Register Sunday | October 1 | 2023

Hooray for chili: The cure for the winter blues is bean-free and piping hot

Third-place finalist in Maisonneuve’s “Cruelest Month” literary contest

Winters were fun in the eighties-or at least I think they were. I have a vivid memory of laying outside in a snow fort, my older sister next to me in the dark, crisp silence of the evening. We would be out there for what felt like hours, making snow angels, staring at the stars, shoving fistfuls of snow into our mouths. Everything was lucid; there was nothing to trouble me. Snow was fun.

Winters aren't the same now that I'm older. Instead of revelling in little things like snowflakes on my eyelashes, I'm chagrined by slush splashing up at me while I wait for the streetcar and by the face-numbing wind tunnels formed by skyscrapers when wind hastens off the lake. For adults, a winter in Toronto is backbreaking and colourless-we shovel driveways amid snow that looks like soot as soon as it lands.

Fortunately, I've found an escape from the unbearable condition of Toronto winters: Chili.

When I was a little girl, I hated chili so much that when my family would have it for dinner, I wouldn't join them at the table. I'd escape to my bedroom with a peanut-butter sandwich in one hand, plugging my nose with the other.

I've since then discovered that it wasn't actually the chili that I hated but the kidney beans. My child psyche tricked me into missing out on chili for most of my life-until recently. This year, chili saved me from the treacherous winters that adulthood can bring. Bye-bye, seasonal depression! Now, no matter what daunting winter task I'm performing, chili's there as the soothing reward for my hardships-and always free of kidney beans when I make it.

Actually, according to the International Chili Society (yes, there actually is one), true chili should never contain beans. I guess I was right, in my sprightly years, to sense that something was wrong with the beany slop my family ate. If you were to participate in an ICS cookout, you'd have to abide by their view that "traditional red chili is defined as any kind of meat or combination of meats, cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients, with the exception of BEANS and PASTA which are strictly forbidden." This comes from the largest food-contest festival organization in the world, so listen up.

Unfortunately, there are no ICS cook-offs in any Canadian metropolis this year, but there is one taking place in the Royal Room at the Brooks Elk Club in Brooks, Alberta, on March 18, 2006. If anyone's interested in practising for the event, or simply relishing in the wonders of chili for the remainder of this icy hell, try Texas journalist and chili fanatic Joe Cooper's recipe. I prefer my version with ground turkey.

Joe Cooper's Chili*

3 pounds lean beef (never veal)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 litre water
2 bay leaves
8 dry chili pods or 6 tablespoons chili powder
3 tablespoons salt
10 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon cumin powder
1 teaspoon oregano or marjoram
1 teaspoon red pepper
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons paprika
3 tablespoons flour
6 tablespoons cornmeal

When olive oil is hot, in 6-litre pot, add meat and sear over high heat; stir constantly until grey-not brown. It will then have the consistency of whole-grain hominy. Add 1 litre water and cook (covered) at bubbling simmer 1.5 to 2 hours. Then add all ingredients, except flour and cornmeal. Cook another 30 minutes at same bubbling simmer but no longer as further cooking will damage some of the spice flavours. Now add thickening, previously mixed in 3 tablespoons cold water. Cook 5 minutes to determine if more water is necessary (likely) for your desired consistency. Stir to prevent sticking after thickening is added. Some prefer all flour, others all cornmeal, and still others use cracker meal-about as good, and more convenient. Suit your own taste.

* Recipe taken from the ICS website.