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Recipes and Stories

5 December 2015: Finding Home by the Recipe III – Meet Charlie Bedford

Marion Bedford's chili is just the old-fashioned Southern variety, mildly spicy and made with ground meat and beans. She always served it with saltine crackers and grated old cheddar from Grover's Market, the little family grocery and butcher shop on Main Street in Maple Grove.

Best-selling children’s book author Charlie Bedford had many talents, but cooking was not among them. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate good food, it just didn’t matter enough for him to be bothered to actually make it. On the rare occasion that the sleek kitchen of his Manhattan apartment had seen any activity, it had been Val who’d done it.

Besides, there were more good restaurants within three blocks of his apartment than there had been within a thirty miles of Maple Grove, the sleepy village where he’d grown up. He could get anything he could possibly want with no more effort than walking a block or two. Why would he need to interrupt his work with a chore that he didn’t have to do?

Even after his career and love life crashed and burned, landing him back in Maple Grove where the best (and only) restaurant within three blocks of his house was The Cozy Corner, Carol Ann’s homey meat-and-three diner on Main Street, he had no interest in the sunny yellow room at the back of the whitewashed brick cottage that had been his childhood home. Depression had laid waste to his appetite, and with his old friends doing their best to force-feed him, he had more food in the house than any single person with a healthy appetite could’ve put away.

But as his interest in life began to rouse, bringing his appetite with it, it was only a matter of time before he realized that he couldn’t expect friends and neighbors to keep catering to him. Besides, as far as Maple Grove was concerned, “Thai” was something you did with ropes, shoe-laces, and ribbons: if he wanted Thai food, he was going to have to figure out how to make it for himself.

And maybe it was being depressed and back in his mother’s house again, but he found himself actually craving the food of his childhood, and not even Boyd could cook like his mother. It wasn’t that her cooking was anything special, but that’s the way it is with the things that we grew up on. At any rate, here, in his own words, Charlie explains his surprise in coming home to find that while he was living on New York pizza and Thai take-out, most of his friends had become cooks, and shares his own fledgling efforts to join them by trying to recreate his mother’s chili:

“People are always saying that small towns don’t change, but when I came back home to Maple Grove last fall, it was a real surprise to see how much of it actually had changed. Probably the biggest surprise of all was how everybody I knew seemed to have become obsessed with cooking, especially my two oldest friends, Boyd Clayton and Sandy McMillan.

Boyd I kind of understand: he’s a single father with a little girl to feed and besides has spent his whole life looking after people whether they wanted it or not. But Sandy, who’s nowadays known to the whole town as Dr. Mac, is practically the only doctor within twenty miles and has a very busy life. He’s the last person I would ever have expected to see bellied up to a stove.

Anyway, it was just a matter of time till I guess some of that started rubbing off on me—well, a little. Of course, between Boyd, Mac, and Bessie Grayson force-feeding me like some kind of third world refugee, I’ve not needed to cook much, but lately I’ve been missing the things my mother used to make, so I dusted off her old recipe box in the pantry. In case you don’t know, my idea of cooking is stirring instant ramen noodles into boiling water, so I knew anything I tried would have to be something that can stand up to neglect. If I’ve got to stand over it, well, forget it: that’s not going to happen, especially now that I’m working again. But if it’s something I can throw together and walk away from—that, I can handle.

That’s probably why the first thing I did make was Mama’s chili: once the meat is browned, it’s pretty much dump it all in and walk away. She probably wrote out this recipe card long before I was born and by the time I was growing up, I know she never even looked at it when she cooked. I remember it being a lot spicier than what was on the card, so I just kept tasting and fiddling until it triggered a memory. I must say, it wasn’t half bad. Since then, Boyd gave me some pointers and what I’ve come up with is as close to Mama’s as I’m going to get.

Anyway, here’s her recipe card and the way I make it now.

Makes enough for six to eight servings
3 pounds ground chuck
2 tablespoons salad oil
2 onions, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped fine
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 big can crushed tomatoes
2 cans beef broth
¼ cup ketchup
2 cans pinto beans, drained
4 cans kidney beans, drained

Brown meat in salad oil in big pot, breaking up with wooden spoon. Take out and put in onions. Stir until onion is clear and soft, and put meat back in pan. Add garlic and chili powder and stir until chili powder is mixed with meat. Put in oregano and bay leaf and stir in tomato puree, broth, ketchup, and pinch salt. Let come to boil and cut heat down until chili is barely bubbling. Cook two hours or until thick. During last half hour, put in beans and add salt if needed. Serve with saltine crackers and Grover’s cheddar, grated.

I feel a little bit like a fraud writing a recipe, but here goes nothing. This is about as close to my memory as I’ve been able to get. The olive oil we could get in Maple Grove when I was growing up wasn’t worth talking about, so my mother used plain vegetable oil, but now Bill stocks a surprisingly good selection at Grover’s Market, and it’s what we always had in New York, so now that’s what I use here. Mama always used the local beef that Bill’s dad ground to order, and I still do. Since I grew up with JS, who now runs his family’s cattle ranch, it’s kind of like keeping things in the family.

Makes the same amount as Mama’s
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds ground beef chuck
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced fine
2-3 tablespoons chili powder
1 heaped teaspoon dried oregano
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 14-ounce cans beef broth
¼ cup tomato ketchup
4 cups cooked pinto beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups cooked dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed 5-7 quart Dutch oven over medium heat. (I use the same big enameled iron pot that Mama did.) Crumble enough beef into it to cover the bottom without crowding and brown it well, crumbling it more with a spatula or fork. Take it out of the pot with a slotted spoon and add more beef, repeating until all the meat has been browned.

2. Add the onions and stir them until they’re clear and golden, about 5-8 minutes. Add the garlic and oregano, give it a good stir, and put the beef back in the pot. Sprinkle the chili powder over it and toss until it’s really fragrant. Add the tomatoes, broth, ketchup, and a big pinch of salt. Let it come to a boil, lower the heat until it’s barely simmering, and let it cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s thick, at least 2 hours. The last time it was closer to 3 and it was even better.

3. Stir in the beans, let it come back to a bubble, and simmer until the beans have absorbed the flavor of the chili, about half an hour. Taste and adjust the seasonings and simmer 2-3 minutes longer. Nowadays, I like this without cheese, and instead put sliced green onion on it and eat it with tortilla chips, but when I’m really missing Mama, I’ll grate some of Grover’s cheese over the top and eat it with saltine crackers.”

Copyright © 2015 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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