Despite her comedy act describing how terrible she was in the kitchen, Phyllis Diller was a really wonderful cook, with recipes of hers printed in books and magazines for many years. But she was really famous for her chili. It was so good, it was even put in cans and sold in grocery stores. Now, the product was not around forever — maybe just a 3 year period, starting in the late 1980s. But those who ate it remember it well.
Phyllis had a whole line of products beyond the beef chili, which was the flagship product. There was also chicken chili and chili beans. (She sent me a photo of her standing next to her product line which I should scan for you all.) This was under the label of Phyllis Diller’s Original Recipe. The original can was very nondescript, with a picture of Phyllis in a glamor pose (seen above). Obviously, this was done so customers would take the product more seriously, and she could be a contender in the market place. This concept did not seem to gel. Later, it was re-branded as Phyllis Diller’s Philli Dilli Chili, with a much more comedic tone, featuring a cartoon of Phyllis in a superhero costume as “The Crusader of Great Tasting Food.”
During this time period, there were a lot of celebrities who tried to be the next Paul Newman, with a range of products that bore their familiar names. (Of course, it was only Paul Newman that gave his money to charity.) Some of these products only lasted a few years, some made it to shelves only to disappear soon after. There was Frank Sinatra’s Sugo di Tavoli (which was pretty bad), Tommy Lasorda Spaghetti Sauce (which was very good), Chicken by George (Phyllis George, and her product was great). Phyllis was definitely jumping on this bandwagon… but at least her product was really good.
At 2:18, you can see David Letterman making fun of her chili during a skit of terrible products found in stores. Of course, the chili was nothing to sneeze at and Dave never even tasted it, but it at least got some free publicity in the process. Supermarket Finds – 1989
Phyllis had mentioned the reason why the product went bust was due to the fact that people only ate chili during certain times of the year, and did not think about it the rest of the time. That may be true for some people, but I ate it all the time. As a starving college kid, it was a tasty and affordable meal that would carry me through the day. I remember it was only available at the Von’s supermarkets here in Southern California. It pretty much vanished by 1991 from our shelves, though the product apparently limped along a few years longer.
After years of missing it, I finally wrote Phyllis to ask her the recipe, and she sent it to me lickety-split. And now I will share it with you.
This is typed out exactly as Phyllis had it, including the capitol letters here and there.
PHYLLIS DILLER CHILI
Using oil, brown 1 Lb. Ground Beef in a skillet. Add these ingredients in the order listed:
1 Med. Size Onion – chopped
10 Cloves Garlic – chopped fine
1 Green Bell Pepper – chopped
Lawry’s Season Salt
1 Lg. Can chopped tomatoes
Just before serving, add 2 cans S&W Kidney Beans (including liquid)
My take on the recipe:
Keep in mind, I used to buy her canned chili all the time, and I have a pretty good idea of how everything is supposed to turn out. That being said, it has been 20 years, so the exact quality will never be properly duplicated.
If you do it as you read it and don’t know your way around the kitchen, this recipe will make absolutely no sense to you. You will get hit with a HUGE slug of garlic that is both overwhelming and displeasing to taste. Things may be too salty or under-seasoned, and the texture will never be right. And you don’t know how long to cook it, or what temperature to use. So, I have thought it out a bit for you, and I think you will do just fine by following my method. This is hardly a complicated recipe.
Cook on medium high heat in a skillet or dutch oven. Total cooking time is around 45-60 minutes, including 30 minutes of simmering. A lot of things depend on your stove and your technique.
I suggest you first saute the garlic and onions together in extra virgin olive oil (which Phyllis used in her cooking) until they soften — this will mellow the garlic flavor substantially — and then add the peppers and cook them down until they are limp. Make sure all these ingredients are chopped fine, but not minced, as you want to be able to see them in the finished product. Remove these ingredients from the pan and keep in a bowl. Brown the beef in the same skillet, but do not drain. Then add the onion, garlic and peppers back to the skillet.
In the canned product, the ground meat was in very tiny pieces. If you want the exact texture, just break the meat up more as you brown it.
Seasoning is merely a matter of taste here, but do keep in mind that the Lawry’s should be the dominant seasoning, since you already have garlic and onion in this dish. So, heavier on the Lawry’s, lighter on the garlic and onion salt. Also, the canned bean juice that comes at the end does have salt in it, so it might not be a bad idea to add the salts after you add the bean juice, or else you might end up with something you can’t really eat.
Chili powder is an important element here, which adds depth and richness to the dish. Without it, you will have spaghetti sauce with beans in it. Again, this is all to taste, but do add at least two tablespoons of the stuff. Add more if you want it richer and spicier. Phyllis most likely used the most common brands on the market, like Gebhardt’s or McCormick. Tabasco is a must here, too, even in small amounts, otherwise you’ll end up with something “senior citizen spiced.” Again, use your best judgement here. The canned product was definitely not hot, but it also wasn’t a flat product that tasted only of Lawry’s Seasoned Salt! So, please don’t be skittish on the chili powder and Tabasco.
The chopped tomatoes will give you a fine dish, but it’s not like it was in the canned product. To replicate what you remember, use diced tomatoes (or crushed, if you don’t like the tomato texture). The overall quality of the dish should be of a stew with kidney beans floating in it, and the tomatoes shouldn’t be much larger than the kidney beans. I use a 28-ounce can of tomatoes — which is a large can, as Phyllis mentioned — and that’s just right for my money. And, speaking of kidney beans, you don’t have to use S&W, but that’s what she did. Two 16-ounce cans of any brand of kidney beans will do the trick.
Phyllis doesn’t indicate how long to cook. I would say at least 30 minutes, and longer on simmer if you like it to develop a little further. This is intended to be a “quick chili,” like the kind the girls used to favor in the old cookbooks. I would definitely encourage you to add the bean juice before simmering. This is what makes up the “gravy” for the chili, and this will help everything soften and relax. Once everything has been put into the skillet or dutch oven, you will notice that you have a lot of liquid, thanks to two cans of bean juice, plus tomatoes. Now, you can cook it down until it thickens, which may take some time, or you can thicken it with flour mixed with water. Chili purists would use masa harina to thicken, but Phyllis was an old fashioned cook and would have definitely gone for the plain flour. Just add a few spoonfuls of flour to about half a cup of water in a cup, stir until dissolved, then put in the skillet with the other ingredients.
Now, all you fans out there of Phyllis Diller’s chili, please tell me what you think of my take on it. I’m genuinely curious!