For a period during my childhood my dad worked the 3:00 pm to 11:00 pm shift at work. Usually he’d come home long after I’d gone to sleep, but one of my first memories happened when I was somewhere around the age of four. I don’t know if the car was in the shop or someone was borrowing it, but for whatever reason, we had to go and pick him up at work. My mom piled me into the truck cab, still in pajamas and drowsy from being awakened in my bed. We parked on the street, just outside of the plant where my dad was clocking out.
As we waited in the darkness, my mom pulled out the dinner that she’d brought him – a couple of homemade chili dogs with a pickle wedge and potato chips. From the inside of the truck, I could smell the fragrant chili. I’m sure I’d eaten hours before, but now the only thing I could think about was making one of those chili dogs my own.
“Can I have a bite of the chili dog?” I asked.
My mom was surprised but agreed. Who can refuse a four year old in footie pajamas? I’d never had a chili dog before, and it was typically the kind of thing I didn’t like. At that point in my life, I didn’t want foods to even touch on my plate, let alone be smothered in each other. When we were having spaghetti, the noodles needed to be separate from the marinara, and the green beans on the side couldn’t co-mingle with any of the aforementioned. Even peanut butter sandwiches had to be served as slices instead of sandwiches. And after all of that, I was still teased by my family that I did more stirring around of ingredients on my plate than I did actual eating.
But now the warm chili with crisp, cool pickle was winning me over as the smells of garlic and onions filled the truck. The chili dogs were wrapped in individual plastic baggies, and the heat from the chili steamed the buns inside of them. It made the buns warm and soft to the bite.
What was supposed to be just a taste was soon two and then three.
“Can I have the whole thing?” I asked.
And with a nod, I finished it off in a satisfied gulp and wished there were more left so that my dad and I could both have seconds.
I guess it wouldn’t be a surprise that years later, chili was one of the first things I ever learned to cook. It was the culinary answer for cleaning out the fridge. A little spaghetti sauce left in a jar goes in with any remaining spoonfuls of salsa. Scraps of onions, tomatoes, and jalapenos from Taco Tuesday are added to a couple of cans of beans from the pantry. In those days I added a taco seasoning packet with a few cupfuls of water, and no matter the humble leftover beginnings of the ingredients, the spicy stew was savory perfection topping tortilla chips, rolled into a tortilla, or eaten by the hot spoonful. It was far better than the sum of its parts.
I don’t use taco seasoning packets anymore or wear footie pajamas, and obviously my chili and dogs are always of the veggie variety. But is it any wonder that regardless of the tweaking of the ingredients, there’s something about chili that just feels like coming home?