I shouldn’t have said anything to old Billy about how to make the best green chili.
If he didn’t want to do it may way, let him go ahead and do it wrong. Every time we competed, life got complicated. That day, we made history.
It was the first chili cooking contest that Billy and I had heard about, and we both thought it was silly. Nevertheless, the Flotsam Flats Chamber Of Commerce had especially asked Billy and me to be contestants in their first-ever contest, and we didn’t want to be bad sports.
We figured everyone else would be entering a good household red–a robust table chili, fixed up with some little touch or other. So we would ace them out by making green chili.
Many homes in the area kept red chili on the table for every meal–breakfast, lunch, dinner. Something like the good red I made called “Sunset Crater,” or Billy’s “WD-50.”
But when you’re raised in good chili country, and you’ve been taught by experts, you take a little extra pride in your green chili. I was taught to cook by Basque sheepherders, Mormon widows and an ancient cowboy who had ridden with Emiliano Zapata.
By the time I was 18, I was cooking chili that would rev you up or calm you down—whatever was needed to cause euphoria.
It would sweat poisons and evil sprites out of your system, while balancing the chemistry of the brain. It fended off Tommyknockers and judges.
My chili cured colds, flu, arthritis, necrotic silliphocius and the gummerumptions, type A and B. I don’t recall anyone who ate my chili ever getting cancer.
My chili cured bankers, sanitized hair follicles, started up torrid love affairs, and ended them on an amicable note.
It could lure a bear into your camp, if you wanted a bear in your camp. It could lure a bear even if you didn’t want a bear in your camp. You had to be careful.
My handsome friend Kenny said that my chili cured his melancholia. That made me feel good. Kenny said he had been with Pancho Villa up on the Little Bighorn, and he’d been through a lot.
When Kenny’s melancholia was cured, he could sing, yodel, play the guitar, swim, ski, crochet, drill water wells and drive an automobile. He said he couldn’t do any of those things until that chili cured his melancholia.
Billy’s green chili also did a lot of amusing things–including cracking safes and thawing frozen engine blocks.
That was the big difference between us: Billie cooked chili for heat, and I cooked for charm. It’s a battle I’ve been fighting for 60 years.
A lot of folks make Billy’s mistake–thinking the hotter the chili is, the better it is. I like it picante, too, but not so hot that it overwhelms all the subtle flavors of chili.
I was in my twenties the day we blew up the chili contest. Billy was in his fifties and thrice divorced. People tended to call him “old Billy,” not because he was old, but because he was familiar.
When we had girls out to dinner at the old Al Baxter place, he liked to act like he was a nasty, dirty cook, just to embarrass me. But he was really clean and organized; only his mouth got kind of rank. Billy had invited me to move in with him at the Al Baxter place after his third wife left him, and my parents gave my old room to my sister and her husband.
At the beginning of a batch of chili, we’d approach the job the same way: get a piece of beef round or pork steak and tenderize it with a clawhammer, or the garden tractor.
Even some old piece of billy goat would do, but you wanted to get that meat so tender that it would fall apart under your ax. Meanwhile, you had good oak wood burning in the cookstove. Set a cast iron skillet on the stove, add some lard, and quite a bit of chopped garlic.
While that was starting to sizzle, we’d cut up the meat, flour it, and start to brown it in the skillet, with lots of salt and pepper.
It would soon be time to add the green chili sauce we’d made, and this is where Billy and I went our separate ways. I’d shop around and find some good, flavorful chili, maybe from the chili peddlers who came through Flotsam Flats from Hatch, New Mexico, selling chili in burlap bags.
Billy went for green, fiery heat. You couldn’t store his stuff near anything flammable. He had started growing his own strain of extra hot chili in our little garden. I think he found it growing on the slag pile at a copper mine. He built a containment bunker of bricks, just in case that stuff mutated and tried to get out.
Like I said, I should have laid off him. As soon as I said one thing to Billy about the merits of hot chili, versus ridiculously hot chili, he was off and running. Maybe it was that crack I made about the Chia head chili.
I was cooking my chili in a cast iron skillet. Billy cooked his in a Dutch oven, and the little legs kept it from getting too hot. Smart. Good chili needs to cook slowly.
Pretty soon, Billy’s Dutch oven started to glow red–not from the heat of the stove, but from the chili he’d put inside it. The flavors of chili blended in the air with the smell of sulphur.
Billy’s eyes glowed. He was sweating, and muttering incantations.
About that time, Lucifer showed up–the devil, you know, the real deal. I don’t know how I knew it was him; at a time like that, you just know.
I hollered, “Get thee behind, me Satan.”
“Settle down,” Satan said. “I ain’t gonna hurt you. I was going to trade this fool my mother’s chili recipe for his soul. But now I don’t think I’m interested. He ain’t learned yet that you oughtn’t make chili too hot.
“Hey, while I’m here, could I interest you in some good intentions? Twelve coupons for ten bucks…”
Billy’s Dutch oven was glowing white hot and blinding. The devil shaded his eyes as he left.
Billy’s chili had created its own weather system, just like a bad forest fire. The walls of the house were bulged out, and warm winds blew away the curtains. We saw a flash of lighting.
“Billy, we better run for it,” I said.
“Open the door,” he said, and started running, holding that white-hot cauldron of chili between two red-hot branding irons. “We got to save the house!”
I guess we had the same idea at the same time. I ran to an old J.I. Case steam tractor that Billy had been going to restore. I opened the firebox, and Billy pitched the chili inside.
“That ought to hold it,” he said, flinching as a lightning bolt hit the windmill.
Hold it? Yeah, right. Someone had left some water in the boiler of that old steam tractor. The boiler was kind of leaky, but when the riveted seams smelled that chili, they puckered right up. The tractor started to rumble, and then to steam, and finally to move.
That tractor made a beeline down the dirt road to Flotsam Flats, about three miles away. Every 300 feet or so, the steam whistle let out a banshee wail.
Billy leaped on the tractor and tried to guide it. I ran back, got my chili, and followed in my old truck.
There was no way of stopping that behemoth, so I drove around Billy and parked in the middle of the main intersection in town, honking my horn to warn people.
The tractor barely missed my truck. It passed the mercantile, the Dodge garage, the fire house, the mortuary and the tack store. It went clear out the other end of town and onto the high school football field.
Now it was making really ominous noises, and dancing like it had just made a touchdown and wanted to spike the ball.
“Jump, Billy,” I cried. He got clear about 100 feet before the steam tractor tore out the bleachers and blew up like a bomb.
Billy’s chili was a patch of bright green on the playing field. Orville Thoot’s dog went over and tasted it and looked approving. The school freshmen kept that chili stain painted for years, but they stopped when Billy died a few years back.
My chili won first place that day, which didn’t cheer me up much. I just should have kept my mouth shut.
Someone told me the other day that when you win a stupid argument, winning is the booby prize. I wish they’d told me that fifty years ago.