On my first day working as a dishwasher at Skyline Chili, my boss, a thin, austere man who went only by “Corky,” took me into the kitchen and taught me how to make Skyline’s rendition of Cincinnati chili, the regional platter that, 10 years later in 2013, Deadspin would call “the worst regional foodstuff in America,” and “a horrifying diarrhea sludge.”
Corky went into the freezer and pulled out a cardboard box. From this he pulled out a translucent plastic bag. Inside was a mushy brown cube of meat. He cut the bag open with an X-Acto knife, and dumped the cube into a large metal pot. It retained its shape. Then he filled a bucket with water, dumped it in the pot, turned the burners on, and handed me an instrument that looked less like a spoon than a Hobbit’s canoe oar.
“Take a break from dishwashing every 10 or 15 minutes to stir,” he said. He walked out of the kitchen, leaving me alone, oar in hand. I looked into the pot, filled with the food that, at the time, I was eating on an almost daily basis, and I grimaced. It looked – there’s no better way of describing it – like a horrifying diarrhea sludge.
Cincinnati chili has proven oddly resistant to the foodie revolution; unlike other regional dishes, like Tex-Mex, crab cakes, or shrimp and grits, there’s no real way to sexy it up. You can’t embellish on the recipe with truffle oil or pork belly, and it would be absurd to talk about its mouthfeel. It has, to my knowledge, never been included in a challenge on a competitive Food Network show. The pimple-faced teenagers who make it are cooks, not chefs.
Its presentation is simple: spaghetti under a uniformly brown chili sauce under an almost neon yellow pile of shredded cheddar. Its preparation involves little in the way of culinary technique, and the recipes never change. It is not healthy. If made by an experienced line cook, a full table’s order can be made and served in under a minute. This makes it assembly line fast food, a culinary genre which has gone definitively out of style.
The dish is, in short, the ultimate anti-foodie food. This can be explained in part by its history. Cincinnati chili was first created in the early 1920s by the Kiradjieff brothers, Greek Macedonian immigrants who owned a hot dog stand next to the Empress burlesque theater. The recipe was probably an adaptation of a traditional, heavily spiced lamb or goat stew, which was placed on top of hot…