As most Cincinnati Magazine readers know, this year marks the centennial of Cincinnati-style chili. It was October 24, 1922, when Athanas (“Tom”) and Ivan (“John”) Kiradjieff opened their Empress Chili Parlor, the first ever to serve what we now call Cincinnati chili, at 816 Vine Street, tucked inside the Empress Burlesk Theater.
A great many Cincinnatians inaccurately yet vehemently insist that the secret ingredient to Cincinnati chili is chocolate. Most “authentic” Cincinnati chili recipes in print or online make this claim. The myth may be traced to Marion Rombauer Becker, who took over compiling the Joy of Cooking cookbook series on the death of her mother, Irma Rombauer. Marion’s 1970s “Cincinnati Chili Cockaigne” recipe (the “Cockaigne” label signaled that the Rombauers served that dish at their home in Cincinnati) was the first to claim a dubious role for chocolate.
Cincinnati chili had its day at the U.S. Senate in 1974. It’s generally acknowledged that the Great Chili Debate commenced when Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) took umbrage at the menu of the National Press Club, which had slipped “real Texas chili” onto the club’s dinner offerings. Goldwater asserted that Arizona chili was superior. Senator John Tower (R-Texas) rebutted, and the debate was on. Senator Robert A. Taft Jr. (R-Ohio), put both Texas and Arizona in their place with a speech on the floor of the upper house in which he asserted, “Each (Tower and Goldwater) likened the other chili to barnyard apples and possibly both spoke truly. The only real chili comes from Cincinnati, Ohio.”
An Anthropologist Weighs in
In 1981, an anthropologist who was then employed by the Ohio Arts Council, Timothy Charles Lloyd, published a scholarly paper in the Western Folklore journal titled “The Cincinnati Chili Culinary Complex” as part of a special issue on “foodways.” He includes a chart illustrating the differences among three Cincinnati chili recipes. Lloyd specialized in folklore and celebrated, in his 13-page paper, Cincinnati chili as a success story in regional foodways in a time of mass production and homogenous grocery inventories.
Much of the Cincinnati versus Texas debate hinges on definitions. Texans claim the Queen City concoction is anything but chili, and they have a point. When our Greek-Macedonian chefs began preparing their signature dish, Cincinnati already boasted several eating establishments serving chili con carne. Calling the new dish “that meat sauce we made back home” wouldn’t fly, so they called it chili. To Cincinnati’s Germans, any spicy meat sauce was “chili.” Well into the 1950s, Skyline boasted that it served “genuine chili con carne.”
Well, what is “that meat sauce we made back home?” Dann Woellert points out that there is no dish in any of the Balkan countries that’s identical to Cincinnati chili. The closest analog, he says, is pastitsio or pastichio, a sort of Greek lasagna with a meat sauce poured over macaroni-like pasta and topped by a cheese or béchamel sauce. (If it’s any consolation, Woellert also notes that there is nothing exactly like goetta in Germany either.)
As in real estate, chili parlors rely on location, location, and location. It’s common for a chili parlor to pack up and move to greener pastures. Although the restaurant took its name from a burlesque theater, Empress Chili soon moved to Fifth Street. Only one of the 11 Skyline Chili locations listed in a 1968 advertisement remains in operation—the legendary Clifton location at Ludlow and Clifton avenues, in the same spot since September 1966, earning honors as the oldest location in the Skyline chain.
Cincinnati Recognizes Its Treasure
The earliest mention I have found for “Cincinnati chili,” meaning the Macedonian meat sauce we all know and love, appeared in a May 9, 1958 Cincinnati Enquirer column by reporter Jerry Ransohoff, titled “Man That Kitchen.” Ransohoff acknowledges that Empress is the mother of all chili parlors and provides a recipe that he admits isn’t really close to anything actually served in any of Cincinnati’s chili parlors. (His recipe includes no chocolate.)
