August 5, 2013
An Open Mind and an Open Mouth: My Adventure with Cincinnati Chili
My opinions on Cincinnati chili were confidently written with permanent ink, chiseled into stone, and placed behind impenetrable sheets of glass—subsequently displayed with pride in the entryways of my culinary home. Cincinnati chili was a joke to me, a pretender in the world of chili. The context of this strong-willed preference is important to the discussion, as the chili of my bloodline was normally placed in direct contrast to the chili of my scorn, pitting the two together as rivals and forcing a nationalistic reaction as a result. I was raised in Texas and spent too many weekends during my youth attending chili cook-offs and chili-specific gatherings, which not only familiarized my palate with thoughtful bowls of the delicious slow-cooked meat but also with the process and preparations involved with chili construction, not to mention the eccentric cast of characters who made such constructions a significant part of their lives. It’s a very unusual sub-culture, and for whatever reason, my family enjoyed spending their free time sampling the significance of another person’s meat-based passions. I was forced into a life of chili. My opinions were formed. My opinions were strong.
My central flaw was not the affect heuristic or the lone-star nationalism, but the assumption that Cincinnati chili was actually a chili, and therefore a product that should be held to the standards of other forms of chili, which is an ignorant conclusion that goes beyond the semantics involved with the title of the product itself. I was raised with a chili belief system that preached a fire-and-brimstone tenet that meat was the divine entity and it should be celebrated and feared accordingly. Cincinnati “chili” is an ensemble product, a Robert Altman product, and the meat contained within is merely a character in the performance and not a leading man or woman. In fact, I can’t even prove the existence of a meat presence in the meat-like sauce. Cincinnati chili is not a chili. Cincinnati chili is an edible pathway to an adolescent fantasy, a comfort food that actually provides the consumer with the experience of comfort. It’s a pacifier or a familiar bosom for the recently intoxicated, and as someone who was recently intoxicated, I can full attest to the charms of its sorcery.
With plans in my pocket to dodge the local cuisine and remain steadfast in my stance, I was forced into the experience by good friend and local baseball scribe, C. Trent Rosecrans. Using the wisdom that accompanies his luscious beard and friendly disposition, Trent walked me down the aisle and towards Skyline, the flagship chain of irresponsible fast-food pseudo-chili. The interior of the establishment was bright and uncomfortable, an aesthetic reminder that alcohol stains the eyes and that most human beings are unfortunate looking. The hustle of the staff made me nervous and the sounds from the locals feeding on plates of shredded cheese didn’t stabilize my anxiety. Trent whispered a tranquil message of hope and a promise that the food was legit, and mere seconds after he placed the dual order, the bowls of community comfort arrived for our consumption.
I was delivered a “Three-way,” which is the menu distinction given to a bed of standard-issue pasta noodles blanketed in a chili-like sauce that is topped with a four-pound brick of shredded cheese, and it was as sexual as the suggestive title might suggest. Once I was able to remove the preconceived notion that Cincinnati chili was in fact a chili, I was able to enjoy the late-night carbohydrate feast with open eyes and a gracious heart. There is something very consoling and compassionate about eating like an undergrad, coming home late to a miserable kitchen filled with miserable items that you can turn into magic through the creativity of a carb, a sauce, and a cheese, and consuming it while hot and confused. It’s basically a Hamburger Helper creation, complete with a blissful ambivalence to its actual taste and a shortsighted placation that could offer a negative consequence depending on the stability of your digestive response. It’s a food for a specific moment that offers up a specific mood, and when the situation allows for it, a specific memory of a more elementary time. Okay, it’s better than a Hamburger Helper creation.
For what it is, Cincinnati Chili is more than an acceptable dish, especially in a specific environment, but what confuses me about the product is the desire to consume said comfort food during off-peak times of sobriety or with regular frequency, both of which strike me as foolish acts. First of all, eating your own weight in shredded cheese seems excessive, even for those standing tall next to their own physical demise, which I can respect. I am aware that the do-it-yourself chili chef can add or subtract the toppings at their leisure, and perhaps make the excessive meal less excessive, but the base construction is still the base construction, and it’s not a very refined or healthy culinary experience. Add to the mix a fast-food preparation and delivery, and the action becomes even less attractive (at least for me).
The sober recidivists bother me the most, as they are basically saying to others that they have given up in life and the arrested development they seek through their makeshift dinner is more important than the respect that comes with having taste or dignity, and that the mistakes they make in life are not the result of alcohol or drugs, which throws off the balance in the world and gives me anxiety. If you had a sober adult friend that consumed Lunchables on the regular because they enjoyed the taste and insisted it wasn’t because of any familial scars on their resume or general laziness, you would secretly judge them and/or make others aware of their desire to consume Lunchables with a willing palate, right? If you or someone you love willingly prepares and consumes Cincinnati chili on the regular—doing so with sober intent and a general appreciation of the product—you might need to seek help from a licensed professional or community support group. Okay, Cinciannti chili is better than Lunchables.
Thanks to my chosen profession, my opinions are malleable if struck with enough force, and despite my hard-charging attack against Cincinnati chili and everything it and the people who willingly consume it stand for, I was wrong to put up such a fight. The product is more than acceptable if consumed in the proper setting under the proper influence, and the comfort provided brought back positive memories of a wilder youth, when eating like a child was not only acceptable, it was often the only course of action. A hot bowl of Cincinnati Comfort really helped the heart, and I’m lucky to have a friend like Trent who not only understands what the product is and when it should be consumed but understands when someone needs to come face-to-face with a would-be foe and learn to accept the positives. Just don't call it a chili.