As far as pilgrimages go, this one was pretty weak.
“Let’s go to Cincinnati to eat chili dogs,” I said to my girlfriend last week, when we were in Dayton, Ohio, for Thanksgiving.
“I don’t eat chili or hot dogs,” she reminded me. While I admire her commitment to vegetarianism, it can be a royal pain my rump.
Instead of arguing, I lied. “They have chili without meat,” I said, being careful not to grin. I’m a terrible liar, and my shit-eating smile is a key clue to an untruth.
“Well, I guess so…” she began. “We can go a thrift store afterward!” I said. She loves Ohio thrift stores, and all their mothballed mysteries and bargains.
We climbed into a station wagon and steered southwest, our sights set on a Cincinnati chili. My enthusiasm requires explanation. For those accustomed to five-alarm Texas chili, Cincinnati’s take may leave heat-lovers lacking. The standard recipe starts with ground beef sunk into a soupy, tomato-based sauce that’s by turns tangy and sweet. Chocolate may be a covert ingredient, though no one’s spilling the secret.
Traditionally, the chili is served atop a mound of spaghetti and showered with shredded cheddar cheese—that’s a “three-way.” Adding red beans or onions creates a “four-way”; a “five-way” equals both red beans and onions. (Oyster crackers are the standard topping, along with a squirt of hot sauce if you savor zing.) There’s no “six-way,” but there are Coneys, which are hot dogs about the size of my middle finger, served on a steamed bun and topped with chili, onions, cheddar cheese and a racing stripe of mustard. By themselves, the hot dogs are bland, but that’s their role: the straight man to the zany chili and its toppings.
As a wee Ohioan, I loved these wieners. They fit snugly into my little mitts, and I could easily devour two or three in a single sitting, chased by pawfuls of free oyster crackers. It wasn’t till I was older that I discovered the glories of kosher hot dogs, all-beef frankfurters with griddle-seared flavor and a juicy snap. Now, a dirty-water Sabrett is as low as I’ll dare slum. But I’ll trade a Hebrew National in a clogged heartbeat for a Coney.
Unfortunately, Cincy chili never broke free from the force field of southern Ohio and certain quadrants of Indiana and Kentucky. Well, that’s not totally true. On the last Monday of the month, Tribeca restaurant Edward’s (136 West Broadway, betw. Duane & Thomas Sts., 212-233-6436) hosts a “Cincinnati night” featuring southern Ohio delicacies including Montgomery Inn ribs, Graeter’s ice cream, LaRosa’s pizza and chili from Skyline Chili, a famous Cincy chain. Also, the East Village’s Phebe’s Tavern & Grill (359 Bowery, at E. 4th St., 212-358-1902) serves Skyline on football Sundays, when the bar is overrun by Cincinnati Bengals fans. Though I’m happy there’s an opportunity to munch Cincy food in the Big Apple, something lost in translation.
Long story short, my girlfriend and I arrived at Cincinnati’s Camp Washington Chili. (It was named after its neighborhood, where Civil War soldiers once camped.) Since 1940, the parlor has sated Cincinnatians with its lean-beef chili, which gurgles away in silver steaming vats.
As a wee Ohioan, I loved these wieners. They fit snugly into my little mitts, and I could easily devour two or three in a single sitting
We slid into a booth, a neon clock glowing behind us, and scanned the menus. “All the chili has meat in it,” she said. “You can get spaghetti topped with beans and cheese!” I said brightly. She settled on a tuna melt.
I only had eyes for Coneys. “How many should I get?” I asked the waitress. She was a skinny thing, a stick with a big ol’ grin. “Well, a little boy, he must’ve been 10, came in here today and ate five.” She appraised my meager frame. “Why don’t you start with two? You can always order more.”
I took that as a challenge. In a few minutes came my Coneys, hidden beneath a fluffy snowdrift of yellow cheese. “That looks disgusting,” my girlfriend said. I could’ve said the same thing about her crunchy tuna sandwich, but instead I stuffed my maw with Coneys, savoring the soft bun, soft dog and soft, subtly spiced meat—a feast of kings for toothless women and men. I disposed of two, then ordered a third. There would be no fourth. Nostalgia was unable to stretch my stomach.
“It’s OK,” the waitress said, clearing my plate. “Not everyone can eat as much as a 10-year-old.”