Chili or Jelly?

January 24, 2010

Today is the big day for Diane’s fundraising chili supper to pay the taxes for Thornapple CSA. As you may have guessed, my job is clear. It’s put me in mind of an old Sir Douglas Quintet album I used to put on the turntable whenever it was time to cook chili. There was a stanza in one song that went like this:

Doug: When your house catches on fire, and there ain’t no wuh-un around…

Farfisa Organ: Whee – weet! We duh wedu wee…

Doug: Oh when your house catches on fye-ur, an’ there ain’ no one around…

Farfisa Organ: Wee duda wee duda wee duda wee duda …

Doug: Throw your chili out the window, an’ let the dadburn shack burn down.

Farfisa Organ: Coma-cow-cow yicky, coma-cow-cow, yicky-yicky-yea.

Now I’m told that the organ Augie Meyers played in the Sir Douglas Quintet was actually a Vox Continental, but who cares? Sadly and of more consequence, Doug Sahm left us in 1999 at the age of 58. And I unfortunately left that album over at Tony Smith’s house in Nissequogue back in 1979 after a particularly memorable chili party. So it’s been a long time since I cooked anything to this particular song, but hey! That’s what the neural connections that support long term memories are for.

However, what I wanted to bring up here is that this verse is quite reminiscent of a song by Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) the blues singer better known as Lead Belly. His best known songs were “Goodnight Irene” and “The Midnight Special”. He is also credited with “When I Was Cowboy”, a traditional blues number that begins with a verse “When I was a cowboy out on the western plains…” Each subsequent verse involves adventuring of some sort, often an encounter with an outlaw legend—Jesse James, Billy the Kid—and concludes with bullets flying. Each verse, that is, except the last one, which goes like this:

If your house catches afire, an’ there ain’t no water around…

When your house catches afire, an’ there ain’t no water around…

Throw your jelly out the window, and let the dog gone shack burn down.

Of course it could be a coincidence, but I can’t ignore the possibility that Sir Doug was borrowing. Yet you see the dilemma that this leaves me in. Is it jelly or is it chili? Now, while it should be easy to understand why one would throw one’s chili out the window in the case of an emergency, it may be less obvious why Leadbelly would offer the same advice concerning jelly. One commentator on a helpful blues website explains that the word “jelly” was Negro slang for one’s body, a point that might square with the fire story, but does not square at all with other blues standards, like “Jelly, jelly, jelly; that jelly stays on my mind!” (This lyric is variously attributed to Duane Allman (1973), Lonnie Johnson (1964) and Billie Eckstine (1944). Looks like Sir Doug was not the only one who carried some debt.)

I think this lascivious line clarifies Leadbelly’s priorities well enough, and since this is a family blog that’s also enough said. But what kind of shape does it leave us in? Our quandary has only become deeper. Is it jelly or is it chili? The mind swarms. One line of inquiry takes us to the classic Steve Goodman lyric “If me and B.B. King was both drownin’, which one would you choose?” a musical question answered in the next verse: “Baby, you know I love you, but I ain’t heard you play no blues.” Certainly chili must rise nearly as high as blues in the Great Chain of Being.

As a professor of food ethics, you would think that I would be better prepared for such questions. Jelly or chili? It sounds like the much parodied ethics question, “If you could save a Rembrandt painting or an old woman, which one would you choose?” And like the proverbial philosophy professor, I’m still at a loss. I’m not even much inclined to fall back on the idea that I’ve done my job just by posing the dilemma.

Hopefully we will not have to choose tonight.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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