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Betsy Block

Boston Globe

Five-way Flavor

CINCINNATI  Sixteen years ago, the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl and my then-boyfriend, who grew up in Cincinnati, hosted a party. I dont remember much about the chili he served that night; I was too busy falling in love with the chef to care about dinner. But over time, as our relationship solidified, I started paying more attention to the food my sweetheart made. If we were going to stay together, I needed to know whether the man could cook. Fortunately, he could. He won me over with chili, the food of his youth. The Little Kings cream ale he poured didnt hurt, either. So I married him.

When I say chili, it probably brings to mind Texas-style: hearty, spicy, packs a wallop. Frankly, if my beloved had served me loads of heat-packed, bean-crammed chili on that wintry night so long ago, our story might have a different ending. While I love the stuff and often crave it, its not exactly wooing food. Of course, to most people, neither is Cincinnati chili. But then, my husband and I arent most people. Were Cincinnati chili-heads.

Were not alone. People here eat the stuff by the gallon. For some reason, Ohio residents never tire of it. Maybe its because its unique; chili here is decidedly not like that in other cities. Or maybe its addictive.  Some have even whispered that its a cult. Once youve eaten it, all the speculation is understandable. This chili isnt hot, its fragrant, even slightly sweet. Sure, its got ground beef, garlic and pepper in it, but its also got spices like cinnamon and allspice. And get this: You dont saut the beef, you boil it. Sound strange? It gets even stranger. Cincinnati chili is served over spaghetti; diners can add cheese, kidney beans and onions as they wish. A basic serving of chili over pasta with loads of mild cheddar piled on top is called a three-way. Add either beans or onions and its a four-way; add both and its  you guessed it  a five-way. Its served with oyster crackers, and you can add a dash of hot sauce if you like. Its a deconstructionists dream.

But now Im getting all fancy and up-east. Natives dont think about deconstructing their food, they just order and eat it. They can have chili or Coney Islands, which are dogs with chili (cheese 20 cents extra). Of course, these days most places have added all sorts of crazy things to their menus, like burritos (wrapped in a tortilla), spuds (over a potato), or a chili taco salad. Some places even have chili pizza; at Empress Chili itll set you back $2.95, unless its a Monday, when its on sale for 35 cents less. Not wonder its a full-blown love affair around here.

There are enough chili fiends in the tri-state area to support more than 200 parlors. If youre within Cincinnatis city limits, youre within sniffing distance of some of the citys famous aromatic chili. The story goes that the original recipe was created by John and Tom Kiradjieff, brothers from Greece who settled in Cincinnati and opened the citys first true chili parlor, Empress Chili, in 1922.

But Empress isnt the only show in town. In fact, while it may have been the first, sadly it has only two locations left. The fight for market share has clearly been won by Skyline and Gold Star, both of which say they have more than 100 franchise locations. Chili parlors are not glamorous places (think diner), but they serve up a mess of food, fast and cheap. A heaping five-way  twice as much as I can eat  costs between $3.50 and $4.50. The longest weve waited for a bowl is around four minutes; during one visit, our lunch came out within sixty seconds.

Sounds great, right? So why isnt this regional delicacy found in other cities? Some have opened chili parlors elsewhere, but for the most part its not transplantable. Foreigners just dont get it.

Locals, however, are attuned to the subtlest differences in flavor, their palates having been honed over a lifetime. My mother-in-law, like most aficionados I spoke with, eats at Skyline. Gold Stars thinner, she says with a frown. It depends on if you get it from the top of the pot or the bottom, points out her husband. Theresa Fischesser, a barista at the Cincinnati Museum Centers Coffee Emporium, also likes Skyline best. I was raised on it, she says. Its the only reason Id never move from Cincinnati. When she visits her parents in Florida she takes a cooler filled with the stuff (along with some White Castle burgers). My parents dont even hug me, she complains. They go straight for the cooler.

Of course, not everyone likes the local stew of beef and spices. Even Fischesser admits that you either love it or you hate it. As Mark Smith, lifetime Cincinnati resident and a twice-a-week Skyline customer, acknowledges, Its an acquired taste. Apparently, one that not everyone acquires. I despise Cincinnati chili, says Michaele Holtman, who has lived in the area for a mere 14 years. So did Mary Bettman when she first tasted it. Now, though, she has to have Skyline at least once a month. Is that just because its become familiar? I havent warmed up that way with gefilte fish, she says with a laugh.

While this chili may be the black sheep of the national chili clan, locals consider it a staple food. People think about it, talk about it, crave it. Everyone here has an opinion about it, because its ubiquitous. You can buy it in a restaurant, in a can, or frozen. You can even buy a spice mix and make it at home, which hardly anyone does. Truth is, if you live here, you cant help being an expert on the subject. You also probably have connections to the industry.

My mother-in-law, for instance, has a friend who used to own two chili parlors. And she can discern within one second when chili has too much red pepper in it. This is not Skyline, shell say disapprovingly as she tastes an impostors version.

For us novices, its hard to say why we like this one a little better than that. To me, they all taste pretty darn similar. Naturally, all of the local parlors claim to make the best chili from a secret recipe still kept under lock and key (Empress), or kept in a safe and known only to a few (Skyline), or a closely guarded secret that remains within the family (Gold Star). So which is truly best?

Queen City natives might want to skip this part, or at least note that I have an unlisted phone number, because, unfortunately, Im here to tell you that authentic Cincinnati chili, commissary-made and parlor-served throughout this fine city, is not what it could be. Not what it should be.  The idea is brilliant, theres no doubt. But as for the execution  frankly, the chili itself is on the thin side. The meats chewy. Its served over pasta that tastes stewed, its been sitting so long in the pot. The cheese is not only practically tasteless, its orange. Oh, how it hurts me to write these things. After all, this is the food that helped make my loved ones childhood happy.

Still, though the truth hurts, it has to come out. So then where can you find the worlds best Cincinnati chili? Youll find it in my house, and if you follow the recipe provided here, then youll find it in yours, too. I know Im being an East Coast snob. But Im right. The chili I fell in love with, the chili my husband makes, is rich and thick and full of flavor. He makes the pasta al dente; the cheddar is white and sharp. He uses low-fat, hormone-free ground chicken instead of beef. We use all the right spices, and except for the color of the cheese and the thickness of the meat sauce, it looks the same. It just tastes stronger. So is it still Cincinnati chili? Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, it doesnt matter to me  remember, Im the one who married the renegade chef who prepares Cincinnatis most famous food Boston-style.