Hazel Calloway’s chili parlor didn’t serve beer or wine or anything stronger than a soft drink, but that never seemed to stop drunks from pouring into the place, late at night, looking for one more round to stave off the darkness. Fred Parker still remembers when he took a date to the restaurant, and a bleary-eyed man stumbled in and promptly went ballistic when he learned that there was not a drop of alcohol for sale.
Calloway’s husband, Bert, wasn’t one to suffer fools or drunks (or drunken fools). It came with the territory in the District, circa the late 1960s. Their shop was located in a seedy section of town, around 10th Street and New York Avenue NW, next to the bus station. Kindness was considered a weakness here, and the tattooed Bert showed none to the inebriated stranger. Bert pulled out a length of rubber hose from behind the counter and promptly whipped the drunk. Parker remembers the poor guy crawling out of the place on his hands and knees.
It was the kind of urban lawlessness that no doubt appealed to Parker, a local boy who grew up studying the iconic poses and pistol-based politics of Roy Rogers and B-movie Westerns. Parker always wanted to be a cowboy himself, and Calloway’s joint was about as close to the Wild West as he could get in D.C. The chili parlor’s ambience certainly was Old West austere. A counter, a green neon cactus in the window, and Hank Williams on the jukebox. It stayed open ’til 3 a.m. and, as such, attracted a colorful crowd. Musicians, newspaper men, cops just off the beat. Even the name was right: Hazel’s Texas Chili Parlor.
“I just feel in love with the place, with the rough atmosphere,” says Parker, 68, sitting on a weathered wooden bench at the original Hard Times Café in Alexandria, the place he and his partners built in 1980 as an homage to Hazel’s. Parker’s would-be girlfriend, however, wasn’t so taken with Hazel’s. “I don’t think we went out again,” he says.
The signature dish at Hazel’s was as rugged and unrefined as the shop itself. Texas chili mac was a concoction that appeared to draw inspiration from different locales. As its name indicated, the dish had Texas aspirations. The chili itself was bean-less, tomato-less, and brimming with beef, a true cowboy stew. But the chili was ladled over thick strands of soft, overcooked spaghetti, Cincinnati-style in preparation if not in flavor. A separate helping of California pink beans was spooned onto the dish, which was then topped with chopped onions, shavings of Parmesan cheese, and, if desired, a chili vinegar sauce.
But to fully experience Hazel’s chili mac, diners would order it “all the way wet,” a phrase not for the prudish of language or diet. The phrase was a signal to the counterman that you wanted your Texas chili mac with an extra helping of grease poured over the top. The orange slick left on your plate when finished was, in its own way, a sign of allegiance to Hazel’s and its greasy ways.
Fred Parker serves a Texas chili mac at Hard Times, and he thinks it’s very similar to the one Calloway served for decades at her restaurant and, before that, at the historic Texas Chili Parlor in the 1900 block of Pennsylvania. Many might like to deny this, but Hard Times’ plate of unpretentious Texas chili mac is one of D.C.’s iconic dishes. Call it blue collar. Call it unsophisticated. Call it greasy. But few dishes anywhere in the area can claim its long history and, when prepared right, its deep savory satisfaction.
Hazel Calloway and Barbara Abbott were a pair of waitresses at the old Texas Chili Parlor on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, which opened for business around 1930. (It was located at either 1920 or 1926 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; both addresses have been subsumed by the gleaming International Monetary Fund building.) In 1944, Calloway and Abbott bought the business together. Two years later, the new owners couldn’t stand the sight of each other.
A February 1962 article in the Washington Post laid out the details of the feud. “[T]he two owners of the little restaurant…have found the formula for getting along in business: stay out of each other’s way. So Barbara Abbott runs the place for a while, then clears out and lets Hazel Calloway take over.”
“Months go by without so much as a telephone conversation. Years go by without an eye-to-eye chat,” staff writer Rasa Gustaitis reported. “The two ladies have separate help, separate equipment, different hours. And—some very partisan customers maintain—their chili is different too.”
There’s considerable dispute about that last reported fact. The former waitresses, after all, not only bought the business, they bought its chili recipe, too. Even Barbara Abbott contradicted herself on the subject. In 1962, she told the Post, “I don’t know about that. It’s supposed to be made from the same recipe. But I never taste hers and she never tastes mine.”
But more than 20 years later, when Fred Parker tracked down Abbott in Luray, Va., where she had retired, the still-proud chili queen finally offered an opinion about her former partner’s product. “Barbara suggested,” Parker recalls, “that Hazel’s chili was shit on a stick.” Parker is fairly certain he tried both bowls himself and says, “I don’t remember them as any different.”
