The Terlingua Tradition

A Bowl of Red

A New York chili recipe worth remembering

By Robb Walsh October 31, 2013

As I mentioned yesterday, Frito Pie is a Halloween tradition at my house. Of course, if you are going to serve Frito Pie, you need to make a pot of chili first. So before I hit the grocery store, I perused my collection of chili recipes. I often use the Truck Stop Chili recipe from The Tex-Mex Cookbook, or Hallie Stillwell's recipe in Frank X. Tolbert's masterpiece, A Bowl of Red.

While I consider Tolbert's book the definitive work on the subject of chili, not everyone agrees. When A Bowl of Red was published in 1966, the Texas chili it described was called "a bowl of slop" by H. Allen Smith, a New Yorker raised in the Midwest. Smith wrote a touching tribute to the favorite food of his childhood in a Holiday Magazine article titled "No One Knows More About Chili Than I Do."

Tolbert challenged Smith to a chili duel—the first chili cook-off in Terlingua, Texas held in 1967. Everyone expected Tolbert's designated Texas chili cook, Wick Fowler, to prevail. But the New Yorker made a mean pot of chili. The contest was declared a tie.

For Halloween, I think I'll resurrect Allen's New York chili. Here's the recipe:

H. Allen Smith's Championship Chili
(Courtesy of the International Chili Society)

In the recipe given in his Holiday Magazine article, Smith recommends coarse ground chuck and the addition of pinto beans. In the recipe provided here by the International Chili Society, which purports to document the chili Smith actually made at Terlingua, the meat is sirloin and there are no beans. 

Ask your butcher to "chili grind" the sirloin or chuck. Or cut the meat yourself, making each chunk the size of the last joint of your little finger. The beans are your call.

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons butter 
  • 4 pounds chuck or sirloin "chili grind"
  • 2 (6-ounces) cans tomato paste, diluted with equal amounts of water 
  • 3 to 4 medium onions, chopped, about 3 cups 
  • 1 green bell pepper, chopped, about 3/4 cup
  • 2 to 10 cloves of garlic, minced (or to taste) 
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder, or more to taste 
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin 
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano 
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried sweet basil 
  • Salt and pepper to taste

In a 4-quart pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil and butter. Cook the meat until no longer pink. Drain excess fat. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 2 to 3 hours with the lid on. Serve mixed with pinto beans, in a bowl with crackers, in a Frito Pie, or over tamales.

Makes 8 eight-ounce, or 16 four-ounce servings. 

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