A Dish for the Times

If ever there were a time for chili, it's now

My mother was a woman of many talents. Cooking, however, was not one of them. Early childhood memories are marred by images of slices of canned corned beef hash topped with an egg and baked in the oven, canned rutabagas, and something called "eggs a la golden rod." No one in our family starved, but none of us were overweight, either.

And then a wonderful thing happened. An advertising copywriter named Peg Bracken wrote The I Hate to Cook Book and mealtimes at the Allen household took on a whole new dimension. That book (which is now, sadly, out of print; but used copies are available on Amazon and other online booksellers) became my mother's kitchen mainstay, and the rest of us cheered her on from the dining room.
My mother, whose letters to family and friends became pass-around legends, enjoyed Bracken's book as much for her writing and her outlook on life as her recipes. For example, one recipe includes the instruction, "Add the flour, salt, paprika, and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink."

The book had thirty main-dish recipes -- one for every day of the month -- with such fanciful names as Stayabed Stew, Sole Survivor, and Skid Row Stroganoff. Far and away my favorite, however, was Chilly Night Chili.

I am well aware that chili aficionados get all wrought up over the proper "tightening" ingredients, the role of beans, and the proportions of meat and seasonings. I have indulged in some of that myself and have the cookbooks to show for it.

But in the end, I have never found a chili recipe that is so universally accepted as Chilly Night Chili. It has graced the counters of numerous friends and neighbors in times of distress, and I try to keep a batch in the freezer for quick meals.

Here's the recipe:

Serves 4-6
1 pound hamburger
1 large onion, chopped
1 can kidney beans (or 2 if feeding a crowd)
1 can tomato soup, undiluted
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chili powder

Brown the meat and the onion in a little butter and cook till the meat is brown -- about ten minutes. Add everything else, then let it simmer covered for a half hour. (In an uncharacteristic fit of innovation, mother added sliced black olives, which actually tasted pretty good.)

It is simple. It is tasty. And sometimes that's all you need.