A Chili Recipe for Lily
The spring my daughter, Lily, turned one, my mom came to live with us. She brought her warmth and laughter and, what I was most excited about, her binders full of delicious recipes. She also brought a brand new chili recipe. I rolled my eyes and thought seriously?! And I secretly hoped she’d never make it. I wanted her to make her best fried chicken ever and mouthwatering cannelloni, her steak with Béarnaise, and homemade pizza dough.
This is how my bowl always looked at the end of a chili dinner when I was growing up: a few dashes of the tomato-meat-saucy part clung to the bottom, and, scraped over to one side sat a sad looking pile of dejected kidney beans.
I can brag about my mom’s cooking – her shrimp scampi linguini, dark chocolate truffles covered in cocoa powder, a perfectly cooked eye-of-the-round, studded with garlic, and served on simple buns with a cold, spicy horseradish sauce – except when it comes to her chili. My mom’s chili was the worst.
She made it with ground beef, tomato sauce, a few meager spices (if any) and kidney beans. Enough kidney beans, it felt like, to feed all the starving children worldwide. Beans are cheap, and if anyone had seen how full of kidney beans my mom’s chili was, they’d have thought we were poor. Maybe we were. Ugh! I used to hate chili nights; I prayed for no chili, anything but chili.
My mom served her chili with saltine crackers, butter, and shredded cheddar cheese. Thank goodness for the cheese and crackers because that’s pretty much what my meal consisted of on nights we had chili for dinner. I’d hesitantly scrape through the bowl for bites with meat and sauce, but no beans, like fearfully walking across terrain poisoned with land mines.
To this day I can’t stand kidney beans with their mushy, mealy center and their chewy, rubbery outside. It even took me years, decades in fact, to enjoy other beans because of my mom’s chili. I’d hear about people enjoying fresh bean dips and entire cassoulets made with beans and I’d think, people eat those things on purpose?!
The fall after she moved in with us, the first time my mom cooked her new chili recipe in my kitchen I didn’t pay much attention, but when she sat down to eat some for lunch, and I watched her and my 18-month-old Lily gobble up bowls full, I was curious. It was lunchtime, the kitchen did smell good, and I was hungry. Correction, I was pregnant and hungry. I knew it was different than her old recipe because I’d seen the chopped red pepper and onion on the cutting board, and I could smell things like chili powder, toasted cumin and just a hint of cinnamon, which I thought sounded both odd and intriguing. Still, it was chili; could it really be that good? Turns out my old aversion to chili was no match for my pregnancy hunger.
I remember that first bowlful and gloriously it was nothing close to the chili of my childhood. Full of flavor from the tomatoes, meat and peppers, a hint of heat from the chili powder, and that unique cinnamon; it was the perfect amount of salty, a bit of sweet from the barely caramelized onions, and the pinto and black beans were such a tasty alternative to kidney mush. Topped with some cheddar, sour cream, diced red onions and a few tortilla chips, every ingredient was a yummy perfect accompaniment to the others. I didn’t scrape anything anywhere except into my drooling mouth.
And Lily, my daughter, liked that chili so much it made her eyes light up and her entire face break into smile. Often she would have two and three helpings. She actually requested it for meals, and her Nana indulged her. My mom made that chili almost weekly for herself, Lily and me during the falls and winters she lived with us. The taste, the shared meal, watching Lily delight in every bite, combine to make such a wonderful, precious memory for me around my mom, my daughter and meals.
After a short, heinous battle with stage 4 lung cancer, my mom died in our home only two years after she moved in. The fall after her death my precious Lily, then three, asked me to make Nana’s chili. I’m constantly surprised and amazed by the things Lily remembers. Sometimes I think she has a multi-sensory photographic memory. But honestly, I don’t know why I was caught off guard when she asked me to make my mom’s chili, because I already knew any memory made around great food, love, and special relationships gets rooted in our heads and our hearts, and the scents and memory become one.
And wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t find the recipe.
Shortly after my mom died – grieving and angry, and learning that mostly what people leave behind are cold, unfeeling, ridiculous items like my mom’s six-year-old Toyota Corolla and her antique bonnet chest – I realized I had all of her old recipes. Not cold and unfeeling at all. It was both a comforting and painful realization that I had this precious piece of my mom to cherish. Some of the recipes were in her handwriting, a few had notes she’d written into the margins, “Add more wine,” or, “Needs wine.” She did like her wine. All of them brought back memories. Yet, her new chili recipe was nowhere to be found. It felt like I had The Chili Curse. As if all of my hatred of my mom’s old recipe cursed me into not being able to find her new scrumptious one.
So I didn’t make any chili at all; instead I tried to casually blow off my daughter’s requests by telling her I couldn’t find Nana’s recipe.
In the car over a year later we were playing “Memories of Nana” where we talk about the things we remember that she did and said, how loving and silly and cuddly she was with Lily, Sam (my nephew) and my son, Jasper. Of course Lily said, “Remember she used to make me chili? Mmmm, I loved that chili. Can you make it, Mama, pretty please?”
“I can’t find her recipe, Honey Bunches.” I’d been saying these words for almost two years now. Oh, Time how you rush away from me. I glanced at her in the rearview mirror, wishing, again, as I do a gazillion times a week, that my mom was still here for her because it has to do with so much more than chili; it’s about a relationship with my mom and her wonderful love of cooking and sharing meals that my daughter will never have with her Nana.
A few minutes of silence in the car, I could see Lily looking out the window with her head resting on the back of her car seat, lost in her own special memories of Nana, my ever-deep-in-thought daughter. And she said, “Can’t you just make one up? Maybe Nana didn’t have a recipe, maybe she just made it up out of her head.”
Why can’t I just make one up? It’s chili, not brain surgery. I thought. And I’m a cook, a pretty good one most of the time. What has prevented me, for two years now, from making chili, from providing my daughter with some of her own kind of healing, from giving her back a bit of that delicious, warm memory?
I can blame it on The Chili-Curse, but I know it’s not that. It’s plain and simple, an ugly twist-of-the-gut fear. I’m afraid. Is it better as a memory, that warm, flavorful, nourishing goodness that my mom fed my daughter and me for months, just the three of us enjoying lunch together during the chilly, rainy Pacific Northwest winters? Maybe, and yet, it’s not just my memory. The love that my mom put into that chili she did for Lily, and who am I to try to control or squash Lily’s memories? What it comes down to, what I’m really afraid of is that I won’t be able to make it taste as good as my mom’s. That I’ll screw up my daughter’s precious, cozy memory. I guess the question is, am I brave enough to try?
Sara Ohlin is a writer living in Everett, Washington. Her essays can be found at Anderbo.com (as Sara Mitchell), Trillium Literary Journal, Seattle Neufeld Community Blog, and the anthology, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America. Her addictions are food, photography and gardening, and she can often be found playing in the garden with her two kids or writing about life at www.lemonsandroses.com.