By Ellen Sweets
By the time the editorial conferences, research, interviews, writing, rewriting, prepublication reviews, corrections, permissions, photo captions, cutlines, title suggestions, title rejections and still more rounds of editing and modifications drew to a close, I found myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror asking my reflection: “What on earth were you thinking?”
Clearly, the answer is, I don’t think I was.
There must be some sort of reward for investing two and a half of my advanced years remembering and recording vignettes about my dear friend Molly Ivins.
Sure, the book might be published and en route to bookshelves around the country, but the sadness that gave way to the decision to memorialize a longtime friendship has resulted in something other than the concept of “closure” some folks like to bandy about; it has manifested into a niggling set of self-directed queries:
“What if the Salman Rushdie anecdote isn’t as funny as I thought it was?”
“What if that lady from Central Market recognizes herself and decides to sue me, even though I never mentioned her name?”
“Whatever in the world possessed me to think I could write a book?”
Through my postproduction doubts, though, one thing has remained certain. Grappling with Molly’s larger-than-life personality and story was easy once I narrowed it down to the one thing most people didn’t know about her—her cooking. Molly’s ability to unite rapier wit with scathing commentary was already virtually unparalleled in the fourth estate, so instead I focused on her culinary skills, which were as methodically honed as those that produced her wonderfully wicked columns.
When Molly and I met in 1990 at a Dallas dinner event, I was a fresh-faced reporter with the Dallas Morning News. We hit it off immediately, mainly because—over drinks after dinner—we started talking about food. Ultimately, through a combination of lefty persuasions, apathy over Dallas, the bonds of journalism and especially a mutual love of food, we forged a friendship that would evolve into a solid sisterhood.
Even though it included a frequent drive from Dallas to Austin, where Molly lived, cooking together became an almost-monthly occurrence. Molly shopped local and organic before either was a big deal. She maintained a little herb garden, with parsley and chives planted around the koi pond in the atrium entrance to her Travis Heights home. And she was adamant about healthy, fresh ingredients—except when it came to red velvet cake.
After a round of out-of-town speaking engagements or book signings, she frequently retreated to the kitchen to conjure up a reason for a dinner party. Sometimes she would call and suggest a meal theme. I’d make that miserable drive south on Interstate 35—arriving just in time for a Friday-evening trip to acquire provisions that would become Saturday evening’s repast. Other times, my need to escape Dallas coincided with her wish to cook. She seamlessly entertained highbrow, semiformal and jeans-and-T-shirt casual guests; dinner might be chili, meatloaf, saumon en papillote or coq au vin. And though she rarely talked about the federal judges, U.S. cabinet members or famous authors she fed, she never failed to provide updates on the usual local suspects that included lawyers, state legislators, poets and fellow writers—the ones whom she frequently invited to lunch, brunch or dinner.
It’s been said that friends are people who know all about you and like you anyway. Over time, Molly introduced me to several who qualify. When I retired many years later from my time at the Denver Post, they were the collective reason I came to Austin (well…okay…Denver can be really, really cold, and winters can be No Fun Whatsoever). But I didn’t come to Austin to write a book. I came to be with friends following the death of a very special one. We were bound together in sadness much as we had been united in camaraderie at the wonderful round table Molly had commissioned—the one with the handcrafted chairs that had cushions so accommodating that folks could, and did, sit for hours discussing everything from bad social policy to good camping sites within a 100-mile radius.
What I ended up writing was less of a book, and more of a long-winded feature story—a lengthy essay commemorating events built around two friends cooking. Yes, it was cathartic to write, but the more I think about it, the more I see buried in its subtext a plea for friends to share meals. Dining together forges an indefinable but lasting bond; I believe we’re at our most real when we unite to break bread.
In my book, I recall a Native American belief that the spirits of the departed stick around just long enough to shepherd those left behind through the pain of loss. Now that our story is written, I think I can finally say, “Adios, Molly.”
ARE YOU FEELING CHILI?
By Elen Sweets
An excerpt from Stirring It Up with Molly Ivins: A Memoir with Recipes by Ellen Sweets,
Copyright © 2011. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.
Molly loved foie gras, rack of lamb, tournedos, and roasted duck breast as much as the next food freak, but she was just as much at home whipping up a pan of jalapeño cornbread as accompaniment to a spicy bowl o’ red. She served her chili in heavy, oversized blue-and-white bowls emblazoned with images of broncos, cowboys and lassos.
A sincere chili aficionado, she clipped all manner of recipes for it, and even organized chili parties during her stint in Colorado as the New York Times’s Rocky Mountain bureau chief. Denver Post reporter Jack Cox, a longtime friend, still remembers the 1979 “First Annual Rocky Mountain Correspondents’ Chili Cookoff,” organized by Molly and Oklahoman Gaylord Shaw, who, the year before, had won a Pulitzer Prize for the Los Angeles Times. Her wry wit is again evident even in the flyer she mailed out to friends:
Chili is a variety of nutriment invented by Canary Islanders and perfected by Texans, Oklahomans, and, some claim, others as well, for over a century. Its virtues include, but are not limited to curing trombonophobia, preoperative lobotomy complications, decreased mental alertness, antropomania, peptic ulcers, falling hair, fallen arches, ingrown toenails, in-law troubles, recession, apathy, frostbite, cynicism, pollution and acute sobriety.
Her archives include dozens of recipes for one kind of chili or another—a festival version of Frank X. Tolbert’s chili, Neiman Marcus chili, Senator Barry Goldwater’s Fine Chili, Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Pedernales River chili and Louisiana Bayou Chili from U.S. Representative Lindy Boggs. There is also a recipe for Joe Cooper’s chili, whoever Joe Cooper might have been, with a note from Molly’s mother informing Molly that it had taken her father two days to make it.
She and I once had a chili cook-off of our own where she pitted her bowl o’ red against mine, but, she insisted, the competition was nullified by the presence of beans in my version. As if that weren’t bad enough, I intensified her horror by boiling spaghetti to create what was lovingly known in my hometown as “chili mac,” made in most Midwestern places by piling chili onto a mound of macaroni or spaghetti and topping the whole mess with chopped onion and Cheddar cheese. Mind you, the St. Louis version isn’t to be confused with Cincinnati chili, which is laced with cinnamon, for cryin’ out loud. St. Louisans do have some standards.
There was no such nonsense as beans in the Ivins iteration. Barely tolerant of my ground pork and beef mixture, she had the butcher chop hers into little chunks. I was not permitted to see how much of what seasonings she put in hers, but at least we agreed that our respective pots needed to simmer for hours and rest overnight before they could be deemed fit for consumption. Of course, by the time mine was done she had already decided that what with beans and spaghetti, the Sweets version was absolutely not ready for prime time. At least we agreed that the only acceptable beverage for the occasion was beer—as both an ingredient and a libation.
Molly approached the making of chili with the same intensity she invested in snapper en papillote—and she was just as likely to serve the fancy fish to her gal pals as, say, to Pulitzer Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman. Now and then she would share a tidbit about a particular meal she prepared—but it was not because she had prepared it for a prominent federal judge; it was because she had dared to try it for the first time and serve it to a prominent federal judge. What I called her “show-off” meals were invariably from either Simply French or Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Molly’s Chunky Texas Chili
All this needs is beer and a hunk of jalapeño-Cheddar cornbread. Molly made her cornbread from scratch, but darned if I could find the recipe.
1 T. bacon drippings
3 yellow onions, chopped
1 large green bell pepper,
2 celery stalks, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
3 lbs. coarsely ground chuck
1 can beer
1 small can tomato sauce
4 T. chili powder
1 T. ground cumin
1 T. dried oregano
1 large bay leaf
1 t. dry mustard
2 c. beef stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the bacon drippings in a heavy-bottomed stockpot and sauté the onions, pepper, celery and garlic until vegetables soften. Add the chuck and stir until it browns. Add the beer, tomato sauce, chili powder, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, mustard, and beef stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, about 2 hours. Check periodically to see if more liquid is needed. If so, add water. Check for seasoning. Just before serving, remove bay leaf.
Ellen’s St. Louis Chili Mac
Like most soups and stews, this should be made the day before it is to be consumed, or at least 4 to 6 hours in advance. I make a mean jalapeño cornbread too, only mine is made by adding buttermilk instead of plain milk, 2 tablespoons grated Cheddar cheese and chopped jalapeños to a package of Jiffy corn muffin mix. And if your arteries can take it, heat ¼ cup of bacon drippings to smoking in a cast-iron skillet before adding the cornbread mixture.
2½ lb. ground chuck
1½ lb. ground pork
3 T. bacon grease
3 large white onions, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
5–6 garlic cloves, chopped fine
or put through a press
4 T. chili powder
1 T. paprika
1 t. oregano
3 T. ground cumin
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
1 T. Lea & Perrins
3 c. beef stock
1 12-oz. bottle of beer
2 15-oz. cans red (or black)
beans, rinsed and drained
1 lb.spaghetti, cooked
according to package
directions and drained
3 c. grated Cheddar cheese
2 c. finely chopped white onion
Sliced jalapeños (optional)
In a heavy-bottomed stockpot, brown the beef and pork in the bacon grease. Add the onions, bell pepper and garlic and sauté until vegetables are soft. Add the chili powder, paprika, oregano, and cumin and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce, Wrcestershire sauce, beef stock and beer. Cover and simmer for 45 minutes. Add the beans and continue simmering for another 30 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer for an additional 20 minutes or until reduced to desired consistency.
To serve, place some spaghetti in a shallow bowl, ladle chili on top,
and finish with a heaping spoonful of cheese and a teaspoon or so of raw onion. Garnish with jalapeños if desired.
YOU BE THE JUDGE! Join us at BookPeople on Friday, November 4, at 7 p.m. for an evening with author Ellen Sweets reminiscing about Molly Ivins, featuring tastings of both Ellen’s and Molly’s chili recipes and local Saint Arnold Brewery beer. There could be a surprise appearance of some jalapeño cornbread if we can find the recipe.