Cincinnati Chili Is a Glorious Mess of Meat, Spaghetti, and Cheese
Critics have called it the worst regional dish in America, but for those who grew up with it, nothing tastes quite as good.
Photo by the author.
Regional dishes are a culinary representation of a native culture and a rare common point of pride among local populations that may not share much else beyond simple geography. I live in Detroit, and I may think I have zero to discuss with the Trump-supporting lizard people in the suburbs and boondocks, but we're all from southeast Michigan, so our appetite for and love of coney dogs is a rare common denominator.
Like New Yorkers with their slices, we share the dish with visitors and point them to our favorite coney stands as the dogs provide an easy opportunity for everyone to bond. That's the kind of magic regional recipes can work.
Except when the dish is Cincinnati chili. It's the Queen City's unofficial meal, and its role in southwest Ohio's culinary culture is no different than that of, say, Philly's cheesesteak. Around 250 chili parlors populate the city preparing what locals describe as a dome of spicy chili served over cooling spaghetti noodles or miniature hot dogs that are topped with a thick layer of tangy shredded cheese. Unlike "traditional" chili, the meat is ground and holds sweet notes.
It's the noodles and the sweetness that seem to spark the debates that play out with some regularity online or in the media. Is it even chili? And is it good? One of the more dramatic spats came in 2013 when the region's chili lovers and media had it out with Deadspin over the latter labeling Cincinnati chili "diarrhea sludge" and the nation's worst regional dish. Three years later, I had to try to convince several chili parlors that I have nothing to do with Deadspin.
But there are also plenty of positive reviews, and the critics' assessments run contrary to that of the James Beard Foundation, which gave a "Best Regional Dish" award to the Camp Washington parlor in 2000. Several other national outlets named the style the nation's best chili, and labeled Cincinnati the country's "chili capital."
Still, it's not hard to see the naysayers' case, even if you don't agree. Real chili is meat, beans (unless you're from Texas), onions, and spices, goes the argument.
But Cincinnati-based food etymologist Dann Woellert, who wrote a book on the dish, has a response that generally sums up most Cincinnatians feelings: "That's bullshit. Anything that has chili powder in it is chili. Most chili, if you go back to real Texas and Mexican chili, it's not true to form. 'Real' chili is meat and spices, and doesn't have beans, onions, peppers. It's meat with chili pepper as the predominate spice."
He adds, "So we call bullshit on all those Texans, Californians, and Tex-Mexers. Cincinnati chili has a Mediterranean origin, and Tex-Mex has a Mexican origin—that's the difference."
Cincinnati chili is also unlike its counterparts in that it's ordered/prepared with a "way system." "Two way" is chili served over noodles, while "three" way is that with a thick lid of unmelted, shredded cheese. Add onions to mix to make it "four way," and "five way" includes layers of spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions, and beans, while oyster crackers should be added at the diner's discretion. Also common is the cheese coney, in which a chili-coated miniature hot dog is hit with onions and mustard, then buried under a mound of unmelted cheese.
Depending on whom you talk to, Cincinnati chili's spice palate is either a little schizophrenic or genius. Chili powder and spices like paprika or cumin drive the savory side, and chocolate is rumored to be the ingredient behind the sweet element. But Woellert says that's a myth. He interviewed every family chili parlor owner in town and they say the sweet component is typically cinnamon, allspice, and/or nutmeg, though the whole package holds a distinct Mediterranean flavor.
"It's a unique concept. The pasta, chili, cheese, the hot and the cold. I add in oyster crackers so you have that crunch, and with everything together, you get that good texture in your mouth," says Camp Washington owner Maria Papakirk. Her family opened the restaurant in the Camp Washington neighborhood 77 years ago, and they sell around 1,000 cheese coneys daily.
"It tastes good, and that's why people like it. It's not so spicy that children can't eat it, and it's fast and inexpensive. If you [order a five-way], it's done in less than one minute, and boom, you're stuffed. It's a hearty, big meal for $6. There's bang for your buck."
The Mediterranean influence is a result of Macedonian immigrants inventing the dish. Woellert says the origins of Cincinnati chili can be traced back to a small burlesque theater called The Empress where, in 1922, several Macedonian brothers started serving chili on top of spaghetti, labeling it "chili mac."
"It wasn't the classiest theater in our city, but that's where you could go to see a hoochie coo and get a coney or a chili spaghetti," Woellert tells me.
"Regional food is more about the experience and not necessarily about the taste."
Over the subsequent decades, the dish slowly grew in popularity, and chili parlors—largely Macedonian-run—popped up throughout Cincinnati's hilly neighborhoods. The way system evolved out of the original chili mac through the 1930s, and someone eventually had the bright idea of putting it on a small dog or fries.
Interestingly, as the dish popularized, the Macedonians trained and assisted each other because they viewed it as a means to advance their community in heavily Germanic Cincinnati. Of course, it doesn't always work that way when it comes to regional recipes, and unfriendly rivalries among a dish's creators can persist through generations.
Perhaps the only real simmering rivalry in Cincinnati chili is between its two largest purveyors, Gold Star and Skyline, which operate around 100 locations each across four states. The backers of each brand will usually offer a variation of a simple reason for not liking the other: "It's disgusting."
Jim Covert is a Cincinnati expat living in Kansas City who has ten jars of Skyline chili in his pantry that he purchased for $7 each in a K.C. grocery store. He doesn't eat Gold Star because "It tastes awful."
"Chili is the one Cincinnati food I always eat when I go back, and it's easy enough that I can make it at home from my cans," Covert says. "I always ate Skyline growing up, so that's where I go and what I'm used to. I think I've only had Gold Star once and it doesn't taste the same to me as any other Cincinnati chili."
And that's what Wollert says he found in his research on chili parlor preference: Chili allegiances are largely dictated by what you grew up eating. In fact, he conducted blind taste tests and found most people couldn't distinguish between Skyline and Gold Star.
"Regional food, I've found, is more about the experience and not necessarily about the taste, so the dish tastes better in an atmosphere that you have a connection to. Like if you grew up going to high school football games and, after, going to a Chili Time chili parlor, then you associate that taste with the memory of good times and friends ... and memory influences preference as much as taste," Woellert says.
But those are the mass-produced, fast food versions of Cincinnati chili, and perhaps not a great face for the style, which could explain a lot about why there's a discussion over quality. It's not like New Yorkers tell anyone to go to Sbarro for a taste of an authentic NYC slice. At a Skyline outpost in Lima, Ohio, the "kitchen" is essentially one large steam table with a self-contained deep fryer—nothing except for the fries are cooked on site. But Dixie Chili in northern Kentucky and others grind their own meat, some restaurants shred their own cheese, and, as with anything, the mom and pops' smaller batches taste better.
Regardless, Cincinnatians are proud of their local flavor, as they should be, and it seems the chili dissing, while generally good natured, sometimes goes a little overboard. That, Woellert says, is when it gets personal.
"It's so much a part of our culture that it's like they're attacking us personally and what makes us who we are. Like you're talking about our mother or grandmother," he says.