It was an ordinary summer night in Cincinnati. My father and I were in the car after leaving a baseball game. We drove across the Roebling Bridge, over the Ohio River, and into Kentucky. The Reds had won in what had been a long night game so the only chili parlor open was the Dixie Chili in Newport. This ritual was not just one I was familiar with, but is a part of my identity, as I have grown up with Cincinnati Reds baseball, and therefore, Cincinnati chili. My father raised me to appreciate and love the culture of the city he calls home, so throughout my childhood, Cincinnati became my second home city. We parked the car and were welcomed by the smell of chopped onions, boiling spaghetti, and bubbling hot chili.
The Dixie chili in Newport is one of few chili spots that still have the old-style parlor set up. After you order at the cashier you are given a tray and are served in a cafeteria fashion. Facing the kitchen, you slide with your tray from station to station while watching as the cooks prepare your order. The hot dogs and spaghetti are always boiling and a freshly cooked pot of chili is always ready to replenish, so the wait is never long. However, this chili is not to be disgraced in comparison to fast food. While the chili is served quickly, the preparation takes far more time and care than some processed BigMac burger.
“Welcome to Dixie, what can I get you-oh did they win?” The young woman behind the cashier counter had shifted the tone of her question as soon as she looked up and noticed our red jerseys and caps.
“Yes! They did!” My father paused, glanced behind her at the pots of hot chili in the kitchen, and scratched his beard at the chin.
“Ill just have two with everything” he said as if he had decided that moment, even though it has been his order for years at every chili spot we go to.
“Finally! I keep hoping that this team will get better. So two-everything, and for you, hun?”
“One Coney with everything and a 4-way, please” I said.
Every major city in America has a beloved delicacy that is special to its identity and culture. You see them served at professional sports events, sold at carts on street corners, or at specific restaurants with a line out the door. Philadelphia has the cheesesteak, New England’s got their clam chowder, and even Pittsburgh has their odd French fries on sandwiches thing going on. But in Cincinnati, it’s all about the chili. What separates Cincinnati’s chili from the rest of the edible creations across the nation is not just the superiority in taste. It is the amount of loyal consumers, the creativity, and the history behind the chili that makes it a characteristic of the city.
After the first world war, Macedonia was split amongst Greece, Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria, causing many Macedonian immigrants to move their families to the United States. In the early 1920’s two brothers opened up the chili floodgates when they started Empress Chili. “Empress owners Tom and John Kiradjieff — who used Mediterranean-inspired spices to create a meat sauce used initially to top hot dogs sold out of a cart.” Little did the Kiradjieff brothers know, their creation of the chili cheese dog with homemade chili, shredded cheddar cheese, topped with onions and mustard, would become the beloved Cheese Coney that is still enjoyed by thousands of people a day. Using the homemade chili as a hot dog topping became such a local favorite that the brothers grew from serving Cheese Coneys on the sidewalk to opening Cincinnati’s original chili parlor.
Empress Chili and the Kiradjieff brothers had started a phenomenon. Due to the number of hungry customers at the Empress doors, the brothers set up a system where all the basic ingredients would be cooked and ready to quickly put together and serve based on the “way” a specific customer prefers their chili meal. This would become the “way system” of ordering that is common terminology at over 500 chili restaurants in the Ohio-Kentucky area. A Cincinnati native describes the chili and way system as a, “beef-based sauce — it’s kind of like a runny pasta sauce with hints of cinnamon, chocolate and other spices — eventually became the key ingredient in the 3-way, a plate of pasta topped with chili, an unnecessary amount of shredded cheddar cheese and a side of oyster crackers. Adding onions to the 3-way makes it a 4-way; onions and beans make a 5-way. The best comparison to Cincinnati chili is a Bolognese. It has small pieces of beef like a Bolognese but has more spice and no tomato.
“Three everything Coneys and a 4-way, for you gentlemen.” An elderly blonde woman wearing a red apron and white visor that reads “Dixie Chili- since 1929” placed the plate of chili topped pasta on my tray. The mound of strands of cheddar hides most of the spaghetti and all of the chili that had been poured on top.
“Thank you.” I said. I picked up the tray and turned toward the dining side of the old chili parlor.
Dixie chili is one of the three major chili chains that dominate the region. Empress Chili had inspired people to cook up the style of chili in their own kitchens and even challenged other immigrant families who had similar recipes to recreate a better version that they could call their own. “Nicholas Sarakatsannis, also of Macedonia, opened Dixie Chili in Newport, Kentucky, in 1929. Soon, Newport, Covington, and all of Northern Kentucky were peppered with chili parlor restaurants.” Empress Chili inspired the creation of Dixie Chili, which is the smaller family owned chain that competes with corporation chili chains like Skyline and Goldstar. The question of which restaurant has the best chili is a subject of controversy that will always spark debates in Cincinnati. You will always get a different answer from people who have tried them all because of preference and the signature dishes that each chain has claimed their own. Skyline Chili is known for their Chili cheese fries, while Goldstar Chili has the Coney Crate and a chili cheese go wrap. The Coney Crate is a case containing twelve Cheese Coneys for big groups on game-day or for family chili at dinner. While there are over 250 mom and pop chili parlors in the Northern Kentucky- Cincinnati area that compete with the three major chili chains, my favorite is Dixie. I love it for the spices that give the chili an extra kick and for the memories I have of enjoying Dixie Chili with special people throughout my life.
My father and I took a seat at the same booth we always do. The booth that his father slept in for so many nights after running away from his home with an abusive step-father. The original Dixie Chili parlor in Newport has been renovated but still has the same layout that the restaurant had in the 1930’s. It has been around so long because of the phenomenal chili of course, but also because Dixie Chili is a part of the family to so many.
I stuck my fork in the middle of the 4-way and turned it so that the hot chili overcame the melting cheese wrapped in spaghetti noodles. As I spun the fork hugged with chili cheese soaked noodles, I thought about my grandfather and how he was able to enjoy his 4-way and feel safe at home at the same chili parlor.
After a couple of scoops of the spaghetti and four bites that devoured the Cheese Coney, I looked up at my smiling Father. There was nothing left on his plate but a few strings of cheese.
“One more Coney.” He said.
Danny Cross – “So You’ve Probably Heard of Cincinnati Chili”
Paul Tenkotte – “Our Rich History: Cincinnati Chili – in all its ways- is a regional specialty with a host of afficianados”
What’s Cooking America – “Cincinnati Chili History and Recipe”