It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these. Doing things “regularly” is a weakness for me, and I have been neck deep in a long haul creative project and my cooking has shifted mostly in the direction of “easy and not requiring overmuch advance planning or thought”. This recipe is not that. I tried one of the recipes in the book that fit the “simple and easy” bill, but both the recipe and the book came out “meh” for me and “meh” isn’t much fun to write about. There’s also the fact that I checked out this book first in April and I am only finishing it in September, not because the book was bad but because my brain has been twisting itself in weird knots.
And maybe a little bit because this recipe is intimidating.
David Gerrold wrote for the original Star Trek. In particular he is the main writer credited for “A Trouble With Tribbles” and that alone should make his writing credentials unimpeachable. I also got a subtle poke from the universe about this project by Diane Duane, wonderful lady, Trek writer and author-senpai, offhandedly complementing David Gerrold’s chili, and one of the reasons I follow DD is for our common food nerd tendencies, and so I’m willing to extend some trust on this.
But reader, this recipe scares me.
I am a person who has Particular Ideas about chili. Not a snob exactly, and there are surely many people around Texas and that vicinity who would consider my Yankee chili preferences anathema. But both my mother and my aunt make chili that barely passes the bar of being “meat and tomato sauce with beans and some chili powder in it” (and is usually served over egg noodles to boot) and I grew up with somewhat more heat tolerance and a resolution to do better. I am not super strict: chili is something I will throw together according to my whims and what I have available in my spice cupboard. But I have some important qualifiers: It shouldn’t have too many weird ingredients (meat, tomato, onion, pepper, spices are plenty) it should taste more of peppers (both sweet and hot) than it does of tomato (I usually stick to one can of diced tomato and enough tomato paste to make it taste right to me), and I like beans in mine, thank you very much I will not take questions.
This recipe breaks those rules. And gives no fucks about it. With a name like “Death to the Enemies of the Revolution Chili”, it is hardly pulling punches, but it’s one thing to read it and another to actually make it. And I’m going to make it. A name like that is practically a dare.
But first, I am going to indulge in a little B. Dyllan Hollis impression, because that’s the best way to make something of this insanity.
It starts off pretty safe: meat (a combination of steak and ground beef, oil, garlic, beans (left to the cook’s preference, but I’m going with standard kidney beans), onion, bell peppers, tomato product both fresh and canned.
Mushrooms. Our first non-traditional ingredient. My aunt puts mushrooms in her chili and if I am a guest at her place, I will eat her chili without complaints, but it’s not something I would emulate if left to my own devices. But this is tame compared to what follows.
Spaghetti sauce. I would avoid this for my own chili because while spaghetti and meat sauce is a good thing, I don’t want my chili to taste like spaghetti meat sauce. But okay. (I am not hunting down a specific brand of sauce for this you’re getting store brand, ok?)
Cheap red wine. …Excuse me while I go check whether the box wine in the fridge is still drinkable after I forgot how many months. …Ok, it’s not vinegar and it doesn’t have any funky flavors, it will pass. I’ve seen beer in chili (Alton Brown’s comes to mind), I usually stick to broth or water or tomato product in mine. Wine is…a choice. The instructions call for one glass to go into the chili and one glass to go into the cook, and I understand the spirit of this instruction, but I am determined to face my doom while sober.
1 can shoestring red beets.
No, I do not understand this and I am not going to try. But I will have to slice the shoestrings myself because the store doesn’t sell them that way. MOVING ON.
… Look, I understand the combination of chocolate and chili. I have snuck a bit of cocoa powder into my chili before. Chocolate syrup seems like someone had heard of the idea of salsa mole but this was the closest thing to chocolate that they had on hand and it stuck somehow. Chocolate syrup is also a problem for me because I’m obstinately being careful about sugar, but we’re riding this train now and there’s no getting off till the end.
Ok, rant incoming.
I HATE curry powder. I love Indian food, but curry powder is an abomination. Curry powder is an attempt to take one interpretation of the multitudinous flavors of Indian cooking and package it into a British Colonialist-friendly package, which the Brits took and proceeded to ruin a whole lot of food with. The main seasoning of cheap curry powders is also turmeric and I am not a big fan of turmeric. It has its place…buried under a lot of other flavors. If I really need a premade Indian Spice Mix for actual Indian cooking, I will reach for garam massala, which does not have any turmeric in it and will get you a lot closer to actual Indian Food than any curry powder. And none of that answers the question WHAT IS IT DOING IN CHILI? I mean…I have a neighbor who is from India, we have cooked alongside each other, and there are certainly stylistic parallels between Mexican food and Indian food: complex, spicy sauces made by people living in hot climates. But still. WHY?
…I at least made the effort to get my curry powder from an Indian market, and got the hot version, which hopefully will have a proper balance of other curry spices and a lower proportion of turmeric.
Cloves. You know, what the hell, we’re in too deep already.
Red pepper, ok, we’re back in familiar territory, but David also notes that he likes to add lemon pepper, which is not in the ingredients list, so I am just going to ignore that detail. (I may throw some black pepper in though.)
Chili powder. “Of course”, we are told, we must add it, but we are warned not to overdo it, otherwise ‘this will give the whole thing an unpleasant taste, like chili.” EXCUSE ME, are we not making CHILI then?
He also notes that “if we are in California”, we my now add veggies…okra, garbanzos, bean sprouts… I am not in California and so I will not be adding alien veggies to this already alien chili, thank you. (Corn is mentioned too and I have no objections to corn in chili, but I’m gonna pass on that too.)
Also, there are no measurements for any of the seasonings. We are supposed to do this by whim and by taste and the recipe admits that this has the potential to go Very Badly, as in needing Toxic Waste Disposal to get rid of. I just paid a fair amount of money for all the beef in here (for a recipe I will probably be eating for several days), so I will need to try very hard to not screw this up, as insane as it is.
Excuse me while I go to the kitchen and face my fate.
Kyle, the main character of Hella, is neurodiverse. The word “autism” is never used (and it’s plain that the future culture of extra-planetary colonists has experienced some language drift) but it checks off many of the boxes: difficulty processing emotion and nuance, an affect that makes people wary of him, the token but plot relevant mean girl calling him a retard although he is not lacking for intelligence in any way. (He does have a bio-implant that modulates some of his symptoms and also serves as a data link to the local version of Wikipedia.) I cannot comment on how accurately Kyle’s condition is handled, but from an outsider perspective, it seems to have been done with care and put in mostly positive light. His penchant for fixating on details (but also the details he tends to miss) makes him an interesting point of view character, especially when it comes to the author giving us the grand tour of Hella, the world of megafauna they have settled on. Relatively little of the details about Hella matter in the context of the plot, but the point seems to be to drive home how different it is from Earth, how relatively dangerous it is, and why the colonists value slow and methodical caution and how careful they are to keep the Earth world and the Hella world separate, least the blending of the two lead to disaster for either or both. Maybe excessive caution, some would say. Caution is certainly warranted, but the humans’ current policies have a very low risk tolerance, and those with ambition are liable to be frustrated.
The external conflict of the story is incited by a family with authoritarian and Manifest Destiny leanings working to subvert the political system of the colony to that they can amass power and introduce money and property ownership to the system (so that they can have money and then be Rich). (The internal conflict is Kyle trying to Get Along and maybe even Thrive with his fellow colonists and the incoming colonists on the newly arrived ship in orbit, and also learn how to stand on his own.) The existing political order is a sort of socialist democracy. It’s no utopia; we are told that policies have shifted over the years so that once-popular projects have been abandoned with subsequent administrations, that agreement on new policies is prone to gridlock, that things have gone wrong in the past and people starved for it. The existing administration does at least care for things like rule of law and managing resources so people don’t die needlessly and so Hella doesn’t fall to the same disasters that befell Earth. The would-be usurpers do not.
