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Dan Higgins column: Chili with noodles is a casserole ... am I wrong?

2:53 PM, Oct. 11, 2013  |  Comments
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Chili made its first appearance of the season in our home last weekend, and it nearly ended a 17-year marriage.

My wife had a pot of spicy goodness simmering at a low boil on the stove as I sneaked a spoonful. Yup, good as I remember it from last fall/winter.

Her insistence at treating recipes like suggestions rather than instructions is part of the reason she excels at making meatloaf, chili and almost any casserole. There's an art to making those foods and she's got the magic touch.

However, somewhere between my tasting and the finished product, noodles were added to the mix.

Not on the side - so you could add them if you wanted - but fully incorporated.

My response was something reasonable with a respectful observation, "Um, excuse me, this is now a casserole since it has macaroni noodles."

We then engaged in a meaningful dialogue about the properties of chili, incorporating insightful observations about each other's childhood and it ended with something to the effect of "that's how my mom made it."

Of course we leveraged the collective wisdom of the Facebook universe to help settle the debate.

That went about as expected. Further inquiries via instant messaging and emails produced responses in all caps and liberal use of exclamation points.

I decided it was time to talk to the chili experts, and I defined experts as the winner and two runners up in our annual Best of the Bay soup/chili category.

Both Drift Inn and Kroll's West serve their chili with spaghetti noodles but will leave them out upon request. Drift Inn charges extra to leave the noodles out, but that's more because of cost than any bias against noodleless chili.

Chili John's has options not only for spaghetti noodles but also beans.

Debbie Damro, who has worked at Drift Inn (1535 N. Ashland Ave., De Pere) for 25 years, says most customers like their chili with the noodles. Or at least the locals, noting that out of town customers often comment about the noodles.

"I think it's a Northeastern Wisconsin thing," said Damro. "I like it with the noodles."

Over at Kroll's West (1990 S. Ridge Road, Ashwaubenon) manager Cheryl Dorner says the majority of customers order their chili with the noodles.

Chili served in the restaurant or prepared for carry out has about a quarter cup of noodles per serving but the chili they sell in frozen containers does not have the noodles in it.

Dorner says she likes the chili both ways.

Order chili at Chili John's (519 S. Military Ave.) and you make the call both on noodles and beans.

Richard Slapp, manager at the iconic diner says the options for noodles and beans started when the first restaurant was opened in 1913.

He says there are definite regional trends. Ask someone from Texas if they want noodles and you're likely to get a laugh in response. Conversely, he's noticed people from the northeast are more likely to add the noodles but pass on the beans.

He says it's about a 50-50 split on the noodle question, though when it gets colder people are more likely to add both the noodles and beans.

If you take my very unscientific research seriously, you could conclude that native Northeastern Wisconsinites lean toward noodles in their chili, putting me in the minority and worse making me wrong(ish) in the home debate.

Honey, may I have another bowl please?

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