A halfhearted (but sincere!) defense of the ethnic junk food America loves to hate.
A few months back, the foodie website Eater asked four chefs, “Is Chicago deep dish pizza actually pizza?” Three of the four people polled said “no,” including two Chicagoans. “Lasagna with a crust,” sniffed celebrity chef Graham Elliot. David Posey, chef de cuisine at the renowned fine-dining restaurant Blackbird, was more generous; he said both thin-crust pizza and Chicago deep dish are good, except that “one is pizza, one is not.”
Sound familiar? So it is with Cincinnati chili, though I doubt a local chef would dare to go so far off-message. Malign the city’s most iconic and beloved foodstuff? You may as well suggest Pete Rose is less than perfect. But there’s no three ways (or four, or five) about it: Since 1922, when Empress Chili opened, or maybe since 1949, when Nicholas Lambrinides jumped the Empress ship to start Skyline, but certainly since 1994 or so, when people started bitching on the Internet, outsiders have had it in for Cincinnati chili. Even Calvin Trillin, whose 1973 “U.S. Journal” in The New Yorker enthusiastically introduced Skyline to many a food-lover, trotted out the “pasta with meat sauce” and “spaghetti Bolognese” references three decades later, over plates of Dixie Chili with The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Polly Campbell.
Eater’s pizza poll was inspired by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who’d launched a broadside against the City of Broad Shoulders’ broadest foodstuff last November. That followed on the heels of “The Great American Menu: Foods of the States, Ranked and Mapped,” posted on the famously feisty sports website Deadspin a month before that. Coincidentally (and unbelievably), that story, by “Foodspin” columnist Albert Burneko, placed Chicago deep-dish pizza in the number one position, and Cincinnati chili (representing all of Ohio) at the very bottom of the listicle. No, not even in the 51st slot (Washington, D.C., was included), but rather at number 52, just below “being hit by a car.”
Burneko deemed Cincinnati chili “a horrifying diarrhea sludge (most commonly encountered in the guise of the ‘Skyline’ brand) that Ohioans slop across plain spaghetti noodles and hot dogs as a way to make the rest of us feel grateful that our own shit-eating is (mostly) figurative.” It was not an especially serious, let alone assiduously researched, piece. Several choices seemed assigned to states at random, such as frozen custard for Delaware and chicken-fried steak for Wyoming. But the story did what it was meant to do, racking up almost a million page views while its culinary troll net ensnared schools of outraged tweets, defensive TV news reports, and wounded blog posts.
I am not much of a three- or four- or five-way fan myself, which is how you know I’m not a native (I went to high school on the east side—Pennsylvania). Typically, there’s nothing I like more than an American city’s signature ethnic junk food (or pork product, or condiment, or ice cream). I could take you on a 10-stop cheesesteak tour of Philadelphia and not even include the best-known spots. I went to college in Chicago and while I actually agree that deep-dish pizza isn’t pizza, I still think it’s delicious—and I’ve got the ice packs and FedEx receipts to prove it. Currently, I live in Austin, Texas, which is in the middle of a brisket renaissance, to say nothing of the breakfast tacos.
But despite my years in Texas, I am not a chili fundamentalist. I like beans (and tomatoes). The chili I ate up until the end of college was your basic diner fare—a cup on the side with a grilled cheese or cheeseburger deluxe, the sort of chili you can still get at a Steak ’n Shake or Frisch’s to this day. I also used to have a thing for Wendy’s chili, even though it was plainly made with crumbled, leftover burger meat and had no real flavor if you didn’t add at least two packets of that gold-foiled spicy vinegar “hot seasoning” (which actually has quite the cult following).
So of course, when I became an Over-the-Rhine resident a few years back, I made my way down to the Skyline at Seventh and Vine almost immediately, because that is what a person does. Yet after multiple visits (to multiple locations), Skyline never won me over, nor did Gold Star. I was not compelled to seek out an alternative. Perhaps because the editor of this magazine is a total Skyline acolyte, I also never got told I was truly missing out on the one little place that really did it right, the way it is with Philly cheesesteaks once you figure out that Pat’s and Geno’s aren’t all that good. Sure, if your grandparents are from Price Hill, you love Price Hill Chili. If you grew up in Kentucky, you might champion Dixie. But I can’t eat other people’s memories.
