When Dave and I were in college, the cafeterias did their best to serve food that was wholesome and healthy (a salad bar appeared at student request), but that also made a teenager’s heart sing rather than sink. As I spent a couple of years there cracking eggs–this is true–I know better than some. Saturday nights were “steak nights,” and you seldom missed that meal, even if you had eaten all day long that day or were out at the lake at a kegger. It was there I first heard the words London Broil or realized steaks could have sauces. In the house where I grew up, good steak didn’t need sauce; it simply wasn’t done. (Groan.) You wouldn’t ruin a gorgeous piece of midwest beef like that. Looking back, of course the cafeteria steaks probably needed sauce. The rarely-seen (ha) summer ribeye at home was fine with only a bit of garlic salt with pepper and a nice big crunchy salad right out of my Dad’s garden. Mayonnaise was the dressing of choice.
|This is Lincoln Hall. I lived in Washington, it’s nearby exact twin.|
|Current dorm room–exactly the same as mine in 1971. Some things don’t change. The site does say the rooms were renovated in the ’90s. Hm.|
I don’t remember a lot of the meals I ate at the cafeteria, though I can see the room clearly if I close my eyes. I do know for a fact we had real scrambled eggs because any eggs with broken yolks went in the scrambled egg vat. But one meal that has stood out in my mind all these years was something called “Chili Frito.” In 1971, Chili Frito wasn’t a familiar concept on the western Illinois border near Keokuk, Iowa. Chili, yes. Fritos, of course. But Chili Frito? Well, today you know immediately what it was: a bowl of Fritos topped with chili and maybe cheese. You probably call it “Frito Pie.” We loved it. If there was Chili Frito for dinner, we were cheering in the halls of the dorms and we made it to dinner almost as if it were steak night.
What’s for dinner tonight? Anybody see? … “CHILI FRITO!” “Oh, my God.” (We spelled it out back then.)
The precursor to the ubiquitous plate of nachos (that we’d never heard of), it was luscious–crunchy, tomatoey, full of chili powder and loaded with cheese. Remember, we had just gotten our first Jack In The Box tacos–our first– in the south-western Chicago suburbs around 1970. Chili Frito was IT.
Over the years, I occasionally would throw some leftover chili on top of Fritos for my kids with a smile of remembrance, but only when the chili pot was almost empty or there was no time to cook something else. I never made Chili Frito from scratch that I can think of, though I remembered it fondly. In the intervening years, I had chili with spaghetti in it at friends’ houses or Chili Mac at Dave’s folks’. I lived in places in Europe where was no chili at all and I spent four years in San Antonio where if you knew beans about chili, you knew there were no beans in chili. As you might remember from other posts.
Last night, though, I had Chili Frito on my heart. I had no idea what was for dinner, but it was dinner time. The weather (another snow storm) had been awful; I didn’t even want to go to the garage to get something from the freezer. I knew I had ground turkey and bison in my kitchen freezer that needed cooking and that a bag of soon-to-be-stale tortilla chips (XOCHITL) was sitting looking forlorn on the floor of the basement pantry. In the frig was a bag of already-grated cheddar leftover from a soup tasting. And within about forty minutes, we were watching The Big Chill (which Dave had somehow never seen) and eating Chili Chips. Without Fritos, I had to rename the dish. It was all the same; we adored them and were happy as clams eating a nearly junk-food dinner. Funny how food and movies kinda match sometimes. Or that comfort food is sometimes not from your mom’s kitchen, but from the college cafeteria. I sang through the whole movie and I’m still mad they cut Kevin Costner out; he was the corpse in the casket. (On the DVD version, are there out takes with him in it????) Here’s how to make updated Chili Frito right before you put on THE BIG CHILL:
FIRST: Make nearly instant chili or bring a couple quarts home from Wendy’s, I guess
In a 6-quart stockpot or Dutch oven, cook until softened over medium heat a chopped, large onion and a chopped red or green bell pepper in a tablespoon of olive oil flavored with a pinch of crushed red pepper, a tablespoon of chili powder, and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir in a pound each of ground bison and turkey, as well as 2 minced garlic cloves. Add 2 teaspoons ground cumin, another tablespoon chili powder, and a teaspoon of ground black pepper. Cook, stirring, until meat is browned and nearly done.
Pour in a 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes, a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, a cup each of red wine and water. Stir in 2 tablespoons each Dijon-style mustard and lemon juice, as well as 2 teaspoons dried dill weed and a teaspoon each of granulated sugar and kosher salt. Stir and bring to a boil. Let cook five minutes or so and pour in two cans of drained beans such as pintos, black beans, or kidney beans. Let cook 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Stir in 1/4 cup chopped Kalamata olives (optional.) Taste and adjust seasonings. Add more chili powder or shake in hot sauce if needed.
- Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and fill a 9-inch x 13-inch rectangular casserole with tortilla chips (8 ounces or so)
- Ladle chili generously over all the chips (about six cups) and top with about a cup of grated cheddar cheese.
- Bake for about 15 minutes or until cheese is melted to your liking. Serve hot, of course, with milk, which is how we ate it in college. Ok, beer, though I only drank beer once in college. That was enough, you see.
- 6 servings
- Dear God, I promise we’ll have grilled white fish the next three days. But there is still chili left for lunch. Love, Alyce
Go away, winter; you’re bothering me.
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THIS WEEK ON DINNER PLACE:
LINCOLN HALL AND DORM ROOM PHOTOS – COURTESY WESTERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY