Cincinnati Chili - 5 Ways

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North America » United States » Ohio » Wilmington
May 25th 2018
Published: May 25th 2018
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Chili 5-ways with oyster crackers and hot sauce
Wilmington, Ohio

Last year, while touring the south, we made an effort to sample local cooking. I mean, who wouldn’t want to try some genuine ‘southern fried chicken’, or key lime pie while in the Keys. It turned out to be a rewarding experience and an additional way of talking about our travel experiences.

So this year I thought I’d try the same thing. The problem, of course, is that the ‘Great Lakes Region’ doesn’t exactly have a cooking style that they are famous for. What I did discover in my Google searches was that there are foods that develop in a very local way for some reason. And people have actually gone to the length of identifying different foods by states. So I recorded those options and actually put them into the trip plan so we would make at least an effort to eat what the locals eat.

As you might expect, the results are a bit mixed. In Nebraska, for example, there were two foods listed as typical Nebraska - an Omaha steak, of course, because of the region’s reputation for beef. And also an item called a ‘Runza’ which is, apparently, sort of a meat pie. Well, we weren’t in Nebraska long enough to find a decent steakhouse, and while we did see fast-food chain stores called ‘Runza’, we never did get an opportunity to stop there. Perhaps our stay was too short, or we weren’t committed enough to sample the place. Another problem, I think, is that when we are traveling, we don’t like fast food places because we want somewhere we can get out of the car, sit down, and relax for an hour. Fast food stops don’t cater to that kind of lunch.

In Iowa, we had a bit better luck. The state food there is either pork tenderloin sandwich, grilled sweet corn, or, to combine the two, a ‘corn dog’. I remember the pork tenderloin sandwich I ate at a restaurant in Des Moines four years ago as being tremendous, but this year we found local corn in the grocery store and I grilled it one night - it had to be the sweetest crunchiest corn I’ve ever eaten. I did try the corn dog somewhere, but can’t say I remember much of it.

Wisconsin is famous for bratwurst and beer and we did just that at a terrific place in Wisconsin Dells. Additionally we tried another brand new item, fried cheese curds. Although they sound a little strange, they are really a lot like fried mozzarella sticks. You can find these things in local grocery stores too, although we don’t know how to prepare them. Wisconsinites also like something called frozen custard and, although it was in Illinois, we did stop at Culver’s and had a glass of that. Even the girls liked that one.

Illinois probably has a couple of food traditions, one in Chicago, and another in the southern part of the state. Since we were in Chicago, we did a ‘culinary tour’ and got to sample deep-dish pizza, a ‘Chicago-style’ hot dog (with seven official ingredients on top), and an Italian beef sandwich. They were all good, especially the pizza. We went back to a second Lou Malnati’s restaurant for more pizza and actually bought a couple of frozen ones at the grocery store which weren’t all that bad either.

Indiana is famous, like Iowa, for pork. After a wonderful pork chop in Clinton, and another pork tenderloin sandwich in North Vernon, that is a reputation well earned. There is also something called a sugar cream pie which we never saw on a menu and so, haven’t been able to taste yet. Sounds delightfully sinful, though.

So here we are in Ohio and I learn that the state food we have to taste is called Cincinnati Chili. Now right out of the gate, this is a non-starter. You see, we are from New Mexico and we already know what chile is all about. In the first place, it is spelled with an ‘e’ at the end, not an ‘i’, and in the second place, it is a plant-based dish that may or may not have meat in it. If it has meat, it will likely be pork, not ground beef. And it usually does not have beans, but if it does, then they are pinto beans, not kidneys. The chile plant it is based on is always grown in, or near, Hatch, New Mexico. And there are two versions of the product, depending on how ripe the chile is - red or green, each of which has its benefits. (Lots of New Mexicans, including me, order their food ‘Christmas’ style, which means with servings of both colors of chile. Texas, of course, has their own version of chili which is red, has both beans and meat, and lots of added hot sauce. New Mexicans don’t consider that to be real chile either.

So, now we are here in Ohio and they are advertising something called Cincinnati Chili. In the first place, they spell it with an ‘i’, so I know it isn’t real chile. In the second place, why would a mountain/river town have any knowledge of chili, regardless of how they spell it? I still don’t have an answer to that question.

But it turns out that the best place to get ‘Cincinnati Chili’ is at a fast-food place (like Nebraska’s Runza I guess), and the highest rated chain is one called ‘Skyline Chili’. There are dozens of them scattered in just about every town in southwestern Ohio. There is probably an original one in Cincinnati somewhere, but we didn’t try to find it. Instead, we simply went to the one in Wilmington, after doing three loads of laundry. We ordered take-out and brought it home to eat here in the trailer.

When you order chili, you have to specify how many ‘ways’ you want it. Yeah, I’ve never heard of that either. But it comes in five different versions, each of which is called a ‘way’. 1 way is, apparently, just a bowl of the chili. It is interesting stuff, based on ground beef that has been marinating for quite some time in a brew of spices that is heavy on allspice, nutmeg, and even a bit of cinnamon. It isn’t very hot, but you can ask for additional hot sauce if you want it spiced up.

2-ways means that you pile spoonfuls of this chili stuff on top of a mound of spaghetti. That part is truly unusual - I don’t know how you think of combining chili and spaghetti, but that’s how its done. I suppose some Italian marinara sauces can be made with ground beef - and Joan does that frequently- but that sauce uses Italian seasonings, not this combination of spices. When all is said and done, though, the combination isn’t too bad and I can see how it can become addictive.

3-ways means that you take a 2-way and pile a lot of grated cheddar cheese on it. Cheddar cheese on chili sounds fine, but no-one puts anything except Parmesan on spaghetti - right? Again, though, the combination seems to work. 3-ways is apparently the most common way to order this stuff.

4-ways means that you get to add a generous sprinkling of beans, or diced, raw onions - your choice. 5-ways, the ultimate serving of Cincinnati Chili, is with everything on it. We ordered two servings of the 5-way style. Although concerned about chili on top of spaghetti with cheddar cheese no less, it ended up being a very satisfying dinner. We’ll probably do it again!

Ohio is also known for something called a ‘Buckeye’. Joan says she thinks she’s eaten one of those before, but I’m not sure I have. It is apparently a combination of chocolate and peanut butter. How its different from a peanut butter cup, I don’t know yet.

And so our food adventure took another step forward yesterday. Not much else happened. We are preparing for the onslaught of campers today and so wanted to to be prepared to either get way out of town, or hunker down and not go anywhere. So we did laundry, washed dishes, and cleaned house. We have a little activity planned this morning, and then we want to hitch up and take the trailer over for a ‘dump’. I want to get that done before I have to compete with the masses for access to the facilities.

So best wrap this up and get going


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