STELLA’S CHILI • by Walt Giersbach

Food is more than nourishment. You can survive on boiled spelt and fried dandelion greens, but that’s like driving the freeway in a wheelchair. Chili, Stella told me, is one of those dishes that come on like a runaway truck towing tandem trailers. It’s also like Stella herself, who in spite of her college professorship looked like a hoochie chick in a juke joint.

If the cookbooks insist that baking is science, then cooking must be art that wraps itself in relationships. It worked for Marcel Proust, recalling when petite madeleines had hot-wired his memories. That’s why I’m passing along Stella’s instructions for making a pot of chili that tells your heart to look for love in the air. Making chili was our ritual as we prepared for Cinco de Mayo to cheer the Mexican Army’s victory over the French in 1862.

“First, prepare yourself,” she cautioned, with a wink in one brown eye. “Pour a generous shot of tequila.” Her favorite was Herradura Reposado.

“Then fetch a gallon steel pot. Slice up a couple of yellow onions,” and here I remember Stella going chop-chop-chop on her old cutting board. “Put the onions in with a splash of corn oil and set them to frying softly. You want to see them turn transparent, like the skin of some Yanqui gringa.” After a quick sip of tequila, she set to dicing garlic cloves to cuddle next to the onions. “You can almost see them smiling now.”

She allowed us another taste of tequila while she rummaged around the fridge for last night’s steak (chopped into quarter-inch pieces), a leftover hamburger (chopped), or a pork chop (chopped). Okay, a pound of ground round will work nicely in the absence of leftovers. Chop chop chop, and then toss the meat into the pot. I’ve heard that Texans go for armadillo or rattler, but that’s some kind of gringo legend.

While this is sizzling, she’d call for appropriate music. I lean toward hearing those old Cuban guys from the Buena Vista Social Club, but you might pick up on Roy Orbison or a mariachi band. “Personal taste is so personal,” Stella used to tell me. “That’s why it’s called personal.”

About now, Stella would turn down the heat and sidle over to the pantry for a can of red pinto beans — habichuelas. I know, smarty-pants aficionados turn their nose up at adding beans, but I don’t criticize people with hotsy totsy taste.

Stella would then peel half a dozen plum tomatoes and mash them up for the pot. While she fetched the beans she also opened a can of tomato paste. Into the pot.

All this work required a little rest before the next act. We’d take the bottle of Herradura out to the back yard for a smoke while watching the sun sink over the Chiricahua Mountains. That’s when she’d reminisce about coming up from Nogales and finding a teaching position at Tucson’s Pima community college. And I’d remind her our wedding in June would seal the deal between our nationalities.

Shaking off any dizziness, we’d go inside and brace ourselves for the next event: spices — the chorus line of cuisine. She’d line up all the containers and tell me we’re going to need salt, black pepper, a few hits of chili powder, a substantial pinch of cayenne and a bit of cumin. A glass of red wine and a handful of sugar to beat up on the tomatoes’ acidity were the finale of her production.

Now, the pot was starting to bubble and smell good, giving me a primitive urge to go yip at the sunset. At this point, Stella would suggest we had time for a nap — remembering first to turn the fire low so our house didn’t burn down.

The stars would be out when I’d feel her gentle hand and know it was time for dinner. I’d set out two large bowls and spoons and slice up a loaf of fresh crusty bread while Stella made a pot of rice.

But first! Sample the chili — eyes closed, sniffing the spoon to sort out the meringue dance of flavors. Time now for the herbs, the last delicate grace notes in the symphony that’s been bubbling on the back burner. From the little containers on the counter, she’d add a handful each of marjoram and basil. Fresh herbs are better, but dried will get you through the night. Stir them up so these newcomers mingle and fall in love with the sauce.

This is when Stella would clink her glass with mine and spoon chili over the hot rice. From the other room, we’d hear Reuben Gonzales and the Buena Vista Social Club singing Amor de Loca Juventud.

I might have been talking about chili the night in April, two months before our wedding. I was hanging out with my friend Tom at the hospital where he’s a volunteer ambulance driver. Tom got a call about a car accident and asked if I wanted to jump into the meat wagon with him. Out on Interstate 15 we saw where a small car had gone into an arroyo. I slipped and slid down the embankment, opening the driver’s side door. That’s where I discovered what was left of Stella behind the wheel.

A bad night for everyone. Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella.

When someone goes out of your life the rest of the world disappears. How do you memorialize that person? By sifting through the things she felt were important. Music and love and dancing. And chili. Of all the things Stella left behind, our times making chili will remain a poignant memory. That’s why I call this Stella’s Chili, set a second glass of tequila at her place at table and will celebrate Cinco de Mayo alone.


Walt Giersbach’s fiction has appeared Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Every Day Fiction, Everyday Weirdness, Lunch Hour Stories, Mouth Full of Bullets, Mystery Authors, OG Short Fiction, Northwoods Journal, Paradigm Journal, Short Fiction World, Southern Fried Weirdness, and Written Word.Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, have been published by Wild Child.


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Every Day Fiction

  • S Conroy

    This felt so real. I think from the beginning there’s a sense of tragedy to come, but it doesn’t take from the story in the least. In fact it made me focus all the more on the recipe and the tangible details of a love story.

