“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?
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.