The timing couldn't be better: as Bear falls, as chaos looms, what's more reassuring than comfort food? Reassuring staples like meatloaf, mac-and-cheese, or chili. Especially chili.
Every culture has ways of cooking meat in an aromatic liquid till it falls into tender pieces. Think of all those stews and casseroles, think of pot-au-feu and daube, goulasch and carbonade. Add beans and it's cassoulet, add seafood and it's bouillabaisse. Maybe not in Belltown, but there are plenty of places that cook squirrel and possum. Hunters go into the woods and return with bear, or maybe a few bunnies; it can all go into the stewpot.
Which brings us back to chili...just a highly seasoned stew, after all, although one with infinite variations. Ethan Stowell, the owner and chef at Union, has been sponsoring charity cook-offs for a while now, featuring food that everyone loves...in his or her own way, whether it's southwest chili or Cincinnati style or something altogether original. Two years ago, Steve Smrstik (then of 35th St. Bistro, now at Pink Door) won the inaugural chili cook-off using cuts of pork. Sunday night, the eve of St. Paddy's Day, the eve of the Bear Stearns financial apocalyspe, eleven local chefs gather to prepare steaming pots of their own secret-recipe chili. Three pros, eight enthusiastic amateurs, a sold-out house.
One recipe is kinda soupy, one is outright burned, a couple taste almost like spaghetti sauce, another like paprika. One is just too mild, another way too spicy, one is made with shrimp and squid (go, Oyster Bill!), one comes with dilled sour cream like a German pot roast. But three or four have a satisfying balance of juicy meat flavors and spicy chilis. Turns out that one of them used lamb and another entry, by Mangetout Catering, used venison.
Not just any venison, either, but an animal bagged by an enthusiastic employee. Mangetout's owner, Jane Hummer, added flavor by smoking the onions and spices, giving the dish additional depth and sweetness. Enough intensity, at any rate, to win the cook-off.
Probably just a coincidence, but Hummer also happens to be on the board of trustees of the evening's beneficiary, Seattle Childen's Theater. Psst, Jane: don't tell the kids you cooked Bambi.