Game Day Eats: Cincinnati

In the final edition of Game Day Eats for this football season, we’re headed to Cincinnati, Ohio. The Green Bay Packers are no longer in the playoffs, but we played Cincinnati in October (and won!) and Cincinnati is now one of the four remaining teams heading into the final week of playoff games. By some weird coincidence, the other three teams in the playoffs right now are all ones we featured this year: Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs, and the San Francisco 49ers. It didn’t feel right not including the fourth team in the playoffs in our tour de food.

Copycat Skyline Chili | Recipe by the Chunky Chef

Get the recipe here. I had always known that Cincinnati had invented its own unique style of chili, served over spaghetti – but I didn’t really understand the interesting story behind this dish until I dived into this feature. Part of why I so enjoy the Game Day Eats features is the deep dive into the history of food in different parts of the United States! Cincinnati has a deep love of chili and has more chili-centered restaurants than any other city in the country, called chili parlors. There are more than 180 of these parlors in existence, it is estimated. This chili is much different from its Texan counterparts, from both ingredients and method of preparation. But let’s get into the history first!

In the 1920s, a family of Macedonian immigrants (the Kiradjieffs) invented chili which was largely influenced by their Mediterranean roots. While chili is often thought of as a stew, this creation had a thinner consistency akin to a pasta sauce with meat, and which was served as ‘spaghetti chili’. The Kiradjieff family restaurant, Empress Chili, was the leader in the introduction of the recipe to the United States, but spin-offs would continue for generations, many tied to employees who had worked at Empress. Two large national chains emerged in the late 20th century, Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili. Skyline Chili was started by Greek immigrants in the late 1940s and has 160 locations across a number of Mideast/southern states and has the designation of being the “official” chili of several professional sports teams, but not the official chili of the Bengals. You can also buy Skyline Chili in a can form in grocers. Their chief rival in the chili business, Gold Star Chili, has a smaller footprint, with only around 80 locations. They were started by immigrants from Jordan. The Daoud family has a chili footprint in the Middle East, as well, operating the sister corporation, Chili House, with locations in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Gold Star Chili is the official chili of the Bengals.

So, what sets Cincinnati chili apart from other versions in the United States? Three things: the ingredients (especially the spices), the method of preparation, and how it is served. Ingredients: Cincinnati chili uses a Mediterranean-inspired mix of seasoning that you might more commonly see in baking in the United States, such as cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and sometimes, nutmeg. Homemade recipes sometimes feature unsweetened chocolate, but this piece of investigative journalism confirms that Gold Star and Skyline do not include chocolate or cocoa powder in their recipe.

Method of preparation: If you’ve ever prepared a Texas-style chili, you know that it begins with browning the meat, seasoning the meat, and adding in liquids in the form of water, diced tomatoes, peppers, etc., and cooking down over several hours. Depending on where you are from, there is great controversy on whether or not your chili should contain beans, but I digress. Cincinnati chili starts with a sauce (onions, garlic, tomato paste, water, seasoning) to which raw ground beef is added. The beef (rather than being browned) cooks in the liquid at a low boil over several hours. The chili contains no diced tomatoes, beans, or peppers. Lastly, how the chili is served. As I noted above, it is often known to be served over spaghetti as more of a meat sauce. You can, however, also order it on a hot dog (or a ‘Coney’) instead of over spaghetti. There is a special technique to ordering Cincinnati chili, too – the “ways”.

Photo via Cincinnati Magazine

As noted above, there is the 2-way through 5-way means of ordering, with the 3-way being the most popular means of ordering. A Coney or Cheese Coney features a hot dog with mustard, onions, and chili with or without the cheese. You’ll note that the one way you wouldn’t order chili is by the bowl. The reasoning? As one food writer noted to do so would be akin to simply ordering a bowl of spaghetti sauce: unthinkable.

Buckeyes | Recipe by Magpie Kitchen

Get the recipe here. I had never heard of buckeyes until I moved to the Midwest, nor had I heard of people who make their own candy, but it’s actually a fairly common family tradition, especially during the holidays. A number of my coworkers at jobs throughout the years have had their own family candies that they make (often times a multigenerational effort within the family). Many of these candies feature nuts, caramelized sugar, and almost all of them are chocolate-coated. Buckeyes (or peanut butter balls) are a favorite, but are highly unstable and are best maintained chilled.

Buckeyes feature a dough-like mixture of peanut butter, butter, vanilla and confectioners sugar that is chilled and rolled into bite size balls. After being chilled, they are dipped in melted milk chocolate, leaving a peek of peanut butter dough peeking out of the top. The name of the candy originates from its visual similarity to a buckeye seed from Ohio’s state tree: the buckeye. The name of the tree has indigenous roots, which was called ‘hetuch’, translated to mean the eye of a buck (deer). You can see the visual similarities below:

A buckeye seed, picture via the Missouri Department of Conservation

The word Buckeye came to have larger significance to the entire state through ties to a former president. During the presidential election of 1840, where William Henry Harrison was elected to the presidency, a marketing effort was staged to present Harrison as a common man, who preferred the rustic log cabin lifestyle, in juxtaposition to his aristocratic opponent. In actuality, Harrison had aristocratic roots and college education. His history in the Midwest (Indiana Territory) was largely tied to military efforts to displace indigenous residents of the region in order to open up land for white settlement in the 19th century.

Ohioans referred to themselves as buckeyes during the campaign and supporters carved souvenirs from buckeye wood in support of his election. Harrison was elected but is now known as having the shortest presidential term of only 31 days, dying one month after being inaugurated at age 68 from pneumonia. The buckeye has become a well-known nickname for Ohio, “the Buckeye state” and the Buckeyes are the mascot of The Ohio State University. The candy was (allegedly) invented by an Ohio state resident and has gained popularity in the state and the regional Midwest ever since.

The Cincinnati Cocktail | Recipe by Esquire

Get the recipe here. Finding cocktails with historic origin in various cities is not as easy as you’d think. We also make an effort to have the cocktail be something that we’d actually drink with a meal. In the case of Cincinnati, featuring Cheese Coneys, a beer cocktail sounded like the perfect complement. The Cincinnati Cocktail is a mixologists’ approach to a DIY light beer: cutting a full-flavored lager with club soda. The result is a lighter and more carbonated light beer.

The name is more of a joke than an indication of origin. Cincinnati had a major influx of German immigrants in two waves – one in the early 19th century and the second wave following WWII in the 1950s. While not the most German city in the United States (it is #4 behind other Midwest cities of Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and St. Louis, it is known for the second largest Oktoberfest celebration outside of Munich. There was a massive brewing presence in the growing city of Cincinnati in the 19th century. More than 75 breweries started up in the City between 1806 and 1885 and more than 50 exist today.

Even if this beer cocktail was named after Cincinnati in jest, I found this great article from a local Cincy news outlet sharing some of the many creative “beertails” that you can find in bars around the city. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of mixing a peanut butter porter with a cuvee brute sparkling wine. It would either be amazing or horrible – no in-between there. Unfortunately, where we live, we are far enough out of the Ohio beer distribution belt to find very few beers from Cincinnati brewers. We mixed our cocktails with a Cleveland-made lager from Great Lakes Brewing Co., but did find some sours from Urban Artifact in Cincinnati, too.

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