It's Rockabilly Chili Sunday. Milwaukee is fortunate to have WMSE: an independent radio station that is really unlike any other radio format broadcast (I reckon) anywhere. If the wealth of our culture can be seen through food, I'd imagine it must go hand in hand with music. Our station does an amazing job of broadcasting a huge spectrum of both, when this year, the annual Rockabilly Chili Contest brought together more than 60 area restaurants. There were far too many samples for me to taste to declare an educated favorite, so I decided to be very selective in my tasting. But first, just a little about me + WMSE...
I first started listening to WMSE devotedly because of this guy: Johnny Z.
I often think of this quote - written to me in an email from a food blogger I admire, Deena Princhep (Mostly Foodstuffs). I hope she doesn't mind me sharing, but it so aptly describes exactly how I feel about things I really, really love:
I remember reading an article in Might Magazine forever ago by Mike Doughy (whom I actually just saw a few nights ago) detailing the kinds of fans in his show audience: there's the "Dude, you rock!" guy, and the girl who slips you painfully bad poetry. Then there are the people who remind you of your friends, who clearly get your jokes and like your songs and share your sensibilities, but of course they won't come up and talk to you because they are far too shy and don't think you should bug people you admire. I often fall into that category.
I don't actually know Johnny Z., but his show is one I rarely miss. In the late '90's, I had moved to Milwaukee, and had a second shift job. After that job morphed into first shift, I accidentally discovered the Chicken Shack (Friday mornings from 9-noon), and weekly planned any breaks and/or work-related running around during the show's time frame so I could listen to it. I kept a little notebook in the console of the car to scrawl down names like Dave Dudley and Red Simpson. Those were the days before I even had email, let alone a computer in my house... and today you don't have to be in Milwaukee to get in on our well known secret: you can stream live or archived at WMSE.org.
I would be lying if I said this event didn't totally overwhelm me. I generally don't spend a lot of time in crowds, and it was wall-to-wall. Amazingly, I overheard more manners than any time in recent memory. People bumping into you is almost a nice thing when you receive a smile and an "I'm sorry", and it didn't just happen once or twice, but many times over. We Milwaukeeans are a polite folk.
Also contributing to my overwhelming state was the number of participating restaurants, and the staggering variety of chilis. Given the sorry breadth of my late winter appetite, I only had room for exactly 5 chili samples. It is depressing, I know.
The first one I tried was from the Outpost, my food co-op. I have NEVER tried Outpost chili! Believe it or not, all of the years I've shopped there, I have rarely bought soup. It's good, a respectable and healthy chili full of beans and textured up with TVP - something I've never cooked with.
I moved along to Roots. I've been to Roots only a handful of times, and have yet to order a proper dinner - instead sharing snacks and drinks with friends in the less-formal Roots Cellar. I admire their commitment to sustainable eats, and nose-to-tail dining. Trendy as it may be becoming, it's the type of trend that I like hopping on the bandwagon for.
Their chili was a "Pig Head and Sweetbread Chili with Smoked Chicarones". It was green chili, fatty with a building heat. I really liked it a lot - especially when I got to the bottom of the cup and my eyes were hot. I like the building heat or accumulated heat in food, I think it's a little harder to achieve than full out hotness. The Rockabilly Chili Contests asks tasters to vote in 4 different categories, and I gave them my vote for best in the heat category.
Roots: Best Heat.
Brewed Cafe's veggie chili did not disappoint. I love sweet potatoes in chili, and this one was pleasantly sweet, and very substantial. They also had a colorful backdrop proclaiming it Voodoo Chili.
Brewed Cafe: Best Veggie.
I gave them my vote for best veggie chili, and saved the vote for best display for these guys:
Noble Provisions Catering: Best Display.
Noble Provisions Catering. I didn't try their Old-Timey Chili - but wished I did... and these Cumin Corn Cookies looked like the perfect side accompaniment. (I'll have more pics of their old-timey nuances up on flickr after a bit...)
The final best pick that I texted in was this meat chili from The Old German Beer Hall. They caught me by surprise when I stopped in my tracks at the vibrancy of the sliced multi-colored chiles scattered across the top of their vat of triple bratwurst chili. Yes. Bratwurst Chili. We are in Milwaukee, and this was amazing. Not really too meaty, and fortified with both sauerkraut and Jack cheese. This was the sample that put me over the top. I was just plain full.
I was inspired to keep on with the family cooking struggle this past week when I read a dated Gourmet magazine editorial from Ruth Reichl. Most memorable, was this excerpt which I found myself thinking about over and over as the week wore on:
The great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss did groundbreaking work when he observed that in turning the raw into the cooked we transform nature into culture; in other words, cooking is one of the ways in which we define ourselves as civilized creatures. Through our cooking, and our eating habits, we tell ourselves who we are.
Transforming Nature into Culture. That is powerful stuff. And, if you have a minuscule bit of curiosity, and poke through some vintage cookbooks you can see it for yourself, a transformation of our culture through the years. If you happen to have a stash of food related magazines from as recent as 5 years ago, you can see the trends and the ebb and flow of our foodstuffs - slowly changing, but quite noticeable when retrospected. World-wide food trends differ considerably from our own, and because I am first and foremost an American, I take particular delight in regional American cooking and community cookbooks.
It's not really a secret that without my (Self Decreed) amazing modicum of self-control I would be a pack-rat of epic proportions. It can be argued that I still have a fair amount of clutter, but to my credit, I don't really buy a whole lot to add to the pile. (Sure, the list of things saved to make things out of can grow from time to time: scraps of paper deemed too valuable to toss lest I need them for mailing a package or embellishing some gift tag or something.) I think some of my favorite things are paper-based, including in no small way, vintage recipe leaflets and community cookbooks. On the occasion that I find stacks of them in antique stores, I set a reasonable limit (usually 5) that I'll purchase, and I try to keep in mind at least a dual use: not only do they have to have great font and illustration, they should be somewhat appealing food-wise, contain something that I'd actually make, or be of the ilk that I'd like to gift to someone else.
The chili contest this year featured the first ever Rockabilly Chili Cookbook, compiled of WMSE staff and listener chili recipes, and befitting of all of my aforementioned criteria. Because I love WMSE and because my belly was too full to eat lots of samples to help generate funds for listener-supported radio, I bought two copies so I could give one away to a lucky reader! If you like radio the way radio is supposed to be, and like chili, please leave a comment before midnight on Saturday March 12th, and I'll send you a copy of the first ever WMSE Community Powered Rockabilly Chili Cookbook. Random Number Generator will be my guide... Good Luck to you: with both Meat and Vegetarian/Vegan options, there is something for everyone.
One thing I certainly need to remember for next year is to skip breakfast. Fortunately, I now have 91.7 brand new recipes to inspire my chili cooking between now and then. Chili is one of those things that almost everyone makes, even those who don't really cook. It is endlessly adaptable and thoroughly enjoyable. The little things you add that I do not and vice versa are what continue to shape our culture, our Wisconsin-ness (take that, Texas...). I'd say it's the perfect unifying food: something we can all agree on in these trying times of disagreement.
Additional photos of this event will soon be posted on flickr.
Additional photos of this event will soon be posted on flickr.