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.