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The Minnesota Chili Revelation

We all know the perils of messing with a person’s chili recipe. Almost everyone has their personal take on the dish, and it’s best not to pry for the details nor get into a discussion of red vs. white or beans vs. no beans in mixed company (especially if you’re talking to a Texan). But sometimes a new idea rocks your chili world view enough that you’re willing to break from tradition for at least a trial run.

In my case, this winter, that trial run came from one of America’s greatest runners. Scott Jurek grew up in Duluth and turned out to be a champion ultrarunner, winning time after time in races that last more than 100 miles through mountains and deserts. His autobiography Eat & Run describes how he realized in high school that competing at the elite level would require improvements he just wasn’t getting from training harder. A new diet, he realized, would unlock new performance.

Despite growing up a strict meat-and-potatoes Minnesota guy, he started eating more vegetarian dishes and eventually went all the way to vegan. At the outset, his question—like most people’s about such a diet—was whether it would give him enough energy and fill him up. And that brings us to chili.

One cold Minnesota night, Jurek returned from skiing in Duluth’s Lester Park only to have his friends shove a vegetarian chili in front of him. Surely, he thought, this won’t cut it. But he gamely dove in, and had a chili epiphany. “The chilies, the tomatoes and the beans combined into a spicy winter ambrosia,” he wrote in his book. “I suppose it’s possible that I was overtired or in such a good mood after a long ski that anything would have tasted good, but that vegetarian chili was about the best thing I had ever eaten.” It filled him up. It gave him lasting energy. And in something of a quasi-heresy around along Lake Superior, it did it all without meat.

I made my first pot of Minnesota Winter Chili (see the recipe here) this week and landed squarely in Scott's camp. The chili has a robust flavor from a variety of fresh veggies and a lineup of spices. Three kinds of beans provide the protein punch. But the real secret ingredient is bulgur, a whole wheat that’s boiled and partially dried. You’ll find it in the health-food section of any good grocery store. The grain expands as the chili simmers, creating a “mouth feel” almost exactly like what hamburger would provide. For anyone worried about the palatability of vegetarian dishes, it’s a breakthrough.

I may not be quite ready to head down the vegetarian or vegan path. And I’m certainly not aiming for any 100-mile races. But after this chili opened my eyes, who knows what other barriers a person might break?

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