Autumn’s Last Turn: Hickory Smoked Pit Chili
Banking the hot coals to the back of the old kettle grill, I cast a glance upon the pond, and the skies of gray, rolling over-head. A mist dapples over the land, the house, and the bushes down by the water look wet, and tired today. The leaves of the cottonwoods have all turned yellow now, and many of them have fallen to their inevitable rendezvous with the earthen substrates below. One of them, however, landed on my patio, soaked, but still lovely, in this, the last turn of autumn. One last confident gesture of something beautiful, before ice and snow and darkness seize the land. It hasn’t much more to do in its life now. No more duties to uphold on the heady matters of photosynthesis. It need not provide shade nor solace for critters or kin. And it will decompose in time, like things do, and morph into dirt or the like. Something rather unbecoming of a once beautiful leaf, but in the same breath, kind of noble and good. An intricate interlace in the ongoing circle of life. One of which I considered some whilst plucking some bell peppers from the fertile soils of the pit garden. We’re having chili tonight, you see, and I like peppers in my chili.
What better spoil for the pit, on a misty, autumn day, than some smoked pit chili, procured over a beautiful bed of coals. Its real easy to do. As easy as on your kitchen range, but dare I say, twice as fun. I started with the old, black iron frying pan, and a pound or so ground beef, browned in accord. Then I tossed in some diced onions and bell peppers plucked fresh from the garden folds. Sautéed and softened a tad, before adding the rest of the ingredients.
The other ingredients can be as vast or as precise as you wish. Chili is a most forgiving dish. There is no hard and fast rule to chili making, especially on the pit. So make it however you like. I started with a base of tomato sauce, one can as it were, followed by half that can of water. Then a can of kidney beans, drained of course. A big squirt of ketchup, and a modest handful of brown sugar. Some salt and pepper. About a table-spoon of chili pepper. And a dwindling bag of frozen corn I discovered in the furthest recesses of the freezer. I like corn in my chili, I don’t know why. All this is stirred up and left to simmer in a sloppy-brown communal affair, opposite the hot coals. Let the flavors marry, and get to know one another. Next comes the good part.
The part that separates the outdoor chef from the kitchen dweller. Smoke. I’m sure the cowboys of old, who slept under the stars, were used to a smokey flavored chili, but that is something wrung tight now out of the human experience. Doing your chili out on the pit, with a bit of hickory wood thrown in for good measure, is not only a supreme means of procuring some tasty supper, but you are also paying homage, in a way, to how chili was always meant to be done – over the camp fire. I tossed on a chunk of smoke wood and placed the old, black-enameled lid back on. Tweaked the top vent, and in no time, aromatic plumes puffed contentedly away. Thus, and unto the journey’s end, let the pot simmer away for as long as you wish. And very occasionally stir the contents. This, in part, to stir in more of that smokey goodness, which is half the reason for cooking outside in the first place. Glory!
Whilst the wood smoke curled up into a gray, mist-ladened sky, I stood abreast of the pit, gleaming what heat I could from it. Hands in the pockets of my smoking jacket, eyes surveying the pond. A gentle drizzle tapping over the brim of my hat. There is a chill in the air, and a dampness to match it. And one lone mallard afloat out on the pond – quacking away. Seemingly laughing, almost, in an upward-raised indifference to the weather. Ducks are like that. Hamming it up, he was, like Phyllis Diller in her prime. And I admired him for it. I admire any schmuck, come to think of it, winged or not, who seems to enjoy the soggy, cold, days of life such as these. For that matter, any day in which he is given. Those wholly absorbent souls who grasp a moment for the gift that it is, and belch forth of its glories anew. That is a confident gesture of something beautiful, if you ask me. Something noble and good.
I muckle onto the hot iron of steaming chili and bring it inside, closing the patio door behind me. The autumn mist dawdles on, whilst the old mallard chortles from the dappled pond. What a good day it has been, I thought. A gift indeed. And another golden leaf dropped from above. Amen.
Hickory Smoked Chili fresh off the pit. Dang people. If that don’t warm your belly and soul on a wet day, you probably have dirt in your face.