Seeing Red

by Gary Allen

The males of most species are cantankerous beasts, prone to excessive displays and aggressive behavior (think of the garish plumage of peacocks or birds of paradise, and the chest-​​thumping of silver-​​back gorillas). Human males, still relatively unevolved, are prime examples — and even in the kitchen, which is not (other than on Food TV) an arena for confrontation, male hackles are always ready to rise.

When it comes to dishes associated with male cooks — like barbecue and chili con carne – ego-​​spiced tempers can heat up faster than a mouthful of habaneros. Back in 1967, a humorist named H. Allen Smith — who lived in (of all places) New York’s Westchester County — published an article in Holiday magazine, in which he puffed up his chest and bragged, “Nobody knows more about chili than I do.”

As you might imagine, many chili aficionados, some of them native Texans, took wholly justified umbrage with that Yankee disrespect.

One irate Texan, Frank X. Tolbert, had recently published the very first book about chili: A Bowl of Red. Tolbert was a popular columnist at the Dallas Morning News. A reader of his “Tolbert’s Texas” column protested that no self-​​respecting Texan should ever allow an insult of that magnitude to stand unchallenged. He urged Tolbert’s friend Wick Fowler — creator of Wick’s Two-​​Alarm Chili mix — to defend the Lone Star State against this revival of the War of Northern Aggression.

Chili Peppers

Chili Peppers

The resulting show-​​down (that – surely a mere coincidence — served as a promotional stunt for A Bowl of Red) was the world’s first Chili Cook-​​Off. Some 250 people showed up to watch the two-​​man firefight in the small, but dusty, town of Terlingua. Smith made the classic mistake of bringing a ladle to a gunfight. Fowler, with characteristically understated Texan savoir faire, competed in the shade of an immense sombrero. Everyone expected the locale to have given the home-​​field advantage to Fowler.

However, when the dust (and/​or flatulence) cleared, the result was a draw.

Here’s your chance to try to relive a great moment in American history, the culinary equivalent of the Lincoln-​​Douglas debates. By the way, before you begin, Yankees – or other non-​​Texans – expect to see beans in chili. No real Texan would commit such heresy (‘though pintos might be served on the side).

H. Allen Smith’s Chili con Carne

2 Tbsp. olive oil or butter
4 pounds beef sirloin or tenderloin
coarse chili grind
1 small can tomato paste
4 cups water
3 medium onions, coarsely chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded
 and coarsely chopped
4 arge cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 Tbsp. ground hot red chile peppers
1 Tbsp. dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1/​2 tsp. dried basil
1 Tbsp. cumin seed or ground cumin 

to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper


Heat the oil or butter (or a blend of the two) in a heavy 4-​​quart pot over medium heat. Add the meat to the pot. Break up any lumps with a fork and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is evenly browned.

Stir in the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, uncovered, for 2 to 3 hours. Stir occasionally and add more water if necessary.
Taste and adjust seasoning.

Smith’s recipe reveals something that most Texans would consider to be symptoms of a seriously flawed character, or possible mental instability: basil and tomato paste. Really? Was Smith intending to make chili or spaghetti sauce? The man might just as soon gone the whole Cincinnati route and tossed in a big spoonful of cinnamon!

In the tradition of chili cook-​​offs, Wick Fowler’s competition recipe seems to have been kept secret, however here’s a contemporary recipe to compare with Smith’s:

Frank X. Tolbert’s Chili con Carne

3 pounds
lean beef
2 oz. rendered beef kidney suet
(if you want to go for it)
1 tsp. each oregano, cumin powder, salt, cayenne, Tabasco
3 Tbsp. chile powder
4 hot chile peppers
2 cloves garlic, chopped 
(or more)
2 tsp. masa harina, or cornmeal (optional)*


Sear beef in a large soup pot or cast-​​iron Dutch oven. You may need a little oil to prevent the meat from sticking. When the meat is all gray, add suet and chile peppers and about two inches of liquid (you can use water, I use beer). Simmer for 30 minutes.

Add spices and garlic, bring just to boil; lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes.

Add more liquid only to keep the mix from burning. Skim off as much grease as you can, and add masa harina. Simmer for another 30 minutes. Taste and adjust spices if necessary.
This is a spicy chili, so leave out some of the spicy stuff in the beginning if you have a tender tongue. At this point, I refrigerate the chili overnight which allows the chili to mellow and you can skim off all the grease. The masa adds a subtle, tamale-​​like taste, but it also thickens the chili.

Smith, H. Allen. “Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do.” Holiday 42:68 – 9, August 1967.

Tolbert, Frank X. A Bowl of Red. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Gary AllenGary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website:  onthetable​.us 

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