Chili scenes of winter

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Only mention this single word, and its potential meanings fan out like cards in a magician's hand. Its sound can stand for: a land mass in South America; a description of coldness; a hot pepper; or a hearty, soupy stew that can bring comforting nourishment to shivering partakers on a sun-starved and ruthless winter afternoon.

From the character of those definitions, I think you can tell which version of "chili" I'm interested in.

Actually, chili - the fortifying kind you eagerly spoon up - is etymologically linked to those aforementioned spicy peppers. That's because the stewy stuff takes its name from the Spanish chile con carne, which precisely translates to chili peppers with meat.

But beyond its literal beginning, as with other passion-inducing, long-loved foods, there's little agreement on the topic of chili, and heaps of historical squabbling continue over its regional origins and (relatedly) what "ought" to go into it.

For instance, people get especially exercised over this: to bean or not to bean; that is the question that divides very vocal sides of the chili wars. Well, that and whether its rip-snortin' 19th-century roots lie in beef-loving, cattle-driving Texas towns or in the beany leftovers dishes served to gringos in shanty Mexican cantinas.

Suffice it to say that San Antonio has traced its chili vendors as far back as any other city has ever bothered to. As a result, Texas almost by default is now the home to many prestigious spicy pot cookoffs, and most of the purist Texas chili rangers believe that cooks who put beans in their recipes don't know beans about chili.

While I'd hate to argue with a ladle-wielding Texan, I must confess I've never met a rule that ever left me with a good taste in my mouth. Or warmed my snowflake-flecked carcass up. In other words, to me these arguments don't amount to a hill of you-know-whats.

Besides, over time, many innovative pot jockeys and lots of specific geographical regions have placed their own distinctive stamps on intriguing hybrid brands of chili. Witness the, uh, towering achievement of Greek immigrants a la the Cincinnati Skyline phenomenon. (What, you don't think the inspiration of cinnamon and limp spaghetti was a stroke of brilliance?)

I actually like Cincinnati chili, and, really, I've yet to meet many varieties that don't at least nominally satisfy me - hell, even Wendy's makes a perfectly decent version.

And that inherent gratifying quality is one of the signal charms of the humble bowl of chili. Other timely attractions are that it's usually one of the cheapest yet most filling things on the menu, and it's on plenty of menus.

Plus, in these frigid days, when so often snow and an icy glaze scatter off whatever weak light trickles down from the wan sky - thereby further lowering body temperatures along with happiness hopes - a simple bowl of spicy chili has the power to brighten and heat up diners from the inside out.

With this in my mind, and with a stash of antacids in my back pocket, I traveled around town seeking a lineup of interesting or unique chilis. Mostly I was interested in bowls filled with the personality of its creators. That turned out to be an easy task.