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Spoofs & Satire

The Southwestern Canon

Harold Bloom is perhaps our finest Shakespeare critic and certainly one of literature’s most passionate lovers. Who knew he’s a big chili fan too?

Not too long ago, on a fine New Haven afternoon, as I was enjoying a red-hot lunch of exquisite chili on a bench outside of my office, I was heckled by young deconstructionists. From them sprang words beyond my decent vocabulary.

To them I protest: This is not productive.

Chili, that grand spicy, meaty stew, cannot be warped and scatted by the School of Displaced Guilt. Undoubtedly, attempts to dissolve the potency of chili are abundant and will persist, a regrettable result of continuing investments in political rectitude for the return of praise by impressionable, likeminded peers. Everywhere, it has become fashionable, a matter of course, to suppress the idea of a chili aesthetic. Many have forgotten the pleasure of a glorious red bowl, and it is not ridiculous to guess at a future where chilis might arrive in shades of green, ochre, and even fuchsia. It is most foul, strange, and unnatural.

The aesthetic value of fine chili, however, is not a debatable thing. It is an actuality. The making and judgment of chili is an old art, and history, in my so-called outmoded view, has proved that social energies cannot invent good chili. It is a matter of the individual cook, a genius whose powers of invention cannot be matched by the gratuitous addition of hoisin sauce or curry powders in the name of misguided multiculturalism. Chili is part of the American Past, and while it is true that chili has served myriad social and political purposes of expansionist powers, its generous championing by certain advantaged parties does not diminish its aesthetical value.

The exemplary chilis, the very heart of all once and future chilis, predate these modern nervousnesses and tremors. The myth of “La Dama de Azul,” the 17th-century Spanish nun whose out-of-body conversions of New World Indians across the ocean was said to have brought divine chili recipes to Western consciousness, may be a product of superstition and fiction, but it is possible that the first batch of chili was a product of a singular, forgotten cook who might have not even been aware of the significance of that immaculately conceived bowl. The cowboys who’d later follow would dispense with the nebulousness of the early recipes. On cold, dry American plains they rejuvenated bricks of dried beef, fat, pepper, salt, and chili peppers, and the cowboys of the next generation would then inject other flavors, weaker or stronger, but mostly strongest.

I am dying, Egypt, dying, even though there is much that remains uncooked and unconsumed. I would trade my soul for having tasted everything.This sequence of new visions has an underlying current. Each cook is disappointed that he or she would not be the first frontier cook. Their chili would not be the sui generis chili. The cooks are then forced to mine for the failures of past chilis, and in this heroic opposition against preceding chilis, a process of individuation that demands a rethinking of the way the chili tastes and digests, the cooks might emerge with a fine chili worthy of being an inheritor of its tradition. The cook mistastes the chili and then creates a new poetic vision of it. Class or cultural resentment does not compel fine chili makers. They are not driven by any need for redistributed social justice. It would be the individual Freudian anxiety that forces bubbling pots of chili to release the fumes of heaven.

I often go to the local Shaw’s Supermarket to gather the required ingredients for the making of a superb bowl. In considering my shopping list, parsed from the most peerless and distinguished recipes, I’m again a student of those chilis perfected by those who earned their distinction at the Terlingua cookoffs. Their aesthetic pulse and spiritual loftiness haunt my bowels. I recall the multiple-alarm chilis made by geniuses like Homer “Wick” Fowler, Mrs. F. G. Ventura of Dallas, and all the other jailhouse cooks whose contributions in acuity, energy, and invention to the canon would be anonymous, but everlasting. It is accurate to say that I do not believe in the death of the cook.

The assault, however, follows me. In the supermarket aisles, I am now accustomed to giveaway recipe cards calling for the deployment of any varieties of root vegetables, macaroni, and tofu in “Fifteen-Minute” chilis. While I know that they do not target me specifically, these cards provoke within me a sense of weltschmerz, and within that, loneliness.

And then again, rounding the corner of the produce aisle, where I might be dropping gingerly selected ancho chiles into my shopping cart, the deconstructionists and the New Historicists appear. We stand facing each other. My palms press against a cart full of ground meat. They, my fallen cherubs, stand with hemp tote bags stuffed with textured vegetable protein.

To them, I erect my curmudgeonly finger. They are eager to inherit my world and refurbish it with the ideologies they see fit. What they fear to realize is that after me, they would be the ones their own cubs would eye lustfully. After those vegetarian chilis, those chilis with ground coffee beans and lotus roots and air-delivered sea bass, or the egalitarian flavors of store-bought cans, something even more rootless and untamable, a wild thing of darkness, will come after them and go after their ankles the way they’ve gnawed on mine. It is a vicious, foolish game. They don’t know it, but I am their way to eternal grief. They should abandon their hope, although I know they will not.

At ungodly hours, I stay awake, ever vigilant. I listen to the simmering song coming from the chili pot, full again with the replenishments obtained at the grocery store, but then something rotten comes and breaks my ecstatic state. I look out my kitchen and see the night creatures stumbling on my lawn, their horn-rimmed glasses reflecting the light of the bonfires I’ve built to ward them off. They cry out their ridiculous demands. They believe beets belong in chili. They see no fault in using wasabi. They dare to mention soy. They want me to acquiesce, be an attendant lord, and let them trample on my civilization. I do not bother to hear them.

Through the windows, through doors, I blow my bugle and then aim with my cannon. A red hail of ground beef falls on them, and they run, arms flailing like windmills. Trails of spilled lattes poison my grass. I am tired, but I will fight bravely. I will never drown my spoons, because I know what kitchens are at stake. I am dying, Egypt, dying, even though there is much that remains uncooked and unconsumed. I would trade my soul for having tasted everything.

For now, all I wish for is some peace in my twilight. Since childhood, I have always enjoyed a bowl of chili. Until the day they ultimately take down this old man and finish him off, I will sit happily with my bowl. I will lift a heaping first spoon from that red, steamy sludge and inspect the contents of that spoon, and I will lovingly whisper to it, as I always do. The aura of election is upon you.

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