Tuesday, September 13, 2011

It's Skyline Time

Growing up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Skyline Chili was more than just a rite of passage. In a town wedded to its local dining traditions, it was simply What You Ate. You ate there after Reds games and before Bengals games (mostly to soften the blow of the inevitable loss), after school and on a date. You ate there late at night to settle the alcohol in your stomach, or early in the morning before a flight out of town.

I probably ate at Skyline once a week for almost 20 years. Not only did I never eat at another chili parlor, despite the many throughout town (and a fact that I should be embarrassed to admit in my willingness to try everything else), it never even occurred to me that I should.

An important note: people expecting a "real" chili are unfailingly disappointed. Think of it as a soft ragu or meat sauce. The spicing is also radically different, with an aroma of clove, cinnamon and chocolate dominating. Authentic recipes call for the beef to be boiled rather than browned and tenderized in vinegar for a characteristically mushy texture. I know, it's difficult to imagine how this could taste good, but stick with me. The chili is but one component of the whole, which works far better than it has any right to taste.

To be sure, this is not just a hard chili recipe to get exactly correct, the other ingredients are almost as tough, with the cheese being nearly impossible to replicate. A fluffy tangle of Big Bird yellow cheese forms a mountain over the chili and thoroughly cooked spaghetti, never clumping and only barely melting on the lowest layer touching the chili.

Finally, the proper dish is needed. See my picture below. The proper dish collects the copious chili juice, which provides a secondary yet crucial lubrication to the spaghetti. But the dish is also shaped so as to spread the juices and not concentrate them, like at the bottom of a bowl. I had no such dish.

Crash course: a 3 Way is spaghetti, chili and cheese. A 4 Way adds onions or beans and a 5 Way contains both. Top with liberal amounts of hot sauce and oyster crackers to achieve synergy.

So it was in celebration of the start of the 2011 Bengals season this past Sunday, and with all the above cultural and referential baggage that I made Cincinnati chili for the first time. Committed to researching the perfect recipe, I cruised through nearly a hundred different sites. If it didn't call for boiling the beef it was out right away. Same went with cinnamon and chocolate, an open secret ingredient in Cincinnati chili-dom. Tomatoes rather than tomato paste? Fuck off! Finally, I found a recipe that seemed to have the right combination of ingredients and spices along with the requisite geekiness.

The chili looked like thus:

It should be colored like chocolate and look slightly shitty with a greasy sheen.

A few modifications, necessitated by, well... necessity. And laziness (plus a bit of cheapness). I'd bought ground beef for burgers the night before that was significantly fattier than the 93/7 lean to fat ratio called for in the recipe. It showed. This was some extra greasy Cincinnati chili (which in itself is already pretty damn greasy).

Cardamom is also apparently foreign to Bed Stuy, and with the clock ticking to kickoff, I decided to skip it. Finally, I added bay leaf and a little bit of ground chiles (I'm completely crazy, right?). After the simmering had finished, my cousin Zach and I tasted diligently. Debating the relative pros and cons of the two types of cheddar he'd bought. We ended up with a combination of both the C-Town store brand, Krasdale, which sounds like a joke name straight out of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Kraft Cracker Barrel "Marbled." As I mentioned, the cheese is hardest to replicate, and this was the only component or "way" in which I felt we failed. I of course blame Zach.

My 5 Way:

Pretty good for my first time. The spicing tasted right, and the texture was familiar enough. But the cheese, as expected, was impossible to replicate. I opted for the finest grater I had, but the cheese ended up clumping rather than sitting in the fluffy piles which I so desperately seek. Oh well. Only a fool would expect to perfect Skyline on the first try. The search continues, with more experimentation to follow.


  1. What people want from chili: spice.

    What they get from Skyline: sweetness.

    There. I said it.

  2. But you're still thinking of it as chili! You've gotta break out and see the bigger picture in the combination of ingredients. I'd never eat Skyline in a bowl by itself-- that's just gross.