Chili, Your Way, Any Way, in Cincinnati

By Ben Chapman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 13, 2009; 8:27 PM

"You'll never see anyone eating it like that," said Tom Yunger, owner of a Skyline Chili parlor in north-central Cincinnati. "You're twirling it." I drop my fork, chastened. After that faux pas, it's obvious I'm a Cincinnati chili virgin. How was I to know that, in this southern Ohio town, when a plate of spaghetti lands in front of you, topped with what looks like bolognese sauce, you're supposed to cut it with a fork and scoop?

Yunger was one of my many culinary mentors during a recent chili-fueled weekend in the city that eats the savory specialty morning, noon and night. "I try to start my day off with a couple Coneys," he said, referring to the version that employs a wiener as its delivery system.

For food that breaks all the rules of chili -- it's sweet, not spicy; it doesn't contain beans unless you ask for them, and it's served on spaghetti, of all things -- Cincinnati chili sure has a lot of them. Its basic components are ground beef in a tomato base. But instead of Texas-style heat, it packs spices normally used in holiday cookies: cocoa, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.

"If you think of it as chili, you'll be disappointed," said local food blogger Julie Niesen over a meal consisting of four varieties of Coney and one plate of maxed-out chili at Dixie Chili & Deli, on the Cincinnati border in Kentucky. "If you think of it as meat sauce, you'll be less disappointed."

The dish in its simplest form (just the meat mixture) is listed on menus as "chili bowl." Oyster crackers come on the side, to be crushed on top for crunch or eaten separately; some people fill them with hot sauce like miniature jelly donuts. From there, the dish starts accumulating layers and complexity of flavors and textures. It can be ordered with pasta: "spaghetti chili" in culinary parlance. Add a layer of shredded cheddar cheese for a "three-way," toss in fresh chopped onions for a "four-way" or mix red beans onto the growing stack for a "five-way." A few parlors go the distance with a "six-way," which incorporates one final ingredient, such as fresh garlic or jalapeƱos. To up the protein quotient, the establishments also pair the chili with Twinkie-length wieners. The standard Coney is dressed with the beef concoction, mustard and onions; cheese can be layered on as well.

Even crazier than the culinary configurations is that, over the decades, nearly 300 chili parlors have popped up around the Cincinnati area. That works out to about one per 1,000 inhabitants. No wonder locals eat it so much; it's unavoidable.

"It's about as Cincinnati as anything can be," politician David Pepper said over a Coney (for him) and a three-way (for me) at Price Hill Chili, on the west side.

Despite the Chef Boyardee-style elements, Cincinnati chili owes more to Mediterranean cuisine than Southwest, Italian or canned cuisine. The dish originated in a downtown burlesque theater called the Empress, created by Greek immigrant Tom Kiradjieff, who ran a hot-dog stand there during the 1920s. Not satisfied with serving just dogs, he started making a unique sauce flavored with spices commonly found in such popular Greek dishes as lamb, lasagna-style pastitsio and eggplant-based moussaka. By the end of the decade, Kiradjieff was running his own storefront, Cincinnati's very first chili parlor.

A handful of Empress outposts are still scattered around the city, serving chili made at a central commissary. But the real players are the folks who came after Kiradjieff: a handful of families from the same region in northern Greece who were inspired by his recipe's success. Despite their competition, the second- and third-generation chilimakers are close socially and attend the same Greek Orthodox church.

Many of those pioneers and their offspring still work vigorously in and out of the kitchen. The cinnamon-infused chili, they say, keeps them virile. "I just finished eating a five-way," said Camp Washington Chili owner John Johnson, who founded his parlor in 1940 and still stirs the mixture and assembles the plates with verve. "I never get tired of it."

Camp Washington customers never tire of it, either: A man once ate 18 Coneys in a sitting. I notched just one three-way while talking with Johnson, but it was only 9 in the morning.

The chefs guard their secret blends jealously. After I downed a six-way with chopped garlic at Dixie Chili (smells as bad as it tastes good), co-owner Spiros Sarakatsannis agreed to show me the walk-in vault where he combines the spices.

"I order them in different quantities at different times, from places all over the world, so that no one can figure out the formula," he said. "I'm the only one who mixes them." The spices are stored in unmarked bins. Sarakatsannis seems like a nice man, but I'm a little nervous of what might happen if I keep asking him about his chili.

At Yunger's Skyline Chili, one of more than 130 franchised shops in Ohio and adjoining states, I finish my three-way and am licking the fork when Yunger tells me that many of his customers patronize the store their entire lives. Famous fashionista Sarah Jessica Parker attended a performing arts school in Cincinnati, and the Ohio native reportedly ate a lot of chili. "When she comes to town, she gets a jumbo three-way," he said. "If you saw how little she is, you wouldn't know where she puts it."

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