Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Ohio II - C-H-I-L-I in Cincinnati

In this State-by-State series we have encountered several varieties of truly American dishes.  Doesn't matter if they originated here: they are made here in enough different varieties by now that they are Americanized.  I've made a few types of clam chowder (Connecticut and Massachusetts), potato salads (DC and Mississippi), cole slaws (Missouri, North Carolina and, again, DC), fry breads (Minnesota and New Mexico) and barbecue (again, Missouri and North Carolina).  Plus, we're bound once again to see fried chicken (Maryland so far).  But where has chili been through all this?  It's been waiting for Ohio to pop up, quietly.

Official Name: State of Ohio
State Nicknames: The Buckeye State, The Mother of Presidents
Admission to the US: March 1, 1803 (#17)
Capital: Columbus (largest)
Other Important Cities: Cleveland (2nd largest), Cincinnati (3rd largest), Toledo (4th largest), Akron (5th largest)
Region: Midwest, Great Lakes; East North Central (US Census)
RAFT NationsMaple SyrupWild RiceChestnutCorn Bread & BBQ
Bordered by: Lake Erie (north); Michigan (northwest); Indiana (west); Ohio River (south); Kentucky (southwest); West Virginia (southeast); Pennsylvania (east)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: white-tailed deer (mammal), tomato (fruit), pawpaw (native fruit), tomato juice (beverage)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: typical Midwestern foods; city chicken (no longer common); ethnic European foods, particularly German (bratwurst, German potato salad, sauerkraut) & Amish foods, Polish, Italian and Irish; buckeye candies; Shaker lemon pie; Cincinnati chili, sauerkraut balls and (again) bratwurst

Most non-vegetarians who have been to southwestern Ohio's largest city, and certainly anyone who lives there, is familiar with the legendary Cincinnati chili.  For the rest of us, it's a slightly weird mishmash of things you do normally see in chili and things you don't.  It's shredded cheddar cheese on top of raw chopped onions on top of hot kidney beans, on top of a pork and beef chili flavored with tomato sauce and many spices (including cinnamon, cloves and allspice, which don't usually feature in chili).  Here's where it gets particularly weird: it's served over spaghetti.  Ah, those Midwesterners and their unique uses for spaghetti!  At the very least it's the chili and spaghetti.  The other toppings aren't always included, but if they are, that's what you call "five-way" Cincinnati-style chili.

What are the origins of Cincinnati chili?  Cliff Lowe notes on the In Mama's Kitchen website that the likely origins of Cincinnati's unique chili dates to 1922, to a pair of brothers who emigrated from Macedonia:
...Tom Athanas Kiradjieff settled in Cincinnati with his brother, John. He opened a hot dog stand, which he named 'Empress' and sold hot dogs and Greek food. He did a lousy business because, at that time, the large majority of the inhabitants were of German heritage, and nobody in the area knew anything about Greek food, and weren't thrilled by it.
Tom was not to be defeated. He took a Greek stew, maintained the Mediterranean spices of Cinnamon and Cloves [sic], changed the meat to ground beef, and added other spices, such as chili powder, to the mix and began to sell this stew over spaghetti and called it 'Chili.' It proved to be a successful experiment. [Lowe, date unknown]
Since then Cincinnati-style chili has become an important and uniquely Midwestern and uniquely Greek contribution to America's chili landscape.  And even though I have never been to Cincinnati, I'm getting the chance to make it here.

The Recipe: Cincinnati Chili

Though there are several versions of this recipe, I am using Marcia Adams' version from her Heartland cookbook, pages  182 to 183 (I halved her recipe).  The ingredients list seemed intimidating, but the recipe itself is not.  Mostly it's just throwing most of the ingredients together.

For the chili you will need:

* equal parts of ground pork and ground beef (the beef I got for about $5 a lb at Harris Teeter - it was Angus beef, but I only got half a pound of it.  The pork I got for about $4 a lb at Whole Foods)
* celery (had it)
* onions (you will also need some chopped raw onion as a topping, as noted below)
* tomato sauce (I just bought some canned tomatoes for less than a dollar a can and emptied the can into the blender.  Simple tomato sauce)
* tomato paste (had it)
* lemon juice (had it; preferably fresh; no one will rat on you if you use it from a bottle)
* allspice (was out of it: bought some at Fresh Market for about $3)
* bay leaves (had them but they were old.  Replaced them for about $3, also from Fresh Market)
* chili powder, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, salt and black pepper (had it all)
* garlic (had it)
* sugar (just a little - had it)

You will also need water for this part.  And you aren't eating this chili by itself.  You need to add a few things after the fact:

* kidney beans (hot - a can is a little over $1 at Harris Teeter)
* cheddar cheese ($3 or $4 for a block of Vermont Cheddar cheese at Harris Teeter)
* yet more chopped onions (had it)
* spaghetti (I was actually out - bad Italian-American, bad bad!  I prefer thin spaghetti to the regular fat kind, and got it for about $1 a box.  Preferably you will toss this with a little olive oil)

Go ahead and grind those spices that aren't already powdered - for me, the allspice, cloves and black pepper.

And yes, get the tomato sauce ready.

Throw all of the chili ingredients together, cover, and bring to a boil

Break that up with your fingers and drop it into the pot.

Again, bring to a boil, this time uncovered.

I added a little cayenne for kick.  I didn't add nearly enough for my liking.

Leave this to simmer for one to two hours, again uncovered, until it is as thick as you want it to be (or until you lose your patience).  I originally had wanted to do this step in the slow cooker, but because it must stay uncovered I let go of that option, since you don't typically leave a slow cooker uncovered.  I probably could have, but just didn't feel like going through the trouble.

Meanwhile, prep your toppings: shred the cheese, chop the onions and heat the kidney beans.

Take your spaghetti...

...and break it in half.  Boil until done.  Do this step about 10 minutes before you plan to serve the chili.

And now to construct your Cincinnati chili, the proper way (according to Marcia Adams at least): put your spaghetti in a flat bottomed bowl.

Layer on top with the chili.

Next, add the kidney beans.

Then the raw onions.

And finally the Cheddar cheese.

Well, this is indeed like no other chili I have eaten.  The blend of spices is unusual, and it does make for a nice flavor.  It doesn't really get lost amid all these toppings, and makes for a hearty, filling and not exactly diet-friendly dish.  This will fill you up.  Several sources say to add oyster crackers (yet another strange addition), but I'm good with my chili five ways.


Adams, Marcia. Heartland: The Best of the Old and the New from Midwest Kitchens. Clarkson Potter: New York, 1991.

Christina (blog author).  "Sauerkraut Balls".  Sweet Pea's Kitchen, posted February 5, 2012.  Copyright 2010-2012 Sweet Pea's Kitchen, all rights reserved.

Lowe, Cliff.  "The Life and Times of Chili Cincinnati Chili - Part Two" [sic].  In Mama's Kitchen, date unknown.  Copyright 2012 In Mama's Kitchen, all rights reserved.

"Ohio's Favorite: Buckeye Candy Recipe".  Recipe postcard, date unknown.

University of Akron Press.  "Akronisms: Sauerkraut Balls".  An Akronism, posted June 9, 2010.  Copyright 2012 University of Akron Press, all rights reserved.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Ohio" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Ohio".

Special thanks to Eric Randolph for making the buckeyes with me, for offering the use of his kitchen, and for giving me his advice in making buckeye candy and in preparing bratwurst.