I’ve been struggling to make a decent chili for years. Back in the 90’s I spent quite a bit of my time in America, shuttling back and forth from London and New York, cataloguing auctions for Phillips on the Upper East Side, then for Freeman’s in Philadelphia (America’s oldest auction house); plus, latterly, an unsavoury sojourn in the Gomorrah that is Los Angeles, which included, amongst other things, a bizarre invitation to a nudist chili cook-off in the Californian desert just outside Palm Springs.
One of the greatest things about America is its diner chili. Do you know what I mean by this? It’s inevitably on the menu. Always. Wherever you go. A small white bowl of hot, thick, dark red chili; cumin rich, served invaribly with a handful of saltine dry crackers and a topping of grated hard cheese.
And one of the best places to get this was at P. J. Clarke’s, the famous Manhattan saloon on 55th and 3rd, which became, inevitably, a regular after-work, if dusty, haunt: all grumpy Irish barman, red check table cloths, foxed boxing photographs and cracked daguerreotype of Abe Lincoln. A rare bit of nineteenth century New York, still standing, just; surrounded by glittering skyscrapers, manner of Donald J. Trump.
P J Clarke’s, 44 West 64th Street, New York.
The Third Avenue Overhead Railway, New York City, 1942.
P. J. Clarke’s was established in 1884, when Third Avenue still had the overhead streetcar railway, reminding me of the sets in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, and that infamous car-chase sequence in The French Connection. It features in The Lost Weekend, MadMen and The Last Days of Disco, one of my all-time favourite pictures, directed by the wonder that is Mr Whit Stillman, one of may all-time favourite directors.
Jacqueline Kennedy was a fan of P. J. Clarke’s, as was Richard Harris (he of Camelot), Marilyn Monroe, Nat King Cole, Buddy Holly and Woody Allen. Caroline Kennedy was chucked out for under age drinking, apparently.
Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco” (1998).
Inevitably, P.J.’s is under new ownership, and change is afoot, or to be more accurate, has already taken place. Certainly, in 2002, the restaurant was given a make-over New York Style, with the ancient interior ripped out and replaced with a refurbished (new?) but supposedly identical interior. The website boasts:
“What’s Old is New. ...See if you can spot any major overhauls (you can’t)”
Sorry, boys, but the eagle eye of Mister Aitch most certainly can. The tiled floor for starters. What used to be nicely cracked and uneven is now spanking new. And what about the formerly nicotined ceiling? And anyway, if the whole point was to re-create exactly what there was there before, then why on earth refurbish it in the first place? Weird logic. A classic example of change for change’s sake; very typical of new management who just can’t resist a tinker (the presumably failed re-packaging of Lea & Perrins by Heinz is another noticeable example). If it ain’t broke don’t fix it: it was perfect as it was, cobwebs included, although as a commercial realist, I appreciate that the expansion into what has become, effectively, a small chain of similar themed restaurants might need to attract a slightly different clientele: curiously clean people who don’t appreciate dust. But there you go.
But how to recreate the chili, as served in P. J. Clarke’s? There’s an awful lot of chili recipes out there. It’s an American cult dish. Some recipes want you to add carrots. Others celery and bacon. Redneck afficionados in the Mid West recommend stewing the beef mince in beer; Californians, Tequila. The Brits add red wine. You can make it with venison. Certain experts ditch the mince and require you to chop up beef steak into large chunks. You can also add caraway seeds and coriander. Texas makes it one way. Florida makes it another. Some people get most upset if you add beans. Others don't.
I’ve tried all of this. I’ve experimented. None of it works. The end result is nothing like the bowl of chili you get in P.J.’s or diners across America. And then the simple truth dawned. It’s obvious. There is no secret. There are no extra ingredients. Diner chili does what it says on the tin: Beef mince. Oregano. Chili Powder. Cumin. Onions and Garlic. Tomato. Kidney Beans. That’s more or less it and funnily enough, the finished product is so much more satisfying.
Here’s my recipe for a very simple, and very authentic American Diner Style Chili:
Fry beef mince in oil until browned. Meanwhile, in your Magimix whizz up an onion, garlic, and a few sliced green Jalapeno peppers (mine came preserved in a jar with brine). Add the mixture to the mince and cook for a few minutes, until the onion is soft. Next add chili powder, cumin and dried oregano. All three are essential ingredients in the dish and I will leave the quantities to you. Then comes a teaspoon of paprika, a dash of cayenne pepper, a good dash of sea salt flakes and some black pepper. Cook. In goes a tin of chopped tomatoes, a tablespoon of tomato paste, some beef stock, a dash of Lea & Perrins and a shake of Green Tabasco. Simmer at lowish temperatures until the beef is cooked through and the sauce is thick. An hour perhaps? An hour and a half?
Finish the dish off with kidney beans. I used dried beans that I had cooked previously, but to be honest, the tinned variety would be just as good, and in a funny sort of way, more appropriate. Check the seasoning and serve with a dollop of sour cream, grated cheese and dry saltine crackers.
You’re not going to win any culinary awards with this version, but strangely, I think it’s more satisfying and authentic than any of the numerous ‘enhanced’ interpretations you’ll find out there on the net. It’s the real deal.