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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To Cruise or Not to Cruise, That is the Question

GoldenPrincess

Everyone has that one favorite vacation. The memorable honeymoon in beautiful, green Ireland. The trans-Canadian rail trip. The ski excursion to Vail, Colorado. The pilgrimage to Pigeon Forge to eat cheap fudge inside tacky wax museums while Dolly Parton is piped in over the intercom.

My favorite vacation was the month our family spent in a cottage at Stone Harbor on the Jersey Shore. I was only eight. I remember sprinting into the frothy ocean surf the moment we arrived. Flying kites on the beach as the sun dipped into the west. Catching crabs on the docks with my dad. Going to the theatre in town with my brothers and cousin to watch “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” I still recall chewing on chocolate saltwater taffy as Don Knotts’s eyes bulged from the screen.

Other than almost drowning the day I was caught by an undertow, it was an idyllic summer that I’ll never forget.

These days a lot of folks like to “cruise” for their vacation. Lynn and I have gotten some good deals and enjoyed two Caribbean cruises, and we’re planning a third. Actually, she’s planning. I’m nodding my head a lot and mumbling.

Ocean cruises have become very popular today. The cruise industry is expected to reel in profits of 37 billion dollars by the end of 2014. The number of passengers on cruise ships is expected to exceed 24 million by 2018. (http://www.statista.com/topics/1004/cruise-industry/)

So, despite disasters like the Costa Concordia and frequent, well-publicized outbreaks of noroviruses, cruising is as popular as ever.

But even though I had a wonderful time on our two cruises, I can’t help feeling a trifle guilty. Let me explain:

cruise food

Great food, great service

First, there’s the eating part. On a cruise, they give you as much food as you want. Some people spend two hours gorging on breakfast, take an hour break for sunshine, then dive back into the cafeteria for another couple hours binge eating their lunch. And, judging by the two Royal Caribbean cruises that we’ve done, the food is very, very good. The evening meals and service are 5-star quality (at least to my pedestrian tastes). Lobster bisque, Dungeness crab, smoked salmon for appetizers. Veal chops, filet mignon, seared diver scallops with chorizo sausage and parsnip purée or caramelized orange drizzle for entrées. Crème brûlée, coconut and lychee gâteau, and other dishes with words with letters that have accents for dessert.

Of course, if you’re restrained enough, you don’t have to eat like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But for me that’s very difficult. And the overeating – aka gluttony – induces guilt.

Secondly, I always have a nagging sense that I’m being indolent. On a cruise, other than dressing and undressing yourself, there’s absolutely no work. Minimal walking, and no cooking, cleaning, planning, driving, gassing. This is really tough for an impatient neurotic like myself. Running 30 loops around the rubberized track on deck while dodging tipsy tourists helps a little, but not much. My trail friend, Paul, deliberately avoids cruises due to their hedonistic aspect. He believes a vacation should be earned, that one should work for one’s leisure.

“Well, we worked our regular jobs all year for this vacation,” I explained to him. “So didn’t we earn it?”

“No, I mean you should have to work during your vacation as well. Like run a marathon, or spend a week volunteering on the bike trail.”

Then again, Paul is a self-admitted anal retentive proctoid, so maybe his opinion doesn’t count.

promenade

Promenade on ship

Thirdly, there’s the problem of the ship itself. These things are like miniature cities. They’re behemoths. And they keep getting bigger and bigger. The biggest passenger ship in the world used to be Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, built in 2006. This ship featured several pools, a basketball court, miniature golf course, boxing ring, FlowRider surfing simulator, rock-climbing wall, ICE SKATING RINK, indoor mall, and dozens of lounges, eateries, and shops.

In 2009, the Freedom of the Seas was surpassed by the record-setting, 225,000-ton Oasis of the Seas. This ship has everything the Freedom has and more: a teen spa, science lab, carousel, tattoo parlor, indoor AquaTheatre, two surf simulators, and the piéce de résistance: a Central Park-styled indoor park that includes (mixed in with the boutiques and bars) 12,000 plants and 56 trees.

Central Park at sea

Central Park at sea

Actually, this park idea should be viewed as good news. With dozens of plant and animal species going extinct worldwide every day, bottling up a few of them on the ocean for the enjoyment of sunburnt tourists with perpetual indigestion is probably a good thing.

Of course, with size also comes environmental concerns. Royal Caribbean has a pretty good green initiative compared to most cruise ships. But they still have a ways to go. At a talk given by the Environmental Officer on our last cruise, I asked about several rubber balls flying over the edge of the vessel during the dodge ball tournament. She told me they plan to build a higher restraining net. Also, that each time a ball goes overboard, the ship sends out a report.

Now, really. Am I supposed to believe that RC sends out little PT boats to round up these floating balls? With all the worldwide cruise ship lines, their ships, their excursions, and their dodge ball tournaments, all I can say is there must be a helluva rubber lining on the Earth’s ocean floor.

So, even though, like most people, I love to eat and relax and be pampered, there’s always that nagging guilt. It’s probably why, periodically, I plunge into the woods to sleep in a moldy tent and eat processed cardboard. This way I get a little balance. My friend Paul would be proud: I actually earn my vacation.

I also get to gaze on some plants and trees in their native habitat. Without burping.

 

concordia

Making Amish

Two weeks ago my wife and I visited the Guggisberg Swiss Inn in Holmes County, Ohio, USA.  For those who don’t know about Holmes County, it has one of the largest populations of Amish in the USA – roughly 36,000 total.  Holmes County is not only a beautiful place to visit, with its rolling hills and winding roads (and splendid fall colors), but it’s also a step back into time.  The Amish are not only very strict in regards to religion, but their rural lifestyle and clothing have changed very little since the 19th century.

The town of Berlin is perhaps the most popular Amish locale for non-Amish (non-Amish are called “English” by the Amish.  So if you’re Hispanic, Asian, African American, whatever…you’re still “English”!).  Berlin, with its world-famous Amish furniture, quaint shops, and home-style restaurants has become a bit of a tourist trap.  But the smaller town of Charm is a little different.  The “Charm Days” festival was going on the weekend we visited, the centerpiece of which was a large auction.  Not only did we get to hear some expert auctioneers at work, but we actually got to feel like “guests” rather than tourists – the Amish comprised about 90 percent of the crowd, whereas we “English” were the distinct minority!

The Inn also offered the opportunity to eat supper at an Amish home.  Lynn and I dined with two other couples at the home of Wayne and Iva Miller (one couple was from Cleveland, and the other couple were two ladies from Germany and Belgium).  Although Wayne was out bowhunting “whitetail,” Iva and her six children proved to be fantastic hosts.  We ate in the Millers’ unfinished walk-in basement, which was very sparse but also very clean.  We had coleslaw for an appetizer; fresh baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, noodles, Canadian bacon, green beans, and bread with fresh strawberry preserves for the main course; and angelfood cake for dessert.  Iva and the kids had their own meal on the other side of the room.  After dessert, the four Miller girls entertained us by singing a couple harmonies they’d learned in church.

Overall it was a fun, peaceful, memorable weekend.  We’re thinking of going back again next year – but I may have to diet for several weeks ahead of time!