Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Dec 13, 2009
09:09 AM
Small Dishes

Chili Today

Chili Today

And still cold tomorrow.  Come winter, this diverse and spicy dish—often more a stew than a soup—moves to the front burner. Perhaps Mexican in inspiration, what we know as chili today evolved in Texas. Some claim that the “Chili Queens” first ladled it up on the streets of San Antonio in the late 1800s. Women would come to the plaza in that city at the crack of down, set up their makeshift stalls, and cook the thick beef and pepper soup over open fires.  Others insist it was chuck wagon fare born on cattle drives as early as the 1850s. Regardless, chili con carne is the official dish of the Lone Star State.  Purists there assert that the real thing contains exclusively meat and chile peppers and never beans or tomatoes.

 Worlds Fairs in Chicago (1893) and St. Louis (1904) introduced the novelty to the Midwest, where chili parlors soon sprung up like Mexican jumping beans.  Chili parlors peaked in popularity during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Cheap to make and extended with beans, a bowl of chili was full of protein and a satisfying meal.


 An enclave where chili parlors still thrive today is Cincinnati.  It was there in 1922 a Greek immigrant reformulated a batch of Texas-style chili, adding cinnamon, allspice and a dash of chocolate.  He served the whole mess over a pile of spaghetti.  With the addition of grated cheese, this new creation was dubbed a three-way.  A four-way adds your choice of onions or beans and a five-way includes both.


In Green Bay, another unorthodox rendition served over spaghetti was popularized by a restaurant called Chili John’s, opened by Lithuanian-born John Issac in 1913.  In Louisville, cooked spaghetti is mixed into the soup.  In New Orleans, chili like most things comes with rice.  Chili no longer necessarily eaten with a spoon or a fork.  Restaurants like Pink’s Hot Dogs in Hollywood and Ben’s Famous Chili Bowl in D.C. are duly celebrated for their chili-topped hot dogs and hamburgers. Unequivocally it is a dish embraced by the entire nation and adapted to suit local taste.


Chili can conjure up a multitude of concoctions. Its name is derived from the Spanish “chile con carne”—peppers with meat.   Every cook has his or her own idea about how it should be prepared. A major dispute rages over whether the meat should be chopped or ground and whether to add beans. Most of us grew up with chili made with chili powder, a blend of spices—ground dried chile peppers, salt, cumin, oregano and garlic. William Gebhardt, a German immigrant who lived in New Braunfels, Texas (near San Antonio) is often credited with the invention of chili powder in 1890. Gebhardt’s Eagle brand is still sold today.  Another popular brand made in El Paso, Mexene, dates back to 1906.  In Texas and the Southwest, most prefer this specialty flavored with dried whole or powdered chile peppers—New Mexico, ancho, pasillas, chiles de arbol, etc. Adding one’s own secret ingredients has become idiosyntric to chili making culture. Popular additions include chocolate, coffee, peanut butter, cola, beer, wine and bourbon.  Masa harina and even cornstarch are frequently used as a thickener. 


Chili cooking contests are popular everywhere. Wisconsin has its own nationally sanctioned State Chili Cook Off each September in Deacon Mills Park at Green Lake.  The winner advances to the Annual World’s Championship Chili Cookoff in Charleston, West Virginia.


I’ll end by living dangerously—suggesting a couple of chili recipes. (No, I’m sure they are not as good as yours!)  For those who don’t cook but still like to eat, here are my Best of Madison places to enjoy chili.


Eldorado Grill. KW’S Texas Chile is a house specialty and served both at lunch and dinner.

It combines beef with a soulful blend of New Mexican red, ancho, pasilla and Oaxacan chiles; and comes with shredded cheese, diced onions and a corn cake.


The Old Fashioned. As you might expect, the specialty here is Green Bay-style chili served over spaghetti with your choice of shredded cheddar, chopped onion and sour cream to pile on.


The Green Owl. Madison’s new vegetarian restaurant offers a vegan “chili of the day” that comes by the cup or bowl.


Chili John’s Chili can be purchased frozen at Metcalfe’s Market and Woodman’s West in Madison.



Texas Red Chili


¼ cup canola or corn oil

2 medium onions, peeled and chopped

4 large cloves garlic, minced

3 pounds lean chuck steak, diced

¼ cup pure ground ancho chile powder*

1½ tablespoons ground cumin

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 tablespoon pure ground pasilla chili pepper* or paprika

2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon Mexican oregano*

¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup masa harina*

4 cups chicken stock

2 16-ounce cans diced tomatoes with green chiles (undrained)


Cooked pinto beans, served on the side (optional)


Optional Garnish:

2 to 3 jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and chopped)

Grated Monterey Jack or cheddar cheese

Finely minced onion

Sour cream

Fresh cilantro

Lime wedges


Heat the oil in a large kettle over medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes.  Add the beef, and cook, stirring, until it's no longer pink.


Mix together the sugar and all the seasonings and then add to the meat with the masa harina.  Stir until well combined.  Continue to cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes.  Add the beef stock, stirring until well combined.  Add the tomatoes and their liquid.


Bring the chili to a boil, then reduce heat to very low.


Simmer the chili, uncovered, for 3½ to 4 hours, stirring occasionally.  Remove from the heat and, if desired, serve with cooked pinto beans on the side and garnished as desired.


Even better if made the day before.


Serves 8.


*These ingredients can be found at Mexican grocers and larger supermarkets.  Penzeys sells a variety of ground chili peppers.



Cincinnati-Style Chili


Modeled after the recipe made at Cincinnati’s Skyline Chili parlors.           


2 pounds ground chuck

4 cups water

2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

½ ounce unsweetened chocolate

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

5 whole cloves

½ teaspoon ground allspice

1 whole bay leaf

3 to 4 tablespoons chili powder

1½ teaspoons salt

1½ teaspoons cayenne

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


Cooked and drained spaghetti

Oyster crackers

Grated mild Cheddar cheese (optional)

Grated onion (optional)

Cooked and drained kidney beans (optional)


Add ground chuck to water in 4-quart pot. Stir until beef separates to a fine texture. Boil slowly for 30 minutes. Add all other ingredients. Stir to blend, bringing to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for about 3 hours. Pot may be covered the last hour after desired consistency is reached.


Chili should be refrigerated overnight, so that the fat can be lifted from top before reheating. Serve over spaghetti with oyster crackers.  For a “3-way,” add finely grated Cheddar cheese; for a “4-way,” add finely grated onion or beans and for a “5-way,” add both.


Serves 4 to 6.


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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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