever the reasons that brought a man into this life, survival put the same brand on him. That's why his social life was punctuated with braggery, quarrel, and sudden death, and why the rituals that evolved to contain this violence had their tense and solitary edge. Unlike civilized men, who competed with each other for a living, these men had to pick a fight with the whole universe simply to survive.

This theory explains the central contradiction of chili, that it can be so argumentative and yet so solitary -- as exemplified by the chili cook-off, where each disputant anxiously tends a solitary pot. To enjoy chili, we need only spoon it up and fire the mouth with its powerful pungency. But to touch the passion men feel for it, we have to do more than taste it, we have to stare deep into its restless, lonely heart.

On to the makings of a real Texas Red.

Garry's Home Cookin'
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