Of Cincinnati chili, my first managing editor, Jim Schottelkotte of The Cincinnati Enquirer, used to say that he thought of it as General Lee thought of war: “It is well that it is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
Cincinnati chili, the incomparable fast food, was created in the 1920s by Greeks. It has no particular resemblance to chili in Texan or Mexican forms, so simply purge your mind of comparisons. It is a meat chili, and the mode of presentation in the Queen City’s chili parlors is novel. The chili is ladled onto a bed of spaghetti, and grated cheddar cheese is sprinkled generously on top. This is the three-way. Add kidney beans, and you have the four-way. Include chopped raw onion, and you have the supreme, the incomparable five-way. Mortal flesh can ask for no more.
My first news editor, the late Bob Johnson, once distributed a recipe for Cincinnati chili, which I present to further the spread of civilization.
1 ½ pounds lean ground beef
½ pound sausage [Note, it’s best if your butcher runs the beef and pork through the grinder together.]
2 cups chopped onion
1 large diced green pepper
¼ cup chopped cabbage
2 cloves garlic, mashed flat
2 tablespoons oil or bacon fat
2 cans tomatoes (one pound each)
1 cup tomato juice
1 cup water
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt (or more, to taste, at the end)
2 tablespoons chili powder (or more, to taste, at the end)
1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (yes, cinnamon)
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon mustard seed
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
¼ teaspoon celery seed
¼ teaspoon ground clove
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg (yes, nutmeg)
1 bay leaf, crumbled
Procedure for the chili
Heat fat in a large pan or skillet. Combine and saute the onion, green pepper, cabbage and garlic, stirring gently and almost constantly until they begin to soften — about five minutes. Add the beef and pork, stirring with a kitchen fork to mix. (A old-fashioned potato masher can be used to break meat into smaller bits — the smaller the better.) Stir and cook until the red is out, about 10 minutes.
Add tomatoes, tomato juice, water and seasonings. Bring to a gentle boil; then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, for an hour. More salt or chili powder may be added, to taste, during the last 15 minutes of cooking.
This chili may be eaten in a bowl, but that misses the full potential for majesty.
Canned pinto or kidney beans can be used, but should be rinsed thoroughly, covered with water and brought to a boil before being added to the chili.
Otherwise: rinse a pound of dry pinto beans, put in a kettle with cold water to three times the depth of the beans, bring to a boil and boil uncovered for five minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and let stand for one hour. Then turn on the heat, bring to a gentle boil and cook, covered, until the beans are tender. Add more water if necessary. Should take about 40 minutes.
Prepare and drain in the usual way.
Place warm, drained spaghetti on a plate, cover with chili, and cover this with grated cheddar cheese: the three-way.
Or add a layer of beans before ladling on the chili: the four-way.
Best of all: To the spaghetti add beans, chopped raw onion, chili and grated cheese: the five-way.
Serve with oyster crackers on the side.