Friday, January 30, 2009

Book Review: A Bowl of Red by Frank X. Tolbert

A Bowl of Red: The Classic Natural History of Chili Con Carne with Other Delectable Dishes of the Southwest, with Recipes and a Guide to Paper Napkin Restaurants, by Frank X. Tolbert, Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company (1988), reprint.

This book is a reprint of the classic chilihead bible, originally published in 1953. Tolbert was a born-and-bred Texan, first, and a journalist and founder of the World Chili Championship held each November in Terlingua, Texas. The book swaggers with lots of outsized Texas bravado about how hot a proper chili should be, how a classic bowl of red would eject any attempts to throw beans into it, and some interesting profiles of cowboy chuck wagon cooks.

"A Bowl of Red" is a little dated, with all of its references to period film stars and celebrities, and some non PC references to various ethnic groups, but it does contain great information about Southwestern culinary history and will make your mouth water for something spicy. He lists some of the many chili aficionados of the day, including humorist H. Allen Smith, Lady Bird Johnson and LBJ, Jack Benny and trumpet virtuoso Harry James, who notes "Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili".

Tolbert's book explores the various permutations of chili (suet or no, tomatoey and garlicky or vegetable-free) and then examines some other Texan specialties, including son of a bitch stew (an extravaganza of cattle organ meats), tamales, enchiladas and burritos. He has the highest regard for the humblest of chili chefs, from diners, jailhouse kitchens and those like Early Caldwell, the Tamale King, who hunts down prime corn shucks and other ingredients and steams up vast quantities in his home kitchen to sell every other day at a prime corner in Athens, Texas.

The book is very entertaining and a great look at a chunk of American food history. I would definitely seek it out as a gift for any chili heads in your life. This is the second book I have read for the Books About Food challenge, which I am thoroughly enjoying. Next up for that reading challenge: "Stealing Buddha's Dinner", by Bich Minh Nguyen.


Margot said...

This looks like an excellent book for my clan. We love all forms of chili. While traveling through Texas we encountered a green chili stew that was superb. I haven't been able to duplicate it. I'm glad you are in the Books About Food Challenge. I'm going to hate to see it end.

GeekGirl said...

This book sounds pretty awesome. I am a born and raised South Texan, so I can definitely appreciate a book on one of my favorite dishes. My father makes the best chili ever. . . :)