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Foodie Friday: Chili

And why Cincinnati’s version ain’t

Syndication: MarcoIsland Will Watts/Correspondent / USA TODAY NETWORK

This used to be RBR Tailgate, started by BenMSYS (thanks!), who is actually a chef. I’m just a self-taught cook, and this column, for me, is a place for people like me to share tips and stories. So share.

Chili. People love to argue about it.

Like barbecue, you’ve got competing regional claims. Competing definitions about what constitutes “real chili” and what should be sneered at as “chili-like substance.” It’s a great marketing umbrella; pretty much everyone likes “chili.” Some of us love it. And that’s how the word “chili” becomes attached to so many variants, basically anything that contains water and some form of chiles (note the “e” replacing the “i” there). Chicken and white bean soup with cumin and green chiles? Restaurant in Huntsville just called it “white chili” to differentiate from its “red chili” and sold a ton of it. Vegetable soup with chili powder? “Veggie chili.” Chili colorado. Chili verde. Etc. It’s all fantastic, and I’m not going to quibble about whether any of it’s “real chili” or not. I’ll eat all of it, happily, day after day.

Which brings us to “Cincinnati Chili.” Which is not, and has never been, “chili.” Not even a “chili-like substance.” More on that in a minute.

My first (and last) experience with Cincinnati Chili was Skyline. I was visiting clients, and they wanted to take me to lunch. They insisted on Skyline. I’d seen the billboards, heard the chatter. I was honestly looking forward to it. Because I, you know, love chili. In all its forms.

I knew I was in trouble the moment I walked in the door. I smelled the chili powder - that’s distinctive. The browned beef, simmering in tomato sauce. Also distinctive. And delicious to my nose. But there was also the lingering odor of Christmas, and this was early fall. The odor reminded me of baking ginger snaps and plum cakes. Which have no place in the world of chili. I stood in line with gathering apprehension. What in the hell was this food?

I remember watching the line cooks pile a mountain of cheese on top of the plates. If a restaurant puts that much cheap cheddar on top of a dish, it’s a billboard screaming, “The food underneath all of this tastes like crap; that’s why we bury it under a mountain of cheese!”

Eating it was worse. Imagine going to Olive Garden and ordering their spaghetti with meat sauce. They bring it to your table. You pull out a shaker of chili powder and mix some in. Then you pull out a shaker of Pumpkin Spice and mix that in. Yeah, I said pumpkin spice. Oh, and a teaspoon of cocoa powder. Can’t forget the cocoa powder. And yes, that’s pretty much a generic recipe for the “delicacy” known as Cincinnati Chili.

Cloves. Cinnamon. Allspice. Cocoa powder. Chili powder. In a meat sauce. On top of spaghetti noodles. With about two cups of grated cheap cheddar on top. I had to eat it. I had to pretend to enjoy it. I never scheduled a morning meeting with that client again. Always met with them after lunch.

“Hey man, we ate at Skyline today, you missed it!”

“Really? Dang. Maybe next time.”

Here’s how bad it is: try to find other recipes combining allspice, cinnamon, cloves and cocoa powder. Here’s what you end up with: pumpkin spice-accented hot chocolate, pumpkin-spice accented chocolate cheesecake, and maybe a gingerbread application or two. Desserts, with a heavy emphasis on fats and sugars. Notably absent from these recipes: meat and chili powder. Name one time in your life you were rummaging through your pantry, saw a can of hotdog chili, a packet of pumpkin spice, some cocoa powder, and thought to yourself, “I know what I’m having for dinner.” No one does that. No one in their right mind, at least.

It’s disgusting. And people in Cincinnati stand in line for it, pay top dollar for it, and brag about it. Because it’s got their city name attached to it? Memphis and Kansas City crafted their own genre of barbecue. Chicago put its own stamp on pizza and popularized all manner of pork and beef cuts. Milwaukee provided the beverages to wash all that down. Did Cincinnati feel left out? Did they have a competition? Did someone just trip and spill all the spices into a pot of ground beef and tomato paste, then have to pretend it tasted good? I don’t know. I don’t care. Just don’t ask me to eat it, and don’t act like only true connoisseurs can appreciate it.

As for my own chili, I’m not going to go through a chili recipe per se. Too many great ones, and everyone has their idea of what “proper chili” should be. Beans or no beans. Ground beef or short ribs. Heat levels. I’m not wading into all that. Y’all can have at it in the comments.

I’m just going to recommend you make your own chili powder, which will substantially improve whatever chili you love to make. Store-bought chili blends use cheap ingredients and a ton of salt. The flavors have usually degraded considerably; spices do go stale. I’d compare the difference between homemade chili powder and store-bought to a beer you just opened versus one that’s gone flat.

Homemade chili powder uses dried chiles. I have to order some of these; the grocery stores in my area have largely exited selling dried chiles (very limited offerings, massive mark-ups). You can find tons of these chili powder recipes online with variations. Just play around and find out what your mouth likes most. You’ll eat a lot of chili to find out. All of it will be good, and some of it will be great. And you will forever improve your chili game in the process.

Bocktean’s Chili Powder

  • 6 cascabels, seeds and stems removed
  • 3 anchos, seeds and stems removed
  • 3 New Mexicos or pasillas, seeds and stems removed.
  • 2 tbsp cumin seed
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1.5 tsp onion powder
  • 2 tsp coriander seed
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika (optional)

That goes into my spice grinder (a converted coffee grinder) in batches, the batches go into a mason jar, and then I shake it all up to combine it. That lasts me about a month; some of it goes into chili, some it goes into taco seasoning, and some of it goes into my fajita marinade.

Note: Cumin and coriander seeds almost never go bad, but the flavors start breaking down when you grind. That’s why I never buy ground cumin or coriander.

Note: A lot of recipes will recommend toasting the cumin seeds. I tried that in every manner conceivable, and they almost always crossed the line into burnt, which makes the product irreparably bitter. My theory: the blades from my coffee grinder provide too much friction and push the seeds, even after just 5 seconds in the microwave, over the line. I don’t know. What am I doing wrong?

How do y’all like your chili? Which of you are purists? What tips do you have for the rest of us? Anyone ever won a chili cook-off? Anyone dare to admit they love Cincinnati Chili?

Roll Tide. I’m traveling the next 2 weeks, so nothing next Friday. Until next time, Happy New Year.