It has been thirty-one years since I left Cincinnati for Baltimore. In all three decades, my greatest regret has been the lack of Cincinnati chili, the perfect fast food. (“They put something in it to make you crave it,” my first wife said.)
The basic three-way is popular: the chili on spaghetti in an oval dish, topped with shredded cheddar cheese. Many like the four-way, to which beans are added. But perfection lies in the five-way: chili on spaghetti with shredded cheddar cheese, beans, and chopped raw onion. Bliss it was with that dish to be at table.
The dish, created by Greeks in Cincinnati in the 1920s, has not traveled far from its origin, which is a great pity. Perhaps its spread has been hampered by the ignorant snobbery of the chili purists, who are in their own way as dogmatic and intolerant as martini snobs. If it had been called something other than chili, its appeal would be nationwide today.
Is there not someone among my Baltimore readers, some open-minded appreciator of the finer things in life, willing to take up the challenge of establishing a foothold for this magnificent dish on the banks of the Patapsco?
I have a recipe, published below, from the late Bob Johnson, my first news editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, which my wife, Kathleen Capcara, has occasionally prepared, and I can attest that it is the genuine article. No one, to my knowledge, holds rights to the recipe, which I offer freely to any entrepreneur bold enough to bring civilization to Baltimore.
Here is the recipe (some variants include chocolate; this one does not, but you might find it worth a try).
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
1/2 pound sausage (best if the beef and sausage are run through a grinder together)
2 cups chopped onion
1 large diced green pepper
1/4 cup chopped cabbage
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons oil or bacon fat
2 cans of tomatoes (1 pound each)
1 cup tomato juice
1 cup water
3 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt (add more later if desired)
2 tablespoons chili powder (more can be added later, to taste)
1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon mustard seed
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon celery seed
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 bay leaf, crumbled
COMBINE the chopped onion, green pepper, cabbage, and garlic. Heat the fat in a large pan or skillet and gently saute the onion, green pepper, cabbage, and garlic for about five minutes, stirring until they soften slightly. Add the meat, stirring with a kitchen fork to mix. A potato masher can be used to break the meat into smaller bits, the smaller the better. Stir often and cook until the red is out, about ten minutes.
Add the tomatoes, tomato juice, water, and seasonings, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat, simmer uncovered, and stir frequently, for about an hour. Additional salt and chili powder can be added to taste during the last fifteen minutes of cooking.
Canned pinto or kidney beans may be added for a four-way. Rinse them thoroughly in cold water and bring to a boil before mixing with the chili. Home-cooked pinto beans are better. Rinse a pound of them, 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 heat, cover, and let stand for an hour. Turn on the heat, bring to a gentle boil, and cook until the beans are tender. Add more water if needed.
FOR SERVING, cook spaghetti as you normally would and put a serving in a bowl. Cover with chili and top with shredded cheddar cheese. For the five-way, top with chopped onion and then cheddar cheese. Serve with oyster crackers.