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From My Window

Issue Date: November 8, 2018

Our Server Wore Camo

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

This column is actually about chili; but it was too good a column title to pass up when the inspiration hit me.

We recently hosted a good friend and former co-worker from Tulsa for a four day visit. She has relatives in Minneapolis and has spent time in Wisconsin before too; but never for a longer, relaxed visit like we had. She knew us for 18 years in Oklahoma, and is a good observer, so she was absorbing what our new life is like, and seeing us in our native environment for the first time.

One of our outings was to a cheese factory, of course, and on our way back we decided to have lunch in one of the local establishments so common in rural Wisconsin, which I very fondly refer to as "dumpy bars." These are typically older wooden structures, maybe a little shabby on the outside and homey and friendly inside. We sat down at a table, surrounded by a few other people, mostly retirees or tradespeople on their lunch break. Their conversations, of course, centered on deer hunting.

Our outgoing waitress soon came to our table, dressed head to toe in camouflage clothing. It is totally possible she had been out hunting before she reported to work; or perhaps it is her preferred daily attire. At any rate, we soon had ample portions of good food at a great price. As she set my bowl of chili in front of me, our friend stared at it. "There's noodles in your chili!" she exclaimed. Well, of course, I explained to her. Most of the chili you get in this area will contain elbow macaroni. "Really?" she said, clearly perplexed.

Well I remember whispering conspiratorially with another Oklahoma co-worker who was a Wisconsin native. We were attending a chili cook-off fundraiser for charity at the facility we worked at. "Does your Mom put macaroni in your chili?" he asked. "OF COURSE!" I responded and we laughed together.

Oklahoma chili does not contain pasta, although chili is sometimes served on a bed of spaghetti. But this is considered a totally separate dish from chili. And in Texas, chili can't even contain beans, a staple in most chili recipes we use in Wisconsin.

Chili is a "new world" dish. Although many world cuisines feature chili flavored foods prominently, especially India and Thailand, these dishes originated with the chili peppers native to Central America and notably Mexico. These peppers may have been the very first cultivated plants in the new world, with archeologists dating the beginning of this gardening as far back as 6,000 years B.C. So the peppers did not make their way around the globe until voyagers began visiting the new world, and bringing the fiery plant seeds and dried peppers back to their homelands with them.

The original chili is a thick stew; food historians say the ancestral version is made up of onions, several types of hot peppers and meat " in the beginning beef and/or pork shoulder; along with a few other seasonings. This is the version that crossed into what is now the United States. The beginning of its wild popularity in the U.S. is claimed by the city of San Antonio, Texas. (Some Texans claim they invented chili; they did not. But they certainly made it popular in this country, and put their own spin on the dish ever since.)

Now there are dozens of versions of the dish we all call chili just within the United States. Part of the reason for that is that there are a wide variety of peppers " so if you use local pepper cultivars, the chili will vary based on what peppers you have access to. Most Texas chili is pretty close to the original " thick and with no added tomatoes; no beans and certainly no pasta. Across the U.S., there are versions featuring tomatoes and tomato juice; many containing beans. The chili I grew up on is more like a soup than a stew. I particularly loved a version made by Mrs. Christensen and Mrs. Mienuer at the tiny Peshtigo Garfield elementary school I attended. These two ladies tamed down the chili for small palettes; and served it alongside sliced cheddar cheese and freshly-baked wheat dinner rolls. (I am not sure I spelled Mrs. Mienuer's name right. Forgive me if I got it wrong. School lunches are often ridiculed, I loved their food.) Their version was in the Wisconsin style with small elbow macaroni and celery in it.

Chili is one of the few foods that actually tastes better the second day. It freezes well, can be made very inexpensively, and is perfect for a cold day with its rib-sticking heat. Making chili is also considered a manly pursuit, like grilling, so a lot of men put great pride in their particular version. (I know there are a lot of great male cooks out there who make all kinds of food, but I hear more men talking about their chili than any other dish.)

The go-to version I use is soup-like the first day but thickens up with re-heating, and has no garlic in it. My daughter of the heart makes an awesome pumpkin chili. I really didn't think I'd like it; but it is chunky and stew-like and absolutely delicious. My big city daughter specializes in cilantro-lime chili; one with a tangy bright taste that I love so much I make it nearly as much as my own "go-to" version. And when I am expecting a big crowd I sometimes make a chicken chili, heavy on oven-roasted chicken and big chunks of many kinds of peppers with no beans. Chili is forgiving of the limits of outdoor cooking and is a staple for tailgating, deer camp and camping. It can be made over an open fire or baked in a dutch oven buried in a bed of coals. And it can be stretched to feed a crowd by adding tortilla chips; using it to top a bed of spaghetti; or serving it over corn bread, a favorite in Oklahoma. It is a staple ingredient is other foods as a seasoning or topping, like chili dogs. Boy Scouts have a minimalist "camp food" dish featuring canned chili heated up over a fire and spooned into an opened single-serving bag of corn chips, topped with some processed or shredded cheese " "walking chili." Perfect fuel for a starving Scout.

It's just really hard to screw up chili. So when your camo-attired waitress brings that bowl, even if it has macaroni in it, you know you are in for a good meal. Not sure I have convinced Lisa of that, but I know I'm right on this one. And I send my thanks to our friends south of the border for one of the best dishes ever.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.


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