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ESSAYS / How to Cook a Pot of Chili: A Speculation / D. M. Dunn

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And so please help them with your youth,

They seek the truth before they can die.

Teach your parents well,

Their children’s hell will slowly go by.

—“Teach Your Children,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

I.

Most know this intuitively, but let us spell it out before we begin—cooking is simply where food meets heat. The act itself is nothing more than an application of the laws of thermodynamics.

II.

A good friend of ours once Sharpied You’ll always have a home in the pasta cross the dashboard of his car. For us, this is only true if we go back far enough. Pre-1996. Before the incident. Before we made our pot of chili.

III.

December 18, 1996, was a mild evening. The Catholic school held a Wednesday-night bingo. We went with Mother. Though we were not old enough to play—our thirteenth birthday was in September—the people running the show usually looked the other way when we dabbed the flimsy bingo sheets or pulled open the cardboard pull-tabs for Mom. Gambling made up the majority of our family bonding time.

Since information traveled in different circles back then, we first heard the news from a sheriff’s deputy. “Star, you’re going to need to come with us.” Star. Our mother. Star. An object that gives life and then only proceeds to destroy it. 

We’re unsure whether we had left the table before the deputy said, “Your house is on fire.” We are certain we heard someone yell, “Bingo!” as we speed walked out of the basement and up the stairs into the unseasonably mild December.

IV.

Inside the truck: “Your sister is afraid of fire.”

V.

Our dad and sister were not at home, so we weren’t worried about them. Somewhat oddly, being fond of animals, we didn’t think of the pets. Though maybe that’s not so odd at all.

VI.

When we arrived on the scene, we were met by enormous white clouds. While cliché, they billowed. There is no better word. We felt as though we had pulled up just outside a gigantic smokestack to some hideous industrial park. We wanted to stay outside. We wanted to watch. But we were quietly taken to the neighbor’s house. Making idle conversation with a neighbor can be a difficult experience under normal circumstances. Being a young audience to Mother attempting this while our house is burning right outside, was surreal. It continues to be something we will never forget.

VII.

We went to Grandma’s house while ours blazed on. We still didn’t think about the pets, but we did begin to worry about Puppy, our first friend, a stuffed dog brought home with us when we left the hospital. From the moment we became members of this planet, he’s been by our side.

The next morning we go to assess the damage and salvage anything that hasn’t become a total loss. It’s a disaster—from the Latin “ill-starred.” The living room was a charred shell. That’s no surprise. That’s where it all began. A little bad wiring, a lot of lights on the very real tree all added up to a yuletide bonfire. Throw in a carefully wrapped chemistry set for a precocious boy, and you have quite the conflagration on your hands. So no, the living room wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was all the other rooms. Detritus and water had overtaken everything. But it gave us hope. Perhaps Puppy has survived after all! We started to run for the stairs—only to be stopped by Mother. “The firemen say it’s not safe. You could fall through.”

VIII.

These are the ingredients to our secret family recipe.

Now it’s time to go to the kitchen for the preparation.

IX.

The kitchen, incidentally, can be found directly behind the stairs we’ve now been forbidden to ascend. On entering, we notice it seems to have succumbed to the least amount of damage.

Not for long.

We go to the stove and see the pot of chili from the night before. It looks surprisingly edible. We go to the pantry to find some spaghetti. We’ve always preferred ours with pasta, but the rest of the family does not. We break the fragile sticks in half and place them in the pot. We decide this isn’t enough. We go back to the pantry. We’re fairly sure Mom is asking us what we’re doing—as if it weren’t obvious. We drive the point home by breaking up more pasta and tossing it toward the pot. Maybe a quarter of it lands inside. 

What else?

Oh, cheese!

The refrigerator isn’t working, but the cheese looks halfway normal, so we throw it in too. And some eggs. But we purposefully miss the pot with those—who wants eggs in their chili?—and instead they hit the wall with a smack! Now we’re certain Mom is asking what we’re doing, but we guess since she rarely cooks we can hardly blame her for being confused. So we go back to the pantry and retrieve a bag of flour. Everything good that comes from the kitchen has flour. We hand it to her. She takes it, but she doesn’t understand. We reach inside, and much like communicating with a feral child, we mime throwing a fistful at the wall. She still doesn’t understand, so we don’t just mime it the next time. This time she follows, and we can tell this small act makes her happy. We can tell because she continues to do it.

So we begin to set the table. 

We take out every plate we can find and throw it to the floor. Every bowl. Every cup. Mom looks worried, so we tell her the truth. We say, “It doesn’t matter.” At this, she dumps the rest of the flour to the floor and helps us with the dinnerware.

The commotion brings Dad to the kitchen. He has never understood catharsis, and last night, while we all slept on the floor in Grandma’s living room, we overheard him tell Mom that he would not ask a fireman to retrieve a stuffed animal for their teenaged son. Because of this, we have no desire to teach him.

As he escorts us out of the house, we try not to look at the stairs to our room. We know we’ll never set foot in this house again.


D. M. Dunn currently works as an editorial director in Bloomington, Indiana. His biggest literary claim to fame is a 2012 Dishonorable Mention in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.