How Do You Make Chili? On Learning (And Changing) My Mom's Recipe

If I don’t taste it enough times that I’m completely full by the time it hits the table, I did it wrong.
Publish date:
December 7, 2013
family, xoFood, recipes, m-rated

Tonight I’m making chili, and I was thinking about how chili is one of those incredibly individual family recipes and I LOVE those.

Like, my chili recipe is my mom’s. I learned it by watching her, and when I moved out I think I made her email me the recipe or write it down at least five times before I really had it saved and memorized and tagged appropriately in my gmail. My dad swears this recipe is actually HIS mom’s recipe, that was given to my mom at some point after they married. I’m not sure I believe him, because I never had anything even close to resembling this chili at my grandparent’s house. They liked to put corn and stuff in there; mom’s is much simpler. So simple I actually didn’t believe her the first time she gave it to me.

I know it’s a thing for some families to withhold key ingredients when they pass recipes down, but I had never met anyone who actually had that family member until I met my husband. His Polish grandmother did this with basically all of her recipes. Her daughters, and the wives of her sons, got the recipes missing one or two crucial ingredients so that when she was gone, everyone could still make her food but they’d sit around and say, “You know, it just isn’t as good as Ma always made it.”

And I get that! Food is a love language and this is a way of enforcing that they miss you forever, at least for that generation. I think it’s a very limited kind of missing, obviously, since the first generation that never knew your cooking will never know what they’re not tasting, but there it is. Much better in my mind to leave the whole recipe so your great-grandkids that never knew you can taste your pierogies and imagine what a great person you must have been to share such a wonderful thing.

Food, man, that’s some magic there. My husband’s mother married into this family, and happened to marry the grand matriarch’s baby. So the Irish Girl got the real recipes because mom needed to make sure her baby could have the good pierogies instead of the trash everyone else was going to be making. A soft spot, it probably ruined all of her plans.

Back to the chili. Actually, really back to it. If I don’t taste it enough times that I’m completely full by the time it hits the table, I did it wrong. That was my job as far back as I can remember, for my mom’s chili and her spaghetti sauce. I taste it and tell her what it needs more of. Sometimes it was as simple as, “Mom I don’t know? Something is missing? It needs more stuff.” And she would have to taste it and figure out what that was, and I’d taste it again and thumbs up or down. And then I’d taste it fifteen more times. Sometimes I’d have to sneak in for this. Tasting is a very important job and even the chef isn’t allowed to stop you. (“Emily, what are you doing?” “Nothing!” “Are you tasting the chili again?” “. . .no?” “Emily.”)

My mom’s recipe is incredibly simple. If it sounds like I’m knocking her ingredient choices I’m not, she did what she could with what she had, and it was damn good. I have different tastes and experiences. So mom basically always used powdered spices and herbs, and I go for fresh whenever possible, especially if I grew it.

Sidenote: if you have only ever used dried basil and rosemary, I can NOT stress how much I think you need to go buy fresh packets at the store to make spaghetti sauce, even just once. If you hate it, cool, you’re exempt, but oh my god the first time I used fresh, straight out of the garden (a pot) in the back, I nearly died it was so good.

Right! Chili! I am having a beer while it simmers because obviously, so the mind, it wanders.

We use ground beef. Husband likes steak chunks. Ours is not even remotely spicy, because mom can’t handle any heat. Sometimes I throw in some actual chilis or chipotle or whatever. Chopped onion, unless you don’t have an onion, in which case onion powder, whatever. Giant can of stewed tomatoes, except I always forget to buy that, so I tend to use a can of diced tomatoes and a can of tomato sauce. Garlic powder? AND chopped garlic cloves from my garden, because that’s how I roll. Mom always uses the shittiest beer imaginable, Bud Light or Budweiser or whatever else she poured out of a can. I usually end up using a Blue Moon hefeweizen or something out of a bottle because I can’t justify buying an entire six-pack of something that I will never, ever drink, and also I’m a snob, let’s just say it.

Mom’s trick, which I should be doing and don’t, is that one night she’d make beans in the crockpot and we’d have beans and cornbread for dinner, and the leftover beans went into the chili the next night. I dump in a can of whatever beans are in my cabinet. Tonight I did one can black beans and one can red beans because, whatever. This cherry wheat Sam Adams is fucking great. Salt, pepper, cumin, whatever, throw some shit in there. Simmer, while tasting every time you feel like it, and there we are.

I grew up eating my chili with saltines and shredded cheese, Fritos if it was chili pie night at church. Now it’s usually tortilla chips, again, whatever. But this is what I’m talking about is the endless variations and the way my chili still tastes like mom’s but also not, and how we do things exactly the same and completely different.

There’s an old joke about the woman cutting off the ends of a roast, and finally her daughter asks why. Mom doesn’t know, it’s just how her mom always did it. So they call grandma and ask, and grandma laughs her ass off while she tells them her pan just wasn’t big enough for the whole thing. Thinking about it now, I’m wondering if anyone has ever actually had that really happen, since the joke’s old enough that wasting that much roast sounds like an abomination, but hey. It’s a metaphor for the traditions we carry on without knowing why or what purpose they originally served, and there’s certainly plenty of those around.

I know I’ve made it sound like this is a way I’m connected to the women in my family and it is, but I share cooking with my husband too, and I love his chili just as much as mine even if it is an entirely different beast. It also makes me think of my dad and his family, and wonder about the divergence of the different recipes, since I know all the places mine hares off.

And you’ve got your steak chilis, your chicken chili, vegan white bean chili, you can even have chili without beans if you don’t mind the pedants telling you how as soon as you take them out it isn’t “really” chili anymore (and maybe they’re right but it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. Also a few years ago when I started gardening I found out where “not worth a hill of beans" comes from, but maybe later), and I guess like with any food as long as you’re getting results you like you’re doing it right.

I think I like the infinitely changeable and simple recipes like this that get passed down more than anything I’ve ever really labored over, and I think my mom would be pretty impressed by the bowl of chili I just sat down to.