Cooking Up Super Sunday Chili

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it makes a better soup.

-H.L. Mencken

One of the things that I enjoy about good metaphors, they activate a sense of synchronicity in life. When someone tells you a resonate metaphor, and activates it in your mind, you start hearing variations on that theme, which seem to appear serendipitously. The variations fill out the metaphor and make it personal and local, richer and more meaningful.

Cooking requires confident guesswork and improvisation– experimentation and substitution, dealing with failure and uncertainty in a creative way.
-Paul Theroux

So, I smiled today as my mother told me a story about a friend asking for a recipe for chili. I’ve returned home to Drowned Valley Farm to enjoy a day of football with my family and chili is a traditional dish. My mother, quite unprovoked, proclaimed:

“I’ve been trying to resist giving him a recipe for years, I keep telling him, you don’t make chili from a recipe, you just make chili. I think I’ve found a solution though, I’m going to give him 3 recipes and tell him to pick his favorite parts of each, then maybe he’ll begin to learn.”

Cooking Metaphors
Cooking is not about convenience and it’s not about shortcuts. Our hunger for the twenty-minute gourmet meal, for one-pot ease and prewashed, precut ingredients has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention.
-Thomas Keller 

This reminded me immediately of David Snowden’s Chef and Recipe Book User metaphor. Snowden uses this metaphor to highlight (among other things) the tendency of novice practitioners to lean heavily on prescriptive practice, in an effort to fail-safe attempts to reproduce previous outcomes. Overreliance on predefined process often fails to appropriately balance practices and tools with context.

In the worst case scenarios, instead of taking local context into account, practitioners reengineer the environment itself to resemble environments where they have previously been successful. This reduces variation and limits the resilience of businesses and the ecosystem in general.

Karl Scotland had another amusing tweetable metaphor for this last week:

@alshalloway if you have a sports car and need to go over rugged terrain, you could smooth the terrain, or switch to a 4×4.
2/1/12 1:46 PM
*there is a bit of bounded applicability in here too, but that is another post

Agile practitioners will hear echoes of the “doing Agile vs. being Agile” argument, as well as the more and more prevalent “practices vs. principles” discussions. Lean/Kanban practitioners will be reminded of “hipster kanban” and formulaic implementations focused on the Kanban board. 

Cooking, that gives rise to “home cooked meals,” is something your senses and experiences engage in.  It is not a check list to be completed.


I suppose now is as good a time as any to fess up to being born in San Antonio, TX.

During the 2 years that my parents lived there, at Lackland AFB, they were inundated with recipes and advice on how to make the appropriate chili.

San Antonio, for those who aren’t in the know, is a bit like the historical capital of chili con carne.

“The chili stand and chili queens are peculiarities, or unique institutions, of the Alamo City. They started away back there when the Spanish army camped on the plaza. They were started to feed the soldiers. Every class of people in every station of life patronized them in the old days. Some were attracted by the novelty of it, some by the cheapness. A big plate of chili and beans, with a tortilla on the side, cost a dime.” 

-San Antonio Commissioner Frank H. Bushick Frontier Times Magazine July 1927

So I was brought up eating and cooking chili. Some of my fondest memories of cooking with my father revolve around learning what was reasonable to try in chili, and what was unlikely to work. As a child the temptation to throw anything and everything in the pot was strong, and that is what Dad was apparently doing. Over time and with lots of questions Dad taught me rules of thumb… what was reasonable. I never saw him use a recipe– not  once.

How to make Chili

The most basic recipes for chili call for meat, onions, tomatoes, and chile peppers. From there anything is possible: sausage, garlic, kidney beans, pulled pork, beef broth, cumin, cloves, oregano, brown sugar, bell peppers, cannellini bean, pinto beans, venison…

The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.
-Julia Child

My personal chili (which has won chili cook offs (double blind even)) has regular appearances from; chocolate, liquid smoke, Boston Baked Beans, fresh chili peppers roasted on an oven till the skins are blackened, hot red curry, and beer.

Then again I like ketchup on green beans… There is no accounting for taste.

This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook–try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!
-Julia Child

So… here are the three recipes my mother gave her friend… and one from Lady Bird Johnson thrown in for good measure. I suggest you scan the recipes. Aim for a chili that is “in between” the ones listed here. See which ingredients you have on hand, resist the urge to take one recipe to the store and full fill a check list. Throw what you have in a pot… taste it often… and enjoy!

I don’t like gourmet cooking or “this” cooking or “that” cooking. I like good cooking. 
-James Beard

Tabasco sauce is to bachelor cooking what forgiveness is to sin.


Your idea of that dish has evolved, and if you’re a cook, you can start thinking in different ways about it, maybe even a different way than I think about it.

-Thomas Keller

Lady Bird Johnson’s Chili Recipe

One last piece of advice… when baking… FOLLOW THE RECIPE (even better find a local baker to help you with local recipes that work, then FOLLOW THAT RECIPE, altitude and local cultures (sourdough, for instance) massively impact the success of baked goods).

“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ”
-Julia Child