when pigs flyIn the gallery of Junior League cookbook covers, the Junior League of Cincinnati’s I’ll Cook When Pigs Fly (and They DO in Cincinnati!) certainly ranks among the zaniest and most adorable.  The moment I clapped eyes on it, I knew I had to have it.

When I first got the book, I knew nothing about Cincinnati.  In fact, everything I thought I knew about Cincinnati turned out to be about Cleveland.  The Torso Killer, the ill-fated baseball promotion, Ten-Cent Beer Night, even that episode of Anthony Bourdain:  No Reservations where they go to the famous Skyline Chili… yeah, all those things happened in Cleveland.

(Brady was reading over my shoulder just now, and suggested, “Casey Blake!  Wait, no…. he played for the Indians.”  So, as you can see, it’s not just me.)

This is not to suggest that Cincinnati plays second fiddle to, of all places, Cleveland.  In fact, as I learned from I’ll Cook When Pigs Fly, it’s quite the city of firsts.

Kitty Burke, a “cheeky nightclub entertainer” was the first woman to bat in a Major League Baseball game in 1935.  Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer threw back-to-back no-hitters in 1938, the first and only MLB pitcher to accomplish this feat.  The Reds were also the first team to play a night game, the first MLB team to travel by airplane, and were, in fact, the first professional baseball team.

But it’s not all about baseball (and the way the Reds are playing so far this season, that’s probably a good thing).

For many slaves escaping to freedom, Levi Coffin’s house at Sixth and Elm was the first free stop on the Underground Railroad.  Cincinnati was home to the nation’s first supermarket, first paid professional fire department, the first reinforced concrete framework skyscraper, and the first municipally owned and operated university.

And I’m told they know a thing or two about chili.

Cincinnati-style chili is probably different from the chili you’re used to, whether it’s Tex-Mex, five-alarm, white, turkey, black bean, or vegetarian.  With its thin broth, cinnamon and allspice seasonings, and tendency to be served over spaghetti, Cincinnati chili is its own special beast.

After my rather labor-intensive canning escapades last week, I was eager for something I could stick in a pot and forget about, preferably something tasty.  And despite the fact that chili goes far better with football season than baseball, it somehow sounded… perfect.

Traditional Cincinnati Chili

Cincinnati Chili, with all the fixins'

Cincinnati Chili, with all the fixins'

2 pounds ground beef
4 medium sized minced onions
1 clove garlic, minced, or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
4 cups water
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons vinegar
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chili powder
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon
5 bay leaves
35 whole allspice
1 (16 ounce) can kidney beans

In Dutch oven, brown beef with onion and garlic, stirring to crumble. Drain excess fat. Stir in tomato sauce, water, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, salt, black pepper, chili powder, red pepper and cinnamon. Enclose bay leaf and allspice in cheesecloth bag, secure tightly and add to soup.

Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Add beans, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 3 hours.

Serves 6 to 8.

Now, it’s in the serving of the chili that things get interesting.  In Cincinnati, you can order your chili Two-Way, Three-Way, Four-Way, or Five-Way, each addition more delicious than the last.

  • Two-Way:  chili over spaghetti
  • Three-Way:  chili and shredded cheddar cheese over spaghetti
  • Four-Way:  chili, shredded cheddar cheese, and raw onions over spaghetti
  • Five-Way:  chili, shredded cheddar cheese, raw onions, and kidney beans over spaghetti
Two-Way (Chili over spaghetti)

Two-Way Chili

In the end, not being Cincinnatians, we decided that the Five-Way Chili was simply too much (and a little redundant on account of there already being kidney beans in the chili), and opted for Four-Way:

Four-Way Chili

Four-Way Chili

And served, of course, with a dish of oyster crackers because you need some starch to balance out all that beef and cheese.

If you have reservations about chili over spaghetti, let me assure you that it’s delicious.  Maybe not something you want every day, but at least worth trying once.  And while 35 allspice berries might give you pause, the slightly Mediterranean flavor it lends to the chili is both surprising and pleasant.

And if you still have doubts, check out the scene from the Cleveland episode of No Reservations.  Anthony Bourdain’s take on Cincinnati-style chili:

“You’ve got the New England oysterette thing going on here, you’ve got the Southern sweet tea, you’ve got the chili from the southwest, spaghetti from our brethern in Italy.  This is America on your plate.  This is the story of America… If you don’t like this, you’re just not drinking enough.”