main navigation
my pace
Office of Multicultural Affairs—NYC

Food Memory Project

Ma’s Chili

An eleven-year old Xavier Reminick darts in and out of rooms in his childhood home in search of all the sledding essentials.It is that time again.Winter has hit hard, the snow has fallen, and it is thick.No doubt, school will be cancelled tomorrow.While the morning was spent flipping between cartoons and ESPN to see whether the Cleveland Cavaliers won last night, the afternoon was a case of strategy.The mission at hand: assemble the buddies, grab the sleds, and hit the Hill—Kings Hill.The afternoon was a different strategy for my mother.From her proud and honored post in the kitchen (not saying that in the misogynistic “women belong in the kitchen” way, but my mother actually takes great honor and pride in her kitchen procedures), she could hear my anxiousness to sled the Hill from my bedroom upstairs.It was no question the weather was cold, my wartime consiglieres (friends) and I would burn a mountain’s-worth of calories on our dozens of trips up and down the Hill, so it was of even less a question that this night demanded the presence of my mother’s fit-for-king chili.

I grew up on Kings Hill.This tucked away, gem-of-an-area of Cleveland, Ohio’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood has gained notoriety amongst locals for a slew of reasons: it is the home of The Parkview Nite Club, and Tina’s Nite Club, locally-owned and operated bar/restaurants responsible for Clevelanders desire to slip under the influence and gorge themselves on delicious bar food since the turn of the 20th century, it offers one of the greatest views of the Cleveland skyline, and the Hill hugs the Detroit Shoreway, where cars whiz by on their way to the hustle and bustle downtown.The grassy, mellow aesthetic of the Hill, coupled with the loud, working man’s attitude given off by the mini-metropolis yonder, make for spending time on Kings Hill a reflective, symbolically beautiful reminder of all the incredible landscapes of this country, both natural and manmade.

In the winter months, the snowfall in Cleveland can leave one in awe.The wind often blows harsh off the shores of Lake Erie, leaving snowdrifts upwards of six feet tall in front of neighborhood houses.This particular point in the season can also be described as a sledding man’s dream.Kings Hill transforms from its delicate, serene summer appearance, to a winter wonderland, common in the Coca Cola commercials starring the family of polar bears.After an ounce of momentum, sledders and snowboarders alike soon race down the glacial, snow-laden Hill toward the guardrail 100 yards away; a single, horizontal, small metal structure that, although hard to reach from the top of the Hill, is the only object preventing sled-fiend children from coasting right onto the Shoreway and into 60 mph, oncoming traffic.It is the incessant trips up and down the hill, the shouting at friends, the non-stop inhale and exhale of frost-bitten oxygen, the snowball fights, the potential injuries, and the uninhibited fun that can work up quite the appetite.

No later than noon and my mother has already started her chili preparation, due to be served upon our arrival from sledding around 9 or 10pm.Onions, celery, tomatoes, and garlic galore are sautéed.My Jimi Hendrix-themed clock in my room tells me there is still a solid seven or eight hours until sledding will commence, but the unabashedly Italian aroma wafts through the vents in our house, making me salivate all too early.While I attempt to distract myself by way of videogames and other adolescent indoor activities, my anticipation for the evening grows moment to moment.As the vegetables are nearing the end of their sauté session, in go the beans and tomato puree.There exist many different approaches in regards to the ideal bean necessary for chili.My mother puts her faith in the tricks and trades of the Latin Americans she hung close to throughout her young adult years in the Latino-dominated regions of California’s Bay area; thus, pinto beans are her ideal.Not to go unnoticed is the inclusion of chili powder and cumin to give her recipe the kick in the ass every growing boy after a hard night’s sled needs.

Clearly, this is not a quick and easy process.My mother pores over her formula for hours, stirring incessantly, slow-cooking, and meditating over the vat, instilling as much love, light, and positive energy she can muster into her bountiful concoction.Never has the message of Mexican author Laura Esquivel in her popular novel Como agua para chocolate been more apparent in my mother’s cooking practice.Como agua’s fiery heroine Tita is only able to express herself when she cooks, and those who consume her meals feel her sentiments immediately when they eat.If Tita cries over a meal she prepares, than those who take down the feast will be overcome with sadness and bawl.My mother has riddled to me time and time again, “Your energy makes its way into the food.The reason we feel like shit after we eat McDonald’s is because those schlepping together our Happy Meals are not doing it with love.I love my meals; I give my meals the endless attention they deserve.Every stir is a story, and that is why you and all of your friends love my cooking so damn much!”

