Super Bowl chili? A world champion weighs in

News & Politics

It’s not as if we don’t have enough to argue about these days. The border. The economy. Whether or not Taylor Swift should be added to the Chiefs’ coaching staff.

Do we really need another contentious debate to divide us? Even I, who spend my days gleefully lobbing truth grenades into the bunkers of conventional automative wisdom (ask me about electric cars sometime — or don’t!) could use a little peace.

But this, my friends, is important.

The eternal question

You see, this Sunday is a very special day, in which more arguments will be won, lost, or fought to a draw than in almost any other. Forget the banalities of politics, religion, and how many cases of powdered eggs you need to get through the apocalypse.

This Sunday, two rivals will meet in pitched battle to settle what I call “the eternal question.”

Beans or no beans?

My first taste of Texas chili wasn’t what I was used to at all. Beefy, hearty, thick but not too thick, with deep flavor tones, complex, spicy but not crazy hot, and earthy.

Yes, yes, the Chiefs are also playing the 49ers. But the real stars here are our nation’s chili cooks. On no other day do we consume as much of the stuff as on Super Bowl Sunday.

Who am I to judge this matter? I’m glad you asked. Down toward the bottom of my life’s great accomplishments — ok, so it’s a 3×5 card, but still — you’ll find that I’m a past Chili Appreciation Society International world chili champ.

Please hold your applause.

The Terlingua way

The annual cookoff is held in Terlingua, Texas, right along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. Every November, cooks who qualify via a points system in events all over the United States and abroad will gather to determine who’s got the best pot of “Red” for that year.

If you’re a fellow car fanatic (or if you’ve seen “Ford v Ferrari”), you’re familiar with Carroll Shelby, the inventor of the Shelby Cobra and Shelby Mustang. What you may not know is that Texas native Shelby was also a chili pioneer. He originated the cookoff with Dallas columnist Frank Tolbert, whom I first met while working on air at WFAA in Dallas. He was as authentic and irascible a Texas character as ever was dreamed up.

Tolbert invited me to become a “celebrity judge” for one of the events, and I complied — and quickly fell in love with the culture, the people, and, of course, the chili. As a native Chicago boy, chili never really had any great appeal, as what I found locally was a pretty runny, soupy, spicy, hot-for-no-reason bowl of boredom.

My first Texas judging was the culinary equivalent of Paul being struck from his horse on the road to Damascus. Holy schnikies! What I tasted wasn’t what I was used to at all. Beefy, hearty, thick but not too thick, with deep flavor tones, complex, spicy but not crazy hot, and earthy.

And NO BEANS.

Paul Brian

Beans and chili don’t mix

Yeah, Yankee Boy was instantly hooked. I then made a life choice: I was going to start cooking in competition. Three years later I was lucky enough to win the whole shebang.

I was quickly given a proper Texas education: “Anyone who knows beans about chili knows chili has nuthin’ to do with beans!”

And it makes sense when you think about it.You see, if you cook beans in your chili, you failed high school chemistry. WHAT in the name of Sam Houston at the Alamo do I mean by that?

Simply this: When you cook meat and beans together, starch is released from the beans. This starch, in turn, makes the meat mushy. Not yet finished with their flavor-destroying quest, the beans then proceed to suck up all the spices that the cook (cook, never “chef”) has obsessively perfected. The result? Fairly good tasting beans, and mushy, pretty tasteless meat.

The two-pot solution

Now, I realize there are some of you conceptually, philosophically, and even religiously bent on having beans in your chili.

In that case, I can only say Godspeed and offer this bit of parting wisdom: Cook two pots. One of your meat and spices and another with those funny little orbs of starch that are the origins of more atmospheric pollution than John Kerry, Al Gore, and that absurdly annoying child Greta could ever dream up.

Remember to spice them, too, because you still have that bean osmosis thing going on. Then mix them IN THE BOWL, along with whatever accoutrements you wish.

By the way, there’s a secondary question that has to do with the meat you use. Hand-cut or ground? While CASI rules don’t prohibit hand-cut (cubed) meat, cooks 10-15 years ago started to think that ground was the way to go to please the judges.

Me, I’m rabidly ambivalent about what you like to put out for Uncle Phil as he screams about “that Swifty Swift woman or whoever she is!” at halftime.

You can easily use a “tube” of 80-20 ground from your local MegaMart, or you can take the time to hand-cut your beef into small cubes, which is what I prefer when I’m cooking for friends or a party.

Well, there you have it. And let the inevitable fireworks ensue. You can leave your comments below. I’ll be happy to respond, even to utterly erroneous opinions.

The recipe

One more thing: The almost inevitable follow-up question from folks is, “Do you share your recipe?”

I do, but like anything in the Windy City, it’s got a hook to it. My recipe is available on the Allen Lynch Medal of Honor Veterans Foundation Page for a small donation – 100% of which goes to the veterans that fine organization supports.

So there’s enough time for you to grab the recipe online, get your fixins, and offer your guests a bowl of chili that won the world’s championship. “Bon apetit” as they say in France, or “Don’t burp too loud” as they say in the greatest state God ever created.

Paul Brian is a 35-year veteran broadcaster and one of our nation’s best-known, respected and in-demand automotive industry experts. Look for his work in future installments of Align.

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