Back in my 20s, when I was working as a sports reporter, I long-distance dated a guy from Cincinnati.
The first time he said we should “make it a three-way” my eyes bugged out of my head. No, it’s not as dirty as you’re probably thinking. But I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Cincinnati is known for many things. Hosting “Oktoberfest Zinzinnati,” the biggest Octoberfest in the U.S. Its ongoing hatred of Bengals owner Mike Brown, who is perennially known for being a cheapskate, “blackmailing the taxpayers,” and holding the city hostage to get a new stadium (read the comments section of this Cincinnati Enquire Op-Ed). And, most importantly, its love for a very particular type of chili.
“Cincinnati-style chili is a big thing,” says Joe O’Brien, a father of three who graduated from Oak Hills High School in Cincinnati in 1994. “People who visit have a binary reaction. You either love it or hate it.”
It’s nothing like Texas chili or any other type of chili. It’s runny. Its Greek-style tomato sauce makes it tangy instead of spicy. It’s made with tiny bits of crumbled-up ground beef boiled in water (or broth) and mixed with an assortment of spices (cumin, cloves, allspice) and tomato paste, among other ingredients, into a sludge-like concoction.
“It almost has a moussaka-like quality to it,” O’Brien says. Others say it looks like diarrhea. (You can read more about the Greek history of Cincinnati-style chili here.)
Some recipes, like the one by Meggan Hill, the executive chef and head of the Culinary Hill Test Kitchen, include apple cider vinegar, chicken broth, brown sugar, and garlic. Regardless of how it’s made, oyster crackers are thrown in to soak up the juices.
“It is so unique,” O’Brien says. “You have to forget the word ‘chili’ because there’s no other style of chili you can compare it to.”
Cincinnati-style chili comes in a couple of formats. Here’s a cheat sheet on how to order:
- Three-way: The most famous preparation, served with spaghetti on the bottom, a pile of chili, and finely shredded cheddar cheese on top.
- Four-way: Spaghetti and chili with either onions or red kidney beans, plus the shredded cheese on top.
- Five-way: The choice when you don’t want to make choices. Spaghetti, chili, both beans and onions, and the shredded cheddar cheese on top.
Beyond the main highlights, there are two secret ingredients used in many recipes: unsweetened chocolate and cinnamon.
“I know it sounds weird, combining chocolate and cinnamon and thinking this is chili,” says Annie Frey, a mom of three who lives in Cold Spring, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati. “It gives it a lot of flavor, but it’s not spicy.”
“It’s the taste—they’re slightly different in their spice ratio,” says Frey, who prefers Skyline, but also loves Camp Washington Chili, which the James Beard Foundation dubbed one of America’s Classics. “Skyline is slightly sweeter, but not sugary sweet. Usually if you like Cincinnati chili you like both of them, but you always tend to go for one over the other.”
Like her mother did before her, Frey loves making big pots of Cincinnati-style chili at home. When takes her kids to Skyline, she typically orders the three-way.
“But sometimes I get a five-way to please my seven-year-old,” she says, “which cuts down on the traditional taste of Skyline, because it’s a little chunkier with the beans and the onions.”
Her kids also love to get a coney, a hot dog in a steam bun with chili and lots of shredded cheddar cheese. “But I despise hot dogs,” Frey says. “So I have ‘phony coneys,’ which is just chili and cheese on a hot dog bun.”
O’Brien, meanwhile, prefers Skyline’s four-way chili with onions, a cheese coney, and a root beer.
There’s a ritual to eating Cincinnati-style chili, O’Brien explains.
“It’s served in an oval bowl that you turn sideways so the long portion is away from you,” he says. “It’s spaghetti, and your instinct is to twirl it. But you don’t twirl it or mix it up. You cut through the layers and eat it bite after bite.”
His advice: Grab a York Peppermint Pattie that’s always available on your way out of a Skyline. Does the mint help with bad breath after eating the chili?
“Yeah, the onions are super strong,” O’Brien says. “As you get older, you hope it cools some of the heartburn.”
Dawn Reiss is a Chicago Bears-loving Chicagoan and a former sports reporter who spent four months driving to every NFL city in the country for a special road trip with The Sporting News. Her advice if you don’t want Cincinnati-style chili: hit a LaRosa’s Pizzeria or Graeter’s Ice Cream, regional chains founded in “The Queen City.”