Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cincinnati Chili and Editor's Notebook

This week's Editor's notebook is up on the Food History News website with a sudden insight I had on the seasonings of Cincinnati Chili plus an announcement about a Culinary Historians of New York event honoring Dr. Jacqueline Newman and considering Chinese food in America plus a day dedicated to the history of food and dining in Hudson Valley, NY.

Here are my thoughts on the chili.

Cincinnati Chili showed up on the food site Zester Daily. This fascinating dish, unique to Cincinnati, consists of a pile of spaghetti topped by chili, and cheese, and sometimes onions and other stuff. It is a fine example of a micro-regional dish, and it has a decades old history by now. Apparently developed by a pair of Greeks who ran an eatery, the dish still is found in diners, and small restaurants, and migrated into the home kitchen. The sauce consists of ground beef, seasoned with cinnamon, cloves and unsweetened chocolate in a beef and tomato base, and no beans. Some descriptions report that the seasonings are "unusual" and if you are thinking of a Tex-Mex style chili then yes, it would be. However, if you are conversant with late 19th century chili sauces, then the spicing wouldn't seem so odd.

I first encountered chili sauces in my research on late 19th century New England foodways. They are a fairly common relish cropping up in manuscript sources as well as imprints. Typically they are made with tomatoes, green peppers, and onions and are seasoned with cloves, cinnamon, sometimes ginger, red pepper, and/or allspice. They have sugar and vinegar and the whole is boiled until it is quite thick. I've made it, and it is a favorite at our house, suitable for use as one would use tomato ketchup. I love it on fishcakes, myself. It is not always spicy hot with capsicum, but, depending on the recipe, it is spicy and can be sharp with vinegar. By the early 20th century, this species of chili sauce was pretty common in most places in the North and Midwest.

Here is a pretty typical Chili Sauce which comes from the Cincinnati Cookbook, 1908, originally published by F. C. H. Manns Company, and reprinted by the University of Iowa Press in 1994, edited by David Schoonover, page 65.

Chili Sauce

Twenty-four large tomatoes, eight large onions, thirteen green sweet peppers, four cups vinegar, eight tablespoons sugar, four tablespoons salt, one teaspoon ginger, one teaspoon cloves, one teaspoon cinnamon, one teaspoon red peppers. Cook three hours. Makes one gallon.


  1. Cincinnati Chili has successfully spread to the rest of Ohio, at least, through two fast food chains, Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili. So maybe more regional than micro-regional?

  2. Hi Sandy, greetings from the land of Texas chili-eaters. I'm interested in learning when the New England tomato/green pepper/vinegar sauce began to be called "chili." Based on the flavorings, I'm assuming that the roots of this sauce came from England via the spice trade, or perhaps from the Caribbean via commerce with NE. But I'm thinking it might not have been called chili until after the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that introduced Texas-style chili to much of the rest of the country. What do your cookbooks reveal? ~MM Pack

  3. Hi MM -- A quick review shows 1880, Appledore Cookbook by Maria Parloa with a Chili (preserve version) recipe in it. Pretty common thereafter. I found one in a manuscript collection ca: 1885-1895 -- so a little ahead of the World's Fair.

    After I wrote that bit about Cincinnati chili tho, I wondered if perhaps there was a Greek seasonings connection of some sort ???


  4. That's what I'd heard--that the Cincinnati chili was created by Greek immigrants.