Cincinnati is the Chili Capital of the United States and, likely, the world. The city has more Chili parlors per capita and square mileage than any other city on the continent. But, the Chili produced, sold, and consumed in the Cincinnati area is not truly “Chili” as you may know it.
Cincinnati Chili is very unique and quite different from its western cousin. In fact, about the only relation it has are the meat, cumin and chili powder it contains. After that, the recipe takes an interesting twist. Cincinnati style chili is unique to the area and you won’t find it too far outside the greater Cincinnati area, with the exception of Florida.
In 1922, a Macedonian immigrant, Tom Athanas Kiradjieff settled in Cincinnati with his brother, John. Together they opened a hot dog stand 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, 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. He also came up with the idea of selling his Chili in ‘ways’, which is also unique to the area.
Today, Cincinnati Chili is still assembled by hand and sold the way Tom used to sell his: ‘Two Way’ means spaghetti topped with chili; ‘Three Way’ is spaghetti topped with chili and grated cheddar cheese; ‘Four Way’ is spaghetti topped with chili, grated cheese and chopped onions; and finally the ‘Five Way’ is kidney beans or chili beans placed on the plate then topped with spaghetti, chili, onions and grated cheese.
When you stop in a Cincinnati chili parlor you must also have a ‘Coney.’ The history of this quasi sandwich is somewhat vague, but Uncle Tom gets the credit for this, also. Seems that, en route to Cincinnati; he passed through the Coney Island area of New York. Later when he decided to cover one of his hot dogs on a bun with yellow mustard, Cincinnati Chili, and onions, then topped with finely grated Cheddar Cheese, he named it a ‘Coney Island’ and the name sticks to this day. ‘Coneys’, as the locals call them, are now made with a hot dog that is a bit smaller and shorter than a regular wiener, to allow more room for the chili and other goodies that go on top.
Oh yeah, about those oyster crackers: an oyster cracker is made the same way as a saltine cracker except it is a 6-sided concoction, about the diameter of your thumb, and hollow. They are the only crackers served with Cincinnati Chili and are a perfect match. Why they are called ‘oyster’ I am not sure, but I suppose it has to do with their shape and the fact they are a hollow shell. If you don’t know what one is, or what they look like, hop on the inter-webs and type in “oyster cracker” see what comes up. If that fails, seek out the Skyline Chili page to find an example.
Today the largest Cincinnati Chili parlor chain in Cincinnati AND the world is Goldstar Chili. Goldstar’s Customer Service line informed me that Gold Star serves 1,000,000 pounds of cheese and 3,000,000 pounds of chili a year. Another fun fact: the largest Coney ever made was 102 feet long and weighed over 180 pounds! Goldstar Chili has around 100 stores in the Greater Cincinnati area.
The next largest chain is Skyline Chili with 59 stores in the area. Around Cincinnati are numerous little, one-store operations selling this amazing concoction of Greek heritage, in spite of the giant size and output of Goldstar and Skyline, there is one tiny Chili parlor that has out-shined them all, Camp Washington Chili. In 1985, Camp Washington Chili was featured on the CBS Morning News as the best-rated Chili in the nation. And the reputation is well earned. For 60 years, the same, single little restaurant has been owned and operated by the same Greek family, who by the way, close down the parlor every July to go in vacation.
I’ve lived in the Cincinnati area all my life and have eaten enough Coneys, bowls of Chili and Four Ways to kill a normal human. Whether it’s 1pm for lunch or 1 am on the way home, it’s pure comfort food!
That’s the abridged version of Cincinnati Chili that isn’t a Chili as you may usually think of Chili. If you find yourself in the Cincinnati area, stop and have a ‘Four Way’ (my favorite) and a Coney on the side. Fair Warning, don’t make the mistake of asking for a ‘Three Way’ in other regions of the country….you might just end up with something quite different!
From my days (and nights ) attending U.C. I’m partial to Ludlow Skyline. I want to know how YOU typically order Cincinnati Chili and what is your favorite Parlor?
With 20+ years experience in residential and investment real estate, sales, property management and consultation, Matt is an Ohio licensed Realtor currently working as Sales Manger at Real Property Management. Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter
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