I first met my husband over a bowl of chili from Booeymonger in Washington, DC. As a Frenchman in the US, he’d become a serious fan of this meaty American soul food, and was naturally excited to find there was world class chili in Tucson, Arizona where I was living in the early 90s.
“Famous Chili & Pies,” he said, pointing to the sign in our drive up Mount Lemmon in the Catalinas.
We walked up to the cafeteria from the summer ski lodge parking lot at some elevation of 2500 meters. If not for the OPEN sign the cafeteria looked closed. A portly woman replied to our echoey hello upon entering. Pushing through the swinging doors she picked up two leather-bound menus on a saguaro stool in one motion then continued on her path to a table. We complied, sitting down by the open menus to read the plasticated pages with an extensive list of Sonoran specialties. Only then we were stopped midway.
“We only have Chili today. Chili with cornbread, or, Chili without cornbread.”
Having pared down the decision of the lunch to a binary choice, I was able to answer first, telling the woman I’d have the Chili with cornbread. When my partner did the same the woman reversed her walk, replacing the menus on her saguaro outside the swinging doors and entering what we presumed was the kitchen. We then spent the next three quarters of an hour wondering whether to make a run for it before she came back with an ax to murder us both but we ended up squirming and waiting for the chili instead.
When the Chili with cornbread did finally appear, we exhaled in an audible relief before we consumed it. In an experience that took us to a parallel universe, the chili was truly out of this world. Magically transformed, we stepped outside into the open range of the Santa Catalina Mountains, remembering this time that this place still belonged to the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Even though there are something like 34,000 Tohono O’odham members that live in the 11,330 square kilometers of the Catalinas, it’s hard to meet a local because hikers, skiiers and tourists like us outnumber them. It’s rare to meet a Tohono O’odham, maybe because the lady in the cafeteria murdered them all. Then we remember the real history, the one that explains why we can enter this foreign country without a passport, sit down in a cafeteria and order a chili with cornbread.
I was lucky to have the time to learn about so many first nation cultures in my days teaching at the University of Arizona. The Tohono O’odham was one, and now, every time I have a Chili, I think about this peaceful parallel universe, even if it’s without the cornbread.
#NationalChiliDay falls on the fourth Thursday of the cold month of February. Time to get a bowl down before the warmer days of spring! If you don’t have your own go-to recipe, here are 20 recipes from scrambledchef to cosy up to right now!