The Story of Southern Chili (Chili, Baby Back Ribs)
Fat Bastard, a character in Austin Powers, sings a stupid song about chili and baby back ribs, and it’s been stuck in my head for nearly 20 years. “Austin Powers 2 — The Spy Who Shagged Me” came out in 1999. That was the year I lived in Kentucky. Yes, of all places on Earth, my highly prestigious, competitive Russian high school exchange program placed me on a horse farm in Leitchfield, KY, a rural community with a population of 6,500. Despite what you may think, it was a marvelous year. It was different, fun, and challenging in every possible way: an urban girl, living in the country; a Jewish girl, living in a devout Christian family; a homebody going to Civil War re-enactments, and sleeping in a tent; a teen with only one sibling, living in a big family with children, grandchildren, foster children, exchange students, and cousins. The school was different, the boys were different, the showers, stores, even the pencils were different.
One thing was just like my home in Russia: I immediately bonded with my host family and knew I met “my” people. They embraced me, took me in, treated me like their own daughter, and to this day I call Jeanne & Jerry my American parents. It was a simple yet important discovery, maybe the most important one of that year: good people are everywhere. You can be loved and cared for in the most obscure, distant corner of the world. And nothing is without a reason, a bigger plan. Maybe I’m writing this in my home in Miami only because I lived on the farm in KY!
And the food, the food of course. Kentucky comes to my mind in splashes of green colored fields, in the smell of hay and horses and scented candles, and the flavors of southern food: very sweet ice-tea (I’d never drunk tea cold before), pot pies, bologna sandwiches, casseroles, sweet potato pies, lasagna (my first time) with garlic rolls, biscuits and gravy, my very first Thanksgiving turkey, and church potlucks, and mac-n-cheese, and grilled cheese. The list is seemingly endless. My Mom Jeanne is an excellent cook, and I have the honor of inheriting some of her signature recipes, even kitchen utensils that I use in my own kitchen today.
Chili is a dish for cold winter nights, but my distinct memory of it is hay picking. This experience is the embodiment, the essence of my Kentucky year. People on a farm must feed their animals so every summer, they have to stack and gather pallets of hay. It is virtually impossible to do this alone so the whole community gathers to help: church friends, and re-enactment friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, and cousins. Everyone chips in what they can. And of course, there are tractor rides, and horseback rides, and playing with chickens, and gossip, and music, and laughter. And Jeanne organizes this chaos of people, and quenches their thirst, and encourages them, and, of course, feeds everyone. Because nothing is better after a day of hard physical labor than a bowl of steaming hot chili with a glass of cold tea or Coke.
So I cook and eat chili the way I was taught in my high school exchange year on a horse farm in Leitchfield, KY: with spaghetti, sour cream, and lots of cheese, accompanied by a cold drink and (my favorite part, I don’t know why) many buttered saltine crackers. I crave chili few times a year, it’s my comfort food. Every time I cook it or eat it, I remember that truly transformational year with tenderness and gratitude. Jeanne, Jerry, and Jeni, this one is for you, my first love, and all-American family.
I found out that Jerry passed away on the day I published this story.
The Magic Ingredients
- 1lb ground meat (I used pork & beef, can be turkey or chicken, or no meat at all)
- 2 onions
- 2–3 carrots, we got these lovely multi-colored ones
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 hot pepper
- 3–5 cloves garlic
- 2 cans beans (15.5 oz each), I use red kidney beans here
- 2 cans diced tomatoes (14.5 oz each)
- 1 can pureed tomatoes (29 oz)
- 1 heaped teaspoon chilli powder
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cinnamon (or some dark chocolate)
- salt & pepper
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- pasta, grated cheese, sour cream, saltine crackers, and an ice-cold drink to serve
- Chop all the vegetables relatively small. I once again used my mandolin slicer. Just be careful, I managed to slice my finger a little, it was not fun.
- The hack: if you end up having extra hot peppers, they freeze like a charm, and then they are super easy to grate, or slice. The trick is to remember you have them somewhere! I could barely taste it, so if you like spicy, add more peppers!
- Add a few spoons of vegetable oil to the big pot, heat up on medium heat, and dump all the veggies at the same time. Add salt & pepper. Sauté for a few minutes, till vegetables are soft, and onions — translusent. Stir once in a while, for even cooking.
- Add your spices, I think cinnamon is the key. Fun fact, every time I visit my KY fam, I bring back packets of ready chili spice mix. I suspect they sell them everywhere in the United States, but I know for sure “my” Kentucky ones are charged with love & magic, so I add the packet too.
- Drain the beans, and add them to the pot.
- Heat through, mix carefully.
- Add all the tomatoes, diced & pureed. Then fill the big can with water (any good cook would tell you to rinse your cans, Jeanne surely does, my Mom too!), and dump it into the pot. It should be filling up nicely.
- Bring to heat.
- Now add your meat(s). Break in the big chunks with the spoon or spatula.
- I discovered that adding meat last, keeps it soft, and juicy. If you fry it first it gets a little dry, just make sure you don’t leave big chunks, it gets a little tricky in a big pot filled with tomatoes & liquid.
- Last but not least add balsamic vinegar. It makes the stew/soup/chili more delicate, and softens tomato flavor.
- If you want, add a few cubes of dark chocolate now, it gives the dish this nice smokiness, and South American flavor. But cinnamon suffices too.
- Bring to boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer with a lid slightly ajar for 1 hour, or until thickened and reduced, stirring occasionally.
- While the chili is bubbling away, prep a few things for serving.
- Boil & drain pasta (I prefer regular spaghetti).
- Take out cheese, shred if necessary, get sour cream.
- Butter a whole bunch of saltine crackers, it’s a pain to do, once you are ready to devour the chili burning your mouth along the way, it’s really hard to pace yourself.
- I think people also add cilantro or parsley on top, but I don't.
- Serve it with Coke or cold sweet tea over ice, in a Mason jar, if you can. It will taste even better.
- Serve your chili over spaghetti, or add it over like a soup, with a whole bunch of cheese, and sour cream.
- Before you eat, say a little prayer, and remember that good people are everywhere.