By Christina Stock
The football season is over and most fans that were happy or disappointed about the Super Bowl outcome are now on a pigskin drought until the next season.
To hold you over until the new season starts, I’ve got two treats for you: First, some fun versions and the history behind infamous, famous and favorite chili and chili con carne (not to be mistaken for New Mexico’s wonderful green gold-chile stew) and the new book by award-winning journalist John Eisenberg about the history of the NFL, “The League.”
Feb. 28 is National Chili Day and as with all favorite foods, there are real connoisseurs among the chili lovers, so it’s not surprising that there is an International Chili Society that overlooks competitions and cook-offs. The organization was established in 1967 when they pioneered its first World Championship Chili Cook-off in Terlingua, Texas, not very far from us. The town is a ghost town and there is really not a lot to see, but during the chili cook-off, the entire area is filled with thousands of campers and chili fans.
The organization classifies four different kinds of chili: traditional red chili, homestyle chili, chili verde (not to be mistaken for the New Mexico version — they permit green chile powder — the horror) and veggie chili. As an adopted New Mexico citizen, I am going to completely ignore their chili verde). If you are interested in the organization, check out chilicookoff.com.
The original Texan red chili or chili con carne is without beans, made with beef stew chunks, seasoned with red chili peppers/powders and spices. Any non-meat recipe is not permitted.
You would guess that the history of the spicy dish is connected to Texan cowboys — it sounds like a perfect meal on the long trails getting the cattle up North to sell. However, there are several legends of how chili came to life or rather into the pot of northerners and Europeans.
The first legend is connected to a Catholic Saint, Sister Mary of Jesus of Agreda, (1602-1665), a Franciscan abbess in Spain who was a vegan. She didn’t eat meat, eggs, milk or cheese. Now, how would she be connected to New Mexico, Texas or chili? The mystery is in her Sainthood. According to the Vatican Archives, witnesses met her in New Mexico and West Texas where she cooked for the poor and sick, the Jumano Tribe to be specific — they were buffalo hunters in the New Mexico/Mexico and West Texas region. At the same time, she was in her monastery in Spain — a miracle of bilocation was the reason, the Vatican concluded, for her sanctification process.
According to legend, the abbess talked to the tribe and convinced them to play an active role as middlemen between the Spanish colonies and the various Native American tribes. The abbess corresponded with King Philip IV of Spain about her mystical experiences in the Spanish colonies and wrote books and other letters that inspired many Franciscan monks and nuns to travel to New Mexico and Texas. She wrote down her recipe she cooked for the tribe, which included chili peppers, venison, onions and tomatoes.
Another legend goes that Canary Islanders who made their way to San Antonio, Texas, as early as 1723, used local peppers and wild onions, combined with various meats to create early chili combinations.
Most historians agree that the earliest written description of chili came from J.C. Clopper, who lived near Houston. While his description never mentions the word chili, this is what he wrote of his visit to San Antonio in 1828: “When they (poor families of San Antonio) have to lay for their meat in the market, a very little is made to suffice for the family; it is generally cut into a kind of hash with nearly as many peppers as there are pieces of meat — this is all stewed together.”
My first memory of chili was in Saudi Arabia where my family lived from 1972 to ‘74. It was next to impossible to get any fresh beef in the little village of Taif where a mix of Americans and Europeans were living in little homes spread throughout. The westerners had been invited by the Saudi government to teach its military, build roads and hotels. My father was retired Army and contracted by Agusta in Italy to teach the Saudi military to fly the newly acquired Bell helicopter. My mom learned to cook chili as a special treat during these years.
When we returned in 1975 to Germany, we had no access to the precious red chile powder, so my mom turned a spaghetti sauce recipe into her version of chili by adding cayenne pepper and red kidney beans. I know, it sounds bad, but she did the best she could do to treat me to one of my favorite dishes. Years later, the grocery stores in my hometown still didn’t carry red chile powder, but they had red salsa. Only one brand, which is also popular in Roswell, and as a young girl, I added it to get at least a hint of the “Mexican” flavor. It stayed my secret for a decade until a certain Marine brought me to Roswell where I got direct access to red chile powder.
Now comes the really funny story. One day, I had only a small portion of spaghetti sauce left — not enough for the two of us. But I had some salsa, so I decided to bring back my German chili. I don’t know if it was because of all the sugar (you’ll see in the recipe) or because of my husband being from New York state, but he loved the German version and it became a monthly treat. I only added to it the red chile powder from New Mexico. The recipe I share with you is if you like to make it from scratch. But, if you have leftover spaghetti sauce, you can use that as a base. It is a great dish for singles, or moms or dads who have no time for extravagant cooking. If you don’t like it spicy, omit the cayenne pepper and don’t use hot salsa.
Mutti (Mom) Silvia’s German chili con carne
1 lb ground beef (lean)
1 slice bacon
4 cups chicken broth
2 cups beef broth
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
2 8 oz cans diced hot tomatoes (or regular)
1 12 oz jar chunky medium salsa
1 12 oz jar chunky hot salsa
1 27 oz can kidney beans (or pinto beans)
2 small onions, chopped
1 cup diced red and yellow bell peppers (frozen or fresh)
3-4 cloves of fresh garlic (chopped — never use dried garlic unless you are out of fresh. Fresh garlic is healthy for your immune system and keeps the food fresh longer because it slows bacteria growth)
5 heaping Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp olive oil for cooking
3 tsp chili powder
salt and cayenne pepper to taste, (Careful because tomato sauce, the broth and salsa have salt in it already.