Chili High School
A fair number of Cincinnati’s chili pioneers gravitated to the westside, as evidenced by the number who hold diplomas from Western Hills High School. Dann Woellert, in his The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili (Arcadia Publishing, 2013), lists three of Skyline Chili’s founding Lambrinides brothers (Bill, Chris, John) as well as Joe Kiradjieff of Empress, Steve Andon of Camp Washington Chili, and a host of their spouses and relatives as former Mustangs.
An Archeologist Speaks
When Senator Bob Taft lectured the U.S. Senate about the virtues of Cincinnati chili, he relied heavily on an article from the May 1973 issue of Holiday magazine, written by a Princeton University history professor, S. Frederick Starr. It wasn’t Starr’s first publication. The young professor, who was later named president of Oberlin College, published The Archaeology of Hamilton County, Ohio in 1960 while still a high school student.
Together for Eternity
There is a lot of Cincinnati chili history interred in Spring Grove Cemetery, specifically in Section 127, up in the northwestern hills along the yellow driveway. Dann Woellert tallies the Kiradjieff brothers (Empress); the Lambrinides family (Skyline); the Manoff family (Strand, Tip Top, and Hamburger Heaven, later known as Gold Star); the Chalkedas family (ABC Chili); and others memorialized there.
A Texas Comedian Opines
On his 2003 album, Drunk in Public, comedian Ron White riffs on Cincinnati’s chili obsession. In his routine, he lists Skyline, Gold Star, Liberty, Ray’s, Joe’s, and Bob’s chili parlors. The first two are obvious and the last three fictionally humorous, but there used to be a Liberty Chili Parlor in Covington, while the Liberty Restaurant in Middletown boasts a chili-heavy menu.
Welcome to My Parlor
Cincinnatians rarely question our habit of referring to chili restaurants as “parlors,” but there is a reason. According to Dann Woellert, a “restaurant” implied an expanded menu, tablecloths, and a level of formality. “Parlor, ” like ice cream parlors, communicated a specialized menu and a casual atmosphere.
The Keystone Contribution
It’s become a tradition to purchase a York Peppermint Pattie as you pay your bill at Cincinnati’s chili parlors. Interestingly, despite a long tradition of Greek confectioners in Cincinnati, the candy of choice hails from York, Pennsylvania, and was created by a man named Henry Kessler. Peppermint Patties were unknown outside the Keystone State until the company began national distribution in the early 1960s.
Up in Smoke
Not so common today, cigars were once strongly associated with Cincinnati chili. In his 1973 Holiday magazine article, Frederick Starr named the Strauss No. 9 as “the preferred post-chili cigar.” Eagle-eyed Dann Woellert has discerned that the earliest known photo of the original Empress Chili parlor reveals that cigars from two Cincinnati tobacconists were for sale there: the Ibold company and the Weisbrodt Cigar Manufacturing Company, specifically Weisbrodt’s “Turtle Joe” brand.
In the Frozen Food Aisle
This year also marks the 60th anniversary of Skyline Chili’s debut in local supermarkets. Although Cincinnati customers could purchase some form of canned Tex-Mex chili con carne since around 1905, Skyline was the first to offer frozen Cincinnati-style chili in 1962. They added a canned version in 1966.
Let Me Count the “Ways”
Almost every Cincinnati child can name the “ways” chili is served: two-way meaning chili and noodles, three-way adding cheese, four-way with onions or beans, and five-way with everything. But are there more “ways?” You betcha! Several local parlors offer six-ways with the addition of garlic or jalapeños. But the real champ has to be the late, lamented Delhi Chili, which used to offer an “eight-way” with eggs, bacon or sausage, and potatoes to the standard five-way.
Note: It’s impossible to write about Cincinnati chili without acknowledging the exhaustive research conducted over a decade or more by Dann Woellert, the Food Etymologist. A significant portion of the lore reprinted above is based (“stolen” is such a harsh word, don’t you think?) on his work.