We do this thing here at The Enquirer that I don’t want to do. It’s a simple, perfectly reasonable thing, but I’ve been avoiding it now for months.
My boss would like me to write a short “get-to-know-you” column, in which I’d explain why I became a journalist, why I’m in Cincinnati and what I like most about being here.
Many of my colleagues already have done this and their columns turned out great. Readers got to see them for the first time not just as journalists, but as fellow Cincinnatians, as part of the community.
But I have a problem they don’t: I hate the most Cincinnati thing there is.
I hate Cincinnati chili.
What this means, I think, is I may never truly belong here. Sure, I’ve raised kids on the West Side. I proposed to my wife at the overlook at Immaculata Church. I know Delhi is pronounced “Dell-high,” no matter what Siri says. The chili, though? That feels insurmountable.
I’ve tried to like Cincinnati chili. Really, I have. I’m not a native, but I’ve lived in this town longer than I’ve lived anywhere. I want to fit in, to be accepted, even if it means eating chocolate tomato sauce over spaghetti smothered in orange cheese and raw onions while pretending it all adds up to something that can legally, ethically and morally be called “chili.”
I have done this, many times. I have eaten Cincinnati chili downtown and down the street, for early lunches and late dinners, sober and less than sober. My capacity to lie to myself is not insignificant. And yet, I struggle.
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This would be fine, except Cincinnati chili is not just a meal. It’s a symbol, a test of one’s fitness to live among Cincinnati tribes that so often are divided by parishes and high schools and Crosstown Shootouts, but never by chili.
The locals may disagree on the best chili – Skyline or Gold Star; Camp Washington or Empress – but never on the fundamentals. Never on the singular awesomeness of Cincinnati chili itself.
I am alone. I don’t want to be the awkward kid who eats by himself in the cafeteria, but that’s what I am every time a friend suggests lunch at one of Cincinnati’s 42,753 chili joints (Editor’s note: this number is an estimate).
I’m not a food snob. I grew up in Cleveland eating kielbasa, perogies and hot dogs smothered in stadium mustard. I like many things that are simple and cheap and terrible for you.
It’s not personal, either. I’m always willing to talk some Battle of Ohio smack, but this isn’t a my-hometown-is-better-than-yours situation. I think goetta is a revelation. I love a good fish fry. And the breweries here? Count me in.
I want to like Cincinnati chili. I think it’s great when a city has something to call its own, something locals can invite out-of-town friends to try when they visit. In Boston, it’s clam chowder. In New Orleans, a po’ boy. Chili in Cincinnati makes perfect sense.
And there’s nothing not to like about Cincinnati chili’s origin story, which is a classic American story: A Macedonian immigrant in the 1920s saves his struggling restaurant by serving up a hybrid of a Greek dish, pastitso, made with layers of pasta and a meat sauce cooked with aromatic spices.
It all sounds terrific. Except it’s not. While some see Cincinnati chili creator Tom Kiradjieff as a culinary hero, I picture him standing over a pot in his kitchen, cackling like the witches in Macbeth as he empties his cupboard of mismatched ingredients. Onion and cinnamon? Sure. Cloves and grated cheese? Why not.
Chocolate? Surely, there had to be some conversation around that one. But in it went, with all the rest.
Look, sometimes it just goes this way. Sometimes, you just don’t like the thing that everyone else seems to like. Anyone who knows me well knows I have an irrational dislike for the music of Hall & Oates. Again, it’s not personal. Mr. Hall and Mr. Oates seem like fine humans and musicians. I just have a visceral reaction to their music. I hate it. All of it. Without exception.
Cincinnati chili is like that for me. A five-way does to my taste buds what “Maneater” does to my ears. It inflicts violence upon them.
Despite all that, I’m not an anti-chili evangelist. If you like the stuff, dig in. I won’t try to talk you out of it. Heck, my son considers cheese coneys a food group. My daughter uses half a bottle of Skyline hot sauce on hers. I don’t judge them. I won’t judge you.
The point of sharing all this is to let you know where I stand, to be honest about this problem in the hope we can work through it. It didn’t seem right to just pretend everything was OK in one of those columns my boss wanted me to write.
I understand there might be consequences to coming clean about this. Reasonable people will disagree. Some might even be offended.
Fortunately, my boss is a good guy. I know he’ll have my back. He grew up in Cincinnati. And he’s Greek. And, come to think of it, he does enjoy his Cincinnati chili.
I’m sure I have nothing to worry about.
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