Words have meaning, you know. The Ohio city of Cincinnati was named by Arthur St. Clair after his Society of the Cincinnati—a fraternal organization of Revolutionary War officers. Named for Cincinnatus, the Society was founded to honor the officers of the American Revolution and their first-born male descendents. Cincinnatus was a euphemism for the great General Washington, a hero who—akin to the ancient Roman—returned to his farm once his duties as leader and commander of his country were done.
And so, the name of this little port city on the Ohio River is named for a social club, the nickname of George Washington, and an ancient Roman dictator—none of which has anything to do with Ohio or the people who call Cincinnati home.
The city would be settled by more colorful stock that the effete gentry of the Society and their blue blooded scions. Being a riverboat town, Cincinnati was first populated by the rovers who took to the river to find a new life in the wilderness—many of whom could be understudies in a Mark Twain novel. From that point in history, Cincinnati became the gateway to the North in the Underground Railroad years—the first city on the other side of the aqueous DMZ of the Ohio, looking south toward slavery. Fugitives and their abolitionist conductors would get them first to Cincinnati, then to freedom. And in the post-Civil War years, the city became full of Germans, Irish and immigrants from all over Europe, like many Midwestern towns. In that stew of America simmered new ideas about cuisine.
For some immigrant families, the key to prosperity in America was to do what they knew. And for them, cooking their homeland cuisines for a new audience was one way to open the door to prosperity. Some restaurateurs may fail to introduce new flavors to the American McPallate. Others take advantage of the melting pot and conjure whole new concepts in a fusion of new flavors. That was the case of the “Cincinnati Chili”—the great comfort food of the Ohio River Valley.
In the Great Gatsby era of Prohibition, two immigrant brothers—the Kiradjieff’s—opened a small food stand next to the Empress Theater burlesque in downtown Cincinnati. Serving up their native foods of the Balkans, with the rich Ottoman spices and Slavic-Macedonian stews, they tried to introduce new foods to the burlesque devotees. Perhaps exhausted from the exotica within the theater, the patrons didn’t seem to take to the kabobs and goulash. So, the brothers began some variations on common themes. The Kiradjieff’s figured out a cheap way to make a serviceable chili without too much fluff. They took the bland spaghetti sauce and began to doctor it. They simmered a tomato based meat sauce like a chili, but deconstructed the chili down to its core elements—pepper, beef, tomato and fat. To bring in those favorite flavors of their native land, they added in their own blend of secret spices. That sauce, over spaghetti noodles, was toppled with a monolith of finely grated cheddar. And to help with sopping up the sauce, they garnished the dish in New England oyster crackers.
But what to call this duckbill platypus of food? No Texan would recognize this dish as a true chili. Chili is in a bowl, not on a plate. And spaghetti is never so spicy, nor served with cheddar. The brothers names their food after their adopted home, and called the meat sauce after the common American chili. And so, Cincinnati Chili was born.
Empress Chili, their restaurant named for their burlesque house neighbor, remained the ruler of the Cincinnati chili craze for many years, until other immigrants saw their own opportunities to improve upon the idea. And, as the chili was the headliner on the menu, the diners became known as “chili parlors”—adding a bit of class to an otherwise sloppy meal. Each locale came up with their own secretive recipe. While the original Empress closed down years ago, a few Empress parlors remain. Others have capitalized and franchised the regional favorite—Gold Star Chili and Skyline Chili reigning supreme in our present day.
The chili parlor, the secrets to the chili sauce and the local color in my mind create a different “Society of the Cincinnati”–one whose fealty to the local favorite remains unchallenged.
The chili is ordered in the same way you might buy a car. The base model is the chili sauce proper. From there, a numbering system gives you the add-ons, and will cost you a few nickels more:
- The chili bowl: A naked chili
- Two-Way: The chili, atop a mountain of spaghetti on an oval diner plate.
- Three-Way: The triumvirate of chili, spaghetti and the cheddar.
- Four-way: All of the above, with either kidney beans or onions
- Five-way: All of the above, beans and onions.
Now, as this dish is neither a true chili—eaten with a spoon—nor spaghetti, there is the issue of the eating. You can’t just twirl the noodles e Italiano, for you will lose the toppings and make a heck of a mess. No, the trick is in the oval dish. The dish is served north-to-south—the oblong plate pointing right at the guest. Using the edge of the fork, the diner cuts into the mound—severing the noodles and preserving the layering of the cheese and sauce. From there, bite-sized morsels are carved from the whole, using the fork as a scoop. Natives may chuckle at the foreigner trying to use their utensils in the incorrect manner when taking on this dish. Do not let such a fate come to you.
Cincinnati Chili is a regional favorite, one that the chain “Skyline Chili” has down well enough. While the chains have kept the Cincinnati chili alive for the people, finding a good mom and pop version of the original is difficult. I have to imagine that the old Kiradjieff version with fresh spices and herbs would put the fast-food chain version to shame. To make your own, as my Midwestern ex-patriot wife and I do, you need the spices of the east with the palate of the Midwest.
I offer up our variation–and membership in the Society of the Cincinnati Chili–-to you.
- Oval diner plates. Go buy ’em.
- Cheap spaghetti noodles. No artisan stuff. This is Midwestern fare.
- 1 lb sharp cheddar for the monolith atop the plate. Shred finely. Don’t cheat with pre-shredded. Also, for the Whole Foods crowd, the cheddar ought to be bright yellow, not safely white.
- 1 lb ground beef. You are going to want a good beef to fat ratio 93/7 is about right.
- 1/2 c. water
- 2 teaspoons corn starch or arrowroot (ground)
- 28 oz. beef stock (or broth)
- at least 6oz tomato paste (more to taste)
- 1 bottle Moerlein Beer.
The spice mix is a potpourri of spice blends that would make a Turkish bazaar proprietor proud. There is a persistent myth about what makes this chili so sweet. Some people are convinced that chocolate or espresso are in the mix. The trick is in the use of cardamon–the cool, potent Indian spice simmering with the sweet tomato sauce. Hacking this recipe requires an amalgam of online recipes, trial and error, and proof of the pudding (in the happy eating by your banqueters). The key is not to let those traditional chili flavors overwhelm the new spices.
- 4 tsp. chili powder
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. ground cardamon (to taste as well)
- 1 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp. ground allspice
- 1/4 tsp. cayanne pepper
- 1/4 tsp. coriander
- 1/4 tsp garlic powder
- 1/8 tsp. ground black pepper
Brown the ground beef, then drain the fat if you are prudish. Mash the beef with a potato masher or fork until the ground beef is very small, Coney-sauceesque, or the size of tic-tacs or perhaps risotto. Add the cornstarch or arrowroot to the water, making a slurry to help thicken the sauce. Add in the slurry to the beef, and then all of the ingredients. Simmer for 60-90 minutes, tasting a bit as you go along, tweaking the spices to preference.
As the sauce simmers, open the Cincinnati-based Moerlein beer. Drink from bottle. Boil up some spaghetti noodles to al dente or soggy, whatever your preference. Drain. Shred the cheese whist you wait. One the sauce has thickened enough to put over spaghetti noodles, remove from heat. Top off with finely shredded cheddar (3-way), raw white onion (4-way) and if you must, cooked kidney beans (5-way). Oyster crackers are superfluous.
One you have mastered this level, dear initiate, you will be welcome into the Society of the Cincinnati Chili.
Cincinnati Chili History Source: The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili By Dann Woellert http://books.google.com/books?id=B6mh0iOdtWYC&lpg=PP1&dq=cincinnati%20chili&pg=PA10#v=onepage&q=cincinnati%20chili&f=false