On the banks of the mighty Ohio River resides a city so nondescript that its own citizens are recognized as not even having accents. Cincinnati, the Queen City, has always been misunderstood, partially due to its blurred connection to both the North and South, but also because of its delayed adoption of culture, as made famous by Mark Twain’s observation: “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times.”
I agree with your thinking, Mr. Clemons, but I want to be in Cincinnati when the world ends so I can stuff my face full of the city’s most famous culinary emblem, Cincinnati chili.
Notoriously judged by outsiders and fiercely defended by locals, Cincinnati chili has received a lot of flack in the past for its lack of visual appeal. But I’m not here to fight off the unenlightened opinions of those who can’t see the merit in this glorious symphony of flavors (more on that perspective here). No, I’m here to talk about why Cincinnati chili is so misunderstood, and maybe encourage some non-believers to take a bite before judging.
Besides being known as Porkopolis in the mid to late-1800s, Cincinnati has never really had a culinary identity. Unlike other Midwest cities like Chicago and St. Louis, Cincinnati has always been a blank slate in terms of its food and gastronomic reputation. A little too southern to really be the North, and a little too northern to really be the South, Cincinnati’s food has always been influenced by immigrants, starting with the Germans and their obsession with the pig in the 1800s. As the pork processing industry later moved on to Chicago, Cincinnatians looked for a new food to hold dear, but no one thought it would come from a handful of displaced cooks hailing from the Balkans.
Like most regional delicacies, transplanted immigrants created Cincinnati chili as a utility food. During the first half of the 20th century, Macedonian and Greek immigrants started serving chili seasoned with a Middle Eastern flair on hot dogs. Eventually the chili was paired with spaghetti (more on that later), which makes absolutely no sense, but because of its non-sensible deliciousness, locals just went with it. Eventually, chili parlors started popping up across the city, with Empress being the first, and both Skyline and Gold Star emerging as mini-empires soon after. Almost a century later, chili is everywhere in Cincinnati and has become the unofficial bonding topic of displaced southern Ohioans the world over.
It can be hard to explain what Cincinnati chili really is, especially when most devotees start their descriptions with, “Well, it’s not really chili in the traditional sense…it’s made with chocolate and cinnamon and stuff.” Unlike your more traditional red bean or Texas-style chili, Cincinnati chili is essentially made up of three things: ground meat, spices, and stock. Coupled with a long cooking time and some other forms of magic that science hasn’t yet decoded, you end up with chili that’s closer to a sauce than it is a stew—salty, earthy, and tangy in its own unique way. Cincinnatians know that their chili is best served with a number of other components. Which delicious combination you chose, however, is up to you.
Cincinnati chili is not, under any circumstances, a visually appetizing food, but you also have to keep in mind that no one in Cincinnati eats a plain bowl of our beloved chili. It’s just one component of a dish; the chili does provide a great deal of flavor, but judging the chili by itself is just silly. Oddly enough, although countless Cincinnatians have done their best to recreate the chili at home, the almost impossible thing to perfect is the consistency. It might not look appetizing when you see a fresh batch of chili poured into one of distribution pots behind the counter at your favorite chili parlor, but it’s that unique fluidity that makes the chili so distinctly delicious.
As you can probably see by now, no one walks into their favorite chili parlor in Cincinnati and orders a bowl of the stuff. Well, there probably are a few Cincinnati residents that do that, but those four to nine people are probably too set in their ways to listen to reason. Traditionally, you’re eating your Cincinnati chili one of two ways: over a hot dog (a Coney) or on top of spaghetti, which when coupled with a heaping amount of finely shredded cheddar cheese, becomes a 3-way. If you’re feeling really crazy, you can also add beans or onions for a 4-way or both for a 5-way. Oh, and then you throw in some hot sauce and oyster crackers, too, because why not? It might sound crazy, but it’s our crazy and just like the Jucy Lucy supporters in Minneapolis or the northern Alabamans that swear by white barbecue sauce, Cincinnatians will always praise their beloved chili regardless of how the rest of the country feels.
Max Bonem is an eater and home cook who is more than likely hungry at this very moment. He enjoys writing about food and talking to other people about what they’re finding most appetizing at the moment. Holler at him on Twitter at @ChazarBlog.