Jay Nelson knows he isn’t supposed to slurp his food but when it comes to Cincinnati style chili, he can’t resist.
“I can slurp the last noodle, right?” he asks his father as they finish their meal at a Skyline Chili restaurant in Hilliard in Franklin County. Before George Nelson can respond, his son his slurps up the noodle.
“It’s kind of our tradition — to slurp the last bite,” said Nelson, who frequently eats Cincinnati style chili with his son. “Makes it taste better I guess.”
So what exactly is Cincinnati style chili and what makes people from all over the world crave or rave about it?
“Cincinnati chili has a unique spice profile. You can’t get it anywhere else,” said Sarah Lapham, marketing manager for Skyline Chili, which has 136 restaurants in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Florida.
Lapham said the chili has a thinner sauce, no beans and an unusual blend of spices. It is often served over spaghetti or on hot dogs with a mound of cheddar cheese. If you order the traditional “Three-Way Chili”, the dish will have spaghetti with cheese and chili on top. A “Four-Way Chili” gives you the choice of adding diced onions or red beans while the “Five-Way Chili” is essentially the works: spaghetti, chili, onions, red beans and cheese. The spicy, but not too hot, meals are served with a side of oyster crackers.
While Skyline Chili’s spice recipe is a secret, as is that of other restaurants such as Gold Star Chili, many speculate that it can include cinnamon, Worcestershire, allspice, chocolate or even cocoa.
“Our most common guess is cinnamon,” Lapham said. “Some people think we melt entire chocolate bars; that seems unlikely.”
Macedonian immigrant Tom Kiradjieff is credited with creating Cincinnati chili in 1922. He and his brother opened a small Greek restaurant called Empress Chili in Cincinnati. A specialty was a “spaghetti chili” that featured Middle Eastern spices. A former Empress cook, Nicholas Lambrinides, opened his own restaurant 27 years later at age 69 and named it Skyline Chili. Today, Skyline Chili meals can be found not only in its restaurants but in the frozen food aisles of grocery stores, at Cincinnati Reds games and Kings Island amusement park.
Cincinnati style chili is so popular in the city that created it that Cincinnatians eat more than 2 million pounds of chili each year topped by 850,000 pounds of shredded cheddar cheese, according to the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Center.
“I’ve had people call in Florida and say `I smell Skyline on the street. Is that possible?’ It turns out that a Skyline restaurant had just opened up there and they didn’t know it,” Lapham said.
Lapham said she gets calls or e-mails all over the world from Skyline Chili fans.
“I just had one guy in Australia e-mail that he has Skyline parties regularly. He’s trying to introduce his friends to Cincinnati chili,” she said. “I guess you could say it’s woven into our lifestyle; it’s part of our culture.”
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.