From the Homestead Kitchen: A New Series on LA’s Culinary History and Cooking

by Alexandra Rasic and Gennie Truelock

Whether we like it or not, all of us are spending more time in our kitchens these days. Being safer at home means that we are preparing more meals, scrutinizing what we have in our cupboards and freezers, and often improvising to create (what we hope will be) delicious meals and treats for ourselves and loved ones. When we get tired of reading headlines and scrolling through social media, many of us are looking for culinary inspiration online. From meals you can make using canned goods, to how to cook with kids during quarantine, you can find it all at your fingertips. And this, dear reader, is where we come in. If you love spending time in the kitchen just as much as you love history, we’re here to fill your plate! (And make bad food puns.) Are we culinary historians? No. Have we won an episode of Chopped? Heck no. Do we love to cook and bake? YES!

Over the next few weeks, and honestly, for as long as you let us know you’re interested, Homestead staff are here to share delicious, history-laden recipes and factoids for hungry and thirsty nerds everywhere. Please post a comment below to let us know what you’re most interested in seeing in your feed (entrees, side dishes, salads, baked goods, dessert, COCKTAILS, all of the above!). We can do a little bit of everything. But as with all good things, there is a catch. Because we’re super nerdy and we love our museum’s mission, we’re challenging ourselves to stay (mostly) within our interpretive period, which is 1830-1930.

So what to start with? A delicious and versatile chili recipe courtesy of our dearly departed friend, chef, and historian Ernest Miller, who we know for a fact would be urging us to find comfort and pride in preparing meals to share with loved ones that are filled with nods to LA’s rich culinary history. (You’ll hear a lot more about him in this series. He was awesome, and we miss him.) This recipe for Ptomaine Tommy’s Chili Sauce has become a favorite of many Homestead staff members and their families. You can have this chili over a bowl of beans (sacrilege for some, we know…), as part of nachos, with eggs, or as the key ingredient of an epic chiliburger or chilidog. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, and the recipe works well with plant-based products, too.

Thanks for being here with us. We look forward to growing this culinary community.

TTTT festival
Chef Ernest Miller demonstrating beer brewing at the Homestead Museum’s Ticket to the Twenties festival in 2017.

Ptomaine Tommy’s Chili Sauce
By Ernest Miller

Like tamales, chili con carne was a popular dish in early twentieth-century Los Angeles. Served from carts or hole-in-the-wall chili joints, it was an inexpensive and filling meal, served plain or over beans. Sometime in the 1920s, however, it was the genius vision of Thomas “Ptomaine Tommy” de Forest to combine his chili with a hamburger for that classic variation on the original hamburger sandwich. One of his tricks was to thicken the chili with masa and flour so that it would adhere better to the burger. Ptomaine Tommy is also why the chiliburger is sometimes called a chili “size” – based on the size of the ladle he used.

The hamburger might have its origins on the East Coast (Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, CT, is generally credited with its invention), but it is in Southern California that the hamburger achieves the status it now holds as America’s quintessential meal. Not only is the chiliburger invented in Lincoln Heights, but the cheeseburger is invented in 1926 at the Rite Spot in Pasadena.

This may not be the original Ptomaine Tommy’s recipe, but it is probably pretty close. It’s good, darn good, so you can see why Tommy was able to get away with naming his restaurant after what was thought to cause food poisoning.

• 1 pound ground beef (80/20% fat content)
• 1 raw carrot, grated
• 13 ounces beef broth
• 2 tablespoons chili powder
• ¾ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon paprika
• ½ teaspoon garlic powder
• ½ teaspoon onion powder
• ½ teaspoon black pepper
• 1 tablespoon masa flour
• 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• ⅛ teaspoon cayenne

In a large stainless steel pot or cast-iron pan over medium high heat, add beef and carrots, and begin to brown. Reduce heat, add broth and all seasonings. Mix thoroughly and bring to a simmer. Slowly add flours 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking in thoroughly as you go to prevent lumps. Once all flour is added, continue to simmer and stir over low heat until thickened, about 10 minutes. Download a PDF of this recipe here.

Chili bowl


8 thoughts

  1. I shall try it soon since I have the beet in the fridge, but I will use beer for broth and onion and chili pepper instead of carrot. Thanks for the inspiration. For another recipe from the period, what can be done with a tortilla? Tacos arrived here in the early 1900s, and burritos later, though a taco in Mexico City looked like and was called a burrito. So perhaps we can brainstorm, or research an early 20th century taco/burrito.

  2. Thanks, Jan! You set the bar high with your epic culinary skills.

  3. I’m so sad to hear about Ernest Miller’s passing! He will certainly be sorely missed. I will make his recipe in an effort to keep his memory alive. Thank you!

  4. It’s very sad, Michelle. He is missed, but you are right, making and sharing his recipes keeps his memory alive. Thanks for reading.

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