Cincinnati: Skyline Chili, or how to enjoy a three-way


Friends at Skyline Chili
We ate at Skyline because a few friends of ours happened to be passing through Cincinnati.

“This is the story of America on your plate … And you sneer. The colors, just because they don’t occur in nature doesn’t mean they’re bad.” – The late Antony Bourdain, in his typical bitter but not directly insulting style, on Cincinnati Chili, responding to one of its critics.

Yvonne, watches more food shows than anyone else I know. And I like them too. Food, even casual food, is an art form and among the best ways to experience a place is by the tongue.

If that sounds like innuendo, then, probably most of this blog post will be even worse for you. You have been warned. I did not come up with the idea of naming spaghetti dishes “three way,” “four way” or “five way,” depending on the number of add-ons, but that’s how the generally family-friendly Skyline’s menu works and that’s what I’m sticking to.

Anyway, in the context of travel, food sums up various things about a place: Its influences, often from foreign immigrants in the U.S.; its local history, either distant or recent; and the image it wants to present for the rest of the world. I will probably talk about food more on this blog in the future.

Yvonne and I were on the outskirts Dayton for a wedding, but trying, at the last minute, to meet up with a group of friends who were passing through the area, causing us to backtrack about a half hour backward to Cincinnati. It was up to Yvonne to choose something at least fairly inexpensive, fast and convenient, but closely associated with the city we were visiting. And so we hit on Skyline Chili. Yvonne said she’d heard about it on one of her food shows, although she couldn’t remember which.

Skyline Chili is certainly NOT a local Mom and Pop deal like most of the places you see on those cable shows. Rather it’s a multi-state franchise. But it started in Cincinnati and is closely tied to that area, both in terms of style and distribution. The closest one to our Knoxville area is all the way in Lexington, Kentucky.

Chili is a subject of dispute as far as how it’s defined. Like most quintessentially “American” foods, the style varies depending on the region. My native Knoxville area has its own chili franchise: Petro’s Chili and Chips featuring a highly accessorized version that would annoy certain Texas chili purists, including the fictional Texas native Sheldon Cooper. And that’s shaped my vision of what Chili is supposed to be: a spiced beef and/or bean (sorry Sheldon) stew to be enjoyed with sour cream and Fritos corn chips. But what if the spices were different? What if the crunchy thing of choice to have with it was oyster crackers? What if something called “chili” by people eager to make a buck off of something familiar sounding, evolved in its own direction to become beloved in its own right?

Five way
In Cincinatti, I enjoyed my first “five-way.” Pictured is my plate of Skyline-style spaghetti with chili, onions and beans, a “five way” by the restaurant’s naming style. Not pictured: the huge mountain of cheese I ate through to get to it. The version without beans and onions is a “three-way.

Late at night we pulled in to a Skyline Chili in a neighborhood we didn’t know the name of, arriving in our usual fashion by missing the parking lot and having to turn around at a nearby church in spite of using a GPS.

Then, we waited while the cooks in an visible central island kitchen reminiscent of Waffle House fixed our food. Yvonne tried a “three-way,” combining Cincinatti chili with spaghetti and a Mount McKinley style pile of cheese. I tried a “five way” which added onions and beans to that.

While the menu features a few different items including salads, wraps, burritos, vegetarian bean “three ways” and more, the signature base of many of these dishes is a beef chili sauce that threw off our Tennessee expectations. While the restaurant calls its recipe “secret,” the taste is far different, with hints of what seems to be cinnamon, something I and most non-mid-westerners don’t associate with chili at all. Indeed people argue (and I don’t disagree but don’t really agree either) that the name “chili” is a misnomer. To me, all words are meaningless.

In spite of being something people put on top of hot dogs and fries, like other chili, Cincinnati chili isn’t really at all like other chili, as it’s largely the creation of Macedonian immigrants playing around and then branching out into various restaurant chains to promote the results of their experimentation. A better run-through than I can ever provide is here.

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Mount Pisgah Campground and Pisgah Inn


Above is our tent. The tent I accidentally hit Dad a few times in my sleep during my time writing the book Wildly Strolling Along: Father-Son nature adventures on Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail, although he said it was only twice.

My better half or “frequent hiking companion” as I call her, Yvonne laughed the first time she entered it, on our camping trip at Mount Pisgah Campground. I must say that having her laugh at the idea of being crammed into such a small space was better than having her whining all night. She liked the tight space for the two of us, for obvious reasons, however.

We had it to ourselves, even though my Mom Judy Roitman and my Dad Larry Pounds had another tent and my sister Jessie Pounds and her boyfriend Allen had yet another. Jessie was the one who suffered, due to a failing air mattress and no sleeping bag. Somehow she slept.

We had arrived after nightfall and after dinner, and after getting lost for a few hours with me not recognizing my parents’ new SUV and going around the loop a few times, with just a few hastily picked up now cold leftover McDonalds fries to eat by the fire. The mountaintop air felt freezing cold to my summer-adjusted Tennessee skin. But Yvonne was taken in immediately by the flames of a fire my parents had started.

“I want to stay a bit longer. I don’t get to do this stuff often,” Yvonne said. And so we started the first night of our weekend-long trip.

***

Mount Pisgah Campground is, for me, an ideal spot as car camping sites go. While the site had plenty of water pumps and restrooms, it still, in spite of by no means being back country at all, gained many points for its natural beauty. The area, due to its high elevation, had an explosion of mountain laurels, purple rhododendrons and azaleas, many of them right at the campsite or near the road immediately to it. These thick bush clusters are called Hells, for obvious reasons due to the difficulty of getting out of one. But to me it was heaven. Red squirrels, instead of the grey ones common below played around us.

Just outside the campsite, out on the road, we could see an array of stars away from light pollution. The campsite, or at least the part of it we were in may not be the best for that, given its lack of open space except on the road, but the various “hell” thickets do provide some privacy between campsites that a campground in more open space would lack.

The area also boasts nearby trails, which will be the subject of two future posts, gave us a chance to see even more of this natural beauty.

The shower only had one stall, leading to quite a wait. But after sitting for a while surrounded by all of the dark thickets near the stoop of the restroom was actually exactly the experience I needed, even if it annoyed the others.

***

Apart from the trails, just exploring the campground and nearby area is fun in its own right and not just for the hells and the stream. Yvonne and I, apart from the rest of the family, did some exploring on our own, walking just outside the campground and along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Pisgah Inn.

Throughout our trip, no one else felt like showering, as there was only one shower per gender at the campsite and a long line for each. But then I realized it was not a problem to wait outside beneath the stars, looking out into now dark rhododendron thickets, even if I was just waiting for a shower.

***

The Pisgah Inn is a place we didn’t stay with an fine-dining excellent restaurant we didn’t eat at, a craft and gift shop, featuring exquisite gifts we did not buy, and a country store at which Yvonne and I bought a single loaf of white bread before crashing on the rocking chairs. So why do I bring it up?

Observation deck at Pisgah Inn
This is the observation deck at the Mount Pisgah Inn, with the gift shop and restaurant behind it.

The main draw of Pisgah Inn, as far as I’m concerned, is the one thing we did experience fully: a deck from which you can peer out at the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the detailed green-tree carpeted closer hills to the further bluer ones.

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A view from Pisgah Inn observation deck.
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Yet another view from the Pisgah Inn area.

This is what draws people up here. And we would see the mountains from even more angles as the trip went on.