How Cincinnati fell in love with one of America's weirdest dishes

Matt Hershberger

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On my first day working as a dishwasher at Skyline Chili, my boss, a thin, austere man who went only by "Corky," took me into the kitchen and taught me how to make Skyline's rendition of Cincinnati chili, the regional platter that, 10 years later in 2013, Deadspin would call "the worst regional foodstuff in America," and "a horrifying diarrhea sludge."

Corky went into the freezer and pulled out a cardboard box. From this he pulled out a translucent plastic bag. Inside was a mushy brown cube of meat. He cut the bag open with an X-Acto knife, and dumped the cube into a large metal pot. It retained its shape. Then he filled a bucket with water, dumped it in the pot, turned the burners on, and handed me an instrument that looked less like a spoon than a Hobbit's canoe oar.

"Take a break from dishwashing every 10 or 15 minutes to stir," he said. He walked out of the kitchen, leaving me alone, oar in hand. I looked into the pot, filled with the food that, at the time, I was eating on an almost daily basis, and I grimaced. It looked – there's no better way of describing it – like a horrifying diarrhea sludge.

The anti-foodie food

Cincinnati chili has proven oddly resistant to the foodie revolution; unlike other regional dishes, like Tex-Mex, crab cakes, or shrimp and grits, there's no real way to sexy it up. You can't embellish on the recipe with truffle oil or pork belly, and it would be absurd to talk about its mouthfeel. It has, to my knowledge, never been included in a challenge on a competitive Food Network show. The pimple-faced teenagers who make it are cooks, not chefs.

Its presentation is simple: spaghetti under a uniformly brown chili sauce under an almost neon yellow pile of shredded cheddar. Its preparation involves little in the way of culinary technique, and the recipes never change. It is not healthy. If made by an experienced line cook, a full table's order can be made and served in under a minute. This makes it assembly line fast food, a culinary genre which has gone definitively out of style.

The dish is, in short, the ultimate anti-foodie food. This can be explained in part by its history. Cincinnati chili was first created in the early 1920s by the Kiradjieff brothers, Greek Macedonian immigrants who owned a hot dog stand next to the Empress burlesque theater. The recipe was probably an adaptation of a traditional, heavily spiced lamb or goat stew, which was placed on top of hot dogs in imitation of the cheese coneys they'd seen when they stopped at Coney Island after immigration processing in New York. The Kiradjieff's stand, Empress Chili, gained a popular following among burlesque patrons, and as they expanded, they hired more of the town's growing Greek and Balkan population as cooks, dishwashers and waiters.

Many of these waiters would then leave Empress to open their own chili parlors – the founders of Skyline, Dixie Chili and Gold Star, the three best-known modern chains, all got their starts at Empress, and the extent to which the original recipe was stolen by these offshoot parlors remains somewhat unresolved.

According to Dann Woellert, writer of The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, Tom Manoff, Jr., (the creator of the chili recipe that would eventually be used by Gold Star) allegedly stole one of the spice packets made in secret by the Kiradjieff family and took it to a chemist who used gas chromatography to determine which spices the blend contained. In other cases, brothers would leave family parlors to open competing chains across the street, and unscrupulous owners would claim affiliation to the more prominent parlors when no such affiliation existed.

As a result of this history of local culinary intrigue, owners of the parlors closely guard their recipes. Skyline makes all of its chili at a single commissary, then ships the boxed brown cubes that so alarmed me on my first day in the kitchen out to their franchises in order to maintain the secrecy. Recipes that are given by the parlor owners to the food press often are merely a list of spices (with no amounts offered) or have certain essential secret ingredients omitted.

Woellert estimates that the average Cincinnati chili contains 18 spices. They all contain cinnamon, and there's a myth in Cincinnati that the secret ingredient is chocolate (it's not, but I did not find that out until researching this article), but after that, it's a hodge-podge of random spices, like allspice, cloves, anise, nutmeg, garlic and cumin. Once you've hit 18 spices, adding new flavors is either not going to change much, or it's going to throw the flavor balance out of whack. For this reason, recipes are written in stone and protected like state secrets.

So when my friends from outside the city ask how to make Cincinnati chili, I say what I, a former Skyline cook, know to be true: dump it out of the container, add water, and heat.

How to love the sludge

None of this, I am aware, sounds appetizing. The opacity of the recipe, the resistance to adaptation and modification, the unsophisticated preparation: all of this conspires to make it a difficult dish to pick apart and analyze as you might with a food truck Korean taco or a gourmet lobster roll.

But I stirred that diarrhea sludge four days a week for six months, and when I go back to Cincinnati, the first thing I do, before I even go to my parents house, is stop by a chili parlor. It remains, to this day, my very favorite thing about my hometown. I've gotten into intense online arguments and have cooled on friendships because of perceived slights to our chili.

The key to enjoying it your first time, incidentally, is in perception: people who hate the dish usually get hung up on their preconception of what chili is – remember, this was born of Mediterranean spiced meat, not of Mexican stew. The ingredients are meat, water and spices. Very few chili parlors add big vegetable chunks into their chili. If it helps, think of it as a meat sauce, a type of Greek Bolognese, instead of a Texan soul food.

Photo courtesy of Photo via Flickr/LWYang

It is spicy, but the spice is more a tingle than a zang. The best way to ease into the flavor is to have a cheese coney, but the Platonic form of Cincinnati chili is the pasta-based three-way (pasta-chili-shredded cheddar). Do not tell your hometown host that "it's not chili," (it contains chili powder: it is chili) or that "chili can't go on spaghetti," (says who?). Cincinnatians are a stubborn and occasionally fanatical people when it comes to their chili, and it goes beyond mere nostalgia or hometown pride. Open-mindedness is key to both appreciating the dish and to not ending your friendship.

But to really enjoy it, you have to understand: the food is not just a food, but a ritual. The ritual changes from person to person, but it usually looks something like this: You must eat it at your parlor. My parlor is the Skyline on Montgomery Road by I-275, but yours can be divined through a complicated web of family history, turf loyalty and personal preference. You must order without looking at the menu. While you wait for your food, you take the oyster crackers, punch a hole at the thin part at the top with your thumbnail, and fill it with hot sauce. Eat it and repeat until the food arrives. For the pasta, do not twirl: Cut it with your fork. Your palette must be cleansed with Dr Pepper and only Dr Pepper. Sop up the remaining juices with crumbled up oyster crackers, and buy a York mint on your way out the door as a breath freshener.

These seemingly pointless actions are what gives the food its meaning, and while I have eaten the dish as takeout in the driver's seat of my car, it has a certain indefinable magic when it's shrouded in its ritualistic context. The best meals contain an element of ritual, and rituals, whether in food or religion or sex, stop working when you stop to think critically about them. And while I personally would contend that Cincinnati chili is objectively delicious, to look too closely at what, exactly, makes this so would rob you of the unadulterated, unironic joy of eating it. We can't convince you it's good. We can only give you the steps and hope you feel the magic.

*This article was originally published in November, 2017.

Matt Hershberger

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