Cincinnati style chili served “5 way”

by Matt Hershberger for USA TODAY 10Best

What's the deal with Cincinnati chili?

The presentation of Cincinnati chili is simple: spaghetti under a uniformly brown chili sauce under an almost neon yellow pile of shredded cheddar.

The preparation involves little in the way of culinary technique. If made by an experienced line cook, a full table's order can be made and served in under a minute.

With the assembly line construction of such an unhealthy dish, Cincinnati chili is the ultimate anti-foodie food. This can be explained in part by its history.

Cincinnati chili was first created in the early 1920s by Greek Macedonian brothers who owned a hot dog stand next to a burlesque theater.

The recipe was probably an adaptation of a traditional, heavily spiced lamb or goat stew.

This stew was placed on top of hot dogs, presumably imitating the cheese coneys that the Kiradjieff brothers had seen when they stopped at Coney Island after immigration processing.

The Kiradjieffs' stand, Empress Chili, gained a following among burlesque patrons. 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 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.

Dann Woellert, writer of "The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili," estimates that the average Cincinnati chili contains 18 spices.

All contain cinnamon, and there's a myth in Cincinnati that the secret ingredient is chocolate. 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 may throw the flavor balance out of whack. For this reason, recipes are written in stone and protected like state secrets.

The opacity of the recipe, the resistance to adaptation and modification, and the unsophisticated preparation all conspire to make Cincinnati chili a difficult dish to pick apart and analyze.

The key to enjoying it your first time is in perception. People who hate the dish usually get hung up on their preconception of what chili is.

This was born of Mediterranean spiced meat, not of Mexican stew. Think of it as a type of Greek Bolognese instead of Texan soul food. 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 ideal form of Cincinnati chili is the pasta-based three-way (pasta-chili-shredded cheddar).

We can't convince you it's good. We can only give you the steps and hope you feel the magic.

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