I’ve spent a good portion of the last 25 years trying to convey, explain, plead, and arrogantly assert to the uninitiated what Cincinnati-style chili is and why anyone should care. Some people get it, some people don’t; some people like it, some people won’t—and never will. I’ve come to accept that, though I still can’t help wanting to convert them. But hey, more chili for me, right?
I have always been a Skyline man myself, and have particularly fond memories of the old Kenwood Skyline, where my dad took my sister and I for our first cheese coneys. To my 8-year-old eyes and nostrils, the place verily oozed “essence of chili parlor.” It was a small space with a short, U-shaped counter in the center of the room, anchored by a large manual cash register. A swinging door was all that separated the kitchen in back from diners out front, which meant that you periodically got to see a cook come through the door hoisting a giant vat of chili, which was then poured into smaller vats at the central steam table. The counter was manned by three, sometimes four, thick-set guys with imposing sideburns who wore white dress shirts (sleeves always neatly folded back) and black ties. They were friendly, but spent most of their time ribbing and needling each other in a foreign language. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume it was Greek.
Of course, I had no idea that I would spend countless happy hours over the next few decades in that place. Skyline devotee that I am, I’m not too proud—or perhaps I should say, I’m enough of an addict—to admit to enjoying meals in their competitors’ parlors as well. A quick coney or two at the Gold Star in the Delta terminal at CVG. A heaping four-way at Camp Washington when the spirit moves me. A field trip to Price Hill for a five-way and a basket of Greek fries. I can’t really call myself a connoisseur but you start to notice things after a while—the subtle differences in spice and taste, texture and aroma. I know, it sounds nuts. I’m talking about chili spaghetti here, for crying out loud. This is not haute cuisine; it’s haute junk cuisine. And yet I love the stuff. Enough, in fact, to contend that the chili they cook at the Skyline at the corner of Fourth and Sycamore downtown is the best-tasting version—Skyline version, let’s be clear—that I’ve had so far. It must have something to do with the terroir.
Consider this issue a big love letter to our sometimes misunderstood, occasionally maligned, but ultimately much beloved and extremely peculiar gift to American regional cooking. The editorial staff ventured out into the neighborhoods to bring back tales, anecdotes, factoids, reviews, even warnings about the current state of chili in our fair city and beyond, but two staffers deserve particular attention: Dining Editor Donna Covrett, who corralled the judges and soothed the nerves of various local chili makers to stage our official unscientific taste test, in addition to jousting with former Empress owner Joe Kiradjieff; and Associate Managing Editor Katherine L. Sontag, who after years of stubborn resistance, broke down and had her first (and possibly only) three-way…and lived to tell about it. Ladies, the York Peppermint Patties are on me.