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The Life and Times of Chili Cincinnati Chili -Part Two 



by Cliff Lowe

If I asked you what city was the Chili capital of the world, what would your answer be? O.K. Let's narrow it down. Suppose I asked you what American city was the Chili capital of the world?

If you answered with any state or city west of the Rocky Mountains, you would be wrong, very wrong. In 1890, DeWitt Clinton Pendery concocted the first known Chili Powder mix, which he called 'Chiltomaline' and it had its part in promoting and making western-style Chili as ubiquitous as it is today. His mix was a concoction of Chiles, Cumin, Oregano, and other spices.

Mr. Pendery arrived in Fort Worth, Texas after having traveled by horse-drawn stagecoach from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Cincinnati, known officially as the Queen City' was, in the 1700's and early 1800's, ' the gateway to the west. Located on a point where the mouth of the Licking River empties into the beautiful Ohio River, and just east of the spot where the three states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana would eventually converge, this city was perfectly located for growth and industry. In those days river transportation was the fastest method of travel and one could ship goods or travel from Cincinnati, via the Ohio River, right into the mighty Mississippi river, and all the way to New Orleans and, from there, points west.

Surveyor John Filson gave the area, originally settled by John Symmes, the name "Losantiville." In 1790, General Arthur St. Claire, the first governor of the Northwest Territory, renamed the settlement 'Cincinnati' in honor of an organization of Revolutionary Soldiers called The Society of the Cincinnati, of which he was a member. The Society took its name from Quinctius Cincinnatus, an ancient Roman military leader.

I have to wonder what would have happened had Mr. Pendery decided to remain in Cincinnati, Ohio, because Cincinnati is the Chili Capital of the United States and, likely, the world. The city has more Chili parlors per capita and square mileage than any known city on the continent. Perhaps all chili would be of the Tex-Mex heritage if Pendery had stayed there.

But, the Chili produced, sold, and consumed in the Cincinnati area is not truly "Chili"as we know it. Cincinnati Chili is unique and quite different from its western cousin. In fact, about the only relation it has are the meat, cumin and chili powder it contains. After that, the recipe takes an interesting twist. Cincinnati style chili is also unique to the area (you can't find it too far outside the greater Cincinnati, area, although I did hear that one company was considering opening a store in Phoenix, Arizona) and unique in the way it came to be.

In 1922, a Macedonian immigrant, Tom Athanas Kiradjieff settled in Cincinnati with his brother, John. He opened a hot dog stand, which he named 'Empress' and sold hot dogs and Greek food. He did a lousy business because, at that time, the large majority of the inhabitants were of German heritage, and nobody in the area knew anything about Greek food, and weren't thrilled by it.

Tom was not to be defeated. He took a Greek stew, maintained the Mediterranean spices of Cinnamon and Cloves, changed the meat to ground beef, and added other spices, such as chili powder, to the mix and began to sell this stew over spaghetti and called it 'Chili.' It proved to be a successful experiment. He also came up with the idea of selling his Chili in 'ways', which is also unique to thearea.


Cincinnati Chili Comes of Age

Today, Cincinnati Chili is still assembled and sold the way ole Tom used to sell his: Two Way means spaghetti topped with chili (get it? Two Way means two items, spaghetti and chili); Three Way is spaghetti topped with chili and grated cheddar cheese; Four Way is spaghetti topped with chili, grated cheese and chopped onions; and Five Way is kidney beans or chili beans, heated separately, placed on the plate then topped with spaghetti, chili, onions and grated cheese.

If you stop in a Cincinnati chili parlor you must have a 'Coney.' Now, the history of this sandwich is somewhat vague, but Uncle Tom gets the credit for this, also. Seems that, en route to Cincinnati; he passed through the Coney Island area of New York. Later when he decided to cover one of his hot dogs on a bun with mustard, Cincinnati Chili, and onions, and top it all off with a lot of finely grated Cheddar Cheese, he named it a 'Coney Island' and the name sticks to this day. 'Coneys', as the locals call them, are now made with a hot dog that is a bit smaller and shorter than a regular wiener, to allow more room for the chili and other goodies that go thereon.

I lived in the Cincinnati area for many years and I have eaten enough Coneys and Cincinnati Chili to kill a normal human. I still love them.

