Friday, August 9, 2013

Depth of Flavor

I’m not much of a cook.  I know how to throw some chicken and burgers on the grill and I can make a mean grille cheese sandwich.  But the one thing I love making is chili.

The first time I made chili was a few years ago when I was living on my own. I followed the recipe I’d chosen at random pretty strictly.  The end product wasn’t bad.  It tasted like chili, had an appropriate bite (enough to make me tear up), and there was a ton left over to feed the neighborhood.  But it lacked something.

I love watching Top Chef.  And whenever one of the chef’s makes a soup, the judges inevitably discuss its depth of flavor.  That didn’t make sense to me.  It’s soup.  It’s got flavors.  How can they have depth?  Tomato tastes like tomato.  How can it taste MORE like tomato?  I didn’t finally understand what those judges had always meant until I attempted to cook chili again.  The second and third times around, I played with the recipe.  I added a dark beer instead of a lighter one.  I changed the proportion of the spices and added some pork sausage instead of just ground beef.  But the most important thing I did was let it cook longer and lower.  

Giving my chili time to simmer allowed the various flavors, which had tasted perfectly acceptable before, to mingle and stew and achieve that depth of flavor those Top Chef judges were always harping on.  The spices weren’t just in the chili, they achieved new dimensions and became part of the chili.  It wasn’t the best chili ever cooked in the history of chili, but it was pretty damn good.

Books are like chili.  Having just finished the eighth draft of The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, I finally realized that.  You’d think that after so many drafts, I’d have found all of the story’d depth and drawn out all its complexities, but each time I read through it, I find more ways to develop connections between those perfectly-fine-on-their-own ingredients, and strengthen their individual flavors.

Stories need time to simmer, they need time to develop their depth.  And I can promise you, that when you finally get the chance to devour Andrew’s journey, the bite is going to make you cry.  


  1. I cook my chili in a crock pot, and won't eat it until it's simmered for 8 hours, and then chilled in the fridge for 24.

    I make one with beer, one with shredded beef, one with adobo, all kinds of stuff. The only thing I can never pull off right is a white bean chicken chili. I love that kind, but it never works out at home.

    Your metaphor, of course, is also apt, but I love chili.

    1. I've never tried a white chili. It feels wrong somehow. Like calling Miracle Whip mayonnaise.


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