In a large pot, fry the slice of bacon in the olive oil. Once the bacon is brown, take it out and add the ground beef and brown. Drain the excess fat.
Add the dried spices and stir (this brings out the flavor).
Add the chopped onions and frozen bell pepper and stir on low heat until nothing sticks to the pot anymore.
Add the rest of the ingredients, but not the beans, and simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally (or put in a crockpot to simmer).
After 45 minutes, add the beans and set the heat on medium heat for the next 15 minutes.
Taste and adjust the seasoning and sugar to get the flavor you like.
Note: Meat used to be very expensive in Germany, so we “stretched” our chili by serving it over a bed of rice or adding corn. There is a saying in German, “Not macht erfinderisch,” which means that necessity turns you into an experimental inventor. The best recipes come from those serendipitous mom-experiments.
Now to my book recommendation: Award-winning journalist, John Eisenberg’s new book, “The League: How Five Rivals Created the NFL And Launched A Sports Empire,” gives a fascinating insight in the early days of the National Football League with little-known facts. I have to admit, I didn’t know anything about the early days of football, so I was surprised that athletes didn’t focus on only one sport.
Eisenberg writes vividly, concise and entertaining, starting with George Halas who played baseball, basketball and football.
In “The League,” Eisenberg reveals that Art Rooney, Halas, Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall and Bert Bell took an immense risk by investing in the professional game. At that time, the sport was barely registered on the national scene, where college football, baseball, boxing and horse racing dominated. The five owners succeeded only because at critical junctures in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, each sacrificed the short-term success of his team for the longer-term good of the league. The history of a sport and a remarkable story of business ingenuity all in one, “The League” is an essential read for any fan of the United States’ true national pastime.
Eisenberg grew up with books in his hands — his first summer job was at his mother’s bookstore in his hometown of Dallas, Texas. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he wrote for newspapers for almost three decades, mostly as a sports columnist at The Baltimore Sun covering major events while also paying attention to his hometown teams — the Baltimore Ravens, Baltimore Orioles and Maryland Terrapins. Along the way, he wrote 3,000 columns and won more than 20 awards, including several first-places in the prestigious Associated Press Sports Editors contest.
In a phone interview with the Vision editor, Eisenberg talked about himself and his book.
“I was an unexceptional athlete, I’ll put it that way,” he said. “I played some tennis and high school basketball, a little college tennis and I just enjoyed sports like a typical little kid. I just enjoyed it and was a fan like anybody else. It wasn’t until I got to college that I started writing about it. Once I started doing it, it seemed I had a knack for it.”
Asked about the business owners from the early days of the NFL compared to today, Eisenberg said, “The roots of sports and the NFL is very inauspicious, there is no resemblance to what the situation is today. The owners of teams today are titans of industry, the wealthiest people of the world. Back then, these five owners that I highlight, most of them didn’t come from wealthy families. They did not have a lot of money. They were not trying to get rich off of football either — nobody could have imagined it. They just thought it might be a good game and tried to make a go at it, but it was not a money sport at all. They were lucky to sell enough tickets to break even. No one was trying to get rich off of pro-football in the early days of the NFL.
“Collaboration was essential with these guys,” Eisenberg said. “Their teams were rivals on the field and they were trying to beat each other and sometimes they didn’t get along very well. But at the end of the day, they understood that they were partners and in the business of pro-football and if they didn’t work together they would fail. There was no doubt. They had to put aside their own interests in exchange for what was right for the greater good. That’s a great lesson. Any business would want their employees to understand that. So that’s a real good lesson that sometimes you do act for the greater good. That is certainly why the NFL succeeded.”
While the reader of the book might get sentimental about those high values and team-oriented behavior that held the sport above profiteering, Eisenberg doubts that there is a way to turn back the clock. He describes in the book the way George Ellis had to sell advertisements in the Chicago Bears game program for them to survive. “A very, very small scale,” Eisenberg said. “And now the Bears are worth $3 billion.
“It would be better if they would focus more on the sport than the business of the sport, but I am not sure that’s going to happen,” Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg’s writing style is straight-forward and his book, “The League,” shows his love for the sport and for reporting.
“I got a start on a newspaper career and was in it for a very long time,” Eisenberg said. “I spent almost 30 years in the newspaper business. I consider myself a newspaper person for sure. I was fortunate, I lived through the golden era of newspapers in the U.S. in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Baltimore Sun sent me to 12 countries and 40 states to write sports; I went to the Olympic Games, the World Cup of Soccer, I went all over the world. It was a great opportunity. I look back on it with a lot of fondness. Those days are over but it was a lot of fun.”
A journalist never retires — Eisenberg continues to write daily about sports in Baltimore, first at csnbaltimore.com and now at baltimoreravens.com. He has written 10 books, including two books about the early days of the Dallas Cowboys.
I was surprised that a big-name journalist like Eisenberg was willing to give us an interview — I had only hoped for a comment to add to the book review and was pleasantly surprised that he took the time for an entire interview. Telling him that, he said, “You put an opinion out there, people want to agree with it or disagree with it. They still enjoy that give and take, whether it’s in the newspaper or online. The public has a craving for it and that’s a good thing. Every city and community needs a newspaper. It’s endangered.”
Eisenberg’s books are available at all bookstores and online as ebooks. He is also touring the country for book talks. For more information, visit johneisenberg.com.