The Time Capsule | Roy Marshall


Most everyone has something to say about chili, and this is the time of year they share. 

One autumn, the Podolak kids, Betty and Ed, told me the story that went with their mother’s secret recipe – the one she sold to Hy-Vee for enough to lay new linoleum on her kitchen floor. Ed didn’t know if Hy-Vee profited, but his mom thought she’d cut a whale of a deal. 

No chili was too hot for Jim Zabel – unless he had to pay for it. He remembered being given some at halftime while broadcasting a game in Red Oak in the 1950s. 

Hayden Fry boasted that where he came from the armadillo was added while it was still alive. Hayden was a Texan who relocated to Iowa. 

My go-to chili guy, the one I believe knows as much about the subject as anyone, was born in Iowa and relocated to Texas. Alexander Powers, an architect, now lives in a suburb of Ft. Worth. He studied to become a chef, and I suspect he sometimes regrets not pursuing that career. 

He continues to study the subject and is undeniably a food snob. We became acquainted while I was doing a couple of months at Offutt Air Base, met again several years later at a conference in D.C., and we correspond regularly. He was a consultant for the not-quite-best-selling book, “Southwest Iowa’s Greatest Recipes.” 

Powers believes the original chili was made by chuck wagon cooks during trail drive years. They used available ingredients: dry peppers and seasonings brought with them, plus beef and things found along the way – wild onions and garlic, perhaps some of the marble-sized tomatoes brought by Spaniards that may be still possible to find growing where the old trails once were. 

Beans were a staple, so why not in the chili? Powers believes they were included – while the beef was fresh. Without refrigeration, this wasn’t long. As meat became rancid, more hot peppers were added to mask the taste. Better, at that point, to have beans on the side so when the chili went completely bad there’d still be something to eat. 

Powers insists that concoctions straying far beyond the original ingredients are soup or stew and should never be judged as chili. 

He collects the authentic recipes. One of his favorites is attributed to Mathew “Bones” Hook (1867-1951), a black cowboy and bronc-buster. Hook got his start at the age of nine when he was hired as a chuck wagon cook. He learned to juice his chili into an eye-popping cowboy favorite. 

A religious man noted for his prayers, a reporter is said to have written down this one: 

Good Lord, you know us old cowhands is forgetful. Sometimes I can’t even recollect what happened yesterday. We is forgetful. We just know daylight from dark, winter, summer, spring and fall. But I sure hope I never forget to thank you before we eat a mess of good chili. We don’t know why, in your wisdom, you been so doggone good to us. The Chinese don’t have no chili, never. The Frenchmen is left out. The Russians don’t know no more about chili than a hog knows about a sidesaddle. Even the Mexicans don’t get a whiff of good chili unless they live around here. Chili eaters is some of your chosen people, Lord. We don’t know why you’ve been so doggone good to us. But, Good Lord, don’t think we ain’t grateful for this chili we are about to eat. Amen.

Would Hook’s chili be a hit at the Express’ annual chili cook-off? Not a chance in the world, according to Powers. Last year he made a batch, following Hook’s method to the letter, and entered it in a contest in Denton, Texas. Not only did the judges gasp and set it aside, among those they rated higher was something made with chicken breast and macaroni. That this could happen in Texas is a measure of how far civilization has fallen. 

There are usually a few adventures, and always good eating, at the Express’ annual charity chili cook-off. The date this year is Oct. 21. If there’s a potential contestant with enough anchos to enter the genuine article, and judges with the nachos to taste it, I’ll give ‘em Bones’ recipe. 


Roy Marshall is a local historian and columnist for the Red Oak Express. He can be contacted at

The Red Oak Express

2012 Commerce Drive
P.O. Box 377
Red Oak, IA 51566
Phone: 712-623-2566 Fax: 712-623-2568

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