When Dad gimped out of Walter Reed Hospital in 1945, he knew he’d rather make a living playing stride piano than return to engineering school in the tundra. He also knew that his stern Swedish mother didn’t raise her son to hang out in jazz bars with guys who don’t have teeth and smell like spittoons. What he didn’t know was that a bombshell from Duluth would make life worth living at Michigan Tech and rock his frat house chili recipe into the 21st century.
On the train ride home to Duluth, his mind was elsewhere. He kept replaying a moment at the hospital. No, not war stories because he had none. In a football game at Officer Candidate School in Grinnell, Iowa, he shattered his leg, putting him on the permanently disabled list for a year and sending him to Walter Reed for multiple surgeries.
No, the story that consumed him concerned Art Tatum, accomplished stride piano player who visited the hospital to cheer up the soldiers. They shouted, “Ya gotta hear Neil. He ain’t good for much but man, can he play the piano!”
Graciously, Mr. Tatum invited Neil to crank out a few standards on the old upright in the cafeteria that hadn’t been tuned since 1928. Making the most of this moment, Dad avoided screwing up the bridge in “Sweet Lorraine” like he usually did. Mr. Tatum told him he really had talent. Talent. “Me…a big dumb Swede.”
When the big dumb Swede was settled at home, he let mom know about the blessings of the GI bill for college tuition, and then, gently dropped the bomb about his forthcoming jazz gig.
At “The Flame,” Neil could play anything he wanted. On a Bosendorfer overlooking Lake Superior, the keyboard became his oyster. A Lucky Strike with an ash about 2 inches long burned deliberately while ice cubes diluted a short, stiff Manhattan. Dad always said a cigarette plus a good belt equals critical foreplay required by a jazz piano player.
Because he never screwed it up, “You Took Advantage of Me” was the first out of the block.
I'm a sentimental sap, that's all
What's the use of trying not to fall?
I have no will, you've made your kill
'Cause you took advantage of me
Gershwin, you’re up next. “Someone to Watch Over Me” followed but Neil always got stuck on the bridge. Damn. No one in the bar could tell the difference, though. He loved to play Gershwin, he figured, you can’t go wrong with George. But the tune’s little melancholy since the war just ended and everyone’s trying to pull their lives together. Including him.
“Limehouse Blues” next. Crank up the joint.
Oh, Limehouse blues, I've the real Limehouse blues
Can't seem to shake off, those real China blues
Rings on your fingers and tears for your crown
That is the story of old Chinatown…
This was his dream, playing until the chairs turned upside down, until the cigarette butts were swept out the door along with a few lushes, all the while keeping time with his left foot. He approached the keys the way his father caressed a pipe organ at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. But his father was bolstered by lilies, incense, Bach, and the Good Book. Not martinis, beer steins and Cole Porter.
Over the summer, he met someone “nice and fine” and he managed to improvise Sweet Lorraine to her Chopin. You see, their eyes met over a couple of Steinway Concert “B’s” in her living room and..wow.
Just found joy
I'm as happy as a baby boy
When he's playing with his choo-choo toy
When I'm with my sweet Lorraine
She's got a pair of eyes
That are bluer than the summer sky
When you see her you're gonna realize
Why I love my sweet Lorraine
When it's raining I don't miss the sun
'Cause it's in my sweetie's smile
Just think that I'm the lucky one
Who will lead her down the aisle
Each night how I pray
That nobody steals her heart away
I can't wait until that lucky day
When I marry my Lorraine
Debussy met Duke Ellington. And the two, yes, actually made music. . . Once September rolled around, Dad hated going back to school without her. He despised the bitterly cold, grungy air at Michigan Tech and joked that when the world got an enema, they’d put the nozzle in Houghton.
But he returned to engineering school, began putting the pieces of his professional life together, living in a frat house where one of his buddies cooked up a great pot of chili every weekend when the cook was off. He loved it, lived on it, named it “chili gop” and wrote down the recipe for Jean to learn.
Which she did until she died in 1985, cranking out frat house chili on call. It’s pretty basic, highly primitive and what you’d expect from a fraternity house circa 1945. Carrying on the tradition, my sister and I have renamed it “Fart House Chili” and think of the “big dumb Swede” with every pot.
While it’s simmering, I find it always tastes better if I listen to Sweet Lorraine, keep time with my left foot, sip a short, stiff margarita, and gimp around the kitchen.
Here it is…the basic, one and only, Chili Gop, Fart House Chili or….
Frat House Chili
1 ¼ lb. ground turkey (or beef – which was the original ingredient)
1 diced onion
1 diced green pepper
3 stalks celery, diced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
3 Tb or so, Gebhardt’s chili powder
2 cans, 14.5 oz each, classic stewed tomatoes, undrained
1 can red kidney beans, DO NOT DRAIN…the juice is important.
Spaghetti – about a quarter in diameter
Salt (very little required because the juice in the beans has quite a bit of salt) and pepper
Crushed Frito Corn chips (I told you this was basic)
Grated cheddar cheese
Shredded iceberg lettuce
Diced red onion
Sour cream - optional
Diced cilantro - optional
In a good, heavy pot, brown the ground turkey. Add the onion, celery, and green pepper – continue sautéing until transparent.
Add the spices at this point – chili powder, oregano, and cumin. Sauté for a few minutes to bring out the flavor of the spices. Chili powders vary tremendously in “heat” and taste – for this recipe, I always use the Gebhardt brand to get the same taste. It’s up to you. My family gets upset if it’s too spicy so I keep it calm.
After the flavors have developed, add the cans of tomatoes and UNDRAINED kidney beans. Yup…just dump those suckers in there in its entirety. Remember, they made this in the fraternity house. If you feel you need more liquid, you can add a bit of water if necessary. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes.
Grab a handful of spaghetti out of the packet, about the diameter of a quarter. Does that make sense? Break it in half, yes, break it in half and DUMP it in the pot. I told you this was basic.
Bring to boil, stir occasionally and cover for about 20 minutes more.
And here's what my kitchen looks like when the kids find out I'm cooking Chili Gop...
Serve with toppings, cheese first to melt. And Sweet Lorraine. Don’t forget her.