Image by Markus Spiske from Pixabay
Mammaw’s Christmas Eve Chili Recipe
My Mammaw has been serving chili on Christmas Eve for nearly sixty years. It’s a tradition she picked up from her ex-husband’s mother, who likely learned it from a mother or grandmother in her life. She has had years to tweak and perfect the recipe, while maintaining the dish’s strong (and delicious) foundation. As a child, Christmas Eve dinner was nearly as important to me as my birthday, or Christmas Day itself. There’s something beautiful about a warm bowl of chili, rich with flavors of pepper, garlic, and onion, on a cold night.
Chili is a Tejano dish, originating in Mexico and Texas in the late 1800’s. In the early 20th century, it was a food for poor families and cowboys because it required so few ingredients and was easy to prepare. It grew in popularity up through the Great Depression, with chili parlors, restaurants specializing in chili, opening up across the United States. Since there aren’t many chili parlors anymore, my family has had to make do with our own recipe. This dish is infinitely versatile; it can be jazzed up or toned down to please the most refined palate.
I grew up in a home that struggled to make ends meet. My mom’s side of the family has dealt with poverty’s challenges for generations. Because of this, however, the women in my family know how to make great food that doesn’t cost much. My Mammaw’s chili usually ends up tasting spicy and savory, with an underlying sweetness that complements the chili pepper flavor. This chili could have definitely been served in a chili parlor, but it works just as well as an affordable meal the whole family can enjoy.
Every year, while the people who crowd around the Christmas Eve table might change, the chili is always just as delicious, and just as cheap to make. I have attended Christmas Eve dinners as a girl, a boy, both, and neither as I settled into my identity. As a teen, the conversations were loaded and the air was tense, but the food was so good that everyone would rather eat than discuss my myriad of issues. These days, however, I look forward to this special occasion. My family has grown a lot over the years, and we might owe it to this very recipe which never fails to bring us all together.
- 12 oz ground beef 1
- 3 large onions
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Nearly half a head of celery
- 1 large can of whole tomatoes
- Half a stick of butter
- Chili powder (Mexene preferred)2
- Onion powder
- Garlic powder
- Brown sugar
- Cayenne pepper
- 1 can of pinto beans
- 1 can of black beans
- Ask your Mammaw if she thinks you’re ready to make this year’s chili on your own. You’ve got something to prove (that the depressed, trans cousin everyone worries about is actually a masterful chef when it comes to cooking on a budget).
- Acquire your ingredients. You might find you’ll have the energy to cook or go to the store. For this reason, it’s best to buy your ingredients the day before you plan to cook. It’s okay if you go to Food City in your pajamas – no one there cares how long its been since you washed your hair. Pay in cash at the checkout (you might not be sure how much money you have in your bank account).
- Before you start cooking, strap a binder to your chest so you can focus and breathe.
- Dice onions and celery. The onions might make your eyes water, and your Mammaw will tell you to rub your hands on the faucet to clear the tears. It’s an old wives’ tale, but if you do it you’ll be surprised to find your eyes no longer burn.
- Pull down your family’s favorite old stock pot (that your Mammaw will lovingly refer to as him) and pour a bit of oil in the bottom. Saute onions and celery with garlic and beef until the onions have begun to brown and the beef is cooked through, stirring or shuffling occasionally. The warmth of the stove will fill the kitchen and the smell of meat and vegetables cooking together might make your mouth water.
- Add butter, onion and garlic powders3, chili powder, and cayenne pepper. Let cook, stirring occasionally, until butter is melted and the spices have had the chance to meld with the meat and vegetables. The dark spices will help the chili start to look like chili, rather than stew.
- You might wonder, “Why add onion and garlic powder if I’ve already added onions and garlic?” I don’t know for sure, but every year my Mammaw includes them, and every year the chili tastes great. I like to think these powders are the pixie dust that brings magic to the dish.
- Taste it4 – if there’s not enough chili powder (there won’t be), add more, and don’t go easy on it! You should plan to use half a container or more, as chili powder carries the most important flavor of the dish. When we cooked this together, my Mammaw told me, “It’s hard, so hard, to add too much chili powder, especially when it’s Mexene.”
- Pour the juice from the canned tomatoes in the pot, then pull apart the tomatoes with your hands and add them in. The goal is not to turn them to mush, but to tear them into chunks the size of beans.
- Use whole tomatoes that you mash yourself rather than diced or crushed tomatoes. I have no clue why it’s done this way. Perhaps it has something to do with the ritual of cooking; maybe we don’t harvest tomatoes from the vines, but we should touch the fruit nevertheless, feel the bounty it will provide. As a kid I loved to feel the squish of the soft tomatoes through my fingers – as an adult, I enjoy the closeness to the ingredients. Some tips passed down in the kitchen can be thrown away like table scraps; others (like this one) should be used as often as spoons.