If there exists any lesson my father, my younger sister and I have taken away from my mother it has been that lesson mentioned above.My mother is a busy woman; the entire chili making process can take upwards of 12 hours, and she cannot always be there to watch over her creation each minute.Before she departs the house to attend to her job, or any number of errands she may need to run, she pops her head into the living room, where either me, my sister, or my father can oft be found lounging, watching television, and she stares daggers at you demanding, “Keep an eye on the chili, keep stirring it.DON’T FORGET!”

“Alright, ma,” I respond.I watch her leave the house, give it a couple minutes before I muster the energy to get off the couch and tend to her food baby.

As I turn the corner out of the living I can see the steaming pot a mere fifteen feet ahead of me.It is almost as if each little ingredient is calling my name, demanding attention in the same style my mother demanded I give them attention.“Xavier,” says the pot of chili, “Lend me your gaze.Lend me your soul in the form of that wooden spoon stirring spirals through our blood and guts.” I respond, “Gladly.” I stand over the stovetop, letting the heat smack me in the face, making up for the beatings my mother never gave me.The herbs and spices and vegetables make for an aroma so invigorating that the shivers down my spine feel shivers.I let the moisture from the steam collect in my open eye sockets, forcing tears to stream down my face (yet unlike Tita in Como agua para chocolate, I try to keep the tears out of the food).I focus my gaze away from the chili and to the right, looking out the window at Kings Hill, and I take a breath, thanking the universe for this time and place.

My mother’s chili recipe has certainly undergone some changes over the years.My family (myself included) used to be frequent meat eaters, so naturally beef chili was a must.It wasn’t long, however, before my mother experimented with ways to make her chili healthier, albeit just as filling, replacing the beef with more vegetables, and mixing and matching flavors until the lack of a carnivorous substance was no longer an issue.Quite possibly the most satisfactory discovery my mother made was the change the chili underwent once a square of ground Mexican chocolate was added to the pot.As far as taste is concerned, the hint of cacao goes unnoticed, but my mother insists the chocolate is not added for flavorful purposes, but rather, it cuts down the powerful acidity the slow-cooked tomatoes lend to the dish, and adds a richer finish to each bite.My mother, a car saleswoman by day, avid yoga instructor by night, and somehow, a chemist with a PhD in Chili Making in between.

When it comes to hearty winter meals, we obviously focus on the large portions, the density of the meals, and with that, the indigestion (or as the Italians call it, agita) that follows.Being raised by an Italian mother, my immune system has seen 50 shades of agita (and moving to New York, with the abundance of Chipotle at my disposal, it has only gotten worse).Unlike others’ chili recipes, my mother’s vegetable-based formula will not have you running to the medicine cabinet in preparation to overdose on Tums and Pepto-Bismol.Its chunky, hot spoonfuls require you to eat at a slow pace, chewing, savoring, letting its spice and temperature engulf the palate.The chopped raw onion, grated cheese, and cool sour cream that sits atop the piping hot chili provides context, a counter-argument, a dialogue between hot and cold, crunchy and chewy.As the garnish (onions, cheese and sour cream) gets mixed into the bean and veggie-filled stew, the chili takes on a different form from its original state, becoming thicker, yet creamier, a convoluted, contrasting bowl of chili indeed.One must also not forget the role endless oyster crackers play in assembling this perfect bowl of chili.A cracker or two per bite keeps the low-calorie crunch counteracting the chili’s liquidity, and does not stuff the stomach like that of dipping a large piece of carbohydrate and MSG-filled bread into the chili.The dish has the greatest impact when eaten in moderation, and after those eventful evenings of my youthful past, after exhausting myself to no end sledding and gallivanting throughout my own Midwestern winter wonderland, Kings Hill, Cleveland, nothing quite hits the spot like a bowl or two of Ma’s chili when I got back home.

Nowadays, when I find myself in Cleveland in the winter season, sledding with friends is not necessarily atop my to-do list.Not that it has lost its greatness; rather I accredit it to simply having grown up.Nevertheless, Ma’s chili holds pole position on my list of wintry needs.Ma knows her soul flows through her slow-cooked acts of culinary genius.Ma knows she gives me life (alongside nutrition) when she whips up another bowl for her boy.Ma knows that if she makes a big enough pot full of chili, it will last us long enough for leftovers the next day, and Ma knows that chili heated up on day two, after it has had the time to cool, condense a bit, and be re-heated, is just as good as its fresh-out-the-crockpot state (and trust that Ma always makes more than enough for leftovers).

Xavier Reminick
20 February 2014