Diner: A Little Local Flavor

Maybe we need to call it Cincinnati 'sauce'

Mar 26, 2003 at 2:06 pm

I'm thinking of mounting a campaign to rechristen "Cincinnati-style chili" something else. Surely I'm not the first or only person to think it's a good idea. In this era where marketing counts for so much and where image — even a false or misleading one — can make or break a product, wouldn't you agree it behooves us to be clearer about the nature of our regional chili?

Think about how long it takes to issue the disclaimer to the uninitiated when introducing them to the chili. It's like saying, "Have some mock-apple pie ... no, there's no apples in it." Or "Taste some sweetbreads ... well, to tell you the truth, they're animal innards." How about "Help yourself to eggplant ... honestly, I don't know why. No trace of eggs." My favorite example of food schizophrenia or marketing mind-screw is Circus Peanuts. They are colored orange, shaped like a peanut, and banana-flavored.

Why their sadistic inventor created them thus is one of life's great questions.

My point being: We could take over the damn world if we could just get people to eat Cincinnati-style chili. But calling it chili is keeping people from loving it. It isn't chili, and we should get the word out: Chili, no; freakin' delicious, yes!

If we called it simply "Cincinnati sauce," how much more exposure and cachet would it get? Like its cousins, Bolognese or Marinara, it could become a staple at restaurants across the globe. Somehow, although Cincinnati is acknowledged to be the chili capital of the world, Texas chili has bulldozed its way into the national, if not the international, consciousness and taken over. (Pushy — just like Texas!).

So, to the non-native, there's no avoiding the first disappointment of taking a bite of the local chili and tasting that unique mix of flavors. The brain of the outsider holds the conflicting data of the word "chili" next to the magnificent melding of spices and meat, and synapses begin to fritz and sputter. Everyone who writes about the stuff says something like, "You either love it or you hate it." But I think a more accurate statement would be, "You can either get past the fact that it doesn't taste like chili, or you can't." If you can, your life has undergone a pleasant and irrevocable metamorphosis, and you are a Cincinnati chili fan for the blessed rest of your days.

After weeks of sampling varieties of the local product in restaurants, I bought a can of the Skyline two-way the other day and emptied it into a saucepan. The data my eyes gave me were not auspicious. It looked like vomit. Or worse: diarrhea. It looked like diarrhea with worms in it.

I hastily turned on the heat and stirred frantically, willing my brain to shut up and come on board. "It's Skyline, it's Skyline, it's Skyline" was my mantra until the spicy scent began to waft up from the pan and I could relax. It was Skyline, after all. Once again, Cincinnati chili forces me to negate what my brain is telling me and simply to have faith. Sure enough, with a little micro-shredded mild cheddar, the resulting three-way was superb. Out of this world. Close your eyes; turn off your brain (with its rote definition of "chili" tucked away in your capacious memory banks) and eat the stuff. Manna from above.

These last few weeks I've tried a bunch of different chili-parlor offerings, but my favorites are cheese coneys. They are the cutest things in the world, and cuteness is a desirable quality in food. When something comes to you on a plate and makes you smile fondly at it before you devour it, wolflike, then all is right with the world. The sweet little tendrils of yellow cheese curling delicately around the edges of the teeny buns (oooh! those little buns!) — they look positively happy to be coneys, and poised to be inhaled by a fan of the finer things.

Comparing the main chili purveyors in the area has proven beyond my poor powers; like most sophisticated recipes, the subtle mutations of spices and ranges of texture among Skyline, Gold Star, Dixie and Camp Washington are cause for pleasant experimentation and sometimes for lively discussion. But, as in the case with Coke vs. Pepsi, preference is wholly subjective and mysterious. I always thought of myself as a Skyline girl until I began to partake more heavily of Gold Star. Now, I recognize the merits of both and go to each about equally often. Newport's venerable Dixie Chili restaurant is pleasant and clean, but the chili is the stuff only a die-hard fan would champion. The coneys in particular failed to wow me: rubbery and mushy.

If forced to state a preference, I'd go with Camp Washington, and not because it isn't a chain: I just find the food yummiest there. Though, speaking of chains, it should be noted that even the franchise chili places around here don't feel like fast food joints. They have a homey, family atmosphere that contributes in large part to the popularity of the food. Going to any Skyline restaurant has a natural advantage over eating at Wendy's. These chili parlors are restaurants, pure and simple.

If I had my way, fledgling Cincinnatian that I am, everyone would know and celebrate the virtue of the scrumptious beanless-spiced-beef-sauce-over-spaghetti that we call "chili." On good days, when I love all of humankind, I want to drive around the world and hand everyone a cheese coney and say, "There, now. Isn't life beautiful?"