The hot dog chili was one of our family obsessions.
Not just any hot dog chili. This was a very specific chili, spooned on hot dogs at a drive-in in Wilson, N.C., in the early 1960s.
The drive-in was owned by a woman named Mabel. By coincidence, she also lived in the house right behind ours in Eastern N.C. Her daughters roughly matched my sister, my brother and me in ages.
As much as we liked Mabel, what we loved was Mabel's hot dog chili. It was softer than other chilis and meatier, with red juice - OK, grease - that kind of oozed out and soaked into the soft, steamed buns.
You want to know what kind of impression that chili could make? I'm describing a memory from when I was maybe 5. It was so good, even a 5-year-old could get that it was special.
I have to stick with that distant memory because Mabel closed the drive-in not long after that. It would have been around 1964. Mabel was a widow, and she remarried. The drive-in was sold, and a couple of years later, the family moved.
Mabel and her hot dog chili were lost to us.
But in our food-obsessed family, it took on the patina of legend. Even after we moved ourselves, to Florida in the late 1960s, Mabel's chili dogs stayed the gold standard by which all hot dogs were judged: Almost Mabel's. Not as good as Mabel's.
Being a food writer, I've learned a little about chili. Not enough to challenge a Texan to a debate, maybe, but enough to hold my own. For years, I couldn't figure out the trick of Mabel's chili. Chili recipes almost always work like this: Take some meat. Brown it. Stir in other stuff. Add beans if you believe in them. Cook it until it's chili.
What you get is the kind of chili you put in a bowl and eat on a winter night, piled with cheese and onions.
It's not the hot dog chili. It may be meaty, and it may even gently ooze red grease, but it's definitely not soft.
When I came back to North Carolina as an adult, settling in Charlotte in 1985, I made a few visits to Eastern N.C. It didn't occur to me to eat hot dogs, though. I was too busy relearning my way around barbecue. Besides, I thought Mabel's hot dog chili was something only Mabel had known how to make. Mabel was gone, so the chili was gone.
That's what I thought right up until the day when I was leafing through a cookbook, "Desperation Entertaining" by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross. At the time, they both lived in Raleigh. And I spotted something:
Carolina Chili Dogs. Wait, there is such a thing?
I read the recipe, which called for a chili method that sounded too crazy to work. Instead of browning the ground beef, you stewed it in water, with a bunch of seasonings.
Instinctively, I knew what I was looking at. This was Mabel's secret, the trick behind the texture of that long-ago chili. Mabel, as wonderful as she was, was really just making a traditional Eastern N.C. hot dog. Cooking the meat in water keeps the chili soft, with a texture that doesn't detract from the hot dog.
Just to be sure, I showed the recipe to my older sister, whose memories of those days in Wilson are clearer than mine.
Yep, she agreed. You don't get many eureka moments in life, but we had one. We had found Mabel.
Today, I've had some truly great Carolina hot dogs. I've been to Ward's in Whiteville, N.C., where you have to get in line early on Saturdays because they sell out minutes after noon. I've been to Green's in Charlotte, N.C., the Trolly Stop in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., JayBee's in Statesville, N.C., and both the Roast Grill and the Char Grill in Raleigh. I know about Pulliam's in Winston-Salem, N.C., and I hear that Wilson still has both Dick's and the Creamery.
There is even a canned hot dog chili, Patterson's, that many of my Tar Heel friends declare is the real thing.
I know about red dogs, steamed buns and the supreme role of cole slaw. Best of all, I know how to make Mabel's hot dog chili. It took a little tinkering - you can't use really lean ground beef if you want the proper red juiciness. But I keep a stash of small bags of it in the freezer.
Mabel, wherever you are: Thanks. The Purvis family never forgot you.