Ask G&G

Jousting Over Chili

To bean or not to bean, field dressing quail, and wearing an ugly tie in style

Britt Spencer


Q. Now that it’s winter, I’m thinking about chili. What’s the verdict on beans?

The chili wars are deadly, so please strap on your full-body Kevlar, because the fusillade from the aficionados over what is “right” in their universe will be hitting fast after this: Yes, there is a right way to make chili. I was once a chili heathen like you. I threw anything into the pot—corn, squash, carrots, legumes—and that can still be done. But the true illumination of the stew lies in the noble pepper phylum, the poblano, the serrano, the hablano, and their cousins. One must curate the flavors, sautéeing the fresh chiles and roasting and rehydrating the dried ones, using that broth in your own beef-bone stock.

Backing up 135 years, let’s bow down at the altar of the Texans, specifically, to the San Antonio madres with their chili carts around Military Square in the 1880s, where the dish as we know it was born. In 1880, “chili” was a mash-up of aboriginal American peppers, oregano, cumin, and meat, be it buffalo, jackrabbit, venison, or domesticated beef. That became what the Texans in their languid idiom call a bowl of red. On the hard-fought bean front, with the exception of Texas, most of the rest of the South is pro-legume. In any part of the South, even in Texas, when eating chili as a guest, your job is to lie. At the house of a bean-chili cooker, say, Hey, these beans really bring body to the flavor. When at the house of a no-bean classicist, say: Hey, so refreshingly lean without the legumes. Memorize these two sentences for your own personal dining safety.

Q. Is there a trick to field dressing quail?

We’ll presume that everybody is gutting-literate, so, as we know, when the life force goes, nature demands that decay set in. Move quickly. A kill done right imposes many careful duties, chief among them, to recycle the energy of this bird into you with a grace and dispatch matching its flight. Field dressing—of whatever species, really, four-legged, winged, finned—can and should be relished as a form of physical prayer. With no game is care more in demand than with the quail. Your goal is to get the offal out with a minimum of destruction to the delicate skin. Pluck some feathers from around the butt and work a tiny incision up to the sternum. Reach in high and pull the lungs and entrails out through the incision. You can use a gut hook, but I find it blunts the feel of the operation. Finally: the crop. Find the little grape-size knot below the throat, and make a tiny incision above it. You can pull it out with your fingers—the esophagus will come with it. To place yourself firmly in the divine order of the food chain—to conclude the moment of benediction—slice the crop open to let this noble bird tell you what it has, in its last moments of life, used for its great power.

Q. Urgent fashion query: The traditional “ugly Christmas tie,” as in, the one that my Uncle Andy or any number of men wear every year. Is it me, or can fun-ugly somehow turn into plain old ugly-ugly?

Good fashion satire dances along a razor’s edge, especially if it’s been running at family fetes for a half century, so it’s possible that Uncle Andy has worn out a bit of that item’s welcome. But, in fact, kudos to your uncle. He’s got the moxie to mature the joke, as one would wine, until the tie becomes a beloved icon. Trust me, you will greatly miss that tie, and your uncle, when they are no longer in your life. Here’s hoping that you have some Christmas somebody who will seize the duty and wear it after him. Basically, every man worth his salt should have some bright, ugly, if not outright nutty stuff in a proper holiday wardrobe. The wilder and more Rickie Fowler–ish, the better. At a bare minimum, your closet should hold a garish-red old-man Christmas cardigan and some seriously ugly tweeds. Like Southerners, the English will wear any damn thing at the holidays, so think English when attending your next big Christmas gig. Don’t ignore the fashion possibilities of insane indoor headgear, either. Find some good tall clip-on reindeer antlers. A stately reindeer rack on your noggin can really pull your whole holiday look together, especially with an Uncle Andy ugly tie.

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