CINCINNATI - The towering platters arrive on the arm of a chatty waitress named Mary Lou. Atop each heap stands a mound of shredded cheese. Underneath the cheddar lurk equally thick strata of chili and, of course, spaghetti.
The two burly mechanics who have driven an hour to eat at Camp Washington Chili dive fork-first into their big breakfasts. "This," declares Tom Freudenberg, coming up for air, "is better than scrambled eggs."
Day or night, you can get chili all over this region, from mom-and-pop parlors to chains that have sprouted like McDonald's.
Don't confuse it with Texas chili, which bites back if it's spicy enough. This chili is subtler, laced with cinnamon, cumin and even chocolate. And because it always comes on a bed of spaghetti, this chili you eat with a fork.
This is Cincinnati chili, a culinary curiosity invented here 80 years ago and still bubbling along.
Over the decades it has oozed into other food categories, begetting chili lasagna and chili pizza. A separate lingo has evolved, and it has been said that ordering is like placing bets at a track.
Freudenberg and Greg Sams have "three-way," but they could have added onions or beans for a four-way or both for a five-way.
Not everyone admits to it, but folks here really like it, says Chuck Martin, food editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer. "There are lots of closet Cincinnati chili fans," he says, theorizing that many residents feel civic pride but don't exactly want to shout it from the city's many hilltops.
Martin can understand the mixed feelings. As tasty and distinctive as the stuff might be, he says, "It's cheap, sloppy food. Everybody makes fun of it. It's not really chili. What is it?"
Whatever else, it's big business - a fact that has kept a decades-old rivalry going. Chili parlors vie for the public's affection (and money), each with its secret recipe. All make some claim for primacy: This one won a taste test; that one started it all and must be best; yet another has a single location, putting quality over quantity.
This city seems an odd match for chili. As a former pork-processing center once dubbed "Porkopolis" and as home to an old German population, it just as easily could have evolved into a ribs or schnitzel capital.
Cincinnati chili began in 1922, according to The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, when Bulgarian immigrant Athanas "Tom" Kiradjieff concocted it with his brother, John. The idea caught on and their restaurant, Empress, grew into a downtown chili emporium.
Others followed, and today there are at least 20 chili companies in Greater Cincinnati.
But who is really best? There was only one option: Try them all, or as many as could safely fit into 24 hours or so, even if it meant a breakfast-lunch-dinner-breakfast marathon.
The crash course began at a Gold Star in a strip mall outside the city, one of 106 outlets in a chain that is second-biggest after Skyline. The decor was decidedly fast-food, as was the speed with which a five-way platter reached the table.
The cumin and paprika in the chili were unmistakable. Or maybe that was just because it had been written somewhere in an article. Who knew; either way it was good.
Afaf Gammoh, the circumspect franchise owner, declares Gold Star the best. Don't take her word for it, though. She nods to a wall that holds a framed Cincinnati magazine story naming Gold Star its taste-test winner. "Good color; not too red," the judges said. "Nice in the mouth with nice spices."
Precisely what makes it nice is a mystery. Not even Gammoh, who gets the chili pre-made from the central office and has sold it since 1970, knows the exact recipe. Nor does she claim to be curious. "No," she says, forcing a smile. "Leave it alone."
Bob Brummett sidles up to the counter just past 10. "We eat a lot of it," says the goatee-wearing drug counselor. "I don't know what else to tell you other than that it's good." So good, he says, that he ships cans of it to his brother in Florida. The cans list ingredients as paprika, chili pepper and unnamed "spices."
A few hours later, it's lunchtime. Next stop: the Empress branch in Wilder, Ky. The menu has regular sandwiches, but the occasion requires ordering another five-way, along with its frequent companion, the "cheese coney" - a mini-frank buried deep under chili and cheese.
Franchise owner Linda Measner can tell when she has a new arrival on her hands. "We can spot a rookie when they walk in the door - totally lost," she says. "They don't know how to order. It's another language."
This chili has more kick to it, maybe because of the chili peppers swimming in the sauce. Measner asks what folks eat in Baltimore. When she hears about soft-shell crabs, she makes a sour face and says, "That sounds totally gross."
Later, at Empress Food Products Co. in Cincinnati, President Joe Kiradjieff - the 72-year-old son of Athanas - hands over a business card with the motto "#1 name in chili since 1922."
On the wall was a story about a different taste test - the Enquirer's - in which Empress beat its rivals. (The overall winner was a homemade version using a Joy of Cooking recipe.)
Kiradjieff says he has no idea where his father and uncle got the idea. What he does know is that his competitors are copycats. "They still didn't do it right," he says disgustedly.
Like his father and uncle, he used to mix the chili in his home kitchen to foil would-be spies at his restaurant. Now a spice company makes the sauce mix and ships it to his headquarters in an industrial park. The chili is then distributed to branches like Measner's.
Kiradjieff does say his chili has no cinnamon but offers no other insight into his secret sauce. "I can't tell you anything," he says pleasantly. As for the chili's enduring popularity, he shrugs. "People just like it."
Dinner that night means a visit to the downtown Skyline. It's the biggest chain, with more than 120 outlets from Indianapolis to Florida. The waitress, apparently sensing danger, brings over a bib that reads, "Feeling Good and Hungry?"
Not really, but another five-way is requested for the sake of research. Official finding: good. But not light. Skyline's Web site notes that a large five-way contains 1,180 calories and 61 grams of fat.
No taste-test awards hang on the wall. But cashier Omar Beasley doesn't need any taste test. "Skyline's the best," he announces, "and don't let anybody tell you different!"
Next morning, Johnny Johnson does just that. He owns Camp Washington Chili and went by Ioannis Ioannoy until he left Greece as a boy in 1951.
Now 65, Johnson says his chili is best and names the celebrities he has served to bolster his claim: the rock band Aerosmith, country star Tim McGraw, R&B; vocalist Chris McKnight.
Freudenberg, the mechanic who drove an hour for breakfast, agrees. "Best chili in the city," he says. "I don't know what he does to it. I've been coming here for years."
Johnson, wearing a boyish smile and chef's hat, tries to explain the appeal. First is the secret recipe. Second is the quality control. He uses only real cheddar. "Some other companies," he says darkly, "might use imitation cheese."
"I buy beef from the slaughterhouse, nice and lean," he adds. "We grind it ourselves." Then it's cooked up fresh in a 60-gallon vat filled with simmering chili.
Some of that chili lands on yet another five-way platter, the fourth in four meals. "How did you like your chili?" Johnson asks a few minutes later, beaming with anticipation.
Good, very good. In fact, they were all quite good. But the best? Hard to say, because by the end nothing tasted so good as the Rolaids.