Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books, 2003.
Having grown up in San Antonio and spent all my adult life in Dallas, I’ve been a chilihead for a long, long time. I used to hit most of the old-time chili parlors on Commerce Street and still, three or four times a year, I brew up a big pot of chili to fill the freezer. Several years ago, I even wrote the original article on chili history and culture for Wikipedia. I’ve read a bunch of books about the art of making chili and this is easily one of the best. First, the author is a cook (he’s a food columnist with nearly a dozen previous cookbooks under his belt), not a chef. He’s interested in good taste, not pastel colors and building towers with your food. He’s also willing to go back to basics: “Chili is simply a meat stew defined by chile peppers. . . . Using lots of mild dried chile peppers and plenty of meat is the key to a superior and authentic chili.” The chiles, he points out repeatedly, aren’t just a spice; they’re the vegetable that accompanies the meat. Do that part right and you can experiment with adding a little of this and a pinch of that, and often you’ll come up with a pleasing riff on the original. What bothers Livingston is that most modern chili recipes leave too many things out. To remedy this, he leads the reader through the choice of meats (beef is basic, and venison is good, but even chicken works), the kinds and amounts of chiles (much more easily available these days, even outside the Southwest), the required spices (there’s no such thing as too much camino), and the various major variations (New Mexican chili verde, even that weird stuff from Cincinnati). And he considers the major points of contention: Beans or no beans? (Or beans on the side only?) Better fresh or better the second day? He brings in the historical experts, including Wick Fowler and H. Allen Smith (a distant relation of mine, actually), and he doesn’t hesitate to quote from earlier works. He’s also not “religious” about it; if it sounds interesting, he’ll try it. On the other hand, none of the several score recipes here includes oysters or tofu or lemongrass — all of which I have actually seen in recipes for appalling concoctions purporting to be chili. This one is now on my cookbook shelf, right next to A Bowl of Red.