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Read My Lips: Make This Chili

December 17, 2010

Wednesday, while on the elliptical trainer, I started thinking about a scene from the West Wing. We just started watching Season 1. I know: some 13 years later, we are watching Season 1, but this is how things go.

In an early episode, a young Elizabeth Moss playing the president’s college age daughter Zoe is stirring some chili her dad made, and the president peeks into the kitchen and says (bear in mind that I’m paraphrasing all of this) “Don’t put more cumin in the chili!”

Zoe is in the kitchen and is just being introduced to Charlie: the president’s new personal assistant.

“Taste this,” she says to Charlie. “Do you think it needs more cumin?”

Charlie tastes it and thinks. And then, he speaks with utter confidence: “What it need is oregano.”

And the two of them rollick along and doctor the president’s chili.

One way that this scene moves the show forward is that it introduces Zoe, the daughter, as someone who is very sweet but also, wants to challenge her parent’s chili recipe. Ie, she is a normal person. She is also naturally friendly and wants to forge a friendship with Charlie. In addition, it reveals a new side of the shy and somewhat overwhelmed Charlie. Suddenly there is a confidence, a sociability, a knowledge of spices there which we have not seen before.

Charlie might know more than the president, even, about certain things.

But the main thing it did to me was make me wonder:

What the hell is chili, please?

To be clear, I have had chili and know how it tastes. And I am aware of the controversies: Some people think beans are the key ingredient. Meat people think the bean people are crazy, and others reach across the aisle to have it all mixed together. Some people eat chili with rice. Other people believe in Saltines. People in Cincinnatti eat it on spaghetti, and for that, they are mocked. But it’s not like other people have come up with clearer, less mockworthy ideas on the matter.

All of these things are fine with me, but on the most basic level I don’t know what chili is. I guess that the problem is that it requires chili powder, and I don’t know what chili powder is comprised of, to be honest.

Or, I didn’t know! This is foreshadowing that I might know more about chili now than I did while exercising on Wednesday. I might share the fruits of my experience with you.

Let me announce first off that I have made chili before. What comes immediately to mind is a batches of turkey tomatillo chili that my husband loved but I feel tired and angry when I consider. That might be because I was the human being walking around searching for the perfect format of tomatillo and then husking and parboiling and pureeing and my god, it was wildly unpleasant and not at all a labor of love. I love tomatillos, I love the husband, but this somehow stank. Even though I think that they ultimately came from a huge can and didn’t really require husking, it’s a bad memory. I might be making it sound like he made me make the stupid chili. He didn’t; I’m sure it was entirely my idea. I enjoy tomatillo sauce, very much, in restaurants. I also enjoy cooking very much, but somehow, not tomatillos.

Matthew has recently been campaigning for TVP chili, which stands for Textured Vegetable Protein chili. I’d be happy to make that as it falls into my much-loved fake meat category. We’ve done that before and will do that again soon.

But yesterday it was cold and while I was still whirling around and exercising, I decided on turkey chili, with a new recipe, and found what looked like a good on on my iPhone. After the workout, I dashed next door and picked up the mainly canned goods it called for—Rotel tomatoes, a can of tomato soup, one corn, one black beans, and one white beans. I grabbed some turkey, and the fixin’s for fresh mozzarella and spinach quesadillas on the side, which I’ve decided is my answer to question of what to serve with chili. I got yogurt to serve in it. I go some oregano, too. I didn’t get chili powder, because I had some at home.

But once home, I realized that I was wrong. What I have is something called “curry powder” that my neighbor gave me. I suspect that it is comprised of things I already own. I also believe this to be true of chili powder, though I felt less certain.

But it was time to find out! While I cooked the turkey and onion together, stovetop, I looked up a chili powder recipe (see below) and cobbled together my own with oregano, cumin, cayenne, paprika, and garlic salt because I didn’t have garlic powder. (In case you are wondering how I feel about garlic powder, I hate garlic powder. I also hate garlic salt, but at least I own some. If you use garlic salt rather than garlic powder, like I did,bear in mind that it also includes salt, and don’t put in nearly the full amount.) The chili recipe also calls for Allspice, which might be what made it smell so good.

Then it all went into the crockpot until it was time to eat it.

Here is the chili. It’s sort of lowbrow, in that part of it’s base is tomato soup, which is crazily salty and also, probably has unfortunate quantities of corn syrup in it. I stand by my guns though: on a certain type of day, this is an incredibly easy and DELICIOUS go-to. I made modifications: I browned the onion with the turkey, and I added a bit of garlic salt and a bit of cumin. I used a can of Rotel tomatoes with chilis instead of one of the cans of tomato soup. I added a can of corn. I used whatever beans I felt like. I drained them but I didn’t rinse them. I didn’t put nonstick cooking spray into the pot, because if I don’t know what chili powder is, I REALLY don’t know what nonstick cooking spray is. And I don’t want to; I suspect it’s not a food. I did rub a tiny bit of olive oil in there for good measure but I really doubt it is necessary.

Now I know. Chili is lots and lots of cumin. Oregano also plays a role. Thanks Zoe and Charlie!

An easy homemade chili powder recipe (from

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 5 minutes


  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder


Combine all ingredients; store in an airtight container.

One Comment leave one →
  1. frankly manny permalink
    December 18, 2010 10:53 am

    I am skeptical of any recipe for anything obtained via since anyone — you or I, for instance — ANYONE can write any kind of whatever for for 15 cents and who knows what manner of b.s. those people write.

    Also, stop with the parboiling of your tomatillos. One, parboiling doesn’t seem like it would add much flavor or depth to the tomatillo, and, two, what a pain in the a, parboling anything is. What might be easier — easiest if you have a decent toaster oven — is broiling them for five minutes with tops up and then again with tops down. That’s ten minutes, my friend. In ten minutes, your parboiling water isn’t even parboiling.…meh.

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