Prior to moving to Maine in 2006, I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio for nine years. The time I spent there was fairly unremarkable. Jerry Springer had already moved to Chicago, and Marge Schott—with her special brand of unpleasantry—was more or less out of the picture. Neither the Reds nor Bengals enjoyed much success in those years, so most sports fans pinned their hopes on Bob Huggins and the Cincinnati Bearcats, who had a bad habit of dominating Conference USA basketball all year long, only to fall apart in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament with regularity. (That too did not end well. Huggins had a massive heart attack in 2002, was arrested for DUI in 2004 and was suspended by UC shortly thereafter. He eventually resigned and left to coach at Kansas State.)
Still, I enjoyed my time in Cincinnati and I’m glad to have spent a portion of my life in that part of the country. I have many friends still there, and I try to get back at least once a year for a visit. When I do so, I usually make a beeline from the airport to the nearest Skyline Chili for a four-way with onions and some cheese coneys.
For the uninitiated, Skyline Chili is the best known purveyor of Cincinnati-style chili, a regional style of chili distinguished by the use of finely ground beef and ingredients such as chocolate, cloves and cinnamon. Unlike other types of chili, it is made without kidney beans (though you can add beans or onions… more on that later) and—because of its sauce-like consistency—is almost never served on its own in a bowl. Rather, it is served over spaghetti or hot dogs, topped with huge handfuls of bright yellow cheddar cheese.
Some people use the terms “Skyline” and “Cincinnati-style” synonymously due to the prominence of the restaurant chain (with more than 100 locations, mostly in Southwest Ohio, it is the most accessible of the chili parlors), but Skyline is actually just one of dozens of restaurants that serve this style of chili. As with many regional favorites, there is a great deal of debate about what is in the “secret” recipe and who originated it (though popular consensus seems to be that Empress Chili is the original).
I became acutely aware of Cincinnati-style chili shortly after arriving in the Queen City. In retrospect, it seems like it was just minutes after hooking up my television that I began seeing commercials for Skyline and its chief competitor, Gold Star.
While I became aware of Cincinnati-style chili almost immediately, it was almost a year before I summoned the courage to try it out for myself. To say that it is an acquired taste is an understatement. The texture, color and consistency closely resembles something you’d find in a baby’s diaper… after the baby has eaten a couple of microwave burritos and chugged a six pack of beer. In short, it looks nasty.
Not only did I have zero desire to try Cincinnati-style chili, I was insulted by its very existence and the fact that so many people seemed to love it so much (more than two million pounds of chili are eaten in Cincinnati every year). I can even remember a phone call home in which I verbally skewered my fellow Cincinnatians for their love of this foul concoction. “These hicks,” I seethed to my mother, “They put this disgusting-looking brown meat sauce over spaghetti and call it chili. That’s not chili!”
Eventually, worn down by a constant stream of tv and radio jingles that would put the brainwashing techniques in “The Manchurian Candidate” to shame—“Gold Star… the taste is takin’ over!” and “Heavenly shades of night are falling… it’s Skyline time” (yeah, they based it on The Platters’ “Twilight Time”)—my resolve buckled.
And so it was that I got my first dose of Skyline on a weekday afternoon in the summer of 1998. Some co-workers had invited me to lunch and, as we were piling into my buddy Todd’s Nissan, we discussed where we’d go. Somebody suggested Skyline, to which I said, “That nasty shit? No thanks!”
The glares that I received from my fellow diners could not have been more severe if I had called all of their mothers whores, and then described in excruciating, explicit detail every sexual encounter said whores had ever had. Yeah, it was that tense.
Eventually, somebody broke through the silence by asking what, exactly, it was that I disliked about Cincinnati-style chili. I hemmed and hawed for a minute—probably sounding a bit like Steve Carell’s character from “The 40 Year Old Virgin” when he tries to describe his non-existent sexual experiences: “You know, when you, like, you grab a woman’s breast and it’s… and you feel it and… it feels like a bag of sand when you’re touching it.”—before confessing that I had never actually tried this food before qualifying it as “nasty shit.”
My friends looked at me for a moment, and then at each other, and it occurred to me that they might just beat me to within an inch of my life and leave me on the side of some country road. Instead, Todd just shrugged and said, “Yeah, well everybody thinks it looks nasty. But its great. You’ll see.” With that, we drove off to the nearest Skyline location.
