Cincinnati is known for many things. The Reds and the Bengals. Talk show host and former mayor Jerry Springer. The WEBN fireworks. Some television show that I never saw and was never actually filmed here. But the most Cincinnati-ish thing I know of is the chili. I was raised on it. Cincinnati chili is like no other chili. It’s got a sweetness that comes from adding cinnamon and cocoa powder. There are no peppers or beans (unless you add them). It’s very rarely eaten from a bowl, but instead is used more like a sauce. (And it is definitely not eaten over rice!*)
There are two main methods of eating Cincinnati Chili. The less regionally specific is the Cheese Coney, or chili cheese dog. Simply a hot dog in a bun with mustard, Cincinnati Chili spooned overtop, capped with copious amounts of thinly shredded cheddar cheese, diced onions if desired. My step-father likes his without mustard, I like mine without onions, but you must have the chili and the cheese to consider it a Coney. My method of choice is the 3-Way, chili spooned over spaghetti with finely shredded cheddar cheese, adorned with oyster crackers. Add diced onions and you have a 4-Way; onions plus kidney beans makes it a 5-way.
There are other variations, often seasonal or restaurant specific. Chili cheese fries, chili burgers, even chili mac and cheese. There are Firehouse versions, chili with extra season and spice. And of course, each restaurant does it a little differently. My personal favorite is Skyline Chili, which is a bit thinner and sweeter. Gold Star Chili is thicker and spicier. These are the two chains you’ll find all over the Greater Cincinnati area. You can also buy it frozen, canned and in dry mixes, the latter two of which were a lifesaver when I moved to Hawaii (my mother would bring me some whenever she visited).
For newcomers to Cincinnati (or even those just visiting), trying the chili is a rite of passage. With perverse immaturity, my friends and I would approach the uninitiated and gleefully invite them out for a three-way. After they got over their initial confusion, we would verse them on the ways of chili and cheese. Some wouldn’t care for it, expecting something heartier, more.. chili-like. But for those of us born and raised, there is nothing quite like Cincinnati chili.
*Hawaii has its own well-known chili — Zippys. I first tried it at a potluck, where my friends lost no time in questioning why I was eating my chili plain. “How else would I eat it?” I asked. “Over rice!” They replied, as if it was the most obvious thing ever.
This entry was featured in the Carnival of Cities October 2009.