Editor’s Letter, May 2022: Feasting on Favorite Cincinnati Dishes

This month’s section about Cincinnati’s iconic foods highlights a number of classic restaurants, shops, and products that bring comfort to natives, make transplants feel like they belong, and often confuse visitors.
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In my almost five years writing this welcome letter as Editor In Chief, I’ve managed to avoid the Cincinnati Chili Conversation. You know, the one about how and why chili-and-spaghetti became synonymous with Cincinnati, whether it’s right to even call it chili, and which chain, independent restaurant, or specific location has the best version. The time finally has come for me to wade into the treacherous waters of that swirling debate.

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

This month’s section about Cincinnati’s iconic foods highlights a number of classic restaurants, shops, and products that bring comfort to natives, make transplants feel like they belong, and often confuse visitors. In my mind, two of them truly are unique to Cincinnati: chili and goetta. The others are mainly local versions of things you can get just about anywhere: ice cream, desserts, ribs, burgers, steaks, potato chips, beer. We’ll gladly argue that our versions are better than counterparts in other regions of the country, but more importantly, smell and taste are incredible triggers for memories, and in a changing world we love clinging to familiarity.

Cincinnati chili and goetta are a different story. How are they not popular throughout the U.S.? Think about other regional foods like Philadelphia cheesesteaks or New Orleans gumbo or New York pizza—there are outposts in every major city serving them, including plenty here offering decent versions.

There’s nothing inherently “Cincinnati” about chili-and-spaghetti or goetta. They were invented and popularized by immigrant populations here, but there are Greek and Middle Eastern communities everywhere in the U.S., so why don’t they embrace our chili recipe? The same goes with German communities and goetta. I really don’t get why there aren’t packed, successful Cincinnati chili parlors in every major American city. It’s fresh, cheap food that’s a welcome break from the usual burgers/chicken/Mexican fast food menu. If Chipotle can be popular in every city, why can’t Skyline or Gold Star?

And if you want to argue that Cincinnati chili isn’t a national phenomenon because it’s a disgusting abomination, well, you’re wrong. Because to us, it tastes like home. End of conversation.

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