It was late fall, almost too late to see what I had come for. Every year I made my pilgrimage north to see the fall colors and to rest and rejuvenate my soul. But this year, it was colder than usual, and the snow would soon be falling. I drove up the Taconic State Parkway in New York, over Routes 22 and 7, and then 9 into Vermont – the scenic route – beautiful and exhilarating. Just what the doctor ordered, I thought. Fall is tourist season. People come from all over to see the leaves turn from green to bright orange, red, and yellow. It was already on the late side when I arrived in Bennington, and it appeared as though everyone else was taking this last opportunity to see the magnificence of the New England state before all the leaves fell from their trees. Traffic was backed up for miles. I needed a rest anyway, so I drove up to the historic monument – a tribute to the Battle of Bennington in 1777 – and bought myself a soda pop at the gift shop along the circular drive. I was on vacation, and if I didn’t continue onward toward my destination, I would have been quite happy to spend my seven days at that peaceful rest stop with its stunning views of the Green Mountains. I went to the top of Bennington Battle Monument and took some pictures of the valley down below, and lingered there way too long. The sun had begun to set.
Back on Route 9, it was smooth sailing. By the time I reached Wilmington, it was dark, and the full moon was rising. Everything in town had closed for the night, including most of the eateries. I was hungry and tired – I just wanted a quick bite so I could be on my way and get some sleep. As I drove around the quaint little town, I spotted an open bar and grill – a dive really – but it was the only place that had an outside light on. It beckoned me – a beacon in the night that let me know I had arrived safely and would be well taken care of inside. The décor of the old bar was outdated but surprisingly pleasant. It had all the accouterments one would expect in any tavern nestled in a small, remote town; and the patrons were oh so friendly – the quintessence of Vermont. I sat in a booth and ordered an iced tea.
“Hi. What can I get you?” The waitress asked.
“Do you have something good but fast? I have to get back on the road,” I said.
“Hold on, I’ll check.” Two minutes a man strolled up to my table, the owner I presumed.
“I hear you’re in a hurry and you want something good to eat,” he said.
“Yeah. Anything you have that’s fast would be great, a sandwich or burger, if the grill is still open.”
“How about some of my five-alarm chili? It’s been simmering all afternoon. It’s tomorrow’s Special of the Day, but it’s perfect for eat’n right now. It’s the best in town, I can promise you that. Care to try some?” I suspected it was the only chili in town, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“Sounds perfect,” I said. “Sign me up.” Chili was one of my favorite dishes, but I had never had five 5-alarm chili before. Growing up, my mother made the dish often – my father loved it. But she didn’t make it spicy. I didn’t know whether I was going to love it or hate it, but I was so hungry I didn’t care. At that point, I would have eaten just about anything.
When the chili arrived, I was about to take a bite, but the owner stopped me. “No. Wait,” he said. “You can’t eat it without the cheese.” I wondered why he put a bowl of cheese in front of me.
“It’s sharp cheddar,” he said. “I put it on the side, so you can add as much as you want.” I never had cheese on my chili before, and I didn’t want to offend the owner who was so proud of his recipe, so I sprinkled a small amount near the side of my bowl. “When it melts, it’s perfect,” he added. I waited a moment for the cheese to melt and hesitatingly tried a spoonful.
“Oh my God,” I said way too loudly. I took a huge swig of my iced tea. Five alarm! He wasn’t kidding. I took a bite without the cheese. Either way, it was the best chili I had ever eaten. I sprinkled some more of the cheese all over the top of my bowl.
“You’re obviously not from around here,” he said. “Put some cheese on that chili. It won’t bite you.” He was right. As good as it was, it needed more cheese. By the time I finished my bowl of chili, the side bowl of cheese was gone, and I was on my second glass of iced tea. My mouth was on fire – but in a good way. When I finished my meal, I was challenged to a game of pool – I lost. I lost the rematch too. Feeling overly satiated and ready for a good night’s sleep, I continued my journey, up Route 100, a few miles north to my destination. By the time my vacation was over, I was a regular at the bar – no longer considered a flatlander, but a welcomed Vermonter.
My hunt for the perfect chili recipe had begun. But I never found one that tasted as good as the chili I had in Vermont. So, I began the process of creating my own. Each time I made it, I used different spices. Some I liked, and others were just too hot and spicy. As my family and I tried recipe after recipe, I discovered that not everyone in my family liked their chili as hot as I did. So, I toned it down and, eventually developed a recipe that satisfied everyone. I called it Vermont Chili. And when I wanted extra heat, I divided the recipe in two and added additional spices to the second pot. This was the one dish that everyone in my family loved to eat.
Click here for our 3 Alarm and 5 Alarm Chile Recipe.