I became interested in making chili when I read an article in the then new food section of the New York Times, maybe 25 or 35 years ago. It was about Francis X. Tolbert, Wick Fowler and the World Championship Chili Cook-Off in Terlingua, Texas.
Accompanying the article was Wick Fowler’s 2 Alarm Chili recipe. I have the clipping somewhere, but the gist of it was that he marinated the meat in beer (and in Lapland or somewhere he successfully used reindeer) and seared the meat in suet. He used a little cumin because it gave the chili a faint odor of sweat and he used oregano, but not too much, because, he said, you didn’t want to have too much of a spaghetti flavor. I think he also said that people who cooked their beans in their chili flunked chemistry.
Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili Kit is still available, though if you need a kit, you are still probably buying your 100 grams of chili pepper flakes for $9 from Whole Foods (and maybe you flunked chemistry too).
In addition to those ingredients, I throw in some mild chili powder for color, salt, chopped onions, fresh garlic and a can of crushed tomatoes.
The last thing I put in is the “heat” source – for me that is a hot chili pepper. I learned about the unit for measuring the heat in a chili pepper – Scoville units – from the gift subscription to Chili Pepper Magazine my friend Regina gave me 25 years ago. The type of chili pepper I use depends on how self-destructive I’m feeling (or, according to some people, how much of an endorphin rush you want – I think it’s just the fear of the heat). I used to start with about 10 generic dried hot chili peppers ground up in a blender with some water for two or three pounds of meat. When I saw fresh habanero chilis in the local grocery store, those went into the pot.
Lately, I found an African, Caribbean and Latin American grocer that has fresh Naga Jolokia peppers. The next stop after this is to borrow some pepper spray from the police (see Everett McGill in the Steven Seagal classic, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory).
I think the reality of making chili is it’s not some arcane process that the TV chili cook-offs show would have you think. You’re just throwing some meat in a pot. To me, the preferences for a particular winning chili recipe comes down to what you like; sort of like New York pizza – the best one is from the pizzeria where you always eat.