My Citizens Supreme! Tremble before the rare indecision of your usually-constant Northstar – the Caliph of Chili, the Suzerain of Spice, YOUR TFD! – for I am indeed conflicted in my heart-of-hearts as I write this post! If you are concerned for my mental well-being because I put an Arabic translation for a U.S. classic recipe – fear not, my grip on sanity may be tenuous at best, but there is indeed a reason as to why and it shall be revealed soon enough.
You may not be aware that I am a Champion of the professional chili scene, being a member of the International Chili Society for several years now and a certifiable LEGEND in the organization for being the only member to ever win a cookoff on my very first attempt! Usually, this takes a decade of membership and hundreds of cookoffs before finally eking out a win – and I did it on my very first showing!
Since I won a regional-level cookoff (even harder to win than the standard contest!) I progressed immediately to the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP cookoff, where I placed 33rd out of 175 entrants (had I not made a stupid mistake of having my meat pre-cut by a butcher who did a terrible job, I would have made the top 20 according to the Judges!).
So – all of this is being shared as a way to establish my chili bona fides – and you need to understand the one incontrovertible rule of the ICS is that NO chili made in competition can have any beans or fillers.
This chili has both, and in excess…
…and it’s spiced with middle eastern spices…
…and it has chocolate in it…
…and it’s served over spaghetti…
…and it’s garnished with oyster crackers.
Still with me? Good – because while I’ll be the first to admit this is the most bizarre “chili” made on planet Earth, it’s also delicious and a true scion of the great city of Cincinnati, as much a part of the fabric of the place as the Reds and the Bengals. Follow in my revolutionary footsteps as I lead you down the path to the final destination of the world’s most unusual meat sauce masquerading as chili!
Cincinnati chili (or Cincinnati-style chili) is a Mediterranean-spiced meat sauce used as a topping for spaghetti or hot dogs (“coneys”); both dishes were developed by Macedonian immigrant restaurateurs in the 1920s. In 2013, Smithsonian named it one of “20 Most Iconic Foods in America”. Its name evokes comparison to chili con carne, but the two are dissimilar in consistency, flavors and serving methods, which for Cincinnati chili more resemble Greek pasta sauces and the spiced-meat hot dog topping sauces seen in other parts of the United States.
It is indeed very common for Cincinnatians to describe it starting with, “Well, it’s not really chili…” Cincinnati Enquirer food editor Chuck Martin and Cincinnati Magazine dining editor Donna Covrett agree, “It is not chili.” It is normally of a thin consistency, closer to a soup than a stew, and contains no vegetables or chunks of meat, though it is common to find large pieces of cayenne pepper hulls in Empress chili. The flavors, consistency and serving method are more similar to Greek pasta sauces or the spiced meat sauces used to top hot dogs in Rochester and other parts of Upstate New York, Rhode Island, and Michigan than they are to chili con carne.
Ingredients include ground beef, water or stock, tomato paste, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, cumin, chili powder, bay leaf, and in some home recipes unsweetened dark chocolate in a soupy consistency. Dishes are often served with oyster crackers and a mild hot sauce. Cincinnati chili is almost never served or eaten by the bowl. Cincinnati chili is a Mediterranean-spiced meat sauce for spaghetti or hot dogs, and is very seldom eaten by the bowl as is typical with chili con carne.
While served in many local restaurants, it is most often associated with the over 250 independent and chain “chili parlors” (restaurants specializing in Cincinnati chili) found throughout greater Cincinnati with franchise locations throughout Ohio and in Kentucky, Indiana, and Florida. The dish is the Cincinnati area’s best-known regional food in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Cincinnati chili originated with immigrant restaurateurs from Greece who were trying to expand their customer base by moving beyond narrowly ethnic styles of cuisine. Slavic Macedonians Tom and John Kiradjieff immigrated from Argos Orestiko, fleeing the Balkan Wars, ethnic rivalries, and bigotry, in 1921. They began serving a “stew with traditional Mediterranean spices” as a topping for hot dogs which they called “coneys” in 1922 at their hot dog stand located next to a burlesque theater called the Empress, which they named their business after.
