Chili assistants, you're needed in the kitchen

October 13, 2013 

The weather guy said it might get down to 50 degrees over the weekend. A little chilly, he said.

A little chili, I thought.

Is it a coincidence that the homonyms go together like Astaire and Rogers? Brown and Crouppen? I think not.

Before you know it, I was chopping onion, opening cans of tomato products and beans, browning hamburger and stirring it all together -- with healthy doses of chili powder and black pepper.

The smell of chili simmering on the stove filled the house. Great.

But not so great. Something was missing. I was making the chili all by myself. I missed my chili assistants.

When the boys were little, chili making was one of our favorite fall activities. Especially when it got too cold to ride bikes, rake leaves or any of those other fun fall activities. And the $10 million worth of toys we had stashed away in closets that would make Fibber McGee blush were collecting dust.

Soon, the dreaded fall cry went up: "We're bored. There's nothing to do."

It was time for some heavy-duty parenting techniques. At times like those, some people turned to Dr. Spock or Mr. Rogers. I turned to chili powder.

"I have an idea," I said in my best Micky Rooney let's-put-on-a-show-down-at-the-barn voice. "Let's make chili."

"Yeah!" the boys shouted in unison.

My wife gave me that "I think I'll move to Australia" look. She never understood chili powder. "I cook every day and nobody notices," she said. "You dump a few cans into a big pot, call it chili and it's a big deal. What's the big deal?"

Tradition.

It's not the chili. It's the method. The same method I was brought up on.

First, we went to the recipe box. Somewhere between the trendy Chef Theodore's Quiche Lorraine and The Ritz's Broccoli and Rice Casserole recipes that my wife cut out of magazines was a yellowed, dog-eared index card covered with orange dots (memories of chilis past). Is that a tomatoey fingerprint? Mom's recipe was marked, simply, "Chille." In cooking, spelling doesn't count.

The boys and I spent 15 minutes taking everything out of the cabinet to get to the biggest pot in the house. Possibly the biggest pot in the galaxy. We spent 15 minutes more putting all the stuff neatly back into the cabinet. My wife liked that part.

While I got out the fixin's the boys automatically pulled two kitchen chairs up to the stove. Careful, not too close to the burners. My wife hated this part.

My assistants watched me cut up the onion. I cried. They laughed. The boys loved that part.

Then there was a minor skirmish about who got to turn on what burner and who got to open what can and dump it in. My wife couldn't understand why there were so many different cans of stuff in the chili -- tomato paste, tomato soup, tomato puree, tomato juice, red beans ... Why?

That's easy. It used to be a simple two- or three-ingredient recipe when my mom made her first pot of chili. Then, with the arrival of each child, she had to add another can of something so all of us would have something to dump in the chili pot. She had eight kids. By the time she passed the recipe on to me (No. 8), it was a little complicated.

Anyway, when it was their turn to assist, my boys had a lot to choose from. The biggest battle was over dumping in the tomato soup. That's because of the gross sound it mad as it slithered out of the can.

Schluuuuuuuuuuuuuuup. Splat!

The trick was to hold the can high enough to get the full effect of the splat. Hence the orange dots on the recipe card ... and on stovetop and walls and the assistants' T-shirts.

Then came a lesson in taking turns. One assistant stirred; the other stirred. Assistant 2 taste-tested; Assistant 1 taste-tested. One put in a pinch of salt; one added a shake of chili powder. Dad cleaned up the mess; the boys disappeared to suddenly discover the $10 million worth of toys we had collecting dust in the closet.

That's chili psychology. Works every time.

It's a little different now that I'm making chili all by myself. I don't need to look at Mom's recipe card anymore, but I do. It makes me think of when I was the little assistant on the big chair.

The tomato soup still makes the Schluuuuuuuuuuup. Splat! sound -- if I hold it high enough. Even if there's no one else around to hear it.

The chili sure tastes great on these cool fall days. (Just like Mom used to make.) Especially when one of my old assistants comes by to have a bowl.

"Tastes great -- just like we used to make, Pop."

That's chili psychology.

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