When I come back into town now, chili isn’t really on my food itinerary. If it’s 2 a.m. and I find myself at Camp Washington, give me a double-decker. Or better yet, some goetta, which I’ll be eating, making, and mail-ordering for the rest of my life (which, in case you missed it, I made clear, along with first admitting my distaste for Cincinnati chili, in “He’s Goetta Have It” in the May 2009 issue of this magazine). Still, on the heels of Deadspin’s taunting and an earlier Twitter exchange between myself, Philadelphia sportswriter Dennis Deitch (“@DennisDeitch: Seriously, of every city’s signature food, Cincy’s Skyline Chili is the worst. It’s garbage.”) and a great Cincinnati-raised Austin-based chef, Ned Elliott (“@foreignanddomestic: skyline is fucking awesome! Get w the program!”), I thought it might be worth trying the stuff again.
In fact, mere days after the Deadspin story, I actually was inside Camp Washington a little short of 2 a.m., after seeing Wussy’s Chuck Cleaver and Magnolia Mountain’s Mark Utley play solo at Southgate House (Dixie closed at 1, alas). I decided to go one-way (with crackers, of course), to really taste the chili, though I also got a single coney, plus a side of fries. The kicky sweetish gruel worked best for me as French fry dipping sauce; the soupiness, not to mention the oily separated fat, made straight-up spoonfuls unappealing.
To me, it isn’t really all that weird that Cincinnati puts its chili on spaghetti (which is also not that weird in and of itself; it’s scarcely different than the fairly common chili mac). It’s actually weirder if you don’t put it on spaghetti because, yeah, it’s a meat sauce. And when it comes to chili on hot dogs, that’s not even unique to Cincinnati. According to writer/illustrator Hawk Krall, “Hot Dog of the Week” columnist for the website Serious Eats—he has also done gloriously whacked-out food art for this magazine—the so-called “Greek Texas Wiener” sauce (a true oxymoron) popular in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as Detroit’s version of the coney, both slightly pre-date Empress.
Feeling underwhelmed by my Camp Washington experience, I decided to try a different approach. Long after I’d returned to Texas, I made a batch using some “Cincinnati Recipe Chili” mix I bought at CVG (the packet with the fake Skyline color scheme). This was basically a goof. I understood that I was likely doing the dish a great disservice, and as someone who toasts and grinds his cumin fresh (and sometimes chile peppers, too), the whole thought of using a mix was anathema: the little dessicated chunks of dried onions; the clumped, who-knows-how-long-this-envelope-has-been-sitting-in-the-airport-gift-shop spices; the fact that tomato paste was the only ingredient I had to add besides beef and water.
If nothing else, the airport chili mix’s cooking instructions were accurate: Don’t brown the beef, just boil it up and “beat it” with a fork. This is the thing I can’t really abide, but that purists insist on: the thin, saucy texture that is a product of the boiling technique. For me, by eschewing browning, you are literally choosing to have less flavor and body in your chili—or rather, you are eschewing the flavor of browned meat, so that it takes a backseat to the spices, while keeping the sauce as liquid and non-beefy as possible. This is certainly why Cincinnati chili is so far removed from Texas, where the parochial nature of the dish is meant to express its two primary ingredients: meat and chiles. Not tomatoes, not onions, not garlic, not cumin, and not allspice, cloves, or cinnamon. It’s not called “Allspice con Carne,” after all. True, Cincinnati chili has chili powder in it, but I’ve seen some recipes without it, and it’s not the taste you take away.
That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong or weird about Cincinnati chili’s basic flavor profile. People who think there is no place for cinnamon or chocolate in chili are missing out (or have never been to Oaxaca, the home of mole, a rich, nuanced sauce that gets culinary respect on a world-historical level). One of my favorite recipes, while not Cincinnati chili per se, by the late cookbook author and Manhattan Chili Company owner Michael McLaughlin, includes both. The problem is, Cincinnati chili is less like mole (spicy, complex, and primarily savory, with a perfumed undertone) and more like pumpkin pie (sweet with a slightly spicy undertone). Another Twitter hater, screen name @pubrelationprof, calls it “Kool Aid with ground beef mixed into it”—which, even if you disagree with that description, makes him a more elegant prose stylist than Deadspin’s Burneko.
