The cold days of February turn my thoughts to a hot bowl of chili.
Chili suppers are still popular fundraisers. Our daughter was involved in preparing take-home chili on Super Bowl Sunday at her church. Last Saturday, my wife Diane and I worked at a church luncheon featuring chili and Tuesday there was a chili cook-off where I work, to benefit the American Cancer Society. At our church event, members of our Sunday school class brought pots of chili, which were then all mixed together.
Historically, there has been lots of controversy about what should go into a proper pot of chili. I like both the light and dark kidney beans, although many people think that including any sort of beans at all is heresy. For this occasion, we also added some spaghetti noodles, like any good Hoosier.
Diane said her mother always put in elbow macaroni noodles, which was unheard of in Southern Illinois, where I lived. My mother would occasionally pour chili over spaghetti and serve it as Chili Mac, but it was never mixed in as a standard ingredient.
Diane knew some people in Wisconsin who put green peas in their chili, and I think we can all agree, that just isn’t right. At the chili lunch, one family’s recipe called for chic peas, a nice addition in my mind.
Mixing several different kinds of chili together usually works out surprisingly well, despite the fact that it almost guarantees that there will be something included in each bowl that someone will find disagreeable.
Events like chili suppers, spaghetti dinners, and fish fries were the hallmark of the 1950s and 1960s, when people and communities were more socially integrated.
Harvard scholar Frank D. Putman warns that America’s social capital has become dangerously depleted over the past 25 years, as our connections with each other have dissolved and threaten to impoverish our lives and communities. Factors that have contributed to this decline include changes in work life, family structure, population demographics, suburban life, television, women’s roles and increasingly computers and digital technology.
According to Putman, there has been a 58 percent reduction in attendance at club meetings among Americans in the past 25 years. Putman’s research shows that joining and participating in just one group cuts in half your odds of dying within the next year.
As a child, I remember attending chili, spaghetti and fish dinners for large number of clubs that existed like the band parents, The Mother’s Club, the DeMolays, the Cub Scouts, The Rainbow Girls, the volunteer fire department, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, The VFW, the Oddfellows and numerous other civic and fraternal organizations in our small town. Many of these events were held in the local Community Recreation Center. This center, built right after World War II, had a large kitchen where a core group of women from the community would congregate to actually cook the food.
As a kid, the part I liked best was all the homemade desserts (mostly slices of pie and cake) on paper plates laid out on the center’s ping pong tables. It’s not clear to what extent these community functions have decreased, but Putman reports that even family dinners together have decreased by 43 percent in the last 25 years.
Only very wealthy people could afford to have weddings, anniversaries and other such activities professionally catered. At most of these events, you would see the same group of chili supper ladies preparing hams and huge roasters full of Galumpkis (Polish cabbage rolls) in some church or social hall kitchen. All of these events gave people opportunities to meet with and share a meal with their neighbors.
Such large community meals are nothing new. According to Marquette University anthropologist Jane Peterson, the archeological record shows that nearly 10,000 years ago, meals involving large groups of people and large quantities of food were already commonplace. Informal communal meals like chili and spaghetti suppers helped to forge and cement the social bonds between peoples and families. University of Manchester sociologist Alan Warde, says that “eating together is perhaps the most basic expression of human sociality ...”
Peterson believe that people bond over food because of “ the power food has to nourish and sustain our bodies, and also the compelling symbolic associations embedded in our food habits.” She says, “At some level, we all understand the language of food.”
Health psychologists have found that perceived social support stemming from such bonds can help protect people from stressful life events and engender tangible health benefits in terms of enhancing the immune system and reducing the incidence of colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer and even depression.
I remember we took our middle son to a church spaghetti dinner when he was about 6 months old. Like most children, Andy could take a single molecule of chocolate and somehow multiple it until he — and a two-foot perimeter around him — were both completely covered. At this spaghetti dinner, he decided to dump all of his spaghetti and sauce on his head. He did look cute wearing the bowl, but he was so thoroughly drenched, I still expect to see a noodle on him today, and he’s a 32-year-old attorney.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@ lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress. com