St. Louis’ Chili Mac.
St. Louis and Cincinnati have a lot of food commonalities. On the pastry side, St. Louis has a gooey butter coffee cake, while Cincinnati has its cheese crowns. St. Louis has its own style of pizza, with its own type of cheese, called provel. Cincinnati has LaRosa’s pizza . And, when it comes to chili – or chile, as they spell it in St Louis – they have their own too, and they serve it on spaghetti, calling it chili mac.
St. Louis Chile is perhaps a bit older than Cincinnati’s. But unfortunately theirs is fading out, while Cincinnati’s is going strong, fueled by the two big chains Skyline and Gold Star. St. Louis chili was founded by two brothers (like Cincinnati’s Macedonian Kiradjieff brothers), Otis Truman Hodge (1872-1942) and his younger brother Mervin C. Hodge (1879-1952) around 1904, when Otis operated a food stand at St. Louis’ 1904 World’s Fair. He shortly thereafter opened Hodge’s Chili and Lunch Room at 814 Pine Street.
Otis Truman Hodge (founder of St. Louis Chile) and wife Miriam.
St. Louis Chile does not have a Macedonian or Greek heritage, like Cincinnati chili. John Eirten, great nephew of the founder, by marriage, says the predominant spice in their chili is cumin, and they use a fatty, more coarse ground meat, than Cincinnati chili does. It is also served in a few more creative ways than Cincinnati chili. St. Louis has chili topped spaghetti that they call Chile mac, and chili topped hot dogs, but they also have chili topped tamales called “tamale in”, something called the “Slinger” (a chili topped hamburger, hash brown, and fried egg mashup), and “Chili mac ala mode”, which is spaghetti, fried eggs and chili. A “top one” is a chili mac topped with a tamale. Two chili topped tamales is called a “21”. St. Louis’ much heartier variations morphed out of the diner culture, rather than Cincinnati’s chili parlor culture, and thus the addition of fried eggs, hash browns, and burgers.
By 1930 there were 17 locations of O.T. Hodge’s Chile Parlors around St. Louis, between the River and Jefferson Avenue. They, like the original Cincinnati Empress Parlor, spawned several others, but not anywhere near as many as Cincinnati’s 250 parlors. The atmosphere at an O.T. Hodge’s was the same as a Cincinnati chili parlor– a stool flanked counter and steam table with a few tables and chairs. And, you could find anyone from a judge to a laborer sitting side by side.
The last O.T. Hodge’s sadly closed in 2013, but Big Ed’s Chili Mac, which is also owned by a Hodge relative, John Eirten, is hanging on. Cincinnati’s last two Empress Chili Parlors, in Bridgetown and Alexandria are also barely holding on. Many people still have nostalgia for these longtime chili parlors, but changing demographics and economics of the neighborhoods caused many to close.
Harry Brunsen (1918-1998), husband of Otis’s daughter Ruth, was the last one to own an O.T. Hodge chili parlor. Early on a relative of Otis’s split and founded the company that would can and supply frozen bricks of chili. That business is still around today and supplies the chili that many diners use to top their many varietals of the St. Louis Slinger.