In a few weeks my company will be having a chili cookoff. I’m looking forward to it for two reasons: first, I love good chili; second, I’m curious to see the ratio of Texas versus Cincinnati-style chili.
I live on the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio, and around here if you mention “chili,” people think of a plate of spaghetti draped with a sweet and tangy meat-based sauce, and crowned by a heaping mound of shredded cheddar cheese. This is Cincinnati chili. It’s an acquired taste; not bad once you get accustomed to it, although I don’t recommend anyone making it a regular part of their diet.
Cincinnati chili originated in the 1920s after an immigrant Greek family opened a restaurant here. The key ingredient in their signature recipe was a liquid meat sauce that had a mild cinnamon flavor.
This Greek-style chili became very popular. Success, of course, breeds imitators, and soon other chili parlors sprang up. Currently, there are two big chains of Cincinnati chili, Skyline and Gold Star, although there are many smaller chains and independent chili restaurants (many locals swear that Camp Washington Chili is the best, though to me they’re all very similar).
Like I said, the sauce is spooned over a pile of pasta, then topped with cheese. You have the option of adding red beans or onions, but the base ingredients are just spaghetti, meat sauce, and cheese. The combination is referred to as a “three-way.”
(Considering that Cincinnati is about as socially conservative as the hometown of Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, I’ve always gotten a kick out of the natives here casually referring to “three-ways”).
The chili is always served with a side order of oyster crackers. An alternative to the pasta concoction is the “coney,” which features the same sauce and cheese, but is accompanied by a pale, pathetic-looking hot dog, all stuffed inside a small bun. I’ve never understood the appeal of these coneys. Before moving to Cincinnati I lived in Chicago and had the opportunity to indulge in Maxwell Street Polishes. Going from a Maxwell Street Polish to a Cincinnati coney was like going from the Sphinx to a pink flamingo.
Regardless, I really do like the chili here in Cincinnati. It’s a guilty pleasure… like playing cornhole, or watching “Wheel of Fortune.”
But I much prefer the Texas variety of chili, known down in the Lone Star State as a “bowl o’ red.” As everyone knows, Texans love to brag ad nauseam about their peculiar state. But the one thing they have a right to brag about is their chili.
Instead of slimy pasta, the base ingredient in Texas chili is MEAT; either beef or pork, or possibly armadillo or rattlesnake. Instead of cinnamon, Texas-style chili uses cumin and hot chile peppers or powder, such as red cayenne, jalapeno, serrano, or habanero (see header photo).
Tomato and beans are frowned on for Texas chili. Both are more Mexican than Texan. But I’m a Yankee, so I’ll risk getting hogtied and tossed in the Rio Grande and proclaim that I like pinto beans in my chili.
(Note that I said pinto beans. I wouldn’t think of polluting my chili with kidney beans, which so many cafeterias and cheap diners have been doing since before Lyndon Johnson began soiling his diapers).
Meat, chile peppers, and seasoning: those are the core ingredients of Texas chili. Like 12-bar blues music, there are endless variations that can evolve from this basic formula. I’ve improvised and come up with a couple of my own recipes. One is slightly Texan, the other is somewhere north (or south) of the border. Both are simple and easy to fix. Here are the ingredients for both:
Durango Dead Buzzard Chili: contains ground beef, pinto beans (uh-oh), chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce (here comes the rope), French’s chili seasoning (don’t laugh, it adheres to the meat and tastes great), chopped onions, red cayenne pepper, and beer (optional).
Yuma Snake Venom Chili (derived from a recipe received from my aunt in Tucson, who got it from some chef in Yuma, and which I’ve “doctored” over the years): contains ground pork or pork sausage, chopped tomatoes (uh-oh), chopped onion, diced jalapeno or habanero chiles, ground cumin, red cayenne pepper, garlic powder, black pepper, salt, and tequila (mandatory).
I’ll add that Texas chili tastes best after it’s been refrigerated then reheated. For a beverage, I prefer a cold beer, though not too dark or heavy. As a side dish, I like either cornbread or corn tortilla chips. To aid digestion, I recommend the music of ZZ Top, or any Chicago-style blues.
Some of you may be wondering if I’ll be entering my chili in the company cookoff. I don’t think so. Many years ago I submitted a sample of my Yuma Snake Venom Chili to one of the fishwraps in suburban Cincinnati, which was sponsoring a contest. I think my chili may have been the only one that didn’t include pasta, cheese, or cinnamon. I never learned the results of the cookoff, and I never heard from the newspaper.
I’m guessing my submission lacked one or more ingredients. Or, maybe the combination of tequila, cayenne, and habaneros proved too lethal for delicate Mason, Ohio. But I wish I’d have been at the tasting, if only to see the look on the judges’ faces.
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