Frisco Chili

My grandfather was an engineer for the Frisco Railroad in southwest Missouri. Every day, he’d get in the cab of his locomotive and haul freight and passengers between Monett and other towns in southeastern Kansas, northeastern Oklahoma, northwestern Arkansas and southwest Missouri. I got to ride with him a couple of times on those trips and loved to go down to the “yards” where he worked. In those days, kids could sneak into the area or roam around if they knew the “right people.” My grandfather was one of the “right people.”

When he finished his shift, he loved to cook and this was one of his recipes. He said he got it from the cook in the dining car, back when there used to be passenger service on the line, before AMTRAK. Of course, it was made in much bigger quantities to serve the travelers then.

I don’t know exactly when I came by this recipe. I’m not sure it’s written down anywhere, although it might be stuck in the papers I have saved over the years. Most likely, it’s just residing in my memory, along with odds and ends of other things I’ve been carrying around in there. I imagine I’ve modified this many times from what I do remember that he told me.

My grandfather always seemed to have a pot of soup on the stove when I went to visit, so I image the beans in his chili were ones that were left over from other meals. I don’t actually remember him putting dark beer in his chili; I think he drank Schlitz or Falstaff most of the time, and those aren’t dark, that’s for sure. The tomatoes would have come from his garden, as would the onion and herbs. He was a good gardener, having raised six kids during the Depression. I always remember rows and rows of beans and corn and potatoes and greens and tomatoes in his garden, in addition to the irises he grew. He was an avid iris collector and I managed to save some from his garden after he and my grandmother had passed. I’ve planted and replanted those at seven or eight houses over the years. Even though we live in an apartment complex now, I have a couple of window boxes filled with iris.

Well, so here’s the recipe, as he passed it along and as it has been slightly tweaked each time it has been made. I hope you enjoy.

1 lb ground chuck
1 lb ground sirloin
1 T. oil
1 medium white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can chicken broth
1/2 bottle dark beer (drink the rest while you prepare the chili)
2 cans navy beans, drained and rinsed
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 T. cumin
1 T. ground chili powder
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried parley
2 T. brown sugar
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground pepper

In a dutch oven or large pot, heat the oil and cook the onion until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute, then add the chuck and sirloin. Without stirring or breaking up the meat, let it get a bit crispy on the bottom. Break up the meat and continue cooking until it is thoroughly browned. Add the cumin, chili powder, basil, parley, salt, and pepper and mix. Add the tomatoes, broth, and beans and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and add brown sugar and ketchup. Simmer for at least an hour, stirring occasionally.

Notes: The secret ingredient in this recipe, of course, is the brown sugar, which give the chili a slightly sweet flavor to compliment the cumin and ground chili powder. It’s also important to drain and rinse the beans before you add them so the chili doesn’t get “muddy.”

How I created it

This is a photo of a piece I’ve entered in the InterUrban ArtHouse “12 x 12” show, which begins May 17 in Overland Park, Kansas.

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I thought I’d take you through the steps that it took to arrive at this stage. These things don’t just create themselves, you know. Well, in a way, they do, but that’s another story.

Anyway, this piece is acrylic and paper mache on canvas. The dimensions of the entries in the show were required to be 12” x 12”. All media were accepted: painting, sculpture, photography, prints. I’ve done painting on canvas, paper and hardboard before, but this is the first time I’ve attempted to use paper mache.

There are lots of formulae for paper mache, but I decided to use something called Elmer’s Art Paste as the “glue” for the paper mache.

Elmer's Art Past

After doing some research, I concluded that this is maybe the least problematic of the types of glue commonly used to make paper mache, not having the issues with mold that flour and water has, for example. Plus it is inexpensive. A 2 oz. package cost $5 and it makes enough for lots and lots of paper mache. An ounce makes about two quarts of the stuff and I used maybe a fifth of that for the three pieces I created. Testimonials on YouTube said that the stuff lasts nearly forever after it’s mixed, so I’ve got enough for the foreseeable future.

Every time I shred a bunch of paper, I always think that there must be a better end for it than just going to the landfill or recycling station. I just finished shredding several years worth of old tax forms and it occurred to me that those would a great base for this project.

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I soaked a bunch of the paper for a couple of days, shredded it even finer with my electric mixing wand, and squeezed out the water. Here’s what it looked like compressed as much as I could.

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These I “decompressed” and mixed with the glue to make a kind of thick paste, which I applied to the canvasses. Here’s photo of what that looked like.

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Initially, I formed the shape by hand and then used trowels and an old knife to create the ridges and indentations. I’ve done this a lot with plaster on hardboard and that gives a much smoother finish, but I like the texture that the paper mache produced. After a couple of coats of gesso to seal the the surface, I started applying the layers of acrylic. The base layer was a cadmium yellow to highlight the indentations.

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Next came mixture of yellow and Windsor blue to create a blue-green undercoat.

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I applied several mixtures of cad yellow, raw umber, Windsor blue and white to get the final overall effect and followed that with a wash of purple.

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One of the challenges of non-objective art is knowing when to stop painting. The temptation is always to do just a little bit more. “Maybe that area needs a little more blue or a streak of red.” “What would more yellow look like over there?” As the Hollies sang, “Stop, Stop, Stop.”

This piece (entitled “More by Less” from a letter to Time magazine by an architectural critic who was praising a review of a New York building) will be available for $100 at the show. I hope you will be able to join us.