What’s funny is, because the best-loved recipes are secret, and because there are so many different recipes, people can’t even agree where Cincinnati chili’s sweetness comes from. Chocolate is almost always mentioned as a key ingredient, but Dann Woellert, author of The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, is confident this is a myth. According to his research, neither Empress nor Skyline nor any local chili parlor ever used it, though chocolate did mysteriously appear as an ingredient in one recipe (purportedly Skyline’s)—published in the Enquirer in 1979—that went on to gain national popularity. You can also find Internet commenters who claim chocolate can’t be an ingredient because Skyline or Gold Star would have to list it due to allergies, but that is factually incorrect. (Chocolate is not one of the eight potential major allergens, such as eggs, peanuts, or shellfish, that require labeling.)
It’s something of a red herring in any case: Chocolate isn’t even sweet! Ever eat pure cocoa powder with a spoon, or got into your mother’s baking chocolate? You know what I mean, and that is usually the type of chocolate called for in the average Cincinnati chili recipe. Woellert thinks the sweetness our taste buds detect comes from the vinegar (either red wine or apple cider), but that ingredient is also bringing acid and complexity. Personally, I suspect plain old sugar, or brown sugar, both of which can also be found in some recipes. Otherwise, it’s just sweet-by-association: our taste bud triggers for allspice, cinnamon, or even cloves evoke memories of sweet foods. You can also find people saying no way is there paprika, which was in my airport mix (curiously listed separately from “spices”), or beef stock, which does not appear in the mythical Skyline recipe. To that, again, I say: If there really isn’t beef stock (or at least chicken stock) instead of water, that’s a deliberate effort to make something with less flavor—or at least something cheaper, and therefore cheaper-tasting.
The ultimate irony of the Cincinnati chili debate, or any chili debate, is that it’s neither interesting nor relevant to figure out what the recipe really is, or what really constitutes chili. Chili, almost by definition, is a dumping ground of flavor and ingredients. It either tastes good or it doesn’t. The joy of chili is that it can accommodate anything. Arguably, there is a platonic ideal of pizza, going back to Rome, Naples, or New York. But (sorry Texas), that is not the case for chili.
What that also means is that Cincinnati chili can be anything, depending on who’s cooking. When I questioned Ned Elliott, the Queen City expat and chef who spoke up for Skyline on Twitter, about the Cincinnati chili he sometimes serves at Foreign & Domestic in Austin, it turned out that he uses tripe. Great. Sign me up. That doesn’t sound like Skyline at all! But maybe that’s the trick. At home, I can embrace the concept of Cincinnati chili while still making it pretty much any way I want. Improving on it, you might say. Using what I think works as a cook. Even making it thick, if I desire, so that it stands well on its own, instead of just blanketing spaghetti or a hot dog. (Though there will always be cheese!)
That’s already the case with two recipes I’ve become familiar with. Saveur editor James Oseland calls Cincinnati chili “one of the best American foods I’ve ever eaten, everything I could want, all in one bite: savory, sweet, hearty, bright. Instant obsession.” But Saveur’s recipe is ripe with individualistic touches: sweating onions, browning beef, tomato sauce, and, yes, chocolate. Another recipe making the rounds lately comes from the Brooklyn chocolatiers Mast Brothers, whose cookbook came out in 2013. It too calls for well-cooked onions, browned beef, tomato puree, beef stock, and particularly generous amounts of chili powder and cumin (along with allspice and cloves, but no cinnamon). Plus, of course, their own, extremely dark chocolate (more than 70 percent cacao). It is actually so much like mole that when I made it, I was tempted to add peanut butter or tahini (peanuts and sesame seeds both being ingredients in certain kinds of mole). The Mast Brothers recipe calls for a quarter cup of chili powder, making it more chili-centric than most recipes. Even then, I found a teaspoon of allspice to be too much, and compensated with more chili and cumin, plus a bit of cinnamon, paprika (hey, why not), and oregano. I also thumbed my nose at both Texas and Cincinnati by adding two cans of beans (one pinto, one kidney) straight to the pot, which has always been my standard.
“This is good. This doesn’t taste like Cincinnati chili at all,” was the reaction of my wife, who never cared for the stuff either. She was also eating it atop a beefy Niman Ranch organic hot dog, with a real-cheese blend of cheddar, Colby, and Jack. If the classic coney is really just a delivery vehicle for the chili, my chili dog is more about the blend of flavors. The chili becomes a condiment. To me, the coney, as well as the chili spaghetti in all its various ways, was invented because the chili was never good enough to stand on its own, or on plain spaghetti. You need the cheese. You need the onions. You need that extra hit of hot dog. And that’s OK. But I will probably stick to making it at home.
Now, does anybody know where you can get a decent pizza in this town?
Illustration by Jungyeon RohOriginally published in the July 2014 issue.
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