RETURN WITH me to an earlier, less sophisticated period in Washington's culinary history; a time when a bowl of chili never appeared at a Georgetown dinner party, nor even at a chic picnic; when no one said "pasta" and, in reality, there was only one pasta and it was called spaghetti. Come back into the atmosphere and smells of Hazel's Texas Chili Parlor. Even though Hazel and her restaurant have been gone for a decade or more, the other evening I walked into a home in Alexandria and found myself in a living room dressed up like a small-town restaurant where I was served a remarkably accurate recreation of Hazel's masterpiece, the "chili Mac."
The magician who set the scene and produced the food is a man named Fred Parker. By day, Parker, a talented graphic artist, toils at the National Gallery of Art. By night, twice a month or so, he treats friends and invited guests to home-cooked chili dinners. So favorable has been the response to meals at the "East Windsor Arms" (Parker lives on East Windsor Street) that he is going public. Next week he and two partners will open a chili parlor, the Hard Times Cafe, at 1404 King St. in Alexandria. It won't be large and it won't be fancy (and it won't be expensive). There will be Texas chili and maybe Cincinnati chili and beer to wash it down with and country music on the juke box.
No one can tell how this venture will turn out, least of all Parker, who is a novice in the restaurant business. But if sincerity and purity of motive count for anything, he has a leg-up before the doors open. He has staked his house, if not his job, on the venture and the tale of how the Hard Times Cafe' came to be should attract those who would someday give substance to a vision, as well as those who remember Hazel's.
Parker became a Hazelnut in the late 1960s when Hazel Calloway was on her own, cooking at 10th Street and New York Avenue NW. (From the '40s to the early '60s there had been an earlier restaurant, in the 1900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, known as the Texas Chili Parlor. It was a local curiosity because Hazel and her partner, Barbara Abbott, had a feud. Each ran the restaurant -- with her own equipment and staff -- on alternate weeks. Hazel went on her own when she moved to moved to New York Avenue.)
"I went there when I wanted to be alone," Parker recalled. "I would take a book and sit there by the hour. They had some funny rules, I remember you couldn't order half a Chili Mac unless you had ordered a full one first. The neighborhood wasn't the greatest. They didn't serve alcohol or beer, but the winos came in anyway and it seemed like something was always happening. Hazel's husband, Burt, kept a piece of rubber hose behind the counter and sometimes he had to use it.
"Burt tried to keep going in another location after Hazel died. I decided to go down one time. It was closed up and that was it."
The raison d'etre of Hazel's was, naturally, chili. You could buy it in a bowl, meat only or with beans or atop a hot dog. Most regulars opted for the Chili Mac, however. Casual conversations with Hazel and her husband had given Parker a good idea of what went into the dish.
Order it "all the way" and you would receive an oval platter. On the platter would be a pile of spaghetti. ("She put it back in the pot to get it kind of rubbery," Parker said nostalgically. "There was no al dente pasta at Hazel's.") Next came a scattering of cooked beans, California pinks, according to Parker. Then the chili. "It was more spicy than hot," Parker said, "and the meat was ground -- coarse, not fine, but that probably won't matter to a cubed-meat man.
"You could have it dry, medium or wet, which had to do with the amount of grease she ladled on. She never called it grease, though; sauce, maybe. Ten years ago I could eat it wet. Now I've backed down to medium. You topped this with cheese. Hazel used parmesan." Chopped onion topped off the creation, though each diner was meant to add hot pepper flakes from a shaker or pepper vinegar to taste.
The stamp of authenticity was the orange-colored pool of "sauce" that remained on the platter when the portion finished. "In the winter you had to eat it fast," Parker said. "That stuff congealed."
Parker himself is a tall, bearded, soft-spoken man given to wearing blue jeans. Although he spent his boyhood here, he studied in Arizona and "played cowboy" for a summer several years ago. His affection for things country, Western or down home extends beyond food to music. One hobby is playing the spoons in a band with several fellow artists. Another is collecting artifacts that range from juke boxes and a Coca-Cola machine (the 1951 Wurlitzer model works and you can still buy a coke for a dime at his home) to restaurant furnishings.
His kitchen contains a butcher block once used in the old Lafayette Hotel on 16th Street, plus a collection of restaurant-size pots and pans. The front room is the real eye-catcher, however. There are four square tables, covered with white cloths on which sit vinegar bottles and salt and pepper shakers. Vintage water glasses, bowls, coffee cups, round plates and oval platters are visible on the open shelves of a sideboard. Water pitchers, a pair of ash trays on tall columns, an old radio and a nonfunctioning 1939 juke box line the fringes of the dining area. Over a fireplace, inside a picture frame, hangs a menu board for The East Windsor Arms Dining Room.
This memorial to Hazel and her parlor wasn't created overnight, but the inspiration came from a single evening.
"About two years ago," Parker explained, "I had told a new artist at the Gallery about Hazel and Chili Macs. He was interested, so I took him to the Keyhole Inn in Arlington (one of the few eating places in the area that prepares it). I heard someone at another table order it 'all the way, wet,' so I walked over and asked if he had gone to Hazel's. He said yes, so we moved over and told Hazel stories 'til closing. There were all kinds of coincidences, people we knew in common and so on. It was a magic night and I felt the ghost or spirit of Hazel was there. So when I got home, I decided to convert my front room into a chili parlor and open it up from time to time for Hazel freaks and converts."
So he did. He would make the chili in quantity over a couple of days to get it just right, then have a group of eight or so in to eat it. Now, with the Hard Times Cafe to occupy him, if the public responds as enthusiastically as his friends have, there may be time no longer for Parker to keep up The East Windsor Arms as a living memorial. But there is always some lingering doubt and Parker's centers on chili purists, who have multiplied dangerously and speak in a cacophonous bellow these days.
"I've never gone to Texas to check this chili out," he explained. "It's Hazel's style. I'm sure I have that down, but if it's not authentic she can take the rap."
"But wasn't Hazel from Texas?" he was asked.
"You know," said Fred Parker, "I never thought to ask her."