The first thing you’ve got to understand is that it is not chili. It’s not the stuff your grandma used to make in that oversized pot on the stove. It’s not the stuff you bring in to work for a casual Friday cook-off. Those are chilies proper. They are a soupy mélange of meat, beans, onions, peppers and spices. You sop those up with cornbread. They come in a bowl.
Cincinnati chili comes on a plate, between a layer of cheap spaghetti noodles and a mound of cheddar shredded so finely that it seems to evaporate from the plate. That, or they put it on a hot dog and cover that with cheese, maybe some onions and mustard. No, it’s not chili. That’s what I tell people who ask. Over the last few years traveling around the country for work and pleasure, I’m often asked, after mentioning that I hail from Cincinnati, about the chili, and the first thing I tell them is to forget the name chili. For the purpose of conversation, I call it chili sauce, but even that is a bit of a stretch.
Second, it’s not even all that good. If you have the palette of a sommelier, you’d detect the cheap beef, the seasoning which, depending upon which parlor you visit, may include cinnamon, chocolate or any number of desert flavors. You’d be able to taste the salt and water. And, even if you couldn’t, one look at the oil-slicked vat behind the counter where they keep sauce warming would give you an indication that what you are about to put into your face is not good—not good tasting, not visually appealing, not good for you.
So, why then? Why is it that, in this town, you are almost more likely to find a chili parlor franchise—Skyline or Gold Star—than you are a McDonalds? What is it about this stuff that makes for profitable business? The answer, my friend, is that there is no good reason other than to say that Cincinnati chili is less about the food than the culture itself. Like any fine wine in which the terroir is prominent—allowing vinophiles to taste the elements of the soil, the weather, the water quality present in any Cabernet—every bite of Cincinnati chili has a hint of the city itself; an aftertaste of what it means to live in one of America’s first great cities; a flavored burp of a town that prefers its own thing to that which can be imported from elsewhere. Every slurpy chew of a three-way contains a small pinch of a city that is not clearly Midwestern or southern, modern or old, on the move or in decline. It is simply there, here. It just is.
You walk into a parlor—and they are always referred to as ‘parlors,’ not restaurants, cafes or eateries—and are overtaken by a cloud of steamy humidity. In the winter, the windows are sweating, and your glasses fog up. In the summer, the air conditioning does its best to keep up, but only makes it manageable. Summers here are brutally hot, sticky and stagnant, and the air inside a chili parlor tends to remain tepid, just comfortable enough that you’ll take a seat and stay long enough to be served. If you’re with a group, you grab a table, but I prefer to sit at the counter, which is something out of a Norman Rockwell painting complete with spin-top padded stools and aluminum-edged Formica. The u-shaped counter wraps around a prep kitchen of sorts, where steam tables keep vats of chili and tubs of spaghetti noodles warm. Beneath are refrigerators containing little more than industrial-sized bags of the orangiest, waxiest shredded cheddar you’ve ever seen.
There’s always a finger bowl of Oyster crackers waiting for you. Sometimes, right next to it, there’s shaker of bitter hot sauce. Sometimes you have to ask for this yourself. A friendly server comes up and asks you for your drink order and offers you a bib. That’s right a bib. The servers in these places always care about your clothes and with good reason, eating this stuff can be messy. Once I was served by someone who looked like they might be in college. Most of the time, these places are staffed by people who look like they’re waiting for a callback from WalMart about that greeter position they applied for. On a recent visit to a Skyline in northern Kentucky, I noticed the sign out front thanking a woman (let’s call her Helen) for 40 years of service. I went inside and asked if Helen was a manager or, perhaps, a local dignitary and was told that, no, she worked the counter her entire career. Imagine standing between the kind of people who love eating this stuff and a steam table full of the aforementioned stuff for four decades. It’s mystifying, really.
Ordering Cincinnati Chili requires a working knowledge of a code slightly less complicated than the Enigma used by the Germans during WWII. Here, I humbly submit a primer:
4-Way: A 3-way with the addition of either onions or beans. You choose.
5-Way: A 3-way with both beans and onions.
Sizes: Small is a snack. Medium will fill the average human most of the way. Large will keep a cardiologist in golf shoes for a year.
Coneys: These are tiny hotdogs used as transporting devices for the chili. They are never called hot dogs. Nor are they called wieners. These are Coneys, plain and simple. A standard Coney comes with bun, tiny hot dog, cheese, onion and neon yellow mustard. You don’t like onion or mustard? You better ask to not have it.
Sample order for an average American working man: “I’ll have a regular 4-way with beans, a Coney no onion and some more crackers.”
Are there other things on the menus at these places? Of course there are. Some serve salads. Some serve burritos. Almost all of them have jaw-snapping large ‘double decker’ sandwiches. But who cares about that? Nobody ever asks me the turkey sandwiches or half-baked burritos of Cincinnati. They want to know about the chili. So there, in a nutshell is the chili, which is not in fact chili at all, but a greasy, watery, possibly cinnamon-flavor condiment for hotdogs and pasta.
I mentioned that it’s not good food and I meant it. I’ve never craved the taste of Cincinnati chili, but I’ve craved the experience. That’s the thing about this town. We like our own stuff. The local pizza chain- LaRosa’s– is vastly more ubiquitous than Dominos or Papa Johns; the local bakery – Busken– is more famous than Dunkin Donuts; the most popular local ice cream place – Graeter’s – is followed closely by another area company – United Dairy Farmers – which together have all but choked Dairy Queen and Baskin’ Robbins out of the market. The billboards along the highway are more than likely to feature businesses that can only be found here. The local barbeque joint – The Montgomery Inn – might as well be the Vatican. Cincinnatians are proud of the stuff they have. Or, perhaps more than that, they have a chip on their shoulder. They don’t like feeling inferior to anyone and, perhaps, that’s why they support the hell out of the things born here. In a city full of MBAs and lawyers, the entrepreneurial spirit glows strong here. Everywhere you look, there’s something born here, created here, thriving because it is here.
That’s what I mean about being able to taste Cincinnati in the chili. It may not be great food but it beats the hell out of ungreat food that came from someplace else.
Just make sure you’re not far from a bathroom.