In a Can
Springfield’s canned “chillis” pass a test
December 2, 1982
For reasons I never fathomed, Springfield fancies itself a chili town. Folks down there spell it “chilli” and persist in the error out of tradition, much the way voters keep electing people who run for office. I spell it “a-w-f-u-l.”
You could almost hear the editors saying to themselves, “I wish that woman would make up her mind.”
Last summer, New York Times food editor Mimi Sheraton conducted a taste test among several canned chillis. Her “hands down winner” was Ray’s Chili, made right here in Springfield. Then a few weeks later, after having been sent a can or two by a solicitous marketing manager, Sheraton tried Chili Man, which as every chilliphile knows is now made in Litchfield under the aegis of the Milnot Co., even though it traces its ancestry back to Joe DeFrates, the nephew of Ray DeFrates who concocted Ray’s. “Now it’s Chilli Man that wins the test,” announced an exasperated State Journal-Register when Sheraton concluded that those who really like their chili “should be happier with Chili Man.”
Well, like a whole lot of people I know, I’ve been eating both Ray’s and Chili Man for a long time. I am delighted to find out that I beat the Times to a trend. Indeed, for a moment we here at the IT toyed with the idea of inviting Sheraton to Springfield to try a few of our other local chillis. Sheraton is well known as a woman who is willing to go to considerable lengths, even considerable distances to chow down. In 1979, after writer John McPhee published a profile in The New Yorker full of lavish praise of a pseudonymous chef named “Otto” working gustatory marvels in an unidentified roadhouse restaurant “more than five and less than a hundred miles” from Manhattan. Thus whetted, Sheraton turned bloodhound. She tracked down Otto and, sampling his wares unbeknownst to him, pronounced them mediocre.
Were we not afraid, you ask, that Sheraton might find our local uncanned chillis similarly disappointing, panning them and thus blacking Springfield’s eye? No one who frequents the capital’s bean parlors need face such a test with anything less than confidence.
Tastes do vary, however. One need only remember the raptures experienced by battalions of New Yorkers when they got their first taste of Dan Walker. The basic fare at The Dew on Springfield’s near south side, for example, tends toward the suety. One can count the beans in a bowl of Dew chilli as they lay shimmering at the bottom of a bowl of limpid grease. One friend of mine, served his first-ever bowl, admitted later that he’d expected to see goldfish swimming in it, so completely did it sustain the illusion of a garden pond; another friend, stirring the beans and meat from the bottom with a spoon and watching them settle slowly again into a perfect repose, likened her bowl to one of those snowstorm paperweights. A bit bland when it comes to the spices, perhaps, but undeniably filling. If one is on one’s way to a polar trek, a stop at The Dew on the way wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.
Then there is The Den. The Den offers a basic chili livened by a variety of intensities, ranging from the bland (brewed specifically for state employees) to the sulfurous. Eating a bowl of The Den’s Firebrand is considered a rite of adulthood in certain circles; if one meets a person who has an air of unmistakable authority, who has sang froid to burn, who seems to have carved out his place in the world so it fits him just right, that man almost certainly has at least one bowl of Firebrand inside him.
My guess is that Sheraton would cast her vote for The Den. In her first article she noted that Ray’s, though basically sound, was improved by the addition of a can of Ray’s “intensely flavored” Coney Sauce. That made sense to me. In 1980, the then-Springfield Redbirds won the championship of baseball’s AAA American Association; the following season, after a change of concessionaire resulted in the excision of Coney-Sauced hot dogs from the menu at the Redbirds’ ballpark, the team lost in straight games.
But Sheraton wasn’t satisfied with this sensible amendment. She went on to add white vinegar, crushed red pepper flakes, black pepper, thyme, and oregano. To admirers of Ray’s, this is a little like adding adjectives to Shakespeare. But that isn’t what struck me. You see, I do not, like Sheraton, resort to canned chillis as a necessary but ultimately unsatisfying expedient. I prefer canned chilli. Good as they are, I seldom even go out to eat in Springfield’s chili parlors. I have eaten at The Dew only twice, and never at The Den. I made the mistake of going for a 7 ½-mile run after eating a bowl of The Dew’s best. Ever since I have been too afraid to go back in, rather like a person who eschews even baths after suffering a shark attack.
Not only do I very seldom go out for chilli, I do not cook it. This makes me one of perhaps eleven people in central Illinois who have not finished in the running in at least one of the dozens, nay hundreds, of chilli cookoffs held each year. Next to chilli cooks, only corn rootworms infest a greater acreage hereabouts, and they don’t brag. Even my home town of Beardstown—a place where a man used to be judged according to how well he fried a catfish—has produced its own champion chilli cook, in the person of Don Goff who, with his wife Carolyn, has earned three state titles and a third and a fourth in a world competition. A local hardware store holds a promotion whose main attraction is chilli made in a five-foot pan by two more local men—one from Springfield, the other from Taylorville—who between them have racked up seven finishes in these chilli rodeos.
Chilli, cooking, of course, is with politics and child-rearing the last bastion of amateurism, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it attracts wide fields. But they don’t just cook it. They think about it, argue about it, plot about it. They devote as much attention to it as I once devoted to existentialism in my youth, and with analogous results. Really. Chilli recipes, like certain philosophical propositions, cannot be proven. I’d just as soon the ingredients stay secret. Goff told the Beardstown Gazette of watching a team of Tennesseans butcher four raccoons at one cookoff, eating one raw and tossing the other three into the pot.
I never knew what cumin was until I started hanging around chillic cooks; I used to think it was something one scraped off the inside of one’s ears. J., for example, prides himself on his chilli. I know people who like it. I gather he makes it hot. I’ve never tried it, having concluded a long time ago that any food whose cook asks in advance whether I have someone who can drive me home is not something I will like.
Still, this furious formulating is harmless enough. It keeps people out of the General Assembly and out of trouble. But I prefer to be tedious about other matters. I confess sometimes I am puzzled myself as to why. From what my friends tell me, cooking chilli is much like writing these weekly columns. One starts with a basic recipe featuring fat and beans in roughly equal proportions. One then adds whatever is handy to spice it up, then lets it simmer for a while. Finally one spoons it up for a gullible public—most of whom, swallowing it whole, will resolve to never try it again.
For all that, my hands will remain unsullied by suet. I regard even Sheraton’s advice to heat Chilli Man in a double boiler as an example of the zealotry I have come to expect from the modern Claiborne-again home chef. Nor can I countenance what she herself calls “doctoring” the basic product. I can see why Manhattanites might have to slave over their Calphalon trying to concoct the perfect chilli. But why would anyone in Springfield do it? We already have the perfect chilli in a can, available in any local supermarket. Do New Yorkers bake their own bagels? Do Chicagoans stay in for pizza? ●