Cincinnati now boasts a yearly chili festival and I was able to find the stats for the amount of Cincinnati Chili fixin's that were consumed (no, inhaled) at the 1998 Goldstar ChiliFest. This was a big to-do lasting for only two days, with 22 restaurants participating, and a local country music station hosting country music acts, and during the festivities 2 million pounds of Cincinnati Chili were consumed. Also eaten were 850,000 pounds of shredded Cheddar Cheese, 801,000 pounds of Spaghetti, 271,000 pounds of onions, 141,000 pounds of beans (groan!), 43 million oyster crackers, and 14.3 million hot dogs.

Oh yeah, about those oyster crackers: an oyster cracker is made the same way as a saltine cracker except it is a 6-sided concoction, about the diameter of a grown man's thumb, and hollow. They are the only crackers served with Cincinnati Chili and are a perfect match. Why they are called 'oyster' I am not sure, but I suppose it has to do with their shape and the fact they are a hollow shell. If you do not know what one is, or what they look like, hop on your browser and type in oyster cracker and see what comes up. If that fails, seek out the Skyline Chili page and on that page you will find a picture.

Today the largest Cincinnati Chili parlor chain in Cincinnati, and the world, is Goldstar Chili and, when I lived there, it was one of my favorites. Ms. Jessica Owsley, of Goldstar's Customer Service, graciously informs me that Gold Star serves 1,000,000 pounds of cheese and 3,000,000 pounds of chili a year. She also sent another interesting fact: the largest Coney ever made was 102 feet long and weighed over 180 pounds Goldstar Chili has around 100 stores in the Greater Cincinnati area, including one in Bethel, Ohio, Dayton, Kentucky and in Lawrenceburg, Indiana; all within a few minutes drive from Cincinnati.

The next largest chain is Skyline Chili with around 59 stores in the area. There is still an Empress Chili, too.
Around the area are numerous little, one-store operations selling this amazing concoction of Greek heritage but, in spite of the giant size and output of Goldstar and Skyline, there is one tiny Chili parlor that has outshined them all.

Cincinnati is a city composed of hundreds of little neighborhoods and the natives know the boundaries and distinct areas of each one. One such neighborhood is Camp Washington, which consists of about 1,750 residents. And therein, is the Camp Washington Chili parlor just a few minutes from the downtown area. In 1985, Camp Washington Chili was featured on the CBS Morning News as the best-rated Chili in the nation. And the reputation is well earned. For 60 years, the little restaurant has been owned and operated by the same Greek family.

The single-store business was also featured in the March 2000 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Then, in May of the same year, the James Beard Foundation honored Camp Washington Chili as an 'American Regional Classic' restaurant. It is also patronized by a host of national celebrities, including singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet, of 'Margarita' fame. Why all the fuss and stir about a little store? Well, for one thing, owner John Johnson has been making Cincinnati Chili since 1951 when he came from the old country to work with his uncle in the family business. For another, he pays attention to detail and does special things like using 100% real, aged Cheddar Cheese and refusing to buy pre-ground beef for his recipe. It has been ground in the restaurant, fresh daily, 6 days a week, since the beginning. The restaurant, which stood in the same place, in the same building, for 60 years until forced to move across the street two years ago due to street expansion, is 'the little restaurant that could.' It is the little restaurant, which has made famous the Chili, which really isn't a Chili at all, but an Americanized Greek Stew.

I promised, at the beginning, to tell you of a Chili that wasn't a Chili as we usually think of it. Now you know. So, if you are ever in the Cincinnati area, stop and have a bowl of 5-Way and a Coney for me, will you? That would be a good thing.


Some tips and reminders about Cincinnati Chili:

It is a meat stew or sauce. Beans are not cooked in the Chili but are heated separately and used as an addition to the plate. Cincinnati chili is not to be served cold. It must be hot.

Spaghetti always goes on the plate first, except, when making the 5-way version; some places put beans on the plate first, some on top of the spaghetti.

No matter how tempted you are, do not use regular Saltines. You lose something in the translation. It must be Oyster Crackers. They stay crisp through the entire eating, whereas, regular Saltines do not.

Connoisseurs of Cincinnati Chili do not go in for the childish, macho exercise of seeing who can make the hottest concoction. In Cincinnati they would probably hang you if you did. There is no such thing as '5-alarm Cincinnati Chili.' Cincinnati Chili is about blending spices and creating a particular subtle flavor.

Refer to the article to remember how to assemble 2-Way, 3-Way, 4-Way, and 5-Way platters.

And, finally, remember that, for some, this is an acquired taste, while for others it is love at first bite. If you hate it, please don't shoot the messenger.

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