My family does not have a strong tradition of passing down recipes. My mother is a wonderful cook, but the recipes I have borrowed from her, like brisket braised with apricots and a fabulous apple cake, came into our family during my lifetime. Yet there is one dish that my grandmother, my mother and I have all cooked with great frequency—a sort of family heirloom, I suppose. It’s a simple, decidedly un-Texan chili I ate at least twice a month for the first 18 years of my life, a dish that can easily feed a crowd. And it did quite frequently at my grandmother’s and mother’s parties, until it fell into my hands. In my home now, chili is private family food, the one recipe I prepare that is officially easier than takeout. I make it for my husband, and he loves it, but I would not think of serving it to guests. It’s not the chili’s fault really; I still crave it. But as the generations have passed, our style of entertaining has changed.
For me, dinner parties usually mean making something that takes a lot of time. I like long, slow preparations of ingredients I have to scramble around town to find; cooking a brisket all day in my Big Green Egg smoker; whittling away artichokes and preserving lemons for a tagine; wrapping fish in fig leaves (after first obtaining fig leaves). I’m also loath to repeat a dish for company. Serving something as mundane as chili feels somehow inappropriate, not quite special enough for dinner guests. I entertain less frequently than my mother or grandmother did, but it is a bigger production when I do. While people in my food-obsessed generation seem to feel almost a moral imperative to use the freshest, purest, most exactingly procured ingredients, previous generations would make do with modest dishes. For them, welcoming guests into their homes was more important than putting on a clever culinary show.
My family’s chili recipe was born out of a time of need. Shortly after World War II, my mother’s family was living outside of Baltimore. My grandfather worked as many as three jobs to support his family of six, and my grandmother canned every bit of produce grown in the family garden. My mother recalls putting up hundreds of jars of tomatoes, with some pride in her voice, but still, all these years later, with a trace of fatigue as well.