Kimberly Winter Stern
Last week, during Game 2 of the World Series, a camera panning the crowd stopped to show a baseball fan doing what baseball fans do best when they’re not twirling towels or shouting at umpires: eating a ballpark frank and drinking a beer. The camera was fleeting, but it lingered long enough on a man thoroughly enjoying his ‘dog and brew, oblivious to the frantic activity around him, or for the moment, which team was winning. His tacit enjoyment of cuisine synonymous with baseball (I imagined the hotdog topped with chili, peanut shells scattered at this guy’s feet, and maybe a half-eaten bag of popcorn resting on his lap) reminded me of how inseparable food is to our rituals. Holidays. Sporting events. Family reunions. State fairs. Movies. Seasons.
For me, a family reunion isn’t the same without Dad’s Hellman’s-based potato salad. Thanksgiving? At least a spoonful of coconut ambrosia is required in between bites of turkey, mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing. During a movie the salt and the sweet are sublimely balanced with carefully synchronized fists of popcorn followed by three—not one, two or four but three—Junior Mints or the cinematic experience falls short. State fairs? No brainer—funnel cakes, corn dogs and, if you’re at the Iowa State Fair, a pork tenderloin sandwich as big as your head, slathered in yellow mustard.
With Midwest fall weather doing its annual spiral into frosty mornings and nippy evenings, my menu planning shifts to soups, stews and chilis. My recipe box has one tab for chili alone—I have, at last count, a dozen favorites. Black bean-ancho chili paired with corn muffins and honey. Chicken white chili that I serve with bowls of shredded Jack, sliced black olives and chopped scallions. Chunky vegetarian chili brightened with fennel, fresh dill and a generous squeeze of lemon juice. Curry chicken chili with apples and garbanzos. The chili con carne recipe of my childhood, always served in bowls designated for the stuff and accompanied by cubes of Velveeta, saltines and Mom’s cautionary words to Dad, “Rog, if you have a third bowl of that, you won’t sleep tonight!”
Growing up in a household that didn’t stray from the conventional where food was concerned, I thought for the longest time that there was a universal recipe for everything that came out of the kitchen. Pancakes were Bisquick slathered with Golden Griddle syrup; green beans were folded into cream of mushroom soup and topped with Durkee onion rings; the chocolate buttermilk cake that Mom made for after-school snacking was the same one that Shari’s mom down the street baked. And chili—well, I figured that tasty combination of ground beef, beans, tomatoes and seasoning that I anticipated every fall was what kids from coast-to-coast ate, too.
The chili education I’ve received over the years has taught me there’s more than one way to eat and appreciate a bowl. The plate of four-way Cincinnati-style chili I gobbled down at Camp Washington Chili was like an exotic dish to me the first time I ordered it during a business trip early in my corporate career. The New Mexican green chili at Tomasita’s on my inaugural visit to Santa Fe was as memorable as the day I met Julia Child signing her cookbook at Hall’s in Kansas City. Tolbert’s in Grapevine, Texas is known for its beanless, swooningly good bowl of red with big orbs of beef. Ben’s Chili Bowl in the nation’s capital has chili fries on the menu that should be its own food group. And every stadium across the country—whether it’s Major League Baseball, a farm team or the NFL—serves up chilidogs.
When it comes to chili, or barbecue, or the kind of stuffing you put in your holiday bird, this country is divided—everyone has a personal favorite. But we’re willing to try another variation, maybe adopt it and tweak it as our own or just savor the moment we’re enjoying that plate of two-way chili in Cincinnati that doesn’t remotely resemble the chili that was slow-cooked in the California or upstate New York or Mississippi kitchen of our youth.
This country is bipartisan when it comes to food, thankfully. In fact, that neighborly attitude could be a salve to our tattered souls. The nameless World Series fan dressed in a Rangers jersey, sitting in a St. Louis stadium, enjoying a hotdog and beer, probably didn’t care one bit that the chili on his frank wasn’t the brand he was used to.
One nation under chili. Has a nice ring to it, eh?
-Kimberly Winter Stern
Here’s a decidedly non-traditional chili recipe from the Dean & DeLuca Cookbook. Made with cubes of unpeeled eggplant and a fiery red chili puree, this is one of the dozen recipes that’s made it into my repertoire—served with white cheddar cheese, a dollop of Greek yogurt and blue corn chips, it’s a meaty, hearty main dish that’s a crowd pleaser.
Black Bean Chili with Eggplant
A great vegetarian dish.
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled, stemmed,
and cut into 1-inch cubes
salt for sprinkling the eggplant plus additional to taste
15 dried New Mexican red chilies (about
3 cups water
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, finely minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
28-ounce can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1/2 tablespoon Dean & Deluca Ground Coriander
1/2 teaspoon Dean & Deluca Ground Cumin
1 bay leaf
2 cups cooked black beans
white cheddar, coarsely grated
cilantro, coarsely chopped
Place the eggplant cubes in a strainer and sprinkle generously with salt. Let stand for 1 hour and pat dry with paper towels. Simmer the chilies and the 3 cups of water in a large saucepan for 20 minutes. Puree the chilies and the liquid, in batches, in a blender until very smooth. Force the puree through a fine sieve and discard any solid pieces.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over moderately high heat. Add eggplant and cook, stirring, until almost tender, about 4 minutes. Remove eggplant and set aside. Add onions and garlic to the same Dutch oven, adding more oil if necessary, and cook, stirring, for 4 minutes.
Add tomatoes, ground coriander, cumin, bay leaf, eggplant, and chili purée, and simmer 5 minutes. Add beans, and simmer over moderate heat for 15 minutes.
Season to taste with salt. Remove the bay leaf. Place in bowls and top with cheese, onions, and cilantro.
Overland Park, Kan.-based freelance writer Kimberly Winter Stern writes travel, food, lifestyle and design. Also known as the gregarious and cuisine-informed Kim Dishes, listeners tune in weekly for her on-the-road segments on “LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen,” a popular Kansas City radio food show. Prolific in eating, writing and discovering, this foodie satisfies an innate desire to sample the world’s gastronomic rainbow by meeting food artisans and trendsetters, gaining insight into the culinary points-of-view of everyone from cheese makers, chocolatiers and chefs who set their city’s locavore pace to farmers who are passionate producers. Stern is a sought-after writer, with work appearing in Better Homes and Gardens, Unity, KANSAS! Magazine, 435 South magazine, KC Homes & Gardens, Generation Boom, Shawnee Magazine, KC Magazine, KC Home Design, KC Business and Midwest CEO. Stern is a national blogger for the Dean & DeLuca Gourmet Food Blog where she cooks, styles, shoots and writes about life and cooking … and loves to lick the bowl clean. This writer may have been given product and/or other compensation from Dean & DeLuca for this post.