This is a tough one, for me.
I have really strong feelings about this recipe. I do try to be as nonjudgmental as possible, though, so I’m going to just write the history and try to avoid any bias.
In 1922, two demons sent from the eighth circle of hell manifested in Cincinnati, Ohio, presumably because it reminded them of home. (It’s got “sin” right in the name, after all.)
One screeched, “Witness, brother, as I unleash a horror on the world worse than trench warfare!” Cackling, he reached a talon-like claw out to grasp a ladle that rested in a bubbling kettle labelled CINNAMON BEEF IPECAC.
The second took a break from kicking puppies to share in his brother’s triumph as he spooned the unholy mess over pasta. “Where is your God now, Cincinnati?!” he taunted.
Hrm. It has been brought to my attention that certain portions of the above analysis might be considered to have a slight bias.
I don’t see it, but fine. I’ll start over and try again.
In 1921, two Macedonian brothers, Athanas (who went by Tom) and Ivan (who went by John) Kiradjieff came to Cincinnati to join their older brother Argiro (Argie), who had started a small grocery business. Less then a year later, the two younger brothers struck out on their own and opened up a five-table restaurant in a storefront in the Empress Burlesk theater building.
As the name implies, stripteases were on offer inside the building, so there was a good deal of foot traffic. (Also, if the spelling bothers you, feel comforted that they hung a cloth sign over the original with the correct spelling of Burlesque sometime later in the decade.) Wanting to make sure everyone knew the location, they named their chili joint the Empress Chili Parlor.
So what exactly did the Empress Chili Parlor do that started them down the path of Cincinnati chili? The only direct innovation was the odd spicing of the chili.
In Greek and Macedonian cooking, you’ll often see lamb dishes that include clove and cinnamon, spices that can help turn the muskiness of lamb into a warm background note. But in the U.S., we raise quite a bit more beef than lamb, and the brothers ended up coming up with a chili that basically tastes like someone dropped chai tea into otherwise respectable chili. And a piece of chocolate. God help us all, a piece of chocolate.
What about the spaghetti? Well, it’s important to understand that there was already a dish called chili spaghetti that was pretty widely known for decades before the brothers Kiradjieff came to the States. For example, here’s a mention from the January 2, 1907 edition of The Fort Wayne (Indiana) Daily News:
Try Chili Con Carne and Chili Spaghetti, favorite Mexican dishes. Served at all hours at the Chili Parlors, over Alderman No. 1.
I know what you’re thinking, but actually, the ad is totally correct. Italians have had a small presence in Mexico since the early 19th century; poor Italians would enlist in the Spanish Army and ended up fighting for Mexican independence. In the 1880s, there was a second small wave of immigration from Italy, this time of skilled laborers and farmers.
(For once, people left Europe not because they were forced out, but because they wanted to go. Italy changed its immigration policies to make it easier for skilled workers to leave because they thought it would reduce the chance of the lower classes rising up and attacking the wealthy. “You don’t like Italy? Fine, leave!”)
As we know from America’s experiences with Italian immigration, wherever Italians go, pasta goes with them. And the 1880s was also when “chili queens” would sell chili at night at Hispanic markets in Texas. So it was natural that, at some point, pasta and chili would get tossed together.
The other elements to the familiar Cincinnati Chili were customer suggestions. While the original Empress Chili Parlor version tossed the pasta with the chili, customers thought it would “look prettier” if the pasta sat on the bottom and the chili was stuck on top. Later, customers wanted cheese on the side, and it evolved to sit on top of the chili, making what’s known in Cincinnati Chili parlance as the “three-way.”
Other chili places in Cincinnati, run by Slavs or Greeks, started to adopt the same methods. Greece-born Nicholas Lambrinides was a cook at the Empress Chili Parlor until he and his sons opened Skyline Chili in 1949, named after the view from the original location at the top of a hill on Glenway Avenue.
And for reasons beyond all comprehension, people eat it. And how they eat it is important. Remember how that genius customer thought it would be pretty to not toss the pasta with the sauce? As you might imagine, the pasta stuck together. And since it stuck together, the “authentic” way to eat Cincinnati Chili is to cut the noodles as you eat them, as if you were eating a pie.
Which is probably not useful information, because if you’ve got taste buds, you’ll react the way this cat does:
The Empress Chili Parlor showed up in a cute wire story–this scan from the February 9, 1945 edition of The Ruston (Louisiana) Daily Leader:
Eats Chili For 22 Years, Now It’s On the House
His unvarying order: a bowl of bean chili, a chili sandwich, and a coke.
His unvarying guest check: 40 cents, plus state sales tax.
His reward: from now on he doesn’t have to pay the check.
Anthanas Kiradjieff, who operates the chili parlor, said “it’s on the house” hereafter.
“I promise him three years ago if he heats here every day in three years, I give him a pension,” Kiradjieff said. “Sonomagun, he never miss a day.”
Stott became a customer 22 years ago when he just dropped in, and has kept coming back ever since.
“I like the chili they serve here,” Stott said. “I guess I’ll eat here the rest of my life.”
Sonomagun, indeed. Stott died in 1963 at the age of 65, so he did get to enjoy his win, if you can call it that.
From a box sold in East Moline, Illinois.
4 c. water
2 (8 oz.) cans tomato sauce
2 cups chopped onion
2 Tbsp. chili powder
2 Tbsp. vinegar
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cumin 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
1 bay leaf
1 dried chili pepper
2 lbs. ground beef
Combine 1 through 15 ingredients to boiling. [Note: that’s everything but the beef.]
Add crumbled beef and simmer for 2 or 3 hours.
Remove bay leaf and chili pepper.