Talkin’ Texas and Cincinnati Chili Blues

habanero

In a few weeks my company will be having a chili cookoff. I’m looking forward to it for two reasons: first, I love good chili; second, I’m curious to see the ratio of Texas versus Cincinnati-style chili.

I live on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, and around here if you mention “chili,” people think of a plate of spaghetti draped with a sweet and tangy meat-based sauce, and crowned by a heaping mound of shredded cheddar cheese. This is Cincinnati chili. It’s an acquired taste; not bad once you get accustomed to it, although I don’t recommend anyone making it a regular part of their diet.

Cincinnati chili originated in the 1920s after an immigrant Greek family opened a restaurant here. The key ingredient in their signature recipe was a liquid meat sauce that had a mild cinnamon flavor.

This Greek-style chili became very popular. Success, of course, breeds imitators, and soon other chili parlors sprang up. Currently, there are two big chains of Cincinnati chili, Skyline and Gold Star, although there are many smaller chains and independent chili restaurants (many locals swear that Camp Washington Chili is the best, though to me they’re all very similar).

cincinnati-chili

Cincinnati Chili

Like I said, the sauce is spooned over a pile of pasta, then topped with cheese. You have the option of adding red beans or onions, but the base ingredients are just spaghetti, meat sauce, and cheese. The combination is referred to as a “three-way.”

(Considering that Cincinnati is about as socially conservative as the hometown of Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, I’ve always gotten a kick out of the natives here casually referring to “three-ways”).

The chili is always served with a side order of oyster crackers. An alternative to the pasta concoction is the “coney,” which features the same sauce and cheese, but is accompanied by a pale, pathetic-looking hot dog, all stuffed inside a small bun. I’ve never understood the appeal of these coneys. Before moving to Cincinnati I lived in Chicago and had the opportunity to indulge in Maxwell Street Polishes. Going from a Maxwell Street Polish to a Cincinnati coney was like going from the Sphinx to a pink flamingo.

Regardless, I really do like the chili here in Cincinnati. It’s a guilty pleasure… like playing cornhole, or watching “Wheel of Fortune.”

But I much prefer the Texas variety of chili, known down in the Lone Star State as a “bowl o’ red.” As everyone knows, Texans love to brag ad nauseam about their peculiar state. But the one thing they have a right to brag about is their chili.

Instead of slimy pasta, the base ingredient in Texas chili is MEAT; either beef or pork, or possibly armadillo or rattlesnake. Instead of cinnamon, Texas-style chili uses cumin and hot chile peppers or powder, such as red cayenne, jalapeno, serrano, or habanero (see header photo).

texas-chili

Texas Chili

Tomato and beans are frowned on for Texas chili. Both are more Mexican than Texan. But I’m a Yankee, so I’ll risk getting hogtied and tossed in the Rio Grande and proclaim that I like pinto beans in my chili.

(Note that I said pinto beans. I wouldn’t think of polluting my chili with kidney beans, which so many cafeterias and cheap diners have been doing since before Lyndon Johnson began soiling his diapers).

Meat, chile peppers, and seasoning: those are the core ingredients of Texas chili. Like 12-bar blues music, there are endless variations that can evolve from this basic formula. I’ve improvised and come up with a couple of my own recipes. One is slightly Texan, the other is somewhere north (or south) of the border. Both are simple and easy to fix. Here are the ingredients for both:

Durango Dead Buzzard Chili: contains ground beef, pinto beans (uh-oh), chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce (here comes the rope), French’s chili seasoning (don’t laugh, it adheres to the meat and tastes great), chopped onions, red cayenne pepper, and beer (optional).

Yuma Snake Venom Chili (derived from a recipe received from my aunt in Tucson, who got it from some chef in Yuma, and which I’ve “doctored” over the years): contains ground pork or pork sausage, chopped tomatoes (uh-oh), chopped onion, diced jalapeno or habanero chiles, ground cumin, red cayenne pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, salt, and tequila (mandatory).

I’ll add that Texas chili tastes best after it’s been refrigerated then reheated. For a beverage, I prefer a cold beer, though not too dark or heavy. As a side dish, I like either cornbread or corn tortilla chips. To aid digestion, I recommend the music of ZZ Top, or any Chicago-style blues.

pepper

Some of you may be wondering if I’ll be entering my chili in the company cookoff. I don’t think so. Many years ago I submitted a sample of my Yuma Snake Venom Chili to one of the fishwraps in suburban Cincinnati, which was sponsoring a contest. I think my chili may have been the only one that didn’t include pasta, cheese, or cinnamon. I never learned the results of the cookoff, and I never heard from the newspaper.

