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The world's greatest fast food

Of Cincinnati chili, my first managing editor, Jim Schottelkotte of The Cincinnati Enquirer, used to say that he thought of it as General Lee thought of war: “It is well that it is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Cincinnati chili, the incomparable fast food, was created in the 1920s by Greeks. It has no particular resemblance to chili in Texan or Mexican forms, so simply purge your mind of comparisons. It is a meat chili, and the mode of presentation in the Queen City’s chili parlors is novel. The chili is ladled onto a bed of spaghetti, and grated cheddar cheese is sprinkled generously on top. This is the three-way. Add kidney beans, and you have the four-way. Include chopped raw onion, and you have the supreme, the incomparable five-way. Mortal flesh can ask for no more.

My first news editor, the late Bob Johnson, once distributed a recipe for Cincinnati chili, which I present to further the spread of civilization.


1 ½ pounds lean ground beef

½ pound sausage [Note, it’s best if your butcher runs the beef and pork through the grinder together.]

2 cups chopped onion

1 large diced green pepper

¼ cup chopped cabbage

2 cloves garlic, mashed flat

2 tablespoons oil or bacon fat

2 cans tomatoes (one pound each)

1 cup tomato juice

1 cup water

3 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons salt (or more, to taste, at the end)

2 tablespoons chili powder (or more, to taste, at the end)

1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (yes, cinnamon)

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon mustard seed

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

¼ teaspoon celery seed

¼ teaspoon ground clove

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg (yes, nutmeg)

1 bay leaf, crumbled

Procedure for the chili

Heat fat in a large pan or skillet. Combine and saute the onion, green pepper, cabbage and garlic, stirring gently and almost constantly until they begin to soften — about five minutes. Add the beef and pork, stirring with a kitchen fork to mix. (A old-fashioned potato masher can be used to break meat into smaller bits — the smaller the better.) Stir and cook until the red is out, about 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, tomato juice, water and seasonings. Bring to a gentle boil; then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, for an hour. More salt or chili powder may be added, to taste, during the last 15 minutes of cooking.

This chili may be eaten in a bowl, but that misses the full potential for majesty.

The beans

Canned pinto or kidney beans can be used, but should be rinsed thoroughly, covered with water and brought to a boil before being added to the chili.

Otherwise: rinse a pound of dry pinto beans, put in a kettle with cold water to three times the depth of the beans, bring to a boil and boil uncovered for five minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and let stand for one hour. Then turn on the heat, bring to a gentle boil and cook, covered, until the beans are tender. Add more water if necessary. Should take about 40 minutes.

The spaghetti

Prepare and drain in the usual way.

The presentation

Place warm, drained spaghetti on a plate, cover with chili, and cover this with grated cheddar cheese: the three-way.

Or add a layer of beans before ladling on the chili: the four-way.

Best of all: To the spaghetti add beans, chopped raw onion, chili and grated cheese: the five-way.

Serve with oyster crackers on the side.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:25 PM | | Comments (16)


I thought cocoa powder was in Cincy Chili?

As a Cincinnati transplant in pork tenderloin country, I thank you for making me very hungry this morning.

Cocoa powder may well figure in some recipes. There are variations among the different chili parlors. I vaguely recall Bob Johnson saying that his recipe was the Empress version, or one similar to it, but I may be mistaken. In any event, one wouldn't imagine that, say, Skyline and Gold Star versions were identical.

cool! thank you. sounds delicious.

Instead of the spaghetti, you could serve three-way over a hot dog in a bun, on a plate.

If you're naturally tidy, the plate is not essential. I need a plate, and a fork, too.

Cabbage in chili? I've never heard of such a thing.

Yes, the hot dog. Then it becomes a cheese coney.

As to the cabbage, I believe that it mainly disintegrates into an undifferentiated matrix.

You had me, right up to the "four-way."

Real chili ain't got no beans.

Whoooops...wrong blog for that comment...I've got to get back to the Sandbox.

I just can't wrap my mind around the spaghetti. The basic chili recipe sounds really good and I may try it, with the onions and cheese.

And, sorry, Bucky, but I like beans in my chili.

Any chance of a video? If not of the preparation, then at least of the consuming. My one encounter with this, at a Skyline, was bewildering.

John, your instructions mention tomatoes in addition to the tomato juice, but it is not in your ingredient list. Googling "Cincinnati Chili" brings a confusing array of recipes, some with tomato sauce, some with tomato paste, but none with tomatoes. I have offered to make this recipe on behalf of the "Dining@Large" crowd and report back. Please help me complete my sacrifice for the good of all.

By the way, most of the online recipes do not mention sausage, just ground beef and instruct one not to brown the beef but to boil it. Any thoughts on that?

I await enlightentment.

Sharp eyes, jjk: I had omitted the tomatoes from the list of ingredients. Now fixed.

There are various theories about how the chili parlors prepare the meat, particularly to break it down thoroughly. All I can say is that this recipe is the one I had from Bob Johnson, that my wife has made it, and that it tastes like the authentic thing.

Thanks for amending the recipe. I made it for the boyfriend and myself and we really liked it -- it's a keeper.

"The world's greatest fast food" -- do you call it "fast food" while your dear wife is cooking this? (Getting the seasoning correct would exhaust my patience and acumen.)

If only so much care went into typical fast food.

Hi! I just launched a few days ago! It is a celebration of Cincinnati chili! Check it out!

I had been bugging a coworker who lives in Cincinnati for the recipe, and she insisted there wasn't one. I sought an authentic recipe for years. Now I find out that not only are there many recipes out there, but Skyline Chili is a chain throughout the Midwest. I ate there a few times last year when I was consulting in Indianapolis.

Since my kitchen is Kