It took three generations to perfect Chili - Sontheimer style

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

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So how does an American family with a German last name end up making chili for three generations? Well, there’s a story and here is how it happened.

First, Americans need to understand that what most of us call chili is an Americanized version of a dish created first by cowboys and chuck wagon cooks using some chili peppers and beef. Chili, contrary to popular belief isn’t a Mexican thing. Before the Civil War, chuck wagons started serving chunks of beef seasoned with salt, pepper, and fat. It was easy to transport because the cooked it up in bricks to reheat later and called it chili de la Americano. In Mexico, chili is a pepper and not a meat dish.

Somewhere along the way prisons in Texas started serving a dish to inmates called chili – a sort of stew with beef and maybe the occasional bean tossed in to stretch it. It wasn’t meant to be tasty but after some of those prisoners did time and found freedom, they wrote back asking for the recipe.

Chili became mainstream when at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago when Texas set up a San Antonio chili stand. There had been a few efforts to make a goat meat chili to sell to the U.S. Army and Navy that flopped.

Texas remained mostly a regional dish until the 1920’s.

Sontheimer Chili was born after my grandfather. Otto Sontheimer, was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. He got a taste for the spicy dish – which was then made with beef chunks, not ground meat and once he returned home after his Army service, he began trying to replicate it.

That was after the first World War – by the 1920’s, chili was fast becoming a popular food, found in diners and cafes. Cincinnati chili was a twist served over spaghetti. The first canned versions were also starting to show up on grocery shelves.

By the end of the Roaring Twenties, chili had migrated north, east and west. During the lean years of the Great Depression, chili became a staple for many diners and cafes. It was cheap, filling and it came with crackers.

My grandfather tweaked his chili method over the years. Later, my dad and one of his brothers tried their hand. By trial and error, they persevered until my dad nailed it with a recipe that he thought was the ideal chili recipe and he made it often.

When grandkids came along, they called it “Pa Boomp Chili”. Although my grandfather, dad and uncle are all gone, I still call it Chili Sontheimer Style and I’m the one who finally wrote it down. I may have tweaked it just a tiny bit but that’s part of the tradition.

Here’s the recipe for Chili Sontheimer Style:

2 big onions (chopped), 4 med. celery stalks (washed and chopped), 2-3 garlic toes, also chopped, 4 lbs. ground beef, salt and pepper to taste, 1/2-3/4 cup Williams chili seasoning, 3-4 cans, drained, red beans, 4 cups water, optional chili powder (to add a little more heat). Put a small amount of canola oil in a large pot. Brown onions, celery and garlic, then add meat. Brown meat, breaking it up as it cooks. Drain the fat, then add salt, pepper, chili seasoning and chili powder. Add 4 cups of water and beans. Cook chili to desired consistency.

At this point, it’s ready to serve but I like to cool it, cover it and put in the fridge until the next day and rewarm. I think it maximizes the flavor. I serve it with crackers, cornbread or tortilla chips. It’s the season for chili and I happen to think my heirloom recipe is the best. It only took three generations to perfect it.

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I am an experienced newspaper editor and reporter. I spent seven years in broadcast radio before returning to print media. I am also a freelance writer and a published author.

Neosho, MO
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