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,
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
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.
go back to chili part one