Our December issue took aim at chili, the state dish of Texas, with a screed by Paul Burka denouncing the stuff and proclaiming it to be unworthy of its title. The jeremiad, which reprised a sentiment first voiced by Burka in a 1978 cover story titled “I Still Hate Chili,” elicited a number of vehement protestations, the most serious of which, from Jim Ezell, the president of the Chili Appreciation Society International, is printed below. Though we have a great deal of respect for Mr. Ezell—and no small amount of fear of the chili lobby—we do intend to make our case at the Legislature that barbecue brisket should replace chili as the official state dish. We believe the time has come.
And now, a sampling of feedback from our readers:
Head of the Table
Domingo Martinez, keep them coming! Loved your essay in the December issue [“The Things They Buried”].
To me, heaven is some barbacoa, a bit of scrambled eggs, corn tortillas, pico de gallo, good coffee, and a mollete . . . poquito de todo
Veronica, via texasmonthly.com
This was a fantastic read. It made me very homesick and also reminded me of the first time I realized what barbacoa was made of. When I was a kid, I once ended up with an eyeball in one of my barbacoa tacos and freaked right out. But not enough to never eat it again. I love it and miss it a lot.
Rebekah, via texasmonthly.com
A Red State
The “Bowl of Dread” article in your December issue truly maligns a wonderful Texas tradition, even if meant sarcastically. Mr. Burka does not realize that chili is Texas. Nobody ever said chili is “fine cuisine.” It is the frontier, the spirit, and a dish your momma used to make. Like the beans and cornbread, it has been with us through thick and thin.
You are correct that the original Terlingua chili event was a publicity stunt, but as we approach our fiftieth anniversary in a few years, it has not diminished in significance or recognition as an iconic annual ritual. We all have every respect for a good brisket, but there is certainly the precedent by the Legislature in naming chili the official state dish that should not be trifled with.
Chili heads come together in all shapes, sizes, religions, and political pursuits.
Jim Ezell, President, Chili Appreciation Society International (CASI), Terlingua International Chili Championship
The ABCs of CFS
I was raised on a farm in Kansas in the forties and fifties. We raised and butchered our own beef, and all of our steaks were chicken-fried [“Chicken Fried State”]. Each portion would be placed on a cutting block and beat with a meat hammer to make it more tender. The final strokes of the hammer would embed a mixture of flour and salt and pepper into the meat (I still have my grandmother’s meat hammer). It was then fried in a skillet. While the meat was browning, Mother would sift additional flour through her fingers into the hot grease to make more “cracklings” for the milk gravy that was later prepared in the same skillet. The browned steaks would be heaped on a platter and the gravy in a bowl. Typically the gravy was applied to a slice of bread and eaten with the steak. On the side would be stuff like fresh creamed peas with new potatoes.
I find that the modern-day, deep-fried CFS is a poor imitation of this wonderful farm fare.
Ivan Cottle, Aransas Pass
A wonderfully sentimental article [“The Joy of Looking”]. I feel the sudden need to visit my mother and go through the metal recipe boxes. It’s been far too long since the last time we did that. Thank you for inspiring a wonderful set of memories.
Aneton, via texasmonthly.com
Recipes for Success
Like David Courtney’s mother, my mother would have also gotten a good laugh from his story about his mom’s pickles, because I imagine my mom knew his mom wasn’t the one doing the pickling [“Let’s Eat”]. My mom was Mrs. Vlasta Hruska, of East Bell County pickling cucumber fame. She and my father, John Hruska, grew and sold hundreds of bushels of pickling cucumbers over the years. Pickle addicts would drive to our farm from as far away as Dallas when their names were next. Not only did the cucumbers have to be fresh (picked no more than 24 to 36 hours before canning), they had to be just right: small, unblemished, and straight. I remember two elderly ladies who would drive from Belton in their old station wagon when they got the call. Mom wouldn’t let them pay for their cucumber order, because she knew they didn’t have much money. When she and Dad had to stop raising pickling cucumbers due to ill health at the ages of 75 and 80, many Temple ladies were in tears because their only source for the perfect pickle was gone forever.
Janette Hruska Couch, Boerne
I enjoyed the recipe by Ms. Valdez for the modern homemade pork tamales, which included the proper herbs and spices and cooking procedures. As far as I can recall, the best pork tamales were made with pork from a cabeza de marrano, a.k.a. a hog head mixed with pork butt. The masa was a coarse type that was then refined on a three-legged metate with a stone rolling pin and some chile paste added during the regrinding process. The most important function was the cooking of the tamales in an empty fifty-pound lard can. You placed a molcajete (a stone mortar) upside down at the bottom of the can and stacked the tamales in a pyramid to the top, then put in the proper amount of water and cooked them outside on a mesquite wood fire for two to three hours. This is what I know to be the ultimate-tasting pork tamale.
Harry Nelson, Georgetown
Mother Knows Best
Dang it, Patricia. You cannot, cannot publish a heart-wrenching piece about pinto beans and cornbread without recipes [“Digging In”]. I don’t care if your mama didn’t write hers down—somebody in this state knows how to make those creamy-mushy ones, real bacon-y, with sweet, fluffy cornbread on the side, and inquiring minds like mine want to know.
I too grew up in Texas with parents who were dadgum determined to raise us kids with a sense of gratitude. My mother used her beans and cornbread to great effect—along with pictures of starving children stuck to the fridge—but she venerated them so much that it might as well have been steak Diane on the table. She never wrote her recipes down either, so I am left with memories of her pinto beans in an old Kitchen Kraft bowl, the cornbread hissing in a cast-iron skillet, and knowing only that a bay leaf may have been involved. The cornbread, for certain, had some sugar in it.
Trish Murphy, Austin
In a different state for the holiday and this just made me miss my mom even more.
@SRLoranc, via Twitter
I read in your piece that you do not have your mother’s recipe for cornbread. I thought I would send you a recipe I have used successfully for many years. It is very close to the way my grandmother made cornbread. The recipe is originally from Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, and was printed in Gourmet magazine.
1 cup and 2 tablespoons cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Mix the dry and wet separately and then combine. Preheat a 10-inch cast-iron skillet in the oven as it warms to 425 degrees. Grease the hot skillet with a teaspoon of bacon grease. Pour in the batter and bake for approximately 17 minutes. When done it will be starting to brown. (I usually make half a recipe in an 8-inch skillet for two people.)
Thomas Reed, Georgetown
All the Petty Forces
Christopher Kelly is judging Cormac McCarthy’s merit as a novelist by watching movies [“Cormac Relief”]. There’s your problem.
George Brown, via Facebook
No matter how well-organized his argument or how reasonable his conclusions, a critic always seems like a little kid standing outside the lion’s cage holding a long pole . . . and viciously poking.
Freddie L. Matthews, via Facebook
McCarthy’s books are greatness. Who cares about his movies?
Gerry White, via Facebook