Not your mother’s chili
When people ask about my job, I inevitably tell them that the hardest part is writing this column every week. Column writing was never something I was interested in or thought I was remotely good at. Being eviscerated by a well-respected professor in a college column writing class reaffirmed this mindset early on.
Being the reporter who has to cover most of the news in western Garfield County, a fact that disqualifies me from simultaneously offering commentary in the form of a column, only adds to the difficulty, as does my belief that the media landscape is already oversaturated with polarizing social, cultural and political commentary. That rules out a pretty good chunk of topics.
More times than not, it is a struggle to land on a subject that I feel comfortable writing about. However, that is not the case this week. Oct. 1 is the 36th annual Rifle Chili Cook-Off. The event, organized by the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce, is expected to draw more than 500 people to the Garfield County Fairgrounds — an astounding number for a Thursday night chili contest. As I write this, The Citizen Telegram/Colorado Mountain News Media team is gearing up to wipe the floor with our fellow contestants. Consider this your warning.
Pretend competitiveness aside, I am excited for this particular event, as are my teammates, who are doing almost all the heavy lifting, including making the actual chili.
While I can talk at length about my love for the stuff, I don’t have an amazing recipe that blows all others out of the water, or a sentimental, top secret list of ingredients passed down from generation to generation.
My mother would occasionally make a hearty red beef chili that was never consistent — heavy on the beans one time and an overwhelming amount diced onion the next.
One of the few times I made my own chili, one very similar to the bright red concoction my mother would make, it went over well with my co-workers at a company potluck. But that was 10 months or so ago, and I haven’t considered making another batch since — mostly because chili is never made in small quantities, and I could never eat all of it before it spoils.
What I do have is a steady yearning for Cincinnati chili. Transplants, and even some natives, might refer to that as a disease.
Cincinnati chili, for those who do not know, is a dark, dark red and runny substance with a taste that I cannot quite describe, despite the fact that I’ve consumed a disgusting amount of it in my life — including four trips to my favorite, Skyline Chili, when I was visiting the family in August.
People did, and still do, talk about the various recipes (the big two are the aforementioned Skyline and its competition, Gold Star Chili) in a mythical sense. Some say it’s a combination of chocolate and cinnamon that gives the chili its unique taste. Whatever it is (every Google search for “Cincinnati chili recipe” will tell you it’s a lot of ingredients) the stuff holds a special place in my heart, or gut.
I constantly badger those back home to send me cans of the it, and when they do, I squirrel it away in my stockpile. It’s one of the few things that stirs nostalgia for the place I’m from.
It wasn’t until coming to Colorado that I learned how bizarre that place and its “chili” truly are. Unlike what most people consider chili, Cincinnati chili is not scooped into a bowl and devoured with a spoon in hand.
It’s poured over noodles (the classic three-way) or a hot dog and topped with cheese (your standard cheese coney). For nearly my entire life, this is what chili was. Then I moved to Colorado and brought a tupperware container filled with pasta along with a slow-cooker of chili to the company potluck. Almost everyone in the office that day looked at me like I was insane.
“You’re telling me you eat chili without noodles?” I asked.
Again, I was met with stares questioning my sanity. The few times I’ve attempted to explain my concept of chili since then have gone over the same, more or less. Rather than go on these experiences alone, I decided to ask Randy Essex, the editor at the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, for his thoughts. I first met Randy when I was an intern at the Cincinnati Enquirer where he was the senior editor. In addition to the fact that I have the utmost respect for him and the fact that he is my boss, Randy moved around the Midwest before his tenure in Cincinnati, which made him the perfect person to ask. His take differed, shall we say slightly, from mine.
“It doesn’t have the hearty flavor and texture that I think most of us expect from chili. It’s more of a kind-of-chunky sauce, and the flavor is … unique. Just not what an outsider would expect to be called chili.”
However, he ended with a key point about those particular food items that become ingrained in the identity of a city, state or region. In the case of Randy’s home state of Nebraska, it’s the runza, a Czech pocket sandwich, he said.
“I think Cincinnatians’ love for their chili is a little like Nebraskans’ affection for runzas — you taste it when you are a kid, your parents tell you it’s special, you believe them and acquire the taste right away because you also are tasting a little hometown pride.”
Based on what people have told me about the Rifle Chili Cook-Off, I’m sure there will be plenty of different tastes, some good and some not so good. Regardless of who wins, I’m looking forward to eating some chili and building some hometown pride in my new — still relatively new — hometown.
Ryan Hoffman is editor of The Citizen Telegram. He can be reached at 970-685-2103 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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