A wise dinner guest never asks what is in the chili. Instead he simply shovels it in and smiles.
That is what I did on a recent Saturday night as I sat in the home of a genial stranger who had given me a plateful of ground meat. It tasted terrific, so I didn't ask about its origins.
Years of bellying up to dinner tables have taught me that when someone else cooks -- don't be nosy.
When facing an unfamiliar food, there are all kinds of questions that I want to ask and shouldn't. Such questions as: "What is the planet of origin of the entree?"
And "Is this dish animal, vegetable or mineral?"
When meeting a new bowl of chili, especially if an outdoorsman cooked it, I have to suppress the urge to inquire if any neighborhood squirrels are missing.
Nevertheless, a career of eating other people's food has given me a pretty good idea of the proper questions a dinner guest may ask.
There are the questions of age. It is perfectly permissible to ask about the ages of wine, children and even the house -- but never the age of the host or hostess.
There are questions of numbers. You may inquire about the number of children there are in the household. You may ask how many hours the cook has slaved away preparing the meal. And you may inquire how many rooms are in the house.
But you never ask the host for a tally of calories or spouses. How many calories are in a dinner party dessert and how many times someone has been betrothed should remain two of life's delicious secrets.
Then, there are the questions about accouterments. It is acceptable, even wise, to comment on the accompanying touches -- the corn bread that travels with the chili, the vanilla that flavors a pudding, the beauty of the silver candlesticks. But it is a bad idea to ask about reality. You assume that the vanilla in the dessert, the silver in candlesticks and the hair atop the host are all real.
I remembered all these rules recently when my wife and I were invited to eat some chili whipped up by William H. Buchanan III. Buchanan was assisted by his wife, Molly, and by Livvie and Fred Rasmussen, who are Buchanan's neighbors. Fred is a colleague of mine at The Sun.
It was an enjoyable evening in part because the adults outnumbered the children. Our two kids had been stashed with a sitter, and shortly after the two Rasmussen children arrived at the Buchanan's home, they paired up with the two Buchanan children and disappeared from adult scrutiny.
Before the meal, the adults sat in the living room and discussed Baltimore neighorhoods, kids' basketball games and bomb shelters.
The architecture of an old civil defense bomb shelter in Buchanan's back yard -- built years ago by a previous owner as a defense against nuclear war -- was compared to the storm cellar built as protection against Kansas tornadoes in the backyard of my wife's childhood home. Both shelters were judged to be dark and wet. The bomb shelter was more elaborate. The storm cellar was more practical.
Then came the main event, the chili. It was a Texas-style chili -- peppers were embraced, but there was nary a bean in sight.
Buchanan said the original recipe called for 12 tablespoons of chili powder, but he had tempered this batch. It is my experience that as a recipe travels north, it loses its pepper power. The only geographical exception to this rule of diminishing Northern fire power is Michigan. For some reason, the folks in this snowy state have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for hot, peppery sauces. I guess they chug a bottle of hot sauce at lunch to keep them going in the cold weather.
Maryland, like most Mid-Atlantic states, has tepid winters and a mild tolerance for peppers.
Buchanan's chili was remarkably smooth yet full-flavored. I had several helpings.
I didn't ask for a rundown of ingredients in the chili, but after watching me joyfully polish off his creation, Buchanan allowed that the secret ingredient was a pound of deer meat.
Later, he gave me a copy of the chili recipe. It was long. It had garlic, pork loin and beer. There was no mention of deer meat anywhere in the recipe. Not even in Buchanan's handwritten notes.
So that is another reason not to ask what exactly is in a bowl of chili. If it is an exceptional bowl of chili, and the cook wants to keep it that way, he will do what clever chili cooks have done for
years. He'll lie about ingredients.