This past weekend was a particularly beautiful Fall weekend in Cincinnati. The air was crisp and the leaves were turning their hues of auburn, magenta, and burnt ochre. My friend Jeanne and I decided to enjoy it with a roadtrip to our southern neighbor to the south, Louisville, Kentucky. They were celebrating sort of a ‘Tall Stacks’ on their Ohio riverfront to mark the 100th birthday of their local paddlewheel, the Belle of Louisiville. We landed tickets to the lunch steamboat parade cruise on another steamboat, the Spirit of Jefferson, a small but quaint three decker.
As we boarded the sparklingly clean boat, and found a window table where we’d camp for the cruise, we decided to parch our thirst with a little bourbon at the second deck bar. My eyes were first drawn to the delicious display of bourbons they had, one of which was the Double Barrell Woodstone. After the awesome bartender gave us both tastes of this delicious concoction we decided that was our drink.
Then, as we were waiting for our drinks, my eyes spotted something so offensive that I almost yelled in horror. But instead, as the journalist that I think I am, I first documented with a picture and then pointed out the offense to Jeanne. That something so offensive was a double, hot condiment dispenser of nacho cheese and ‘coney dog chili’. I was offended for several reasons. First, as expected, there was a glob of drying, fake nacho cheese that had dripped on the base from the nacho dispensing side which I thought was completely disgusting. And then to group chili with something so fake as nacho cheese sauce, completely offended my Cincinnati sensibilities. You see, in Cincinnati, our chili is just not some hot condiment that can be ‘dispensed’ on top of a hot dog. No, it’s a chili that takes an overnight stewing to open the flavors of the 18 herbs and spices of its Macedonian/Turkish ‘baharat’ spice blend.
Whatever additives and modifications the hot dispenser coney dog chili had to go through to be able to flow through the internal pipe mechanism, without leaving globs of drying, dessicated meat in the bends and loops unnerved me. And, to be fair, in most places outside of Cincinnati, coney dog chili, or chili sauces is nearly a condiment. But that certainly doesn’t make this dispenser right.
We can for sure thank the Macedonians for bringing the coney island – ‘saltsa kima’ style meat sauce on top of a hot dog with onions – from New York to Cincinnati. We can thank our Macedonians for it’s eventual evolution into our beloved cheese coney. But our Macedonians – the brothers Kiradjieff in 1922 at the Empress Chili Parlor on Vine Street – not only took the coney island and adapted it, they took the chili, formulated it with high quality meats – no heart or other offal meats – and gave it many depths of flavor.
At the time chili was assumed to be made from a diner’s daily left over meat – ground up and highly spiced to make up for its age. Cincinnati’s Macedonians then innovated and created a new dish that exists nowhere else in the world, but in Cincinnati – the Three Way – with chili, ladled over cooked spaghetti, with a topping of fresh Wisconsin cheddar cheese. Now that’s brilliant. Our Macedonians had creativity and spirit and ingenuity.
The country’s other Macedonians innovated the coney island to their respective areas of settlement. With sweat and hard work, they built the food industry to help each other build a new life in America. As a result each Macedonian-settled area of the country has it’s own version of the coney island. In Detroit, their coney islands have a chili made with beef hearts over a thick, meaty frankfurter, with onions, no cheese. New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania have the Texas Hot, again a red hot with chili and onions, no cheese. There are the Michigans in parts of New York that mirror the Detroit Coney Islands. West Virginia has its slaw dogs, with chili over a hot dog with onions and creamy cole slaw, no cheese. Finally, East Central Kentucky has something they call the chili bun, a ‘naked coney’ without the dog, but only a bun with chili, mustard and chopped sweet onions.
In a Cincinnati chili parlor, the chili is made daily of fresh ground lean beef and 18 secret herbs and spices and cooked overnight, held in a large kettle over a steam table. It’s ladled respectfully into bowls, on spaghetti for three, four, and five ways, and over coney’s to be topped with a handful of fresh cheddar cheese. Never, I say, NEVER will you find it dispensed from an automated hot condiment machine.
As we approach October 22 tomorrow, the 92nd Birthday of Cincinnati chili, I would like to thank Athanas and Ivan Kiradjieff for their ingenuity and steadfastness to bring us one of the best new food inventions of the world. French Chef Jean Robert de Cavel claims, ‘there are no new foods.” That may be true, everywhere else, but in Cincinnati!