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Quest for Perfect Chili

Serious chili connoisseurs seldom agree on the perfect chili recipe, which often depends on regional preferences. No matter the recipe, or whether it's served with or without beans, chili remains an American classic.

Chili is an American culinary original, and its recipes are hotly debated. Chili began as what Texans call “a bowl of red,” cubed beef simmered with water and red chiles. This recipe has morphed into hundreds of recipes, inspired , and started countless family feuds based on whether the recipe should have beans.

Most agree classic chili similarities end with its core ingredients; beef, dried chilies or chili powder. After these basics, it’s up to the chili chef to create a recipe that could include ingredients ranging from beer and bourbon, to chocolate or Chinese Five Spice.

Locally, restaurant customers can try chili from eateries such as and in Eureka as well as , and in Wildwood.

Gentry Smith, kitchen manager at Blueberry Hill, reported his recipe uses McCormick Chili Powder as its base seasoning, along with the same beef he uses to make Blueberry Hill’s award-winning burgers.

“We also add in jalapenos and peppercinis. But what makes our chili different is that we add beer and coffee. I can’t tell you what kind — that’s our secret,” said Smith, who felt the ingredients come together to make a chili that’s not too spicy or too bland.

Since 1904, St Louis chili has been defined by the recipe created by O.T. Hodge, who established his successful line of chili parlors after serving his famous chili at the St Louis World’s Fair.

“O.T. Hodge was my family’s company. (Hodge) was my uncle on my mom’s side of the family,” said John Dirten, owner of Big Ed’s Chili Mac, who has been dishing up chili at his own restaurants since 1960. “Back then, we were a chili parlor that served diner food. Today we’re a diner that serves chili.”

When asked the secret to making a good chili, Dirten said, “Chili recipes are like spaghetti recipes; there’s a million of them out there. Cumin is our main ingredient and we use a fattier meat because fat gives it a rich flavor and a good color.”

A little extra fat makes Chili Mac’s chili a winner; Dirten sells 10 gallons of it a day.

“When I took over the business, we were serving 35 to 40 gallons of chili a day. We sell about 10 gallons a day now because we have so much more stuff on the menu. But what sets us apart is — unlike other places — you can have your chili the way you want it: with or without beans. At other places, you get it the way they want you to have it.”

Chili recipes, with or without beans, will vary from region to region; from the dried chili-based bowls of red in Texas to Cincinnati’s famed recipe featuring cinnamon and chocolate served over spaghetti. The International Chili Society sanctions official regional chili cook-offs whose winners compete at the World Championship Chili Cook-off. The Missouri Cook-off was September at Westport Plaza.

Chili season officially kicked-off last month (October is National Chili Month) and traditionally lasts through winter and is a favored menu addition to Super Bowl parties. 

Editor's Note:  Check back to Eureka-Wildwood Patch this week for inspiring chili recipes.

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