Aaron John Curtis
My chili once took a red ribbon at the Dade County Youth Fair in the beef category, which is ironic as it was the seven years I spent as a vegetarian that taught me how to make it flavorful. I made the award-winning recipe for years, calling it ‘Harvest Chili’.
Flying home from a business trip about a month ago, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made my wife laugh. Thinking of my marriage in those terms, I should have planned out this version of my chili sooner. Our kitchens reflect our lives: not everything you make will be a savory delight, but you may still find it nourishing in some fundamental way.
May your kitchen be a source of strength, health, and joy.
Cooking for One
– 1/2 lb of frozen ground chuck, excess from the last meatloaf you ate as a family, thawed.
– 1/2 lb homemade turkey meat pasta sauce tossed in the freezer beside the ground chuck and forgotten, thawed.
– 1 smallish Vidalia onion purchased at your soon-to-be-ex in-laws’ Publix (a welcome haven of familiarity in all the upheaval), chopped. I’d say chopped fine but it’s all too much; whatever you can manage is what we’ll call fine.
– Heat the broiler on the electric stove in your new apartment. Don’t waste energy wishing for gas; work with what you have.
– Appreciate the refurbished space, which offsets the fact that you’re no longer cooking for a family at age 45, but instead you’re divorced and cooking for one. Ignore the burning plastic smell as the oven is used for the first time.
– Place 8 plum tomatoes, 6 jalapeños, and 1 large red bell pepper – also purchased at the aforementioned Publix you’ve been known to frequent during happier times, including several weeks of house sitting while your soon-to-be-ex in-laws took extended vacations and you played family in a house that wasn’t yours – onto a tinfoil-lined cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and toss until the skins are well-coated.
– Heat the overpriced Dutch oven you brought into the marriage, and sure as shit took out of the marriage because it’s part of a whole overpriced set, over medium heat. When water beads across the bottom, add the chuck and the chopped onion. Break up the meat and stir often. Add a generous dusting of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que All-Purpose Red Rub you made from scratch (Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: an American Roadhouse, page 167). The Red Rub is another bit of the familiar to calm your anxious soul (flavor from a rib joint that’s your hometown’s one claim to culinary fame. Try to forget the fact that they catered your wedding). Cook until chuck is browned and onion is soft, approximately 5 minutes.
– Meanwhile, pop the cookie sheet of vegetables into the oven. Turn every few minutes to blacken evenly. Their skins will blacken at different rates so you’ll need to remove them in shifts, starting with the plum tomatoes, moving on to the jalapeños, and finishing with the red pepper. During this process you will set off the brand new fire alarm four times. Resist the urge to approach your neighbor downstairs and assure him you are not some idiot man-child who is just learning to cook on his own, but that you are, in fact, an accomplished cook who has shown his wife and stepson love with nearly a decade of home-cooked meals, just as your mother showed your family love through nightly home-cooked meals, it’s just that you’re familiar with gas ovens and the ‘HI’ setting on the electric broiler is surprisingly high. Realize even if you had the emotional bandwidth to approach your neighbor, there’d be a language barrier anyway.
* TIP: to make removing the skin from the peppers easier, cover them with plastic wrap while they’re cooling. The steam loosens the skin for easy peeling. Be sure any accumulated juices from the peppers go into the pot for flavoring. *
– Once your onion is soft and your ground chuck is browned, add the turkey pasta sauce and a tiny Tupperware of chipotle chili leftover from the last barbecue pizza you made for your soon-to-be-ex-wife. Don’t ignore the memory of how the two of you loved pairing spicy foods with fruity beers; embrace the memory and embrace the tears that follow. Mix well.
– When you divided the contents of the pantry, the remains of two small bags of barley were tossed your way with “Take both of these; they’ll never get used.” Mix both bags in and cook for 1–2 minutes. Skip this step and you risk mushy barley; you’ve been warned.
– Add an 8oz can of tomato sauce from what is now – let’s face facts – your Publix. Add water to the pot, using the Tupperware that held the chipotle and the can that held the sauce, until you clean them out and get every last bit of flavoring, then throw in some more water because barley is thirsty. It needs water. Leave plenty of room for the dish to expand. Wonder what you’re thirsty for, and what you need. Wonder whether you’ll be shriveled or expanded by this experience.
– While waiting for the pot to boil, chop the roasted tomatoes, peel, seed, and dice both the jalapeños and red bell pepper, and add it all to the pot. This was supposed to be chili with barley instead of beans but it’s looking more like beef and barley, so add a generous portion of chili powder and freshly ground pepper (from one of those disposable containers with the built-in grinder because she kept the good peppermill, which is ironic because you’re the one who made her a pepper fiend).
– While that’s coming to a boil, go to your living room. Sit on the daybed which is also where you sleep because you can’t afford to purchase a mattress for the bed frame that’s your ex-stepson’s old Ikea bed, once stored ‘temporarily’ in the hallway of your old place and ignored for more than a year, and finally moved to a closet so you could turn the hallway into a showcase for her paintings; a gift of love that was touching at the time, but didn’t stop her from requesting a divorce scant weeks later. The frame is still in pieces anyway, so you couldn’t sleep there even if you had a mattress. Look around at everything that’s still in boxes, at the fresh drywall that’s never known spackle or a nail, at imitation-wood tile floors, dusty from construction, at the piles of clothes you have nowhere to store. Then look at all the fiction you’ve unboxed, beautifully-arranged by color in the big bookcase, the one oasis in all the chaos which tells you there’s a chance you’ll be okay. Maybe even better than okay.
– Repeat that phrase as often as you need; you’ll be okay.
– Stir the pot, stir the pot, stir the pot.
– It’s getting a little dry and the barley is still tiny, so add a cup of water. Realize you forgot salt and add some of that. It’s still a little too tomato-colored, so add more chili powder while you’re at it.
– Sit back down and read pages from the writers you’re meeting with on Sunday. You should have kept the whole weekend free to unpack and nest and run errands, but there’s no way you’ll miss this month’s meeting – not when so much else has been taken from you.
– Wonder if plain, whole milk yogurt would make a decent alternative to sour cream, because you forgot to buy sour cream and leaving the house two days in a row is more than you can handle at the moment.
– When the barley grows into puffy, soft little pillows, your Dutch oven should be full. Then you’ll see how little meat is in the dish, which is fine. Downright Mohawk, in fact, letting the grains and veggies shine and using scraps of meat for flavoring. Clinging to your identity will help; tell yourself your ancestors would appreciate this chili.
– Discover that in the distraction of your first shopping trip as a separated, middle-aged man, you bought regular yogurt rather than Greek. You hope it will be firm since it hasn’t been opened, and the universe cuts you a break. Not only does plain yogurt make a welcome substitute for sour cream, it makes the whole dish delicious. It’s not what you expected, which was your award-winning chili with barley rather than beans, but you took the scraps left in your freezer and fridge and cabinets, mixed them with new ingredients, and created something entirely your own.
– Remember what you’ll need to get through this – the best parts you’re bringing with you mixed with something new.
– You’ll be eating this dish for days, which was the idea, but you can’t finish it all before it goes bad. Freeze most of it. Vow to cook more sensible, single-guy portions in the future.
– Wonder whether your marriage is really over.
– Wonder if she really was the love of your life.