My mother made the best chili in the world. “Spanish Chili,” she would be quick to remind me. I don’t know why Mom called it “Spanish Chili” other than she had gotten the recipe from Rosie, a neighbor whose family was originally from Spain.
Newly married, I asked Mom for her recipe many years ago. My husband had no idea what a treat he was in for. I pictured him sitting at the dining room table declaring, “You ought to open your own eating place on Restaurant Row!” I would think about that.
I sat down next to Mom, pencil in hand, my notebook opened to a clean, white page.
“Well…,” Mom began. “You need a pound or so of ground beef, onions, red kidney beans, canned tomatoes, canned tomato paste, bay leaf (my Italian mother used bay leaves in all her recipes that called for tomato sauce), salt and pepper. You can add potatoes and carrots if you wish. Your choice. You cook all the ingredients in a skillet until done.”
“That’s it?” I questioned.
“But how much ground beef? Onions? Kidney beans? Tomatoes?”
“You just know,” Mom declared. “It depends on how much chili you’re making. You go by ‘feel’.”
“You go by ‘feel’,” my mind repeated.
It was a cool Saturday night. I got the skillet out and lined up the ingredients on the kitchen counter. I chopped, mixed, sautéed, and stirred until I thought the perfect meal was ready to be served. I chose my best serving dish from the china closet, poured the heavenly chili from Spain into it, and set it on the table that my parents had given us for a wedding present. I wished I would have remembered to buy film for my Instamatic camera. This grand event should be recorded for future posterity.
I filled our blue-and-white ceramic bowls with the incredible treat. After a couple of spoonfuls, I realized that this didn’t taste like Mom’s. Not bad. But not Mom’s. What was missing? What didn’t I do right? It’s got to be the kind of onion…or beans… or ground beef. I called Mom the next day.
“Oh, I use whatever’s on sale. Or whatever I feel like.”
On my next trip to the supermarket, I attacked the produce section with a vengeance. White onions. Red onions. Brown-skinned onions. Which kind?
Next, the meat counter. Lean ground beef? Beef with some fat? What was on sale? …Or maybe it was the kind of beans?
The following day I approached the Spanish chili challenge like I was competing for the grand prize in a national Chili Cook-off. The results were still not quite like Mom’s -- but better.
As the years went by, my husband and children enjoyed the chili I made from Spain. They never complained. And sometimes asked for seconds. But I knew it didn’t taste like the chili that came from my mother’s kitchen.
And then one day – BINGO! I nailed it! Just like Mom’s.
“Okay,” I said to myself. “What did I do? What did I buy? Maybe it was the potatoes, carrots, onions, beef.”
I couldn’t remember exactly. But it didn’t matter. So what if it wasn’t exactly like the recipe I grew up with. I had all the delicious memories of sitting around the dinner table with my Mom and Dad, my sisters and brother. And now my husband, children and I were making memories of our own.
I say, “Compliments to the chef! Time to open ‘Lola’s Family Restaurant.’”
I’ll proudly hang a sign on my front door:
Open for Business!
Come right in. Take a seat.
Today’s special: Mom’s Spanish Chili.
(Lola Di Giulio De Maci is a Fontana resident who has had many articles published in the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series.)