Go ahead and play ‘Round About Midnight or A Tribute to Jack Johnson, or really any Miles Davis album: Love, death, exhilaration, rage, sex, sadness, lightness, melancholy—everything there is to know about being human boils over in the measured blast of that music. There are a lot of artists I admire and a few I revere, but Miles just destroys me. I’ve never wanted to be someone else, except for maybe Miles Davis. And so I needed to eat his chili.
Aren’t the minutiae the most enthralling parts of biographies? When a person worked and how, who they slept with, where they shopped, what drugs they did. And certainly what they ate; it’s an intimate thing knowing how someone fuelled their body, what gave them pleasure. It’s a way to understand something of their essence.
So one afternoon, not long ago, sheltered from a fierce rain, I was reading John Szwed’s excellent Davis biography, So What. There were the stories that limn his knotty personality: cantankerous but warm, generous but hostile, a good friend one second and a grade-A bastard the next. The pile-up of broken relationships. How the St. Louis-born trumpeter refused to repeat himself—he simply would not look back, or mine his past work. But in between these things, I found that he especially loved cooking, and tucked into page 145, there was Miles’s recipe for chili:
3 large cloves of garlic
1 green and 1 red pepper
2 pounds ground lean chuck
2 teaspoons cumin
½ a jar of mustard
½ a shot glass of vinegar
2 teaspoons chili powder
Salt and pepper
Pinto or kidney beans
1 can tomatoes
1 can beef broth
It was just a list of ingredients, thirteen of them, with no instructions. The finished product, Szwed notes, is to be served over linguini. Vinegar and a half-jar of mustard? It sounded kind of terrible. Acidic and sharp and all of it resting on a bed of pasta.
But I had to make it. I had to taste it. I had to, in this one little way, at least, be Miles Davis.
With Miles on the stereo, I drove my truck out of Saugerties, its wrecked muffler hacking, supermarket-bound for meat and peppers. Barreling to the store, past the billboards and squat buildings of industry, a thought formed: Something about this recipe seems either perverse or obsolete—like the way the techniques and ingredients of antique recipes often seem. But then it occurred to me that this chili might not taste strange or alien to someone from a barbecue town like St. Louis, where two primary flavors in the tomato-y barbecue sauce are mustard and vinegar. I started wondering: When would Miles make it? What flickered through his head when he cooked it? Smelled it? Tasted it? Because it hit me then that this man who ignored his past, who made such a wreck of his relationships, who bore so many of his refusals with something close to pride—here was one of his very few nostalgic gestures, the so-seldom look back, conjuring up the tastes of his hometown.
Back in my kitchen, I stood at the counter, ingredients at ready around my cutting board, In A Silent Way loud on the stereo. The tune’s icy and aching lines always bring me close to the edge of something I never feel anywhere else, a mingling of epic sorrow and ebullience. And it was right then making me want to cook.
I didn’t mean this to be a séance, but I thought the chili might wield some magic, a sort of transubstantiation—a genuine communion. But would I feel the magic if it didn’t taste good? I was just not convinced it would taste that good. I guess some deeply held biases were rearing up: I prefer cubed meat to ground. I never want to use canned broth, which I’ve always felt is sort of awful. I didn’t like the notion of ladling this stuff over pasta. And there was the matter of all that mustard—and besides, how much mustard is “half a jar”?
I know people of faith sometimes ask, “What would Jesus do?” I had a different question on my mind: “What would Miles Davis do?” And, listening to the music as I pondered my ingredients, I recalled that my favorite pieces of Miles’s music almost always originated from an atom of an idea. When he recorded, he offered his musicians a bare minimum of direction. The sparks from spontaneity, he thought, would burn that much hotter. When the musicians arrived, they might receive a fragment of a score or just a description. The rest was up to them and their talent, expanding those simple directives into something gigantic. Davis knew the sound he wanted but not the specifics.
And so this recipe, with no instructions, and only a few actual quantities, I realized, was also written to be improvised. What would Miles Davis do? Whatever the hell he wanted.
Miles was the bandleader, I was the musician. I used a couple tablespoons of mustard. I cubed the beef, and used the rich, reduced chicken stock I keep in the freezer instead of canned broth. I braised it in the oven for three hours, until the beef could be cut with the edge of a spoon. I served it over corn bread, because I just felt like it and thought it would taste good. My Miles Davis’s chili was delicious—and probably nothing like his would have tasted. And that’s okay. That chili was my solo. It hit the right notes of richness and spice, with a nice hint of tartness. I played for him—given a fragment, a few directives, and my own ideal of what it should taste like. Maybe I didn’t know him better, but I understood him just a little more deeply. And for a second, while I extemporized my way through the cooking, I swear Miles entered the room.
Jonathan Dixon’s Miles Davis’s Chili
3 tablespoons bacon fat or oil
2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 medium or large green pepper, cut into very small dice
1 large clove of garlic, minced
2 teaspoons cumin seeds (or ground cumin)
2 teaspoons chile powder of your choice, or several dried Mexican chilies, such as pasilla
1 32-ounce can tomato puree or crushed tomatoes
2 cups beef or chicken broth
2 tablespoons mustard
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 32-ounce can kidney beans, drained.
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 190. Put In A Silent Way on your stereo.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of bacon fat in a large pan over medium-high heat until very hot, but not quite smoking. Season the beef generously with salt and pepper, and brown it in one-layer batches so you get a deep brown color on all sides. Deglaze the pan with a splash of water if the brown bits build up, making sure you save the liquid. (If you have more beef to brown, wipe the pan dry, heat more fat, and continue searing.)
3. Lower the heat to medium, and cook the pepper in the remaining fat until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until soft.
4. You can use the same amount of pre-ground cumin, but I prefer to start with whole seeds. In a hot, dry pan, toast the cumin over high heat, shaking continuously, until it becomes fragrant. (If it burns, toss it and start this step over.) Put the toasted seeds directly into a spice grinder and pulverize. You can also use a commercial chili powder, but I opted to grind two large dried Pasilla chilies. Add the powdered cumin and chilies to the peppers and garlic and cook for one minute.
5. Combine the beef, tomatoes, broth, mustard, vinegar and beans in a Dutch oven. Add the pepper mixture and any deglazing liquid. Season with salt and pepper to taste, keeping in mind that it will reduce and intensify somewhat in the oven. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, cover, and immediately place in the oven. Cook for around 3 hours or until the meat is tender. You can also cook the chili in a pot on the stove top, simmering very gently and stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Serve with cornbread, over rice, on its own, or if you must, over linguini.