I’m guessing my submission lacked one or more ingredients. Or, maybe the combination of tequila, cayenne, and habaneros proved too lethal for delicate Mason, Ohio. But I wish I’d have been at the tasting, if only to see the look on the judges’ faces.

fife

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Thoughts of Mary Jane

mary-jane

Last Christmas I visited my 25-year-old son, who lives in the Mile High City. He picked me up in his car at the airport terminal. After we settled into our seats, he tossed an innocuous looking paper sack in my lap. “Welcome to Colorado,” he said, in his characteristic deadpan manner. I opened the bag and pulled out a long, white cigarette. I didn’t need to ask what it was.

“Memories are made of this!” I laughed, echoing an old Dean Martin song. If you’d have told me 25 years ago that my boy would one day present me with a welcoming gift that, in some parts of the U.S., is still a felony to possess… I’d have suggested you were smoking something.

Ohio is not Colorado, and not only because it lacks mountains. Recently, however, my home state waded a few centimeters beyond the shallow end of the gene pool when it passed a law permitting use of cannabis sativa (marijuana) for medical purposes. Pardon me for sounding derisive. But this is like America finally determining that, after 250 years of colonial and post-colonial slavery, emancipation of humans might be a good thing.

I’m perplexed why it’s taken so long for government officials (some of them, anyway) to concede that ingesting a plant may provide relief to people undergoing chemotherapy or suffering chronic pain. Maybe these politicos have been too preoccupied with weakening gun laws and deregulating industries that spew pollutants into our atmosphere. Again, pardon me for sounding derisive.

Marijuana plants contain a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can reduce pain, induce relaxation, and heighten one’s senses. For you free-market conservatives, THC also promotes capitalism by expanding the tax base and helping to sell Big Macs and records like Pink Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.

Unlike many foods legally sold in grocery stores, marijuana contains no toxic preservatives like MSG, BHA, BHT, or sodium nitrite, not to mention trans fats. It’s been a popular “vegetable of choice” amongst musicians since the early days of jazz.

Marijuana has not yet been proven to be physically addictive. There is some evidence of psychological dependence. But I’m betting there will always be people who have a predisposition toward overdoing things. My wife is psychologically dependent on low-fat fudgsicles. I’m psychologically dependent on watching Lawrence Welk reruns.sticker

There’s also no evidence that marijuana leads to harder drugs, despite decades of critics trying to prove otherwise. I smoked pot in college. I had opportunities to drop LSD and snort cocaine, but I turned them down. Just my opinion, but if a person wants to do hard drugs, he or she will find ways to do them, whether or not marijuana is involved.

Here’s another thought: morphine, a highly addictive opiate derived from the poppy plant, is a prevalent painkiller used in hospitals. Codeine, another addictive poppy product, is used in cough syrup, and sold over the counter. Why has it taken so long for non-addictive marijuana to be considered a therapeutic drug? Was REEFER MADNESS that powerful a movie? Was Nancy Reagan that influential?

Pardon me for being derisive about Nancy Reagan’s simplistic and failed Just Say No campaign.

And with apologies to my fellow inebriates, but no argument in defense of pot can ignore discussion of our one legal recreational drug. Our favorite social lubricant and liver enhancer was at one time used as a medical anesthetic. That’s the good news. During this same period in U.S. history, it was also doled out like candy to mollify the natives of this country so we could more easily steal their land. This popular recreational and physically addictive drug is now instrumental in exacerbating statistics for vehicular fatalities, divorce, homelessness, depression, and suicide. Other than contributing to temporary stupidity, marijuana doesn’t come close to creating this kind of societal havoc.

From my own experience, the worst thing about using marijuana is that it may cause mild anxiety, lethargy, and caloric escalation from eating junk food. And poor grades. Take it from me, it’s hard to study organic chemistry when flowers are blooming, the sun is smiling, “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” is in stereo, and McDonald’s is serving. And since marijuana affects the nervous system, it’s probably good that people are tested for specific dangerous professions, or where employees are assigned to protect public welfare.

But I can’t shake the nightmare of being tested by a certain squalid employment agency and being mistakenly accused of having pot in my system. It was shameful enough submitting to their breathalyzer b.s. in the first place. But after being accused, and even after they apologized and suddenly altered their erroneous “findings,” I swore off drug tests forever. I may have compromised most of my youthful ideals by this point in life, but I do have a little dignity left.

One final thought: there are pockets of people who still believe, despite tangible evidence to the contrary, that our government knows what’s best for us. For example, I know a very sweet but naïve and hyper-religious woman whose daughter has struggled with polycystic kidney disease. Despite having a successful kidney transplant, the girl still experiences pain. Recently, I ran into both at the grocery store. After hearing about the poor girl’s suffering, I suggested the possibility of medical marijuana. I forget what the mother said. But her look told me “Well, we don’t care for hippie drugs and would never do anything dangerous.”

Ok. Fair enough. We ended the conversation with smiles and a hug. I wished them the best of luck, as I headed to the checkout line, and Mom rolled their grocery cart toward the wiener section.

Not to sound derisive, or anything.

weed