This would put me at somewhat ideological odds with the story: I recognize that publicly funded social support systems can be useful, and I believe money, while useful, begets abuses of power and strong laws (or strong social movements) are probably the only thing that can keep those abuses of power in check, and that on a fragile extra-planetary colony, laws might have to be more strict than I might like to ensure everyone’s well-being. But I won’t be calling for the death of capitalism anytime soon, or at least its most basic form in the sense that fair and free trade (backed by the rule of law) is a reasonable basis for human relations. (Maybe I should be more careful with this chili.)
I also suspect David Gerrold shares the befuddlement of his protagonists, once they find out the usurpation plot: Why do smart people do dumb things and reject the “rational” course of action? (This book was published in June 2020 and probably written before COVID-19, and I’m sure some version of that question has been asked much more often and with more desperation in the years since.) Kyle shares this confusion with the sapient AI, HARLIE, one of the passengers on the new colony ship arriving at Hella, who is presented at a mind that could figure out optimal many of the colony’s thorny problems if the humans would just listen to and accept them. The comparison to self-driving cars is made, and lip service is at least given to the fact that people want…I would say need…to feel like they’re in control. And the discussion causes Kyle to question the role of his bio-implant and whether it might be hindering him more than it’s helping him. Still, I’m not sure that if it came down to it, that Gerrold wouldn’t side with the robots.
I did still like the book overall. I don’t need a book to agree with my worldview to enjoy it; it’s still fair game to argue with it. I have no idea if this is an example of Gerrold’s best work…the prose is well done but the parts of hte plot felt disjointed and I’m not sure how much of that is the author and how much of that is the nature of Kyle’s point of view, that he needs to be told some things to notice or understand them. It wasn’t a “grab me and not let go” read, but I wouldn’t be opposed to trying more of Gerrold’s work that doesn’t include fluffy balls of fuzz.
So here are my cook’s notes if you want to brave this recipe yourself.
I have a fairly small “cauldron” (a 6 quart stockpot). I bought two top sirloin steaks (about 1.5lb each) and I decided to only use one and freeze the other for later. I did go with the full 2lb of ground beef (ground meat grabs on to more sauce than meat cubes, so it affects the texture). I held back about a quarter cup of the cherry tomatoes for garnishing later; I put in a whole 24 oz jar of spaghetti sauce and only one can of the stewed tomatoes and that plus the wine was just enough liquid to coat everything. (The meat and veggies will release more liquid as it simmers, so you want it to look a little dry at first.) I used two bell peppers, one red, one yellow. With everything in the pot, it comes up to about the 3 quart line.
For the spices…I started with the sweet: two squeezes (about 2 tbsp) of the chocolate syrup, then gradually added spices to the balance, tasting as I go. An important tip when working with dry spices…they will get more intense as they simmer in the pot. As you’re tasting, stop a little short of where you think you should be, wait several minutes for the flavor to cook in, then taste again before you add more. The recipe says use enough curry powder “to sting”, so I added that first. At 1 tablespoon, it wasn’t quite stinging yet, but it was definitely tasting like curry powder. I only have whole cloves, so I ground a few together with a few peppercorns, added 1/4 teaspoon, tasted, and decided that was plenty…cloves are quite strong. I do want my chili to actually taste like chili, so I started the chili powder at 1 tablespoon and went up to a total of 1 and 2/3rds tablespoons (5 teaspoons). And 1/2 teaspoon cayenne to start…the hot curry powder is only about medium hot, and so is the chili powder, so most of the hard kick kick is going to be in the cayenne (note that my cayenne is definitely not fresh and likely a bit less potent).
This is definitely different…and definitely not bad. I suspect the David Gerrold Original would be spicier. It manages not to taste like curry, but not entirely like traditional chili either…it’s as if chili con carne was re-interpreted by a cook from Medieval Europe with access to a rich person’s spice cupboard. The beets and mushrooms mostly disappear into the dish…the texture is there, and the flavor would probably be noticed if they were missing, but if you don’t tell anyone they’re they’re there, they won’t be remarked on. And the bits of sirloin steak are super tasty and super tender and not at all dry or stringy for being long-cooked. (I considered stew meat for this, but I’m glad I didn’t go that route.)
In fact, the more I eat of this, the more I like it. Ok, David, your alien chili has won this round. My ideology has been subverted, at least as far as chili is concerned.