Just after World War II, Cecil Virgilia Cole proudly served her cheap and easy chili to guests. Here, her granddaughter Sara Dickerman considers the demise of the one-pot dinner party.
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.
Even under tight circumstances, my grandparents were generous souls. For a while they took in a boarder—the town’s new Methodist minister—and after church every Sunday, my grandmother would cook dinner for the family, the minister and a few other guests. In my grandparents’ house, Sunday night meant 10 to 12 people at the table, set with Grandma’s pink or green Depression glass dinnerware.
After the minister married and moved out on his own, he still came over to dinner every Sunday, and the tradition continued long after he left the parish, with my grandparents hosting his successors and sometimes the itinerant ministers who came to town to pinch-hit a Sunday service. Some of them were not so well behaved with my mother, then a pretty young teenager, in the house. "There’s a reason why they didn’t have their own churches," she sniffs.
That first minister, though, was a great friend of the family’s, and the chili recipe came from him. Here’s the basic idea: You take an onion and chop it up. Sauté it in a heavy pot with a slim slick of oil and a pound or so of ground beef. Add some chili powder. Add a couple of cans of tomatoes, maybe some water. Let it simmer for a while, then add more chili powder to taste if you want. Then add a can of kidney beans, let the pot warm up to simmering again, and add a few handfuls of elbow macaroni. It really only works with elbows—anything else is too fancy. Cook until the noodles are done—by tradition, they should be fully soft, none of this al dente business.
The minister had picked up the recipe in seminary, which my mother believes was in Indiana. And that Midwestern connection makes sense, since the combination of noodles and chili sauce bears a resemblance to Cincinnati chili. According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, the Cincinnati specialty is eaten in layers: spaghetti noodles at the bottom, then a layer of meaty chili sauce topped (if you’re having five-way chili) with subsequent layers of kidney beans, chopped onions and cheese.
The minister’s chili might not have been particularly mid-Atlantic, but it still spoke eloquently of the era in which it entered my family—immediately post-World War II, when the Depression and war rationing were still recent memories, and a valuable commodity like meat needed to be stretched. For the minister, the recipe was a gesture of gratitude toward my grandmother for welcoming him to her table, and a present of frugality: The chili was an inexpensive way to use a single pound of hamburger meat to feed a crowd. "If we doubled the recipe, we’d increase the tomatoes, which were basically free, since they came from our garden," my mother says. "And we’d add more macaroni, but we would never mess with that one pound of meat."
After my mother finished college and met my father, in 1960, she became smitten with French food—even before Julia Child took to the airwaves. My father had given my mother the first English-language translation of Larousse Gastronomique, and she would work through complicated preparations, making crêpes Suzette and glazed salmon garnished with a mosaic of sliced vegetables. She’d spend the day working on a chocolate mousse à l’ancienne, which she’d discovered in an old French book. But such ventures were indulgences; on the whole, our entertaining was casual, restricted by dollars early on, and later, more by time. As ambitious a cook as my mother could be, she never did abandon the chili.
My father was Jewish, and we were not churchgoers, but by the time we moved to Albany, New York, my mother had nevertheless started her own, entirely secular Sunday-night tradition that more often than not included a big pot of the brick-red chili. Often we’d have spent the day raking leaves or skiing or ice-skating on leftover bits of the Erie Canal that froze over in the winter. My mother would make chili the night before (it tastes better the next day, after the flavors have melded) and simply reheat it when everyone tumbled in from the cold.
Those Sundays meant a motley collection of quasi-relatives that might have included, at any given time, our best family friends, who had three kids just as my family did; their great aunt and uncle, Jews who survived not only the Nazi occupation of Hungary, but the Russians who came afterward; my elegant Aunt Esther, with a steel-gray chignon, and her husband, Uncle Sam, a born charmer of children; my scientist father’s socially awkward lab partner—a dead ringer for Dudley Moore, without the innate charisma; and two artist friends from my mother’s museum work, who were definitely, despite the best intentions of my father, not interested in said lab partner. We’d line up to scoop out our own bowls of chili, still in its flame-orange Le Creuset Dutch oven and placed on a trivet on the dining room buffet.
I keep meaning to start a Sunday-dinner habit of my own, but somehow, I haven’t been able to make it happen. The chili is not the answer for me—I fear it might lose some of its nostalgic appeal if it were trotted out every weekend. I’ve tried dressing it up intermittently over the years, adding garlic and fresh cranberry beans, oregano or cilantro. But that doesn’t work either; the flourishes seem wasted on such an elemental dish. And my usual dinner party recipes are so time-consuming that they make pulling together a weekly dinner for a crowd seem daunting—so many errands to run, so many pots to scrub.
Maybe the answer is a dish that’s as easy as chili, something in the same forgiving one-pot vein—a soup left chunky (and not, for once, pureed and strained) or a ragout that doesn’t demand browning each ingredient before simmering. As I write, I’ve got a pot of chicken soup on the stove, and I wonder if it’s substantial enough to serve to a few close friends. I’d have to keep myself from adding a starter and sides, of course, or the dish would lose its alluring simplicity.
I keep mulling over the possibilities, but the truth, perhaps, is that I shouldn’t think too hard. Entertaining doesn’t have to be about satisfying my own culinary vanity or impressing guests—sometimes it can just be about gathering friends and family around the table.
Sara Dickerman is the food editor of Seattle magazine and a contributor to Slate and the New York Times Magazine.