Celebrating Cincinnati Cuisine #6 – Cincinnati Style Chili (with a call out to National Peppermint Patty Day)

In celebration of the Cincinnati Bengals returning to the Super Bowl after an absence of more than three decades, I will post a unique Queen City Flavor Experience each day until the big day. Many regions of this country developed food or drink preferences that have withstood the national big brands swamping America with their saturated marketing and bland sameness. I grew up in and around Cincinnati and all of these brands stuck with me as I traveled far and wide to live in other places. If you’ve never lived in or traveled through Cincinnati, these brands may surprise you and some people, on first taste, don’t fall in love with them. But to me, they are the flavors of my youth and I love them dearly. Let me explain…

Here we go. The most controversial Cincinnati Cuisine of all. To most people raised in the Cincinnati Region, it is absolutely natural, a delicious flavor that is unique to the Queen City. I think the real problem is the name. Let’s be honest. To most Americans, Cincinnati Style Chili does not resemble other dishes named chili in other parts of the country and so they cannot wrap their brains around the taste and the name. Yet Cincinnati has hundreds of ‘chili parlors’ in the region, several different but similar brands, and millions of devotees. How did all this begin?

Eastern Mediterranean immigrants (primarily Greek) settled in Cincinnati last century. They made what essentially was a pasta topping that, while it incorporated chili powder and cumin, added allspice, cloves, nutmeg and other exotic flavors. It started with Tom and John Kiradjieff who opened a restaurant near a burlesque house named Empress and named their business after it in 1921. They called their offerings ‘Chili-Spaghetti’ and the name was eventually shortened to just chili, confounding taste buds for the next century. Empress was the biggest Cincinnati Chili Parlor until a former employee joined forces with a new Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides opening a parlor in 1949. Their location on the west side of Cincinnati had a view of downtown and Skyline Chili was born. The Daoud brothers started Gold Star Chili in 1964. My favorite is Camp Washington Chili, a single outlet west side parlor opened in 1940 and still in operation that I believe is most similar in taste to my personal make at home recipe.

Since the dish started as a pasta topping, it is usually poured over spaghetti (further frustrating American Chili fans). That is called a “2 Way.” Add a mound of shredded mild cheddar cheese and it is a “3 Way” and of course adding chopped onions to all that (my preference) you get a “4 Way.” All manner of creative alternatives toppers and serving methods are now marketed and some infidels add beans to be more traditional chili like. But the other option (also offered way back at Empress Chili) is to spoon the chili over a hot dog for a “coney.” Add some mustard, cheese and onions you get a ‘cheese coney” and I am in heaven.

All of these brands are easy to find on the web by Googling their names.

Many other small parlors are run by the families who founded it, but Skyline is by far the dominant brand, with some parlors in Tampa and Naples, Florida (where I was a regular when I lived there). When Skyline was sold by the Lambrinides family to a food conglomerate it is now carried in some major grocery chains across the country, including here in Central Florida. Check your local grocery (including Walmart, Kroger and Publix) to see if they carry canned or frozen versions if you wanted a taste. For reference, your 3 way and cheese coney should look like this…

I’m hungry just looking at that picture. They traditionally offer York Peppermint Patties as a sweet after, which ties in with that National Day! If you have never sampled it, be brave and give it a try. Just get the name Chili out of your head and you may like it even better. As of today, here is a picture of my Cincinnati Chili (all Skyline) on hand, ready to be devoured soon…

Footnote: While pulling together information for this post I discovered a small place called the “Cincinnati Chili Company” that I was previously unaware of in Downtown Orlando. Sometimes soon I will visit and review it. You see? Cincinnati Chili is taking over the world one parlor at a time!

As always you can find more at http://www.walterthinnes.com and on Twitter @walterthinnes

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