When the warmth of summer breezes takes a decided shift and the winds come from the northern polar cap; it’s time for a lovely bowl of beans, beef, and beautiful red and green Anaheim peppers. The chili concoction favored by the woodsman is also a very good way to warm one’s hands.
Although the writer could have soup–from cold gazpacho to hot minestrone–three-hundred and sixty-five days a year, the woodsman isn’t a big fan of soup, unless it’s chili or clam chowder. When given a choice, Bert’s Chili always wins the accolades and soup contest.
Bert–the writer’s mother–was a renowned cook and baker in both the immediate and extended family. There was nothing she couldn’t cook and make delicious, and her cakes, pies, cookies, and candy confections were a guaranteed fifteen-pound weight gain, especially around the holidays, and particularly due to an over-indulgence of the Christmas goodies she baked and made.
Fans of her cooking and baking spanned generations. Her highest praise was summed up when a then, four-year-old freckle-faced blue eyed towhead, said, “Aunt Pretty, you is a good cook.” There are recipes shared by second and third generation cooks, like “Grandma Rolls,” as well as her three ingredient peanut butter cookies.
However, “Bert’s Chili,” is central to many memories. She would make a vat of chili for deer and elk hunting season that filled one of those orange and white containers more famed for being emptied on a football coach when an important game is won than for a handy chili transportation device. She didn’t cut corners nor spared any of the important ingredients when she made chili. The hunting recipe was usually made with deer hamburger, her own home-canned tomatoes, as well as onions and peppers from her bountiful garden.
Canned beans never came close to the vat of chili. She would sort and soak dried kidney and pinto beans before she cooked them the following day. She used pounds of beans to make the wholesome chili, along with five to six onions, lots of cut-up peppers, and several quarts of her tomatoes, along with spices that she measured “by guess and by golly.”
As the hunters prepared for the trip to the highest peaks in Colorado, they always made sure that Bert was going to make her chili. In addition to her chili, she also sent cookies, rolls, and other treats for everyone’s sweet tooth. She always knew what person liked what treat, and she made sure everyone had their favorite sweet on those trips.
It was usually right at or below freezing when hunting season opened, which was a good sign that the hunters would see deer and elk, especially if there had been snowfall in the high country. For those who are from altitudes near sea level, high country is something over 12,000 feet above sea level.
It was cold to freezing, day and night, which made the outdoors a perfect refrigerator for the chili and any other perishables the hunters might have had in their larder. The hunters used a big tent that was the size of a tent used by the Army for several guys. They slept on cots with really warm sleeping bags, and wore layers and layers of clothing to keep warm. Firewood was piled into an old oil barrel where they kept a fire stoked throughout the day and night to help keep the tent warm, especially when the sun would set behind the mountains and the wind started to blow.
Heating the chili was easy. They just took a big, sharp knife and cut off frozen chunks that they put into a big pot to heat. Within a few minutes, with little effort, they had a ready-made and hearty dinner that lasted throughout the hunting trip.
No one can make chili like Bert, but when someone comes close, the woodsman has been known to say, “Your chili is close, but nothing compares with Bert’s chili.” And he is right. As for following her recipes, it’s impossible to duplicate her magical touch, because it isn’t just the ingredients, it is the memories that helped season every one of her dishes, which Elsa Schiaparelli described, when she wrote,
“A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness.”