Dine Quixote: There's a right way to serve chili

Maybe Dine Quixote has passed into the stage of codger, curmudgeon or crank, complaining far too often about the way food used to be prepared and served. (Is it really too much to ask for hot dogs with casings?)

I get really passionate about chili. So do a lot of people. Nothing can get someone angrier than saying that their chili stinks.

To a Texan, chili is simple: Beef, spices, liquid and peppers or powder. No tomatoes, thank you, even though President Lyndon B. Johnson's Perdenales River Chili called for a couple of cans. No beans, under penalty of being staked to an ant hill. Onions work, garlic works and beer is a good liquid. You even can thicken it with masa harina, the corn meal used in tortillas.

In Cincinnati, chili is something cooked by Greeks and sculpted into a tower. The base is spaghetti, covered by a ground meat mixture containing allspice, cinnamon and cloves. The beans rest atop this and a layer of onions and a nest of shredded cheddar cheese top the architectural wonder. Call this a "five-way."

Toledo, Ohio's, Tony Packo's -- of the "M• A• S• H" TV series fame (it was Corp. Klinger's fondly remembered hot dog haunt) -- serves its own Hungarian five-way with spaetzel called the Packo Mac.

And so on, across America.

Dine grew up with chili in Dayton, Ohio. The city had a number of chili parlors. Not restaurants that served chili, but restaurants for which it was their raison d'etre. Some served soupy chili and some served it thick. All were spicy. Everyone claimed they knew the best places.

Then a meddlesome newspaperman named Bernie Wulkotte, who went by the initials "B.W.," decided to hold a search for the best chili and publish the results in the Dayton Daily News. I always enjoyed Pedro's Chili, maybe because it was next to my father's pharmacy, was moderately soupy, and did not have beans. Pedro was actually Pete, Greek by birth, but his chili drifted toward the Texican. It took first place, if I remember correctly, in the soupy category.

If B.W.'s search did anything, it made chiliheads try lots of places in neighborhoods the gentry generally avoided. My luck was that I worked in a photo studio part-time and right across the street was Sam's, a bar that hosted some of the city's heavier drinkers but made a belly-warming thick chili. I was 17 at the time and braved the taunts of the shot-and-a-beer brigade to sit at the bar and down bowl after bowl, with Coke.

To indicate the way we revere our chili, there are countless chili cookoffs, the most noteworthy -- notorious? -- in Terlingua, Texas. There have been books and magazine articles written about the competition, but the best on the subject is a thin 1953 volume called "A Bowl of Red," written by Frank X. Tolbert, owner of Tolbert's chili parlor in downtown Dallas.

It was always my dream to occupy a chair at Tolbert's and chow down on true Texas chili. Many places say that they have "real" Texas chili, but often it is hamburger meat simmered with hot chili powder, minus the requisite layers of taste created by cooking down what is known as chili-grind beef, run through a half-inch grinder plate (or cutting chuck into half-inch cubes). It takes a couple of hours to cook that to the level of an easy chew.

Once while on a news assignment, I did get to plunk my camera bag down at Tolbert's and eat two bowls of chili. It was extraordinary. And it came in a big china bowl.

It is the big china bowl that I miss. This chili did not come in a foam or cardboard drinking cup, guaranteeing the need to buy two for lunch. And it wasn't listed on the menu along with soups.

Chili isn't an appetizer, but a meal.

Larry Roberts, who shoots the We Are Pittsburgh photographic gallery for PG+ when he's not out foraging for road food, can be reached at lroberts@post-gazette.com . First Published March 4, 2010 5:00 AM


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