By any other name

Hey, fish chili

CHEAP EATS Fish chili is still chili. Everyone else was wondering or grumbling, but there was never any question in my mind. Fish chili is chili. It just is. If you call a thing a thing, then it is what it is. Ask Popeye.

It was chili because it had chiles in it, or chili powder, and because it was at a chili cook-off and, most important, because the guy who made it called it chili. We live in a free country, and even if we didn't, fish chili would be chili.

You don't like that, move to Texas. In Terlingua, at the famous annual "international" chili cook-off, you are not allowed to put beans in your chili. Or pasta. Or rice. Or "other similar items."

Fish? I wonder....

I love Texas-style chili. I prefer it by a mile to your average ground-beef-with-bean varieties. And I love that you can call a chili cook-off an "international" event and then disallow beans and things, pretty much eliminating all the other kinds of chili in the world except Texas-style.

Oh, but chili was invented in Texas.

Give me a break. If so, it has since migrated to New Mexico, where, in Old Mexican fashion, it's more about the peppers than the meat or the beans or whatever they happen to flavor. Ever been to Cincinnati? Chili has. It's cinnamony. Beans, onions, and cheese are optional; spaghetti is standard.

Not to blow its cover, but chili lives incognito in Providence, RI, home of the oddly named New York system, which basically means chili dogs slapped together in a line of buns on a guy's arm. They don't call it chili, but it's ground beef with chili powder and cumin, somewhat distinctified by soy sauce, ginger, and — my personal favorite — celery seed.

Now, Oakland is not Terlingua or Cincinnati or Detroit or New York City or New York system or New Castle, Pa. — or a lot of other places, if you think about it. It's where Joe Rut lives, in a warehouse, and I'm jealous because he gets to vote for Barbara Lee and host chili cook-offs.

I get to go. I get to vote for my favorite chili. In a field of more than 20 contestants, which included a couple of excellent pork chilies, a wild-turkey chili (dude shot the bird hisself!), and an elk and bacon one, among the many beef-and-bean, just-beef, and vegetarian entries, my hands-down, hats-off, and belly-up favorite was the fish chili I've been trying to tell you about. It was ridiculously delicious, well stocked with several kinds of fish and shellfish, colorful with peppers, and just all-around pretty. Plus I liked its politics, and philosophy.

My only dilemma was whether to vote for it for best meat chili or best vegetarian. Joe Rut's chili cook-off ballot, like life, gave me only two choices, neither one quite right, and I had to find my way around that.

This time it was easy: I put number five on both lines. The fish chili was the best meat chili and the best vegetarian one. This from a pork-barbecuing chicken-farmer chick whose favorite two things to eat are raw beef and green salad.

For the record, if there had been a line on the ballot for gumbo, I'd have fived that line too. Hell, if we were voting on pancakes, I'd have voted for the fish chili. You know how sometimes a bowl or plate of food just speaks to you, and speaks your language?

Well, apparently I wasn't the only one listening. I just got forwarded a mass-mailed e-mail from Joe Rut announcing the winners: fish chili won best meat chili. I love the world!

My guess is about a hundred people voted. Very few were wearing cowboy hats. There must have been at least probably about 150 folks there, you gotta figure, because it was a warehouse and it was crowded. There were bands.

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