Grandma’s chili, part 1

Grandma & me

Me and my maternal grandmother. I think I was four?

My maternal grandmother was an improvisational cook. If you asked her for a recipe, it was always a bit of a ramble. If you worked with her to make whatever it was, there was always a narrative that went with it, with frequent asides about alternate ingredients you could use if you didn’t have something, or if you wanted it to be a bit different.

Most of her recipes began with the sentence: “First, chop an onion.” Most of her childhood was in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, but she also lived in Texas at several points, and her accent sounded more coastal Texan than Missourian. Her oldest brother, who was born in Kansas, often teasingly called her the family’s Texan transplant. I have sometimes labeled homemade chili’s I’ve made from Grandma’s recipe as “Grandma’s Texas Chili,” because of this.

As I mentioned above, her recipes are never strict. I must have eaten her chili hundreds of times, and helped her cook it dozens of times, and I suspect that no two of them were ever exactly alike. Her chili recipe differed from her others because, it begins with, “While the bacon is cooking down, chop an onion and your peppers.”

Among all the variants of Grandma’s chili I ever had, the only three constants were: onions, beans, and bacon. Usually there were several kinds of peppers, but if she didn’t have peppers, she’d just sprinkle in some (or, depending on her mood, and whole lot of) cayenne or even paprika. She favored ground beef, but would substitute pork sausage, ground chicken, or sometimes chopped meatballs or even chopped bologna, if that’s what she had. There might be tomatoes, or not. Frequently the tomato component would be generous dollops of her homemade green tomato relish (which was always spicy), because she almost always had many jars of it in the pantry. Even if she didn’t cook the relish in the chili, she’d usually set out a jar so you could add some to your bowl to spice it up.

She wasn’t particular about the beans. When I was younger, she almost always started with dry beans that soaked overnight. Later she was more willing to use canned beans, since they were more convenient. Any beans would do. I remember more than once she used Van Camp’s Pork & Beans.

The basics of the recipe were:

  1. Cook some bacon until it is very crisp, set the bacon aside.
  2. Chop your onions and peppers up while the bacon is cooking. Saute the onions and peppers in the bacon grease.
  3. Add your meat. Yes, even if it is extremely non-lean hamburger, cook it in the bacon grease. The bacon is very important!
  4. Season liberally with salt. Optional spices to throw in while satueing include pepper, chili pepper, cayenne, paprika, garlic, or pickled hot vegetables.
  5. Add tomatoes or tomato relish or tomato sauce if you are doing tomatoes.
  6. Depending on how you’re doing the beans and what kind of pan you’re cooking the onion, peppers, either add the beans and some liquid to the pan, or start the beans cooking in a pot and add the meat, onions, et al, to them.
  7. Crumble up the bacon and stir it in.
  8. Get the chili to a boil for a while, tasting and adding seasoning, until everything tastes right.
  9. Serve with grated cheese if you have it, and/or green tomato relish, or some salsa, or…

I mention the hot pickled vegetables because she almost always had some of those around the house, too. I was one of the few members of the family who loved eating those as much as Grandma (later, when I started regularly making haberno salsa to bring to family dinners, Grandma always asked to take the leftover home, so I started bringing a separate container of it just for her to take). One time, when she didn’t have any fresh peppers and didn’t have any cayenne, she fished all the pickled peppers out of a jar of the hot veggies, and poured some of the hot pickle brine into the pan with the sauteing bits.

Even with the wildest substitutions, by the time Grandma was finished, it was always Grandma’s Chili. And it was always great.

I’ve only gone all out on Grandma’s Chili a few times in the seven years since she died. I make chili all the time, but it’s not Grandma’s. When making “ordinary” chili, I am as prone to substitutions as Grandma was, and almost never use bacon. When I make chili that I call Grandma’s Chili, I always soak beans overnight, spend too much time choosing bacon, always get some fresh peppers, and onion (usually a sweet one). I try to steer the taste to the milder end, since my husband (and most of our friends) can’t take the kind of chili that Grandma or I would call hot. Sometimes I make some haberno salsa for myself and the brave souls.

I didn’t pick up any really hot peppers. I stuck to mostly sweet ones, since as far as I know it will only be Michael and I eating my chili tomorrow while I watch the Superbowl.

I’ll post a follow-up on how it came out.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

5 responses to “Grandma’s chili, part 1”

  1. Margaret Dean says :

    Chopping an onion is always a good way to start a recipe. πŸ™‚

  2. fenchurch says :

    I have so many family recipes that are similar in nature (although my husband likes to joke that all my family recipes end with “and then add more pepper”). None of them have ever been written down anywhere, because each of them is almost more a method than an actual recipe, but that’s what makes them so good.

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