Around the turn of the century, chili joints appeared in Texas. By the 1920s they were familiar all over the West, and by the depression years there was hardly a town that didn’t have a chili parlor. The chili joints were usually no more than a shed or a room with a counter and some stools. Usually a blanket was hung up to separate the kitchen.
It was during the Great Depression when chili joints meant the difference between starvation and staying alive. Chili was cheap and crackers were free. At the time chili was said to have saved more people from starvation than the Red Cross.
On of the most famous chili joints was actually the highfalutin restaurant – Chasen’s Restaurant in Hollywood, California. The owner of the restaurant, Dave Chasen who was an ex-vaudeville performer, kept the recipe his guarded secret, entrusting it to no one. For years he came to the restaurant every Sunday to privately cook up a batch, which he would freeze for the week believing that the chili was best when reheated (it is). “It is a kind of bastard chili” was all that Dave Chasen would divulge.
Chauffeurs and studio people, actors and actresses would come to the back door of Chasen’s to buy and pick up the chili by the quart. Other famous people craved this chili such as comedian and actor Jack Benny who ordered it by the quart. J. Edgar Hoover, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who considered it the best chili in the world, and Eleanor Roosevelt wife of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, sought the recipe but was refused (a complimentary order was dispatched to her instead). It is said that Chasen’s also sent chili to actor Clark Gable when he was in the hospital (he reportedly had it for dinner the night he died). During the filming of the movie Cleopatra in Rome, Elizabeth Taylor had Chasen send 10 quarts of their famous chili to her. She supposedly paid $200 to have it shipped to her.
The original Chasen’s restaurant closed in April of 1995. We found the famous recipe and list it below. Note the use of tomatoes, beans and bell peppers. These are items never found in a true Texas bowl of red. But enjoy the recipe dressed in your favorite ball gown, and feel a rush of old Hollywood at your next dinner party. Substitute the brands where necessary.
Chasen’s Famous Chili
1/2 pound dry pinto beans
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes in juice
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cups onions, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 cup butter
2 pounds beef chuck, coarsely chopped
1 pound pork shoulder, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup Gebhardt’s chili powder
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons Farmer Brothers ground cumin
Rinse the beans, picking out debris. Place beans in a Dutch oven with water to cover. Boil for two minutes. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand one hour. Drain off liquid.
Rinse beans again. Add enough fresh water to cover beans. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer covered, for one hour or until tender.
Stir in tomatoes and their juice. Simmer five minutes. In a large skillet, saute bell pepper in oil for five minutes. Add onion and cook until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in the garlic and parsley. Add mixture to bean mixture. Using the same skillet, melt the butter and saute beef and pork chuck until browned. Drain. Add to bean mixture along with the chili powder, salt, pepper and cumin.
Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat. Simmer, covered, for one hour. Uncover and cook 30 minutes more or to desired consistency. Chili shouldn’t be too thick – it should be somewhat liquid but not runny like soup. Skim of excess fat and serve.