On Christmas Day, 1937, the Cincinnati Enquirer posted the above full-page photo of a young Billy Lambrinides singing “Silent Night” at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral’s Midnight mass the night before. The headline was GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST…. AND ON EARTH PEACE GOODWILL TOWARD MEN. The angel behind him can now be seen in the Cincinnati Wing of our Art Museum. And Billy Lambrinides passed on this year to that Great Chili Parlor in the Sky.
The story of that night is told by his son, Billy Lambrinides, Jr., in a book called Visions of Plum Street, which he describes as ‘an often true and inappropriate comedy about Christmas and Skyline Chili.’ Twelve years after that photo of little Billy in his pre-Vatican II server’s outfit appeared, his father, Greek-Macedonian immigrant from Kastoria, Nicholas Lambrinides, founded the first Skyline Chili on top of Price Hill.
Nicholas Lambrinides, the founder of Skyline Chili.
Visions of Plum Street is like Cincinnati’s version of A Christmas Story. Why it’s not a movie that’s replayed locally during the Christmas season is crazy to me. Little Billy Lambrinides is similar in age to Ralphy and lives the foibles of a young middle class American boy in mid century America leading up to Christmas. Instead of the anticipation of whether or not he receives his Red Rider bb gun, our Cincinnati Chili Christmas story is about the anticipation of Billy and his twin serving and singing a solo at midnight mass in our city’s cathedral.
Laden throughout the story are stories of Greek holiday food that Alexandria Lambrinides made, like her baklava and kourabiethes. “Nobody can hide their excitement when they’re handed a plate of baklava. What’s not to like about layers of nuts and phyllo dough soaked in sticky, sweet syrup?” Billy describes.
The deeply spiced and sugared Greek Christmas cookie, the kourabiethes, for which Alexandria Lambrinides was famous amongst her Plum Street tenement neighbors.
The story goes that Christy, Billy’s twin brother, who was supposed to sing the Silent Night solo, lost his voice the night before Christmas eve. They had lost their younger brother Johnny, who had gone by himself to see the live Nativity scene at Lytle Park (which would later be moved to the Conservatory in Mt. Adams). Christy and a search party went around their downtown neighborhood on Plum Street singing Christmas carols, which Johnny loved, to try to find him , and that’s how he lost his voice.
The center red brick building is the tenement apartment that the Lambrinides family inhabited during the Visions of Plum Street story.
The story continues that their father Nicholas, had to work at the Empress Chili parlor Christmas eve, so after midnight mass, the entire family ate their Christmas dinner at the Empress. Nicholas had experimented and bought the ingredients for his version of Cincinnati chili and made it for his family who then tasted Skyline Chili for the first time that Christmas eve.
Billy describes how his grandfather came up with Skyline chili:
“Once he got to the (Central) Market, and started pricing items, he was still coming up short. He perused the spices and picked up a few, but remembered the spices that Alexandria had purchased for her Christmas cookies.” I call these the Sweet Apostoulos or the Sweet Apostles, the portion of the 18 Cincinnati chili spices that are in our beloved chili. “He was sure she still had some left he could use and this started him thinking about some Greek dishes that share the same spices. Moussaka uses ground lamb with a blend of tomatoes, onions, and cinnamon layered over eggplant and topped with a custard sauce and cheese. He bought pounds of the best quality ground beef instead of lamb, and purchased a huge brick of mild aged cheddar cheese. Eggplant wasn’t a staple at the market but he needed something to balance out the meat and expand the meal. He thought of another Greek dish that spices meat similarly, with allspice, nutmeg and clove, which his wife had also purchased. Pastichio has a layer of pasta below its flavored beef, and this would work as an excellent model. While the baked dish normally has a béchamel over the top, the melting cheddar would offer the same cooling effect.”
Billy is describing the evolution of the Cincinnati Chili Threeway, which of course was invented not by Nicholas Lambrinides, but by another set Macedonian immigrant brothers in 1922, John (Ivan) and Tom (Athanas) Kiradjieff of Empress Chili. Note there is NO mention of including chocolate in the above description of Cincinnati chili – which so many recipes incorrectly claim. But it’s a great story, and as Billy Jr. says, is mostly correct. I’d like to believe that my favorite Cincinnati chili, Skyline, was a Christmas Eve invention.
The Lambrinides brothers of Skyline Chili – Billy, Johnny, and Christy.