The Spartan Lunch Ladies of 1989 who served me and thousands of other students. Clockwise from top are Clara Hennel, Edythe Lawrence, Jane Hardewig, Jessie Milazzo, Shirley Hausfeld, Agnes VandenEynden, Mare Clare Freese, and Melba Doellman.
For most Catholic school cafeterias, the predictable meal was always Friday Fish Day. But for my Alma Mater, Roger Bacon, the day we all really looked forward to was Cheese Coney Thursdays. For under $2 one of the nine Spartan Lunch Ladies served you two cheese coneys with house made Cincinnati Style Chili. The chili was remarkably good, and tasted of Cincinnati. The cheese was a bit wonky, though. It was different than what you might get at a Skyline or Gold Star. The grind was far coarser, more of a crumble, probably originating from government cheese or another institutional cheese supplier. The result was maybe a bit less creamy of a cheese as compared to Skyline’s gold standard long, thin, creamy cheddar cheese that melts eloquently. But for made-from-scratch for 800 starving and growing kids, it was pretty darn good.
What we didn’t appreciate back then was that those Grandma-aged lunch ladies had been toiling since 6 AM every day, making those hot lunches from scratch in a kitchen larger than any restaurant today in Over-the-Rhine. I remember having to go retrieve something for a teacher one morning from that kitchen. It was like a car repair garage, the lunch ladies watching over industrial sized mixing tanks and cooking apparatuses. They seemed like Rosie the Riveters, filling humming cooking equipment for the cause of us kids. With all that lifting, some of them had forearms that could beat any boy in an arm wrestling competition.
Roger Bacon, A Franciscan high school, opened it’s school and all-scratch kitchen in St. Bernard in 1928 for boys, and went co-ed in the early 80s. It was one of the last all scratch high school cafeterias left in Cincinnati in the late 80s, when I attended. And the nine Lunch Ladies were like surrogate Grandmothers, serving us homecooked food from their heart. My fave was Melba Doellman, who enjoyed bingo, volleyball, and golfing at her ripe old age, according to a 1980s interview in our Baconian school newspaper. She always gave me an extra big scoop of homemade stuffing on turkey day. These ladies were magic, hooking us on their homemade mashed potatoes, cookies, apple dumplings, and of course the Cincinnati style cheese coneys.
If there’s anyone today who knows where the Spartan chili recipe originated and what spices it included, it’s Shirley Hausfeld, now 80, a lifelong native of St. Bernard. She started at the Roger Bacon Cafeteria in 1981, and worked there over 25 years before retiring as its manager. And, she probably cooked the recipe that was carried on from Clara Hennell, who started there in 1964 and worked for over a quarter of a century herself, serving me and thousands of other students.
Spartan Cafeteria Lunch Ladies, Shirley Hausfeld (left) and Mary Clare Freese, stand proudly in front of their scratch made delicacies. Shirley holds the secret to the beloved Cincinnati chili recipe.
There might be a connection between Roger Bacon’s Cincinnati Chili recipe and the neighborhood chili parlor, Chili Time. The Vidas family still serves cheese coneys there at their restaurant the same way they did in 1943, when they opened it, less than a mile away from the high school on Vine Street. That was about six years before Nicholas Lambrinides started serving his cheese coneys at his chili parlor in Price Hill he named Skyline Chili. The cool thing about Chili Time was that it was always open late. Because of that it was a popular hangout for us cooky kids after football games and other weekend events. I shared many a plate of chili cheese fries there.
Current Roger Bacon cafeteria Manager, Beth Powers, the wife of a classmate of mine, says they’re not completely all-scratch anymore, but they’re more so than most other local high school cafeterias. Sadly, they don’t use the same Cincinnati chili recipe for the coneys anymore.
When scanning some of the other high school cafeterias’ menus, you find nearly all have a Cincinnati chili day. Elder High School, which is Price Hill Chili-near, serves Threeways and cheese coneys. They also serve two local dishes called the Cory and the Panther Burgers. Lasalle High School serves Threeways. Northwest High School serves Threeways and cheese coneys. Kings Local schools mix it up with a potato bar you can top with Cincinnati chili. Mariemont HIgh School has a Cincinnati chili bar on Thursdays, but without coneys. Apparently once you leave their middle school you’re too mature for cheese coneys. Seven Hills and Milford schools joins the chili bar craze, but Seven Hills’ is only once a month. Summit Country Day High School boasts homemade Cincinnati Chili over Spaghetti with Cheese, but the word ‘Threeway’ is not used in any descriptions. Really? Maybe too many non-Cincinnati natives find the connotations offensive for their kids.
John K., the winner of our coney eating contest for spirit week. Our now Pulitzer prize winning class photographer, Dirk, is cheering him on from behind.
Spartan Alums still rave about the Thursday Cheese Coneys on the Alumni Facebook Page. During our spirit week, we would always have a cheese coney eating contest, usually sponsored by the St. Bernard Skyline Chili, right around the corner from its elder, Chili Time. The winner my senior year, was John K. Our now Pulitzer prize winning class photographer, Dirk, got a picture of said winner, surrounded by his Cheshire-cat grinning friends, after he uh-em, got rid of the said winning number of coneys.