  • S Conroy

    This felt so real. I think from the beginning there’s a sense of tragedy to come, but it doesn’t take from the story in the least. In fact it made me focus all the more on the recipe and the tangible details of a love story.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I’m afraid this one didn’t grab me. The tragic ending seemed a bit contrived and the beginning came across to me as a dressed up recipe.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I’m afraid this one didn’t grab me. The tragic ending seemed a bit contrived and the beginning came across to me as a dressed up recipe.

  • MPmcgurty

    While this was charmingly written, and I always look forward to reading Walt, I was disappointed in this one. The ending was anti-climactic. I didn’t feel anything for the main character or Stella. They were to be married, but I felt no passion, except for the chili, and I certainly didn’t feel emotions from the MC.

    “…what was left of Stella…A bad night for everyone. Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella.” “Disaster” just seems an odd word to apply to the death of a loved one. And just “terrible” for the MC? I think I was surprised by the lack of emotion in this sentence because of how lovely the language was in the rest of the piece, especially for the chili!

    • S Conroy
      I stumbled on that line too. "Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella." But decided it was the dark humour of someone who has experienced a tragedy that goes beyond words. Something about it being merely a disaster for her makes her still seem alive in the author's mind.
    • Carl Steiger
      I think "disaster" and "Stella" belong in the same sentence, both being star-related. I was sitting here getting all hungry myself, when I suddenly had an "aw $#!!&" moment at the end. But I'm still hungry anyway.
      • I think the MC is conveying the emotion through the metaphor of the cooking and the passion though the attention to detail. That could be just my take on the situation.
      • And "stellar disaster" I had not noticed. Go to the bottom of the class McMillan!
  • MPmcgurty

    While this was charmingly written, and I always look forward to reading Walt, I was disappointed in this one. The ending was anti-climactic. I didn’t feel anything for the main character or Stella. They were to be married, but I felt no passion, except for the chili, and I certainly didn’t feel emotions from the MC.

    “…what was left of Stella…A bad night for everyone. Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella.” “Disaster” just seems an odd word to apply to the death of a loved one. And just “terrible” for the MC? I think I was surprised by the lack of emotion in this sentence because of how lovely the language was in the rest of the piece, especially for the chili!

    • S Conroy
      I stumbled on that line too. "Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella." But decided it was the dark humour of someone who has experienced a tragedy that goes beyond words. Something about it being merely a disaster for her makes her still seem alive in the author's mind.
    • Carl Steiger
      I think "disaster" and "Stella" belong in the same sentence, both being star-related. I was sitting here getting all hungry myself, when I suddenly had an "aw $#!!&" moment at the end. But I'm still hungry anyway.
      • I think the MC is conveying the emotion through the metaphor of the cooking and the passion though the attention to detail. That could be just my take on the situation.
      • And "stellar disaster" I had not noticed. Go to the bottom of the class McMillan!
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  • I like this story. I love cooking and I do remember people from the meals (and the drinks!) we have had together. I would not personally have written ” Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella.” but personal taste is so personal, wouldn’t you say!

  • I like this story. I love cooking and I do remember people from the meals (and the drinks!) we have had together. I would not personally have written ” Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella.” but personal taste is so personal, wouldn’t you say!

  • Chris Antenen

    No one can tell us how to write about grief. There are no rules. Mine is not like yours. If you don’t understand, consider yourself lucky. It took me 25 years to write about the death of someone close, and I would have felt awful to be critiqued about my words. Style, voice, POV, description of the main character, setting – all fair game.

    Wonderful cooking scenario and I didn’t have to nitpick about anything. Easy 5..

  • Chris Antenen

    No one can tell us how to write about grief. There are no rules. Mine is not like yours. If you don’t understand, consider yourself lucky. It took me 25 years to write about the death of someone close, and I would have felt awful to be critiqued about my words. Style, voice, POV, description of the main character, setting – all fair game.

    Wonderful cooking scenario and I didn’t have to nitpick about anything. Easy 5..

  • Anita Levine

    Good reading– well-established characters, action (and holiday/recipe) in an amazingly short story. I particularly liked the reference to Proust and the madelines– another reason I like Walt’s writing– Proust went on forever! I give it 5!

  • Anita Levine

    Good reading– well-established characters, action (and holiday/recipe) in an amazingly short story. I particularly liked the reference to Proust and the madelines– another reason I like Walt’s writing– Proust went on forever! I give it 5!

  • Great concept here, and excellent writing.

    I rather enjoyed the look back at the MC and Stella making and sharing chili together. It was heartfelt with lots of imagery. Perhaps a little more emotion from the MC would have helped, as others have said. And maybe a little more interaction with Stella. We don’t know her well enough to be sympathetic. But those critiques are minor.

    The only thing that threw me was, of course, “A bad night for everyone. Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella” I don’t really understand how this line fits.

    Really loved the story though. 4 stars. Thanks for sharing.

  • Great concept here, and excellent writing.

    I rather enjoyed the look back at the MC and Stella making and sharing chili together. It was heartfelt with lots of imagery. Perhaps a little more emotion from the MC would have helped, as others have said. And maybe a little more interaction with Stella. We don’t know her well enough to be sympathetic. But those critiques are minor.

    The only thing that threw me was, of course, “A bad night for everyone. Terrible for me. A disaster for Stella” I don’t really understand how this line fits.

    Really loved the story though. 4 stars. Thanks for sharing.