- When this is combined, add beans and salt. Stir and taste. If you’re happy with it, you might want to taste it again (and again, just to be sure!).
- Add about a tablespoon of brown sugar. Your Mammaw may not approve of this step; her recipe has been a smash hit for decades and she could be a bit wary of changing it. If so, try to add it in when she’s not looking. Alternatively, you can toss in a few chocolate chips. The sweetness will add more depth to the dish and complement the heat.
- Though you might feel a bit guilty for betraying your Mammaw, betraying the tried-and-true recipe, betraying your family tradition, it’s important to remember that traditions change, just like people do. Just like genders can. The chili will be made better because of it, just like you were made better by ditching “she/her” pronouns.
- Let chili simmer from 30 minutes up to an hour. Perhaps you can use this opportunity to catch up with your Mammaw. College might have changed you. Maybe you’ll identify as a gender she’s unfamiliar with, one that she’s been trying hard to come to accept. You may be surprised to hear her call you by your real name instead of the old one you’ve tried desperately to bury. Something light and lovely might stir in your chest, held firmly in place by your binder.
- Finally, taste the chili – observe how the ingredients came together. Touch it up, add fine details. If this chili was a painting, here you’d be adding the small marks, the lines on the trees, the shimmer of the water. If you’re unsure, ask your Mammaw to taste it and she’ll let you know right away what it’s missing: a shake of garlic powder, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of Mexene. The Bob Ross of Christmas Eve dinners, your Mammaw can salvage even the worst of stews.
- However, upon tasting it, a fleeting expression of surprise and delight will cross your Mammaw’s face, and you might have to swallow a prideful smile.
- Let it simmer until you’re nearly ready for dinner. This would be a good time to slip away to the bathroom for a moment. Take off your binder, breathe deep with your chest, and feel your breasts slowly reinflate. Rub at the angry marks against your ribs until they lighten from red to pink. Be thankful for your growling tummy (this chili pairs well with an empty stomach). Avoid looking at yourself in the mirror. Take in the good smells of supper that will permeate the house.
- Set the table – it’s almost time to chow down! Attempt to package up your dysphoria and stuff it back in its ill-fitting box.. Ask your Mammaw which side of the bowls she wants you to place the spoons. The whole house should smell scrumptious and spicy. Gather your family together and ask everyone to sit down.
- Serve the chili with bread, crackers, or on its own, topped with cheese or sour cream. Alternatively you can top with diced tomatoes, avocados, oyster crackers, crushed tortilla chips, or anything to help make this dish your own. In my house, we sometimes boil some macaroni noodles to add to the stew. Your Mammaw might declare “_____ made the chili this year all on their own!” You’ll know otherwise – that she can’t stand to be out of the kitchen when someone else is cooking (a trait you inherited from her).
- Realize that, while cooking a meal didn’t heal your depression, you do feel better than you did earlier. You might be able to stand with your back a bit straighter. Maybe you won’t feel quite as empty in your guts. Maybe there’s a chance that your Mammaw is proud of you (something you might have thought would never happen after coming out) and maybe, just maybe, you’re proud of yourself (something you might have thought would never happen since you got depressed). By cooking this meal, you have re-won the favor of your family. All that’s left is to dig in!5
1: You can substitute the ground beef with veggie burger to make this dish vegetarian.
2: My Mammaw swears by Mexene. They stopped selling it at her local Publix a few years ago, and she’s still bitter about it. Chili powder is the central nervous system of this chili, and Mexene is the best of the best. While this recipe might differ slightly every time, it isn’t the same recipe without it.
3: This recipe doesn’t use measurements for most spices. No one in my family has ever measured spices. You should add dashes and pinches and shakes until the looks, smells, and tastes start coming together into something special.
4: Perhaps the most important step in the cooking process is tasting the chili. You should taste the chili often to get a feel for the different layers as you add new ingredients.
5: This whole recipe assumes that you are A. transgender, B. a 21-year-old experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, and C. have a grandmother who loves to cook who you call Mammaw.
“Chili Con Carne.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chili_con_carne.
“Chili Powder.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Nov. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chili_powder.
“Home.” Mexene Chili, Teasdale Foods, www.mexene.com/#about.
Nickels, Dorothy. Phone interview. 21 February 2019.
Stradley, Linda. “History And Legends Of Chili, Whats Cooking America.” What’s Cooking America, 27 Aug. 2016, whatscookingamerica.net/History/Chili/ChiliHistory.htm.
Parker Anderson is a queer writer and English student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. They are an emerging poet and essayist who loves reading, spending time outdoors, and shuffling spices in the kitchen.