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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Why New York, NY confuses East Tennesseeans


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New York, NY. Growing up, it was where everything happened in TV and movies from “Seinfeld” to “Sesame Street,” even though most shows weren’t actually filmed there. And its real life role as host of the UN and Wall Street make it hard to avoid. Not to mention its political importance as the city of Donald Trump before he was president, the place the world trade towers stood and fell nearly two decades ago and “The New York Times.”

Ralph Kramden
And “The Honeymooners.” More on that later.

So with all that in mind, it really struck me how alien the place is to a resident of the Knoxville, Tennessee area. It should be familiar given how much of it appears in popular culture. And it is still America: You’re never far from McDonald’s, Starbucks and the like, which is good as they’re cheaper than many local places. But the city’s basic mechanics are utterly bizarre to an East Tennessean.

This is not the first time I’ve found New York City confusing. While in Mexico, I’ll confess a fellow student in my program from NYC seemed more culturally different than the Mexicans I met.

My girlfriend Yvonne and I arrived July 14 and had to speed run everything, with Yvonne’s friend and now mine too, Cameron Williams, a local. But I suppose speed running NYC is exactly the right way to do it. NYC seemed to be all about speed, at least when traveling on foot. There were trains to catch and other people to catch up with. Indeed, NYC requires you to move faster and avoid stopping more when on your feet than when in a car.

I expected 42nd street to have parking. So, not having eaten since breakfast, and having roasted at mid-day in a Pennsylvania Dutch County traffic hold up for repairs, we searched. And searched. Until we found in and parked the car at a meter that was modern and digital and looked nothing like and East Tennessee one.

Starving, I headed with Yvonne to the glorious neoclassical structure of Grand Central Terminal and grabbed a spicy shrimp pastry at a Caribbean food stand. The stand only accepted cash, which was a bit strange to me but far from unique in NYC. It’s one of the few things New York has in common with a handful of backwoods hollers in Tennessee — which for the record are about equally strange to me.

Grand Central Terminal is, incidentally, a pretty impressive structure to visit for free. I recommend it.

While Cameron Williams, a friend of Yvonne’s who considers this city his home, if not his actual residence (that’s Long Island) wanted us to take the subway to meet him, we were confused enough at this point that we wanted to stay put and have him meet us.

We then went back to the car, and as Cam pointed out, there was a garage right there. It was just, apparently that all the people, buildings and everything else had made it so that a simple sign saying “Park.” As a side note, it was valet parking. Which to an East Tennesseean comes off about as normal, as any other case of giving your car to a complete stranger.

It was Saturday night and crowds swarmed everywhere we went as we ran around to get dinner and then ride the Staten Island Ferry. Often I found myself scrambling behind after taking pictures with my new phone, searching amid the sea of heads for Cam’s backward baseball hat.

Times Square
Times Square. More on that later.

Counter to what you might think, they were friendly crowds. And not formal ones like I’d expected from the city of Wall Street. It was summer, with plenty of short shorts, t-shirts and even a transparent shirt or two, not to mention the guy who did cartwheels in a bikini in Times Square. We stopped to pet dogs multiple times. A rude woman on the New York subway who was rude to others was an exception, not the rule. Indeed, complaining about her constantly telling people to “SHUT UP!” was a bonding experience with the other passengers once she decided to leave.

But I can’t honestly say I fit in here, as much as I enjoyed taking in the sights and sounds. The constant background noise of people talking, cars, subway station buskers and the like made me feel like I had to talk loudly. Which Cam kept telling me I was talking too loud. It was a bit of a mind blow that anyone could still hear me at normal volume.

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For dinner we had some tasty burgers at the Shake Shack, a licensed operation expanding from New York, but still unknown in the Knoxville area. To give a general idea of if you’d like it, the taste of its signature burger is somewhat similar to Cookout, a franchise that incidentally, hasn’t expanded farther north than Maryland and West Virginia.

Another observation: being an East Tennessean trying to scan my paper subway card and go through the subway turn-style is about as easy as being a two year old playing Super Mario Brothers for the first time.

I love New York, New York. I love the crowds in constant motion, speeding and slowing like rapids but always flowing. Yet the same time it’s like being in “Honey I shrunk the Kids” (that’s the non-superhero version of Ant-Man for you young folks). Familiar in a sense, but bigger and that bigness makes it weird. And on those streets I can finally know what plenty of tourists probably feel in the woods of my own Tennessee, scrambling between roots and rocks to avoid tripping.