I remember a hazy Sunday night scene in a Southern Baptist fellowship hall in Indianola, Miss.—my childhood hometown. I remember the Superbowl was on. I remember sitting in the front and on the right side of the row—made by church chairs that connect to each other before the large, dwarfing screen. The room was dark and the screen was bright and the cavernous, echoey hall was loud with beer commercials and the crack of crashing plastic helmets and laughter. I remember the stack of Styrofoam bowls at my dangling feet, each with a white plastic spoon stained slippery orange from chili grease.
In the bright, fluorescent, pale yellow hallway outside the fellowship hall were tables up to my chest and power strips leading to a sea of crockpots full of red. One of the competitors was an old man who seemed to always be around the church. He had black hair and brown, wrinkled, leathery skin and had a fading, bleeding tattoo of what must have been an anchor or a snake on his forearm. He looked strong and harsh, and had a wife who looked particularly gentle. I saw him before that night and had heard passings-by of his conversations as I ducked and wove through the halls playing hide and seek after youth group and I saw him after that one night. But in those memories, before and after, he doesn’t matter. This Sunday Superbowl night he won the chili cook-off category for “Hottest Chili” and I’ll never forget the nameless, old, tattooed man.
Two winters ago in the midst of deer season I invented a chili of my own using venison. And it would be a different kind of chili. It would have Hatch and green Anneheims, and it would have lime and cilantro and a drizzle of olive oil, all served over rice. But one thing seems to stick with me as I make chili, conventional or not: it must be hot.