New Year, Same Chili: A Comforting Family Tradition

December 28, 2020 Updated: December 29, 2020

Growing up, it was never an option for my siblings and me to miss New Year’s at home—nor did we want to. My parents, who have a house on a ski resort, loved to invite friends up to spend the holiday with us. We’d spend the afternoon on the slopes, soaking up the fresh air and the small amount of sunshine the Allegheny Mountains receive in December.

Finally, after the sun had set and we’d all gotten a little tired and hungry, we’d hoist our skis onto our shoulders and trudge up the seemingly endless hill to my parents’ house, where we knew a warm fire and a night of fun games awaited us—as well as my mother’s New Year’s Eve Chili.

My mom has been making New Year’s Eve Chili for as long as I can remember. Made with a mix of ground beef and bison, barbecue sauce, and chili powder, and served with sour cream and cheese, it’s warm, comforting, and just spicy enough. The recipe changes just a little every time, so that as hard as I’ve pressed her, I’ve never been able to make it quite like she does.

Now that my siblings and I are all married and having children of our own, the New Year’s Eve party has become less of a friends’ gathering and more a giant family reunion—our family’s most anticipated annual event. We ski, play games, reflect on the year we’ve had. And always, my mom makes chili.

She puts all the ingredients in the crockpot the morning of New Year’s Eve, as her children and grandchildren rush around the house, searching for hand warmers, missing gloves, a pair of kids’ snow pants that have gone missing overnight.

While the rest of us—small children included—head out to the slopes, my mom gets out paper plates and party hats, and decorates the house with streamers and a big gold “Happy New Year!” sign.

When we arrive back home in the late afternoon, at least one of us carrying a toddler tired out from perfecting his or her pizza wedge form on the ski hill, my mom has beers ready for us and hot chocolate for the children. I can smell her chili the moment I enter the house.

My mom is usually a strong proponent of eating at (and only at) the table. Her New Year’s Eve Chili is the one exception. Served as a rolling dinner, since we come back for seconds or thirds, we take our bowls and eat wherever we can find a seat: at the island, next to the fire, on the stairs. My brother inevitably finds the remote for the music, and my daughters, nieces, and nephew immediately begin asking for a dance party before bed.

We spend the rest of the evening playing games, sharing the highs and lows of the last 12 months, until it’s time to go outside and watch the fireworks. We have champagne and toast to another year.

This routine doesn’t change from year to year. My husband, who attended his first New Year’s Eve Party nearly 13 years ago, is the longest-running “guest.” Someone asked me once if it gets boring, doing the same thing year after year. My response was an emphatic no. There’s something immensely comforting about going into a new year with the people who are most familiar to you.

I think my mom feels the same way, and that’s why she makes her chili every New Year’s Eve. It’s hearty enough for the cold months ahead, familiar enough to remind us we have a place to belong, and just spicy enough to feel like the upcoming year will contain some new excitement.

2020 has been a long year for all of us. I began craving my mom’s New Year’s Eve Chili in April. Our New Year’s gathering is going to look different than it normally does, with not all my siblings and their families in attendance. But I keep thinking that as long as I can get to my mom’s table and have a bowl of that chili, I’ll be reminded that the things that really matter are still there, and that in the long run, we’re all going to be OK.

New Year’s Eve Chili

My mom’s recipe seems to change a little bit every time she gives it to me—I think it’s so I can never make it quite like she does. I went through several “New Year’s Eve Chili” recipes she’s passed onto me over the years, smoothing over the inconsistencies. This one tastes the most similar to the one I’ve had at her house on New Year’s Eve.

Serves 6 to 8

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 3 large carrots, diced
  • 2 sticks celery, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef (lean; at least 90 percent)
  • 1 pound ground bison
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups barbecue sauce
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 3 (14-ounce) cans kidney beans
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Sour cream and shredded cheese, to serve

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, and celery and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the ground beef and bison to the pot. Cook until brown, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes.

Add the chili powder, sugar, and cumin. Stir in the tomatoes (you can use more if you like a thinner consistency, less if you like it thicker). Add barbecue sauce and wine, along with the kidney beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Bring to a boil and let simmer on low for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally. (You can also put this in the slow cooker on low and let it simmer all day.)

Enjoy with sour cream and shredded cheese, preferably by a warm fire.

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com