When we arrived, we got in line and my friends attempted to walk me through the ordering process. Todd pointed at the part of the wall menu featuring offerings like wraps, salads and burritos. “Forget all of that shit,” he said, bluntly. “You want to order two things: cheese coneys and chili & spaghetti.”
Cheese coneys are small hot dogs served in steamed buns and topped with chili, mustard, onions and cheese. Size-wise, they are to hot dogs what sliders are to hamburgers. Most people will make a meal out of three or four, though I’ve seen some guys eat a dozen in a sitting.
Chili & spaghetti is exactly what it sounds like: spaghetti with chili, topped with enough cheddar cheese to choke a horse. But nobody orders it as “chili & spaghetti.” Instead, you order a three-way (spaghetti, chili and cheese), a four-way (spaghetti, chili, cheese and either onions or beans e.g. “I’d like a four-way with onions, please”) or a five-way (spaghetti, chili, cheese, onions and beans). Regardless of which version you order, you always get a little packet of oyster crackers to stir into the chili, if you wish, or eat on their own (or stash in your desk drawer for some future oyster cracker craving).
Even though the chili smelled a lot better than it looks, I still wasn’t convinced. So when it was my turn to order, I went with a tuna wrap and, in an attempt to placate my friends, a single cheese coney. It didn’t work. Todd just sighed and shook his head in disapproval. Our food was ready in minutes, and we seated ourselves at a nearby table.
I recall absolutely nothing about the tuna wrap, in terms of taste or flavor. I’m sure it was fine but, as far as great food experiences go, it doesn’t register as being remotely memorable. That’s what you get when you go to a chili place and order tuna.
What I do remember is that, as I took the last bite of my tuna wrap, I looked down at the single cheese coney on my plate. With most of the chili obscured by cheese, it actually looked quite a bit more appetizing than it did in the commercials. “Now or never,” I told myself, and reached to pick up the hot dog.
I almost dropped the coney as soon as I took hold of it. As a result of being steamed, the bun was exceedingly soft—almost to the point of being squishy—and this threw me for a loop. Was this how it was supposed to be? I looked to my friends for guidance, but they were all too consumed with their food to pay me much attention.
Realizing that I was all on my own, I lifted the coney to my mouth and gingerly bit into it, fully expecting the worst… “the worst” being simultaneous bouts of vomiting and diarrhea while the creature from “Alien” explodes from my chest.
Instead of a painful and humiliating death, what I got was a delightful intermingling of flavors. Most prominent were beef, cloves, garlic, allspice, chili powder and mustard. But there were also unmistakable hints of chocolate and cinnamon. And of course, there’s the shredded cheese, which binds the other elements together as it melts, and imparts a mild cheddar taste.
The hot dog doesn’t bring much to the table in terms of flavor, but its purpose is really just to serve as a vessel for the chili. Ditto on the impossibly soft steamed bun, though its incredible softness works with the chili and the cheese in a way that a firmer bun would not. (The pasta in the spaghetti version is also there primarily as a vehicle for chili and cheese goodness.)
After that first tentative bite, it took me about three seconds to wolf down the remainder of the cheese coney. Its not a difficult feat, since they are only about half the size of a standard size hot dog. One of my lunch companions had ordered more than he could eat, so I helped him out by devouring one of his coneys while someone else in our party called him a pussy. Before long, it was time to return to work. But six hours later, I was back at Skyline for some dinner time takeout consisting of more of those cheese coneys and a four-way with onions. Yes, it was probably overkill, but in all the best ways.
Over the years, I’d return to Skyline—and various other chili parlors—dozens, if not hundreds of times. Aside from that initial experiment with the tuna wrap, I never order anything other than cheese coneys or a four-way with onions… or sometimes, both. I won’t pretend that the chili is remotely sophisticated or healthy. It is neither. It is greasy, artery-clogging stuff. But it is also delicious, indulgent and satisfying… the perfect food to enjoy while watching a Reds game, or at the end of a night of drinking.
From a culinary standpoint, Skyline chili is one of the things I miss the most about Cincinnati. Since moving to Maine, I’ve tried to make my own chili a number of times using any of the dozens of “best guess” recipes found on the Internet (one such attempt will be documented in a future blog entry), and with varying degrees of success. But no matter how well my homemade batches turn out, it is never quite as good as the stuff they churn out in the seven hills of Cincinnati, Ohio.