The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

19 December 2007

A man named Smith

We begin, inexplicably enough, with a recipe for chili:

Get three pounds of chuck, coarse ground. Brown it in an iron kettle. (If you don't have an iron kettle you are not civilized: go out and get one.) Chop two or three medium-sized onions and one bell pepper and add to the browned meat. Crush or mince one or two cloves of garlic and throw into the pot, then add about half a teaspoon of oregano and a quarter teaspoon of cumin seed. (You can get cumin seed in the supermarket nowadays.) Now add two small cans tomato paste; if you prefer canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes, put them through a colander. Add about a quart of water. Salt liberally and grind in some black pepper and, for a starter, two or three tablespoons of chili powder. (Some of us use chile pods, but chili powder is just as good.) Simmer for an hour and a half or longer, then add your beans. Pinto beans are best, but if not available, canned kidney beans will do — two 15-17 oz. cans will be adequate. Simmer another half hour. Throughout the cooking, do some testing from time to time and, as the Gourmet Cookbook puts it, "correct seasoning." When you've got it right, let it set for several hours. Later you may heat it up as much as you want and put the remainder in the refrigerator. It will taste better the second day, still better the third, and absolutely superb the fourth. You can't even begin to imagine the delights in store for you one week later.

From the August 1967 issue of Holiday, this recipe is the cornerstone of a modest article called "Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do," which caused such consternation among Texans that its author was subsequently challenged to the first-ever Chili Cookoff, taking on Austin's famed Wick Fowler and his 2-Alarm Chili, in the heart of the Big Bend country.

This was not my introduction to H. Allen Smith, journalist, humorist and chili expert, who was born 100 years ago today; I'd been reading Smith for a couple of years already. The downtown library in Charleston, as it happens, had just about all of Smith's books, all the way back to Low Man on a Totem Pole, which came out in 1941, and inasmuch as I was going to school downtown and had already discovered the wonders of Mr Dewey's 817 classification, it wasn't long before I happened upon this highly-unusual man with the highly-usual name. And if my sense of comic timing, such as it is, was borrowed from Jack Benny, my early writing style — which, owing to lack of development, eventually became my late writing style — consisted of trying to sound like H. Allen Smith.

I didn't, however, start with Totem Pole. My actual first taste of Smith was the 1961 epic How to Write Without Knowing Nothing, subtitled "A book largely concerned with the use and misuse of language at home and abroad." A few of the items therein referred back to previous Smith lore, and being the sort of person who gets hopelessly bogged down following cross-references — in other words, I was a blogger before blogging was invented — I eventually embraced almost the entirety of Smith's oeuvre, though I'm still looking for his biography of Robert Gair, inventor of the corrugated cardboard box, and Mr. Klein's Kampf, a novel about Hitler's body double, both of which had appeared in 1939.

By this time, of course, Smith had run the gamut of the newspaper game; he'd been the editor of a tiny Florida paper, a staffer at the Tulsa Tribune — he took girlfriend Nelle Mae Simpson to Tulsa with him, and they were married in 1927 — and a rewrite man for United Press. Eventually he drifted into freelance work, doing feature columns and occasional radio bits, while his books paid the bills.

Smith also introduced me to other American humorists I might have missed, by way of 1945's Desert Island Decameron, a title which scared the faculty at my Catholic high school until they discovered that it had nothing whatever to do with Boccaccio. Smith's Decameron was simply a collection of uniquely-American short stories, some by writers I knew (Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker), and some by writers I would get to know (Ben Hecht, Thorne Smith).

Four things you need to know about that chili business:

  • That first cookoff was a draw;
  • Smith got a book out of it (The Great Chili Confrontation, 1969);
  • In said book, he describes going out into the countryside near Alpine, Texas and saying out loud, "I'm gonna build a house right here";
  • Which he did, and that's where he and Nelle lived for the rest of their days together.

H. Allen Smith died in 1976 during a visit to San Francisco. His autobiography, To Hell in a Handbasket, was written in 1962 and therefore misses the later stuff. Fortunately for me, I didn't.

Posted at 7:07 PM to Almost Yogurt

TrackBack: 6:30 AM, 20 December 2007
» "I have a style?" from The Fire Ant Gazette
In which I try to describe my writing style while keeping a straight face, and hope that the reader will do the same....[read more]

TrackBack: 7:28 PM, 21 December 2007
» Low Man On the Totem Pole from
Yesterday's chaos meant it took until today for me to catch up with C.G. Hill's appreciation of writer H. Allen Smith, the 100th anniversary of whose birth the 19th of December was....[read more]

Beans in chili.


And you can quote me on that.

[Still, anyone who had the good sense to move to West Texas can be forgiven of almost any transgression.]

Posted by: Eric at 8:44 PM on 19 December 2007

I prefer mine bean-free also, but it's an easy ingredient to omit.

Posted by: CGHill at 8:50 PM on 19 December 2007

He doesn't seem to know beans about chili...

Posted by: anon in tx at 9:40 PM on 19 December 2007

The corollary to the beans in chili question: What about sugar in cornbread?

Posted by: Deborah at 10:48 AM on 20 December 2007

Count me on the side of leaving out the sugar.

Posted by: CGHill at 10:53 AM on 20 December 2007

Just as long as you don't put Rhubarb in your chili...

Posted by: McGehee at 3:05 PM on 20 December 2007

I'm less dogmatic about the sweet cornbread issue. I've had some that was quite good, but it doesn't go with everything.

If I have my druthers, I want it with actual corn kernels and bits of jalapeņo (green chili will substitute in a pinch), accompanied by either bean-free chili or chili-free beans.

Posted by: Eric at 3:38 PM on 20 December 2007

Well, I've enjoyed sweet cornbread, but it doesn't need sugar. If I want it sweet and it isn't, that's what jam is for.

Posted by: McGehee at 9:00 PM on 20 December 2007

Dammit C.G., have you been digging in my library? Decameron (my father's copy, which still is on my shelves) was my intro to Smith: Parker, Thorne Smith, Sawing Off Manhattan Island, Professor Sea Gull, Ambrose Bierce, etc... Great stuff. Have to go back and reread it. Since then I've only managed to acquire a couple of Smith's other books, not including Kampf or the biography, sadly.

Posted by: Old Grouch at 4:02 PM on 21 December 2007

Glad to have stumbled upon your appreciation of H. Allen Smith!

It's not often one finds someone who not only knows of his fun writing but can share it in such a good way.

Thanks for mentioning my other favorite Smith... Thorne Smith...who is all too often forgotten despite my efforts to keep his writing and spirit alive.

Glad to have found your corner of the Internet!


Michael D. Walker

Posted by: Michael D. Walker at 3:10 AM on 25 December 2007