The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo just left town, and in honor of its exodus, I cooked a batch of chili. It’s a version I’ve been making that is inspired by living in Texas, but it is definitely not “Texas chili” by any purist’s standards. In a roundabout way, it was Texas barbecue that opened my mind to the possibilities for chili, more specifically the benefits of slow-cooked beef. I’m a Midwesterner, so I have some experience with the provincial oddities and kitsch that accompany state fairs. Even so, I was still surprised at the spectacles and excesses of the rodeo. My initiation to the rodeo actually happened with a surprise. Years ago, on a Saturday morning, I woke to what I thought was a maniac loose on the street, screaming beneath my window. However, when I pulled up the blinds, I saw a stream of riders on horses and wagons, while an emcee in cowboy gear announced their names through a microphone. It was then I discovered I was living at the epicenter of the rodeo parade route.
The biggest surprises were still in store for me when I actually attended the rodeo. The runner-up has to be the chicken fried bacon, a delicacy out of Yoakum and Snook, Texas. Yes, I did eat it gratefully. But the blue-ribbon surprise goes to mutton bustin, an honorable tradition of putting toddlers in hockey helmets and life jackets and then placing them on sheep to see how long the kids can hold on while the sheep run. I remember a lot of tears and a lot of bewildered joy.
Moving to Texas was full of cultural discoveries like these, many of them inspiring ambivalence like my rodeo experiences did, yet, there were some unequivocally enjoyable surprises, like breakfast tacos and Texas barbecue. In Minnesota, if Mexican food was served for breakfast, it was usually some version of a bland flour tortilla rolled around eggs and cheese, dolloped with store bought salsa. Barbecue meant bratwurst and hamburgers if you were at home or the cabin. If you went out to eat, you might get pork ribs or chicken. I didn’t even know what beef brisket was before moving to Houston, and I regret all of those lost years. Same goes for real tortillas, flour or corn, and the genius of mixing eggs, salty meats, and cheese together to serve with those tortillas for breakfast.
Searching around for chili recipes a few years ago, I landed on the controversy over Texas chili, which some aficionados claim must be chunks of beef with chili paste made from dried chilies. Tomatoes usually aren’t welcome; beans, never. Looking at pictures made me think of chopped brisket, or my other favorite slow-cooked cut, the short rib. Since I’m an outsider and don’t need to be a Texas chili zealot, I could experiment. Giada De Laurentiis has a recipe for short rib chili that appealed to me, and it suggested serving it with polenta, which just made me think of Frito chili pie, so I had to try her version. I’ve since tweaked the recipe, substituting Young’s Double Chocolate Stout for the instant espresso coffee and dried chipoltes for canned, plus skipping her use of chocolate and adding tomato purée. I serve the chili with regular creamy polenta and spicy coleslaw.