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Betsy Block


Dear Old Friends

Dear Old Friends

Many moons ago, Charlie and Nell shocked BD when they announced their engagement early one morning (I believe Nell was actually still a teenager); BD and I managed to surprise them back when we started dating after all of us had lived as roommates for half a year.

Charlie always said he wanted a big family, so when he and Nell had a son just after they'd moved to New Jersey 15 years ago, we figured the party train had left the station. Unfortunately, though, while they were only a few hours away, the move was enough to cause us to lose touch. After six years had passed since the birth of their son with no further news, we figured they'd decided to have just one child.

Little did we know.

Because one day, out of the blue, years after we'd last seen them, we received a birth announcement. Not only were we surprised they still had our address, we also couldn't believe that after all those years they'd finally gone and had a second child. Two kids wasn't as big a family as Charlie had always wanted, but it was more than we'd expected. Embarrassingly, we were so busy and overwhelmed by our own lives that we never responded to that announcement - in fact, we might even have bought them a baby gift but if we did, it never got sent. And then our troubles started mounting because soon enough, we got another birth announcement. Before much time had passed we got another. And then - one more.

By this point, we felt total and utter shame, not to mention disbelief. Five kids? My gosh, we wanted to say, please stop having children, if not for your sake, then at least for ours. Because after you've failed to respond to a birth announcement, then two, then three, you really know that you don't deserve to be the recipient of such wonderful (and honestly, surprising) news. By the time Charlie and Nell's fifth child arrived, we had totally given up - on ourselves as good friends.

And then Nellie found me on the Web. I was absolutely thrilled to hear from her - these are some of our favorite people ever - but I also couldn't help feeling more than a little sheepish. What kind of people don't respond to four birth announcements from dear old friends?

Soon after we reconnected via e-mail, Charlie and Nell came to the Boston area for a visit and, despite our decade of bad behavior, agreed to stop by for the afternoon with their kids, ages 2 to 15. Despite the - you know, five kids - Charlie and Nell looked the same as they had the last time we'd seen them a decade earlier, and they acted the same, and it was as if no time had passed at all  (that is, if just for a second, you "forgot" about the seven kids careening around the house). Within five minutes of their arrival, it felt as though we'd never lost touch. They were the same warm, loving people they'd always been, which is obviously a huge testament to their grace and goodness, because if I had old friends who'd failed to acknowledge four of our five kids (perish the thought), I'm not sure I'd have been quite as friendly. We're keeping our fingers crossed that there are no more birth announcements, because the next time might be the last for us, and now that we've found them again, we really can't let them go.

BD, who grew up in Cincinnati, used to make big pots of this chili in the junky Boston apartment we all used to share. Nellie makes it for her clan, only she's a vegetarian so she uses chickpeas instead of meat and she says it's great.

Cincinnati Chili

Years ago, an acquaintance sent my mom-in-law a handwritten recipe, now yellowed and fading, that is simply titled Empress Chili. Is this truly the secret recipe for the chili that started the ball rolling back in 1922? Only a select few could ever answer that question, and they're not talking. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of recipes out there that people claim are the original, or at least the best. Some use tomato sauce, some use paste; some use Worcestershire sauce, some don't; some even use a little bit of chocolate. Here's the one we've been using for years. If you don't like heat, cut out the cayenne and go easy on the chili powder.

2 pounds ground beef
1 quart water
1  teaspoon allspice
1 garlic clove
2 bay leaves
2 diced onions
dash Worcestershire
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 tablespoon salt
teaspoon cayenne
1  teaspoons black pepper
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon vinegar

Crumble meat in water and add all the other ingredients. Simmer at least one hour, or for as long as three hours, until you've achieved a nice, thick sauce. Remove the garlic and bay leaves.

For authentic Cincinnati-style chili, ladle a spoonful over a bowl of spaghetti and pile on a mess of mild orange cheddar. For a four-way, add kidney beans or diced onions; for a five-way, add both. Serve with oyster crackers and Tabasco sauce on the side. BD insists I also mention what I consider a culinary debacle, the Coney Island, which is all of the above served not over spaghetti, but a hot dog. Urp.