Mike's Chili & Cheese

I stand alone nine floors up staring down at a faint wine smear on the sidewalk— to the exact spot where Mike jumped— my eyes salt and my tongue bitterly dry as I try to mouth the word ‘why?’.

Why didn’t Mike want help?

The news reported that Mike dove. A witness observed that his head exploded like chili and cheese.

Ironic. For the briefest moment I smile.

“Black been chili…” I choke on the words.

I grin again as a tear slips in the wind and I remember once grilling Mike. “How can you make chili without tomato sauce? ”

“I use red wine.” Mike answered.

“Isn’t that bitter?” I watched him cook.

“No.” Mike tossed cumin, dried hot peppers, and cilantro into a cast iron skillet over high heat. “The cooking boils off the alcohol. I guess the bitter goes too.”

As the skillet heated, Mike described ‘umami’. “In the western world we have our four flavors: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter, but in eastern cuisine, they count a fifth flavor called umami, which is an enhanced flavor— or what in our language might most nearly be described as a savory. A savory is something complex and mouth watering. In my chili, I use the fermented red wine that…”

“Jesus Mike!” I gagged. My eyes suddenly burned and I could hardly breath. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Roasting spices.”

“What the hell does that do— besides kill off friends and family and knock down anyone within a hundred feet?”

“Roasting alters the character of the spices. The flavors mellow and marry. It also builds a complex savory sensation like the cooked wine.”

As the spices reached smoking temperature, Mike threw in minced garlic. The garlic hissed and another pungent blast of flavor spanked the air.

“Of course the garlic sweetens as it heats. The secret here is that the mingling and merging of the flavors creates a heavier, more complex molecule. The scientific name for the heavy flavor molecules is ‘glutamates’.”

Mike flipped the garlic and spice mixture in the pan.

“I don’t use chili powder.” Mike announced proudly. “Just cumin.”

Mike waited until the concoction just started to smoke, then he slid the skillet back and replaced it with a large pot.

“Hey, wanna get a quick buzz?” Mike pulled the cork out of a two-liter Shiraz and held it high like he was ready to shoot. “Come ‘ere and stand by the stove.” When the pot got hot, Mike shocked the bottom with a blast of red wine.

I coughed as the steam billowed up. Mike’s face plunged into the rising cloud. He breathed deeply the evaporating alcohol.”

I fell back five steps. “Geez, yer fuckin’ weird, Mike!”

“Where’s the beef?” I asked. “Or does your recipe call for some sort of road-kill instead?”

“No beef. Too bland!”

Mike unwrapped a package from the Mexican market and held the contents up like a prize. “Spicy chorizo!” He proclaimed. He danced around the kitchen with pork sausage like it was some sort of luscious babe, then dropped it in the hot pot where it sizzled and spit. The meat browned quickly. Adding the roasted spices sucked up the sweat.

A mixture of meat and spices coagulated. Mike splashed in a little more Shiraz to deglaze the pot, and as the steam rose, his face fell to meet it. After a lofty moment, Mike unceremoniously dumped in the rest of the wine.

Mike reached for his cutting board. I jumped to my feet concerned he was about to ask me for help and left the room. A while later chopping ceased and I returned to see what he was doing.

“What’s floating green and yellow?”

“With the ‘shrooms? Yellow squash and zucchini. Purple is eggplant.”

“In chili?” I asked. “Eggplant in Chili?? What friggin’ fuckin’ planet are you from? I see large chunks of green pepper— at least those are normal! Want your onions tossed in?”

“No! Onions are last. I want them snappy and sweet— after everything else simmers. Put the corn in…”

“Corn too?”

“Yeah. The corn is also sweet. I could add a little sugar or Splenda, but I like the crunch of corn! Don’t you?”

“Your chili is weird— like you, Mike”

I waited. I stood around trying to think of something else to say. Finally I went and watched television.

Later, Mike proudly brought me a bowl. “Here! Try it!”

I sipped cautiously. “Mmmm, Mike! Man! Not sure this is chili, but whatever it is— this black bean blaster something or other— is the best stuff ever!!”

“Wait! Drop some of this on top.” Mike opened a ziplock and showed me the contents.

I recoiled. “What is it?”

“Crumbled Feta— instead of salt.”

“Scared me to death! Looks like hog brains or something…”

I reach into my pocket for a pouch belonging to Mike. Mike only smoked that ‘Native American’ tobacco. It was his heritage I guess.

From the place where Mike left this world, I offer a pinch of the tobacco to each of the four winds. I know it isn’t much of a funeral, but if Mike’s looking down perhaps he would dig the gesture. I ask the four winds to carry Mike along on his journey and take him where he will know peace.

I lean and pour the remainder of the tobacco from the edge and watch it flutter and float down toward the wine stain. A soft parade carries an updraft of bitter-sweet dust back in my face. It burns my already moistened eyes.

In the wind I imagine the sound of Mike’s voice calling.

I sneeze and nearly join him.

Mike's Chili & Cheese

Bob Fox

Ypsilanti, United States

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