Margaret Hair: Preserving culture by the spoonful


Margaret Hair

Margaret Hair's column appears Fridays in the 4 Points arts and entertainment section in the Steamboat Today. Contact her at 871-4204 or e-mail

— On Saturday, the second annual Chuckwagon Chili Challenge (part of the third annual Downtown Hoedown) will go back-to-back with the fourth annual Festival of the Americas.

Having these events on the same day, as a showcase of Western culture in the same downtown location, is a chance for those unfamiliar (me) to get to know a part of northwest Colorado that takes a while to find.

Being new to a place, culture presents itself in a number of ways: the way people dress, the way they talk and spend their time, the music they listen to and the art they create. Those can vary in importance - some regions are enmeshed with music, some with dialects not decipherable by non-natives.

But food and drink are a part of every culture - which is why both the Chili Challenge and the Festival of the Americas, despite also including music and dance, are such an easy entry point.

Even in a place where much of the culture is relatively new or based on survival, you can't get around sustenance, and you can't get around not wanting it to taste awful.

Admittedly, it took me a long time not to gag at the sight and smell of chili.

That's nothing personal against a Western cultural staple - it's just that my first job was as a waitress at Steak 'n Shake.

If you've served more than four or five people plates of spaghetti topped with thin, greasy hamburger chili and Frito's, the smell might bother you a little, too.

Combine that with tomatoey meat stains all over a corporate-issue black apron and red polyester bowtie, and you've got yourself a culinary grudge.

After that, I probably didn't touch the stuff for six or seven years - until I acquired a roommate (we found him in a bar) with a penchant for making elaborate, smelly dishes. This guy could take $10 to the store and end up with a pot of chili to feed half of Carrboro, N.C.

The pros for the meaty stew definitely outweighed the cons. It was cheap, it was filling and, as long as the kid remembered to put it in the refrigerator, it kept for a while. It also didn't hurt that his version actually smelled like a food item (unlike the kind I had hated ladling).

As for the cook-off, which last year had more than 30 contestants, entries can range from white chicken chili to traditional firehouse pots. Last year's green chili winner, George Trujillo, said he plans to be up and cooking by 3 or 4 a.m. on Saturday.

In the race to keep cultural heritage alive in the face of development and homogenization, chili might not be a bad place to start.

A really easy chili recipe, from my grandmother's church cookbook:

1/4 cup olive oil

2 lbs ground chuck

1 lb kidney beans

2 large onions

1 green pepper

2 cloves garlic

1 lb can of whole tomatoes

8 oz. tomato sauce

1/2 tsp. salt

2 to 4 tbsp. chile powder

1 bay leaf

3/4 tsp oregano

dash paprika

dash cayenne pepper

1. Get the vegetables started on the oil. Add meat and brown it.

2. Add tomatoes and sauce, bring to a simmer.

3. Add spices, simmer for two hours.

4. Delicious.


id04sp 9 years, 7 months ago


A column worth reading. Something we can identify with.

My uncle George has a recipe for chili which, allegedly, was derived from a guy who was moving west to become a bartender when his horse broke it's leg and he had to shoot it. Not wanting to waste anything, the "Dead Horse Chili" recipe also includes a small jar of coctail onions and a small bottle of maraschino cherries, and bloody mary mix is substituted for the tomato sauce.

Don't knock it until you've tried it. Tomato sauce includes sugar (check the label).

Elk, deer, antelope or beef can be substituted for the horse meat. Oh, and the more cumin, the better.


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