Sunday, November 18, 2007

Food and Place, volume 2 (Cincinnati)


Cincinnati is known for its chili. Mr. Joe Posnanski, the brilliant and funny writer, started his career with a now-defunct afternoon daily in Cincinnati. He's a fan of the so-called five-way chili, also sometimes referred to as Skyline* chili.

Well, I humbly disagree with Mr. Posnanzki's nostalgic views about Cincinnati's signature dish. When I lived in Columbus, work sometimes took me to Cincinnati. Every time, somebody would loudly and enthusiastically say "You gotta get some five-way!" and they would drag me off to one of the 80-some chili parlors in or around that old river town. I would politely have a bowl and silently vow to myself 'never again.'

Start with boiled ground beef. (I'm sorry, but any dish that uses boiled ground beef as its base is off to a bad start.) Then pile that beef on overcooked noodles (usually spaghetti or a thicker version like bucatini). The two combine to form an amorphous mass with the texture of uncooked bread dough or wet cat food. What makes it 'three- four- or five-way' chili is the addition (on top) of one or more of the following: beans, diced onion, grated yellow cheese, and crushed oyster crackers. They don't help much.

Cincinnati has a lot going for it, including some very good seafood restaurants, a revitalized riverfront, and Barrelhouse beer. Five-way chili is no reason to go to Cincinnati.

In Richard Brautigan's classic "A Confederate General From Big Sur," the narrator describes the food on which his eccentric friend Lee Mellon tries to survive. An excerpt from the chapter Breaking Bread at Big Sur:

The dinner we had that evening was not very good. Some salad made from greens and jack mackerel. The fellow who owned the place had brought the jack mackerel for the cats who hung around here, but the cats wouldn't eat it. The stuff was so bad they would sooner go hungry. And they did.

Jack mackerel tears your system apart. Almost as soon as it hits your stomach, you begin to rumble and squeal and flap. Sounds made in a haunted house during an earthquake tear horizontally across your stomach. Then great farts and belches begin arriving out of your body. Jack mackerel almost comes out through your pores.

After a dinner of jack mackerel you sit around and your subjects of conversation are greatly limited. I have found it impossible to talk about poetry, esthetics, or world peace after eating jack mackerel.

Well, the famous Cincinnati chili isn't quite that bad.

Next stop: Boston!


* I think the name comes from a road that runs on the top of the bluff above the city -- Cincinnati's version of Mulholland Drive.

1 comment:

Rob Hardy said...

I think I may leave Cincinnati off of my cook's tour of the USA. But on your way to Boston, be sure to stop in Providence, RI, for some kale and linguica soup, Portuguese sweetbread, and coffeemilk, among other things.