Nonetheless, Parker’s sentiments were always with Calloway. His favoritism had less to do with her chili, it seems, than with the spirit of Calloway’s place on New York Avenue, which she established around 1966 when the partners finally went their separate ways. Besides, Parker arrived too late on the Texas Chili Parlor scene to pick sides in the epic feud, although he was always curious as to its underlying cause. The public record offers no evidence.
So when Parker met Abbott in 1985, he asked her about the feud, too, and the woman, long retired from the chili business, finally spilled the beans. Parker has somehow been holding the secret for 25 years. “Hazel was a gambling addict,” he shares. Calloway was apparently stealing from the jukebox, the cigarette machine, even the register. Separate operations were the only solution.
Hazel Calloway, of course, is not around to defend herself. She died in July 1971 at the age of 59. Her death warranted only three paragraphs in the Post: It reported that she died of a “heart ailment yesterday at Prince George’s General Hospital.” The obit also noted that she was survived by her husband, Bert.
Parker never knew Bert’s last name, but the obit pegged him as Bert Bryner. Like his wife, Bryner lives only in memory. He died sometime in the early 1990s. But his son, Bert W. Bryner, lives not too far from a Hard Times Café in Waldorf. He wasn’t very close to his father, nor to his father’s second wife, Hazel. “I know my father liked to gamble,” the 70-year-old son says. “That might be an indication of [Hazel’s] gambling thing.”
Hazel Calloway and Bert Bryner, it would seem, were the perfect couple in more ways than one. During her lifetime, Calloway was known for peddling her chili recipe to anyone with the right amount of cash, but Parker believes it was essentially a con. “She would sell it,” Parker says, “but would leave out something.”
Many years later, after Calloway’s death and shortly after Parker had opened Hard Times in Alexandria, Bryner made a similar offer to the new chili parlor operators. “He wanted to sell us the recipe,” Parker says. “He wanted $1,200 for it.” Parker turned him down.
Parker felt no need to shell out that kind of cash when he already had a close approximation of Calloway’s original recipe. Parker’s version took years of sleuthing and testing to perfect.
His first investigations into Calloway’s secrets were innocent enough. In the ’60s, Parker used to enjoy taking a book to Hazel’s, sitting at the counter, and passing time with the proprietor. Over the years he learned a few things about Calloway’s chili: her preferred chilies (powdered, not fresh), her cooking method (preparing the stew the night before, chilling it, then reheating it the next day), the beans used in her preparation (California pinks), and her ultimate secret (suet as flavoring agent).
Jim Matthews, a jazz drummer who introduced Parker to Hazel’s, then went a step further. Matthews engineered a chili recipe that “we thought was pretty close” to Calloway’s original, Parker says. It was good enough, in fact, that for years Parker served it out of his Alexandria house, where he had created a makeshift version of Hazel’s Texas Chili Parlor right in his living room. Parker, a former graphic artist at the National Gallery of Art, set up four tables and covered them with white cloths. Vinegar bottles and salt and pepper shakers sat on each table. A 1939 jukebox and a vintage radio completed the effect.
It was here in a space “dressed up like a small-town restaurant,” wrote the Post’s food editor, William Rice, in a July 1980 preview of Hard Times, “where I was served a remarkably accurate recreation of Hazel’s masterpiece, the ‘chili Mac.’”
The version that Rice tasted, Parker would have you believe, included ingredients and/or techniques from his family’s Texas chili recipe, one that was supposedly passed down from Parker’s grandfather, a trail-drive cowboy. But when I repeatedly ask Parker what elements he borrowed from his family recipe, the owner turns vague. It could be he’s merely protecting trade secrets, like any smart owner. But as he’s sitting there on the worn wooden bench, sporting faded jeans, a blue-and-white pearl snap Western shirt, and boots, I start developing another theory.
This original Hard Times, I think, is everything Fred Parker wanted in life. It’s his chance to eat a faithful version of Hazel Calloway’s chili mac, all the way wet, whenever he wants (which is not as much as it used to be). It’s also a place where he gets to play cowboy, surrounded by Hank Williams on the jukebox and his father’s sepia-toned photos taken in 1926 on some godforsaken piece of land in Wyoming. How could Parker resist the temptation to include his own family’s Texas chili history into the mix? Frankly, I’m not convinced that Hard Times’ chili mac has any connection to the Parkers’ Texas past. But it makes a good D.C. story even better, I guess, and ties the dish to chili’s origins. And if there’s one thing that chili fans like Fred Parker love, it’s a tall tale tied to the Old West.