Spreading the Chili Gospel

If there's one thing people from Cincinnati love, it's chili. We love eating it, and we love talking about it. Those of us who have moved away from the area have cans of chili and spice packets ma

Apr 16, 2008 at 2:06 pm

If there's one thing people from Cincinnati love, it's chili. We love eating it, and we love talking about it.
Those of us who have moved away from the area have cans of chili and spice packets mailed to us. When we return home, it's often the first thing we eat, and then we continue to eat it on a daily basis to hold us over 'til next time.

Another thing we love is making people who aren't from Cincinnati eat it.

Last summer, I made a decision that many Cincinnatians in their twenties make: to leave town and live somewhere else. Since moving across the country, I've forced canned chili upon many of my new friends, only to find that most of them think Cincinnati chili — specifically Skyline — isn't that big of a deal.

Since most people I know from home seem to have a substance abuse issue when it comes to Skyline, I'm still caught off-guard when someone isn't elated upon tasting this wildly delicious and comforting dish for the first time.

I recently made Skyline three-ways for my two roommates, one who went to college in Cincinnati and one from Minneapolis. The Minneapolis roommate sat silently while we chiliphiles reminisced about chili days past.

"Did you ever see Alan and Stevo go to the chili eating contests? They used to eat, like, three three-ways and four cheese coneys. It was so awesome!"

"When I worked at Skyline, the old people would bitch about the price of coneys. 'I remember when cheese coneys were a nickel!' "

"Oh, this brings back memories. I wish I were drunk right now."

My chili-appreciating friend and I did try to change the subject in order to be inclusive to the Minnesotan, but the conversation kept going back to all the fun times we had stuffing our faces with cheese-covered chili spaghetti and hot dog dishes in the middle of the night. We've now begun trying to recreate the experience for those who never had the pleasure of injesting these 1,000-calorie bombs at 3 a.m.

Those of us who prepare the homemade version outside Cincinnati just love watching people eat it for the first time. We get no greater joy than when the chili virgin enjoys the meal, and we enthusiastically embrace their naive questions about the cuisine.

"What is 'Skyline'?"

Skyline is to chili as Kleenex is to tissue.

"Wait, you put the chili on the noodles?"

Yes! See how exciting this is?

"Where are the beans?"

No, silly, beans are only on four-ways and five-ways. Baby steps.

"That's a lot of cheese."

Yes, it's obscene. That's how you have to do it!

"Do you ever actually feel good after you eat Skyline?"

No, but it doesn't matter, because it feels so good when you're chewing it.

"Is there a healthy version of this?"

Of course, they offer the low-carb bowl: two hot dogs in a bowl of chili. Duh!

"Hey, I'm switching planes in Cincinnati on my way to New York."

Eat some chili! They have Gold Star at the airport, and that's close enough for these purposes. Your unsophisticated chili palette won't know the difference.

When the chili newbie enjoys our concoction, we feel as though we've helped someone reach a heightened level of food enjoyment. To think they've come this far without ever passing such beefy gold through their digestive system. A travesty, really.

The same phenomenon of chili gospel applies to out-of-town visitors.

My friend once brought her boyfriend from Colorado to Cincinnati to meet her friends and family. We all converged at Northside Tavern, and immediately after introductions we pounded the poor guy with chili questions.

"Did Rachel take you to Skyline? What did you order? Did you like it? Did you like it?"

He thought the chili was OK. He thought we were truly insane. We haven't seen him since, and I wonder if the chili interrogation has anything to do with that.

Some people get it, though. I once treated a friend from Washington, D.C. to late night Skyline at the Clifton location.

"Oh, oh my gosh," he mumbled through a mouthful of steaming hot spaghetti. "This is the best drunk food I've ever had in my life."

I will never forget that victory, but I'm also aware that many who have witnessed a Cincinnatian's eyes light up with enthusiasm for teaching people about chili might think we're nuts. After all, do any other cities have such a loyal food following?

I've never heard of anyone from Baltimore or Seattle or Atlanta or Philadelphia having canned local food shipped to them "for an emergency or special occasion." With so many losing sports teams, depressing election results and a national reputation for weirdness (Jerry Springer, Marge Schott, Larry Flint, Maplethorpe censorship, race riots), this is the one thing we hold onto with pride.

Please know that those of us who have left Cincinnati probably miss the chili more than anything else. We're littered among many American cities, wielding cans of chili and an enthusiasm for preparing foreign fare.

Outsiders don't have to like it, but we demand to be humored. It's the only thing we have that might possibly impress them.

Contact Sara Bedinghaus: [email protected]. Living Out Loud appears here every week.