Tom Kiradjieff used the sauce to come up with a dish he called chili spaghetti. He first developed a recipe calling for the spaghetti to be cooked in the chili but changed his method in response to customer requests and began serving the sauce as a topping, eventually adding grated cheese as a topping for both the chili spaghetti and the coneys, also in response to customer requests.
To make ordering more efficient, the brothers created the “way” system of ordering – and yes, I will make a very geeky Star Wars joke to say: “This is the Way.” 😉
The style has since been copied and modified by many other restaurant proprietors, often fellow Greek and Macedonian immigrants who had worked at Empress restaurants before leaving to open their own chili parlors, often following the business model to the point of locating their restaurants adjacent to theaters.
Empress was the largest chili parlor chain in Cincinnati until 1949, when a former Empress employee and Greek immigrant, Nicholas Lambrinides, started Skyline Chili. In 1965, four brothers named Daoud, immigrants from Jordan, bought a restaurant called Hamburger Heaven from a former Empress employee. They noticed that the Cincinnati chili was outselling the hamburgers on their menu and changed the restaurant’s name to Gold Star Chili.
As of 2015, Skyline (over 130 locations) and Gold Star (89 locations) were the largest Cincinnati chili parlor chains, while Empress had only two remaining locations, down from over a dozen during the chain’s most successful period.
Besides Empress, Skyline, and Gold Star, there are also smaller chains such as Dixie Chili and Deli and numerous independents including the acclaimed Camp Washington Chili. Other independents include Pleasant Ridge Chili, Blue Ash Chili, Park Chili Parlor, Price Hill Chili, Chili Time, Orlando-based Cincinnati Chili Company, and the Blue Jay Restaurant, in all totaling more than 250 chili parlors. In 1985 one of the founders of Gold Star Chili, Fahid Daoud, returned to Jordan, where he opened his own parlor, called Chili House. Outside of Jordan, Chili House as of 2020 had locations in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Oman, Palestine, Turkey and Qatar.
If you were puzzled as to why I have Arabic in the recipe title – now you understand! 😀 Ironically, the “chili” denigrated by Texans, New Mexicans and elsewhere in the United States is ACTUALLY the most popular style of chili in the world!
The history of Cincinnati chili shares many factors in common with the apparently independent but simultaneous development of the Coney Island hot dog in other areas of the United States. Virtually all were developed by Greek or Macedonian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island as they fled the fallout from the Balkan Wars in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Ordering Cincinnati chili is based on a specific ingredient series: chili, spaghetti, shredded cheddar cheese, diced onions, and kidney beans. The number before the “way” of the chili determines which ingredients are included in each chili order. Customers order a:
- Two-way: spaghetti topped with chili (also called “chili spaghetti”)
- Three-way: spaghetti, chili, and cheese
- Four-way onion: spaghetti, chili, onions, and cheese (this is TFD‘s go-to)
- Four-way bean: spaghetti, chili, beans, and cheese
- Five-way: spaghetti, chili, beans, onions, and cheese
Very few customers order a bowl of plain chili and most chili parlors do not even offer plain chili as a regular menu item. Polly Campbell, food editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, calls ordering a bowl of chili, “Ridiculous. Would you order a bowl of spaghetti sauce? Because that’s what you’re doing.” Locals eat Cincinnati chili as if it were a casserole, cutting each bite with the side of the fork instead of twirling the noodles.
So – now that we have established that Cincinnati chili isn’t REALLY chili but rather a spiced meat sauce for spaghetti, all your doubts (and mine) melt away like hoarfrost under a rising Autumn sun. So – how does TFD bring his unique stamp to such a recipe? Through my unique spicing blend, which uses all the classic ones found in all Cincinnati chilis, but in my preferred ratios. This includes less cinnamon than is typical, as I am not fond of that spice – but my unique spice blend is truly delicious and you won’t notice its lessened impact. I prefer this brand of pre-made chili powder for use in this recipe.
I also prefer to barely simmer my chili for 2 hours, as opposed to a higher heat low-boil used in most recipes – you really want those spices infused into the sauce! Should you desire to actually use this as a Coney sauce for a hot dog, it is absolutely authentic when used in that context as well! My Citizens, I am very proud of this sui generis dish and hope to visit the great city of Cincinnati soon after the end of the pandemic to taste it in situ! This would be delicious served with another unique Ohio dish as an appetizer – this one from the Rubber city of Akron!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
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