The U.S., one bowl of chili at a time
The U.S., one bowl of chili at a time

The U.S., one bowl of chili at a time

Taking the time to regularly approach enjoyable aspects of life—even cooking that's more a means to an end—gives honour to a sovereign, time-taking God.

April 9 th 2010

My year-long exploration of the United States is—so far, at least—surprisingly cost-efficient. My trip from the state of Washington to Pennsylvania, for instance, only cost around $9. If I keep this up, I'll be able to smell the smells and taste the tastes from the Atlantic to the Pacific—non-contiguous states and the District of Columbia included—for a little over $100. And it'll keep me fed in the process. So far, this journey has taught me a lot about myself, about discipline, about improvisation under pressure, and an awful, awful lot about chili.

Chili. Chili con carne, or "peppers with meat" in Spanish. Simply meat and chili peppers, if you're a purist (plus a lot of other ingredients, if you're not). OK, so I'm not actually traveling from state to state, but instead I've been using Jane and Michael Stern's Chili Nation (Random House, 1999) cookbook as a tour guide. The Sterns made stops in each state and collected recipes that they felt captured some of the local flavour—coffee-accented chili from the state of Washington, chili with seafood in place of beef from Maryland, a flavourful dish popularized by some of the diners on Mississippi's Route 61, and so on.

So, in lieu of spending a year traveling, I thought I'd let my tastebuds and stomach take a trip instead. Fifty-one chili recipes in 52 weeks. One chili a week, with one week off (which I'll probably cash in on my honeymoon, but my fiancée likes chili too, so maybe not!) I have also vowed to write a brief review each week's chili on Facebook.

The catalyst for this chili interest was Andy Crouch's excellent book Culture Making (InterVarsity Press, 2008). In one of the chapters, Crouch uses a particular chili dish as a recurring metaphor. His description was so appetizing that I was thrilled to learn that he had the recipe posted on his blog. See, my parents occasionally made chili when I was a child, and it never grabbed my interest: lots of kidney beans, dry meat, and a dash of spices mixed in with a disproportional amount of rice. Learning more about chili was never a priority once I began cooking on my own, but the recipe in Culture Making—with bulgur, black beans, and corn!—piqued my interest. I spent the next year cooking various chili dishes every few months, eventually concocting a dish on the fly; I tossed anything I thought would taste good into the pot, from coffee to chocolate to a microbrew porter. I was pleased with the results, and was looking for the next step. I bought Chili Nation soon after, and I haven't been bored with chili yet!

But you might wonder: why do something like this? Good question. This kind of thing is nothing new to me. In college, I used to systematically listen to every CD I owned in alphabetical order (and then in chronological order for each artist or band) at the start of each semester. I also mentally divide every book I read into ten equal parts, and I try to cover one part a day. The list goes on.

I've allowed myself some freedom when selecting each week's recipe, and I usually try to find some common ingredients so I don't have to buy tons of groceries each week in preparation. I bounce around the 51 recipes, making mental notes if two types of chili both use ground beef and chicken broth, or if several use dried Anaheim peppers. I try to balance what I'm eating from week to week, too; while eating a month's worth of hardcore purist-style southwestern chili might sound fantastic on paper, a few sleepless nights will suggest the necessity of some of the more dessert-style chilis (there is such a thing).

As I work through Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline (HarperCollins, 1988) with a few friends from my church community, I'm grasping that these habits stem from my desire to let a sense of discipline permeate all spheres in my life—not just my devotional and prayer life, but with cooking, reading, or watching every episode of Buffy and Angel in sequential order. In realizing this, I want to be more thoughtful and consistent with these activities, to enjoy them fully but to also not treat them like trivialities. Taking the time to regularly approach enjoyable aspects of life—even cooking that's more a means to an end—gives honour to a sovereign, time-taking God.

In a way, this disciplined cooking has actually helped me become more adventurous. Even though I'd been dabbling heavily with Indian and southeast Asian cuisine for the past few years, I stuck narrowly to the recipes, almost comically so. If—midway through cooking—I discovered I was short on, say, cumin, I'd feel like the dish was a bust. But over the past few months that changed. I learned to substitute, to alter, to improvise—to play notes not written on the page. And it's been more enjoyable than I could imagine. I can assume that a recipe is written a certain way for a reason, but I've learned that a playful sense of adventure in cooking can be a loving homage to a recipe's creator.

And, as I think about it, these chili dishes really do let me visit other parts of the United States on a budget. There's something about a culture—state, city, neighbourhood, whatever—that manifests in its food, kind of like a communal barometer concentrated in a bowl or on a plate. Jane and Michael Stern did a fine job of letting local flavour (in various facets) show up in the chilies, and—in a way—it's oddly moving. The dishes are quite evocative of the local climate, and while it's not a perfect substitute for actually learning about other human beings firsthand, it's an effective (and tasty) alternative.

I never thought I could say that God has used chili to change me, but here I am. Most of the things I mention above never really occurred to me until I began this cooking project, and I'm thankful they did. Cooking all of these types of chili might keep me fed and let me hop from state to state, but it's also helping me become a better human being. And there's no beans about that.

(modified) Highway 61 Chili, from Mississippi
posted with permission from the author; visit

4 dried chipotle chilies
2 dried pasilla chilies
1 cup barbecue sauce (I used Dinosaur BBQ sauce)
1 cup chopped onions
1 tbsp butter
1 1/3 pounds ground pork (I added some ground turkey to the mix and it tasted great)
14.5 can diced tomatoes, drained
15.5 can corn, drained
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
(up to) 1 cup tomato sauce

Let the dried chilies soak in boiling water for 30 minutes. De-seed and stalk, then put in a food processor with the barbecue sauce.

Cook onions in butter, 'til soft. Add pork and brown fully (draining grease).

Add sauce mix, Worcestershire sauce, corn, tomatoes. Add tomato sauce to keep it liquidy, as needed. Cook 10 minutes.

Topics: Arts
Jason Panella
Jason Panella

Jason Panella is the development associate for the Anglican Relief & Development Fund, and regularly writes for DVD Verdict and The Curator.


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