For most children, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are filled with the aromas of sweet spices, baking cookies, and festive greenery. Elizabeth Fortson Sheehan has those memories, plus another: the spicy scent of chili simmering on the stove. “For as long as I can remember, my parents hosted a chili party during the holidays,” she says. “Even as young kids, we looked forward to it.”
Elizabeth, and later Adam, enjoyed the annual gatherings so much that about 10 years ago, the couple decided to launch their own version of the Fortson Holiday Chili Party. Since then, it’s become a first-Saturday-in-December tradition for the couple and the 40 or 50 friends who join them each year.
Elizabeth says that one of the aspects she likes best about the event is its casual vibe: the bar is DIY, with beer in coolers and disposable glassware; and guests dish their own chili into paper bowls. “If it had a theme, I’d say ‘warm and cozy,’” she says with a laugh. “People are comfortable grabbing sour cream out of the fridge, putting their feet up, and generally relaxing. It’s an easy entry into the busy holiday season!”
Although the party is laid back, like any gathering, it requires a lot of planning. The process begins several weeks out when Elizabeth and Adam distribute invitations via Evite or Paperless Post. “Within days, friends respond not only to let us know if they can come but also what they can bring, which is usually an appetizer, dessert, or salad but sometimes a special chili,” says Elizabeth. “It’s a huge help to have an idea of what’s coming.”
Next comes organizing Christmas decorations so that as soon as the Thanksgiving cleanup is finished the couple can get the house fully dressed for the holidays. “My parents had centerpieces made from fruit and Christmas greens, and we do the same,” says Elizabeth. “We arrange oranges, apples, lemons, limes, and pineapple with greenery on decorative boards that my dad gave us. They’re gorgeous and last all season.”
But the real work comes the day before the event, which Elizabeth and Adam spend in the kitchen cooking up batch after batch of chili. “We make several kinds of chili: mild, hot, and turkey,” Elizabeth says. “A friend usually brings a pot of white chicken chili, too, which is always a hit.” Elizabeth also makes an appetizer or two, usually hot artichoke dip, which has become a tradition, and something else. Tables are set up to hold Crock-Pots for each variety of chili; bowls for sour cream, cheese, crackers, tortilla chips, and other toppings; appetizers; desserts; and the bar.
Once the party is underway, guests serve themselves from the Crock-Pots, which are not just convenient but keep the meal piping hot. “There’s no set dinner time,” says Elizabeth. “Everyone is free to eat when they’re hungry and wherever they’re comfortable, whether it’s outside around the fire pit or perched on the end of the sofa. It’s all about being with friends. If you’re going to take the time to entertain, fill the house with people you love!”
Elizabeth’s Tips for Low-Stress Entertaining
It’s easier to relax if you choose a dish with which you’re comfortable. I’ve been making chili so long that I don’t even use a recipe anymore. That takes out a lot of the stress.
Invite people who love you and are coming to see you — not scope out your house or judge your housekeeping.
Choose an attire that both you and your spouse are comfortable with — you both need to be able to relax and enjoy your party.
Do everything you can ahead of time. I wish I was one of those people who could do things way, way ahead of time, but I’m not. Still, really try!
Don’t put your bar in the kitchen! Full confession: we do, but I tell people not to because it’s where everyone ends up.
Outsource what you can, especially if that’s what stresses you out. If you’re great at cooking but baking isn’t your thing, buy dessert or have a friend bring it. The same with flowers or appetizers.
Let your children spend the night out. It’s so much easier when you’re not worried about bedtime or a meltdown. They have more fun, too!
Elizabeth’s Hot Artichoke Dip
2 14-ounce cans of artichoke hearts, drained and cut into small pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup regular mayonnaise (not low or non-fat)
1 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Juice of 1 lemon
Stir ingredients together and pour into an 8-by-8 inch baking dish. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes or until bubbling. Serve in the baking dish with your favorite crackers.
Chili: As American as Apple Pie!
Flavored with cumin, onion, and garlic, chili often gets credited as a Mexican dish, but — according to a popular theory, of which several exist — it was first cooked up by Canary Island colonists, who had been sent by the Spanish government in the 1770s to settle in what was then part of New Spain but is now San Antonio, Texas.
Their goal was to protect the riverfront settlement of San Antonio de Bexar from French expansion into Spanish territory. Though Aztecs and other early residents of the region had long been stewing meat with tomatoes, hot peppers, and spices, it’s the addition of cumin, which is a staple in the Canary Islands’ Berber-influenced cuisine, that ties the dish to the African archipelago. By the late 1870s, chili stands were prevalent in and around San Antonio’s main plaza; within 10 years, chili con carne was a menu staple along with Mexican staples like tamales and enchiladas.
Preserved by all those peppers, chili traveled well and was soon a popular choice of cattle drive chuck wagon cooks. Though beans were added to make the pot go further, today both the Chili Appreciation Society, which was founded in 1940, and the International Chili Society dictate that neither beans nor tomatoes are a part of “real Texas chili.”
In 1977, chili became the state dish of Texas. Though no one can agree on an “official” state recipe, Lady Bird Johnson’s popular version, called Pedernales River Chili, is archived at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library. Though it is bean free, it does contain tomatoes.
Though Elizabeth and Adam use black beans in this chili, kidney beans are also delicious. Yields one very large pot!
2 pounds ground beef or ground turkey
2 green bell peppers, diced
2 onions, diced
2 or 3 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes
2 or 3 15-ounce cans of tomato sauce
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cumin
1 tablespoon black pepper
Brown the ground beef with the diced onions and bell pepper. Remove from the pot and drain. Add the ground beef back to the pot, add 2 cans diced tomatoes and 2 cans tomato sauce, bring to a boil. Add more tomatoes or tomato sauce until you get the desired consistency. We like ours to be thick and filled with meat and veggies.
If you need to make the chili thicker, add tomato paste. I recommend adding it about a tablespoon at a time until you reach desired thickness. Bring to a boil and then add spices. Bring to a boil again and then taste test, adding salt, pepper, chili powder, and cumin as needed. About 15 minutes before serving, add in the black beans.
Serve with tortilla chips or saltines, grated cheese, and sour cream. We love to have a lineup of our favorite hot sauces for our guests to choose from as well.
Pedernales River Chili
4 pounds chili meat (coarsely ground round steak or well-trimmed chuck)
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon comino seed (cumin)
6 teaspoons chili powder (or more, if needed)
1½ cups canned whole tomatoes
2 to 6 generous dashes liquid hot sauce
2 cups hot water
Salt to taste
Place meat, onion, and garlic in large, heavy pan or Dutch oven; cook until light in color. Add oregano, comino seed, chili powder, tomatoes, hot pepper sauce, salt, and hot water.
Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for about 1 hour. Skim off fat during cooking.
White Chicken Chili
1 pound dried white beans
6 cups chicken broth
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions, chopped (divided)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 4-ounce cans chopped green chilies
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons dried oregano
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 cups diced cooked chicken
Shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Crushed tortilla chips
Soak beans in cold water for several hours or overnight. Several hours before serving, drain the beans, then combine with the broth, garlic, and half of the onions in a large soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until beans are very soft, 3 hours or more. Add more chicken broth (or water) if necessary.
In a skillet, saute remaining onions in oil until tender. Add chilies and seasonings and mix thoroughly until it is slightly dry and fragrant, then scrape into the pan with the beans. Add chicken and simmer for another hour; serve with toppings on the side. (8 to 10 servings)