Photoplay Cookbook: Victor McLaglen’s “Chili Con Carne”

Welcome back! I am cooking my way through the 1929 Photoplay cookbook (recipes of the stars!) and you are invited to tag along. (I have listed all the recipes I have tested on this dedicated page. Check back often.) Today, we will be testing a recipe from another star whose silent work was completely overshadowed by sound stardom.

Victor McLaglen was a popular and winning character actor who charmed us in classics like Gunga Din but he got his start in the early 1920s. During his stint in the silents, McLaglen played opposite major stars like Lon Chaney (The Unholy Three) and Ronald Colman (Beau Geste).

McLaglen was one of the biggest winners of the sound transition. His voice perfectly suited his look and his affable manner won audiences over easily. His work with director John Ford kept his lovable lunk persona in the public eye but he also worked with directors like George Stevens, Frank Lloyd, Lewis Milestone and Raoul Walsh.

The Unholy Three.
The Unholy Three.

Famous for his masculine performances, McLaglen made the bold decision to wade into the great chili debate. You see, what goes into the pot is a highly controversial topic in these parts. The two biggest debatable ingredients are beans and tomatoes. Some cooks say they have never had any business in chili, others consider them essential. However, there are dozens of other ingredients that will start arguments. What kind of peppers? Do you thicken it? Do you add chocolate or coffee or soy sauce or anchovies?

Here is McLaglen’s original recipe:


As you can see, there are… issues with this recipe. A cup of flour. A cup. Now some chili recipes do call for thickeners but these are generally measured by the spoonful, not the cup. Oh dear.

(I also find it interesting that this is listed as a Spanish recipe as my understanding is that it was invented in Texas by Mexican-Americans. The entire Photoplay cookbook has similar cultural substitutions. I put it down to classicism of the period.)

I’m not going to lie. This recipe scared the living daylights out of me. I knew it was going to be awful and there was little hope for redemption. Because, you know, a cup of flour. Anyway, I tried to be a good sport. I studiously followed the recipe to the letter, no substitutions. I even dug chili powder out of the cupboard.

The results were… well, let’s just say that I will not be winning any awards for food presentation.

It never looked promising...
It never looked promising…
A closer look. You're welcome.
A closer look. You’re welcome.

I know what you’re thinking, you sick little monkeys. You want to see someone actually eating this revolting substance. Okay, here you go.

Here is my taste test video:

My rating: 1 out of 5. This is so nasty! Simply put, it looks exactly how it tastes. The chili powder did not provide enough flavor and so the predominate taste was… watery flour. The chunks of onion and meat just made things worse as they gave the chili a rather vomit-like texture. (I am trying to put this nicely but everything about this recipe reminds me of one bodily excretion or another.)

Normally, I am able to finish most anything that is put before me but I could not get even a whole spoonful of this down. It kept trying to come back up. Of course, considering the texture and flavor, that may have been an improvement.

Mr. McLaglen, I loved you in Gunga Din but leave the chili to the Texans. In fact, I dare say that the three most terrifying words he could ever say are, “I made chili.”

Can it be improved? No! This is too disgusting for words. It cannot be redeemed.

Eat this instead: Just type “chili recipe” into your browser and cook the first one that comes up. I promise that it will taste better than this slop.

(Oh, and on the chili debate, I am hardly a purist. I like both tomatoes and beans but I prefer not to use thickeners.)