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Comments & Curiosities: Candidates to swap suits for aprons

It's a funny business, politics. Of course that depends on your definition of funny.

There's the campaigns, the mail, the debates, and every now and then, the chili cook-off.

In the race for the 68th Assembly District, Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor (Republican) and Phu Nguyen (Democrat) have decided to set aside arguing about who has the best plan to save California and replace it with arguing about who has the best chili, just for this weekend anyway.

Both men have agreed to fight it out, bean to bean, at the sixth annual Halecrest Chili Cook-off, which takes place from noon to 4 p.m. today at Halecrest Park in Costa Mesa. At first, it might seem a little odd — having Mansoor, whose ancestry is Egyptian and Scandinavian, and Nguyen, whose ancestry is Vietnamese, cooking up a storm in a chili cook-off.

Then again, why not?

Chili is a patchwork of cultures and ingredients itself. It's a dish that most people love, some people are passionate about and is almost impossible to define. Mention chili in a group of six people or more and you'll get an earful of opinions hotter than a habanero pepper stuffed with cayenne and dipped in Tabasco.

Try it. Next time you're with some of your peeps, ask everyone for their favorite chili recipe. It won't take long for the groaning and the shouting to start. The first person that says "beans" will be yelled at and ridiculed by the "Texas purists" — more on them later.

Anyone who suggests a meatless chili or a turkey or chicken chili will elicit howls of protests. Everyone has a different idea of what chili should be and everyone is convinced their idea is right. For today's chili smackdown at Halecrest Park, Nguyen is tossing tradition to the winds and whipping up a chili with a decided Far Eastern twist. His entry will be built with Vietnamese ingredients, including that tangy Asian favorite — fish sauce.

"Actually, I have never made chili this way, and so it's going to be a fusion of several recipes," Nguyen told the Daily Pilot.

Mansoor is going with more of a freestyle approach and an emphasis on the fun factor.

"It's always nice to win, but I think the main point of the event is to get out and meet everyone in the community and just have a nice day," Mansoor said.

We'll see how it all turns out, but here is my question: Where did chili come from and how do you know when it's "real" — two questions I know I will be sorry I asked, but near-total ignorance has never stopped me before.

Some histories of chili trace it back to medieval if not ancient times, which I have a hard time swallowing. The problem is, they cite references to a "meat stew" of some sort by Bobbie the Barbarian or Vinnie the Viking. Maybe, but just because a Cro Magnon man manages to take down a mastodon and Mrs. Magnon turns it into a stew, that isn't chili.

From everything I found, the most likely birthplace of chili as we know it was the Riverwalk city itself — San Antonio, Texas. In the 1880s, enterprising women called chili queens — their term, not mine — would show up in San Antonio's Military Plaza toward the end of the day. Armed with firewood and cauldrons of chili, the women would build mesquite fires that would burn down to charcoal over which the chili queens would reheat their chili.

They would sell bowls of chili to passersby and revelers in the plaza far into the night. Between the aroma of the mesquite fires and the simmering chili, it didn't require a lot of advertising. Everyone was as happy as a chili bean until the late 1930s, when the city of San Antonio said the chili vendors would have to live by the same sanitary standards as restaurants, the chili queens were no more. The people of San Antonio miss the chili queens to this day and the city's Memorial Day celebration is a Return of the Chili Queens Festival.

By the time the chili queens were sanitized out of existence, hundreds of chili parlors were well established through Texas and the rest of the Southwest, serving chili becoming the chili-powdered launch pad for a new cuisine — Tex-Mex. Arguably the most famous chili parlor was Bob Pool's in Dallas, which was across the street from the original Neiman Marcus. President Stanley Marcus loved the place, ate there often, and shipped Bob Pool chili to friends around the world. For anyone who doubts the Lone Star state's claim to chili fame, another president, who went by the initials LBJ, had his own secret recipe for Pedernales River Chili, named after the location of his Texas ranch.

OK, fine. So let's get to the beans. Are they in or are they out? If you're a Texas purist, they're out. Period, don't argue, end of story. According to people who know these things, Texas-style chili not only does not allow beans but takes a dim view of any other legume, or vegetable, as well. According to something called the Chili Appreciation Society International, and yes there is such a thing, anyone who dares introduce even one bean or marinated meat of any kind into their chili is done, cast out, shunned, it's over, turn in your chili tools.

So there you have it. Vietnamese chili, God bless Texas, LBJ and the chili queens. To Mansoor and Nguyen, cook your hearts out, do your best, the beans are totally your call. That's why we call it a democracy. I gotta go.

PETER BUFFA is a former Costa Mesa mayor. His column runs Sundays. He may be reached at ptrb4@aol.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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