Knowing that he reads this blog is what made me just a tad apprehensive when I met him for lunch at our usual place, a roadside diner-like joint where the food is barely passable but where the staff and management don’t seem to mind our sitting for three hours drinking tap water while we address—if not actually solve—most of the world’s problems.
You might recall that I had written a rather unenthusiastic, yet decidedly inspired blog about barbecue (not my preferred cuisine) and in the process had given pretty short shrift to Texas. I don’t take the concept of “short shrift” lightly, mostly because of its inherent religious connotations that I don’t understand. And actually, it was pretty much no shrift at all that I gave to the state by merely mentioning that beef is the preferred meat in Texas barbecue. My sole reference to Texas was not meant to be either mean-spirited or dismissive; it was merely an oversight, but was widely interpreted as a slight. A similar reaction might be expected had I written about lobster and only casually mentioned Maine.
My Texan friend, a retired newspaper editor-cum-mystery writer, is from Michigan—where the culinary tradition seems to focus on a hot dog called the Flint Coney Island Lunch, which makes no grammatical or gastronomic sense. My friend lives in Texas most of the year and celebrates barbecue. Fly rod in hand, he spends his summers in Montana where many of us are rumored to live on roadkill and whatever can be made out of huckleberries—provided you get to them before the bears do.
My friend is an erudite and thoughtful gentleman whose politics just happen to mesh with my own. We like to swap war stories from our newspaper days, drop a few names of the famous and the infamous we’ve known, and discuss what we’re currently reading. (He seems slightly obsessed with biographies of Mark Twain, of late; I enjoy doctoral theses about fruit pies.) We always talk politics, which lately focuses on various paths to impeachment. We frequently find sports to be a worthy topic for discussion and reminiscence (neither of us got to realize our dreams of playing shortstop in the major leagues, but at least we aren’t bitter about it). We usually manage to talk about food (neither of our mothers were very good cooks).
“You do know that Texans take their barbecue pretty seriously,” he said, looking up from his menu. It was less a question than an understatement of fact that I would have no choice but to acknowledge.
“Oh, yeah,” I replied, my confident tone indicating a deep understanding of a relationship between food and man that could only be rivaled by the relationship many Texans have with football, ten-gallon hats, Lone Star beer and revival meetings.
“There was just so much to cover there,” I offered by way of apology, suggesting that whole books—dare I say, volumes— could be written about the varieties and vagaries of Texas barbecue and its being the very essence of the culture of Texas.
His mere expression told me that several books already had been written about Texas barbecue. And not just Texas barbecue in general but the four major styles of Texas barbecue that I had ignored—East, Central, West and South—and that have each been afforded several treatments between hard covers. Many little dusty towns have been given such literary treatment as well, based solely on their distinctive barbecue flavors, smoked-or-grilled philosophies, myriad sauces and residual grease build-up, the latter of which provides the flavor base that is the purest expression of umami.
I was losing traction in this culinary quicksand, backsliding into a mire of molasses-based sauce that, like crude oil, flows so freely in South Texas. I could sense that no good could come of this. I had to find a way to recover. I had to find a way to stop mixing metaphors.
But all I could think about at that awkward moment was a dinner at a Dallas restaurant in 1988 (this date gains significance starting in just eight more words) when a waiter told me that my $38 steak could be had for $36 if I chose to cook it myself at the open-pit grill that dominated the center of the dining room. This dinner was a meeting of seven high-powered cable television executives trying to decide if a channel featuring round-the-clock coverage of international weather could be profitable. I was the eighth wheel at this gathering and a total skeptic about the public’s interest in barometric pressure. I was low-man-on-the-totem-pole at this dinner, but even my suit was an $800 Armani and I wasn’t going to cook my own steak. “How much is the salad if I make that myself?” I asked the waiter. He didn’t answer.
At this juncture any telling of that odd dining experience in Dallas to my friend could only be interpreted as yet another slight—however unintended—against Texas. I feared that I had already “messed with Texas,” which all the guide books warn against doing.
“Barbecue is a lot more serious in Texas than I could have ever imagined,” I offered, my tone apologetic. “After all,” I added, “I’m from Chicago and we’re really only serious about hot dogs, Italian beef and politicians named Daley.”
He told me about several hole-in-the-wall barbecue discoveries he’d made in little towns all over Texas and the competitions that occur incessantly in pastures on the outskirts of those very towns. Except during football season, Texans spend their weekends rating brisket.
“And real Texas chili doesn’t have beans,” he said.
I had missed whatever led up to that segue from barbecue to chili, but I viewed it as salvation.
“Oh, I know,” I said, shaking my head knowingly and adding, stupidly, “I always put pinto beans in mine.”
Someday I’ll learn to shut up. Actually, at this stage of the game that seems unlikely.
Chili con carne
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
6 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/4 cup chili powder
1 Tbs. ground cumin
2 pounds lean chopped beef
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 (15-ounce) cans pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pickled jalapeños, drained
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onions and bell pepper, season with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 minutes.
Add the garlic, chili powder, and cumin, stir to coat the vegetables, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the beef and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and cook until the beef is no longer pink, about 7 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a slow cooker, add the diced tomatoes and their juices, tomato sauce, and beans, and stir to combine. Cover and cook until the chili thickens and the flavors meld, about 8 hours on low or 6 hours on high.
Stir in the jalapeños. Taste and season with salt as needed. Serve topped with a good cheddar cheese, chopped scallions, and sour cream (optional).
Oddly enough, I have another friend from Texas who was the editor of the Dallas Morning News and is an accomplished mystery writer whose mother was a lousy cook. I am a huge fan of coincidence. Not to be confused with my lunch mate, Ralph Langer is the author of Not Guilty, a page-turner of a novel that I highly recommend. It can be found at amazon.com. I also wish to applaud the success of The Weather Channel.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska