TOLBERT2 GOES BY the name X2 (pronounced X squared). He sells his secret family recipe frozen in plastic tubs at Whole Foods Markets, while his sister, Kathleen Tolbert Ryan, serves it in a chili parlor in Grapevine, Texas. Tolbert2 insists most of the chili served across the United States is corrupt. Its still hard to find a good bowl of chili, he says. Traditional chili was a basic dish that you could find in every café in the 1920s and 30s, and then it disappeared -- or [went] into ill repair. By ill repair, Tolbert2 means bowls of red that have beans or vegetables, such as celery.
Real chili is chunked or coarsely ground meat battered into tenderness in a cauldron of chile peppers, spices, and herbs -- Sodom and Gomorrah in a bowl. Legend has it that chili was begotten in small cafés and by sidewalk vendors in circa-1880 San Antonio, Texas. Others say it originated much earlier, in the pots of the impoverished and in the chuck wagons that accompanied cattle drives.
Whatever chilis nativity may be, it was the chili queens who imparted color to the dish. These were the women who appeared at dusk dragging carts with crude pots and tables in San Antonios downtown plaza. Dressed in garish garb and with roses pinned to their bosoms, the queens fastened large, ornate lamps in vivid colors to their carts, fired their pots with charcoal and mesquite to keep the chili simmering, and used the smoke and pepper fumes to seduce customers. Adding to the enticement of the evening were the street musicians, who could often be found serenading the chili-smitten. In The Enchanted Kiss, writer O. Henry tells the tale of a shy drugstore clerk who was seduced by a queens attractants. By 1943, though, the chili queens had been eradicated by the San Antonio health department -- the city had decreed that they must adhere to the same sanitation standards as indoor cafés.
There are also those who claim that chili bubbled up from Texas jails. They didnt treat the prisoners very well [in the jails]; they just fed them anything to keep them alive, says Carol Hancock, CEO of the International Chili Society in San Juan Capistrano, California. So they cooked inexpensive pieces of meat with beans and chile peppers. The chile peppers enhanced the flavor of whatever else they were trying to push off as real food. Be that as it may, though, the dish seemed to be a hit with the incarcerated. According to A Bowl of Red, Texas jails made chili that was so good, ex-inmates took to writing requests for the recipe, stating that what they missed most in the free world was a good bowl of the stuff.
Perhaps it is this colorful history that inspires such religious fervency among chili heads, like a force that inspires passions, fundamentalism, numerous heresies, conflict, and discipleship. Without chili, I believe I would wither and die, wrote the late Smith in his August 1967 Holiday Magazine article. Smith inspired the unholy hell of chili cook-offs across the country, which simmer to this day. He added: You may suspect, by now, that the chief ingredients of all chili are fiery envy, scalding jealousy, scorching contempt, and sizzling scorn.
Scorn for the numerous heresies, including Springfield chili, which is corrupted by beer, Worcestershire sauce, and pinto beans. In 1993, the state senate of Illinois proclaimed Springfield the Chilli Capital of the Civilized World, though any self-respecting Texan would cite their spelling of chili as conclusive evidence of barbarism. The Illinois senates declaration was perhaps a savage poke at the actions of Texas chili manufacturers, who in 1977 persuaded the Texas legislature to shun the states barbecue pagans and proclaim chili the official state food of Texas.
Yet an even more unspeakable blasphemy lies in the chili dens of Cincinnati. First created in parlors operated by Greek immigrants in the 1920s, Cincinnati chili is laced with cinnamon, allspice, and chocolate, and is slathered over tangles of spaghetti thats then topped with shredded cheese, onions, and kidney beans. What hath God wrought?
Chasens restaurant, which simmered chili from 1936 to 2000 in Beverly Hills, California, seduced a bevy of disciples, including comedian Jack Benny, FBI kingpin J. Edgar Hoover, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, actor Clark Gable (who allegedly dined on chili the night he died), and actress Elizabeth Taylor, who had 10 quarts of the stuff shipped from Los Angeles to Rome while filming the ruinously expensive saga Cleopatra.
Why the reverence? Renee Moore, city clerk in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and president of the Chili Appreciation Society International, puts it simply, saying, When I put it in my mouth, the spices just explode. And then you swallow, and you get a little bit of that aftertaste, a little bit of that after burn on the back of your tongue -- not so much that it burns out your tonsils but just spicy enough so that you know youve had a good bowl of chili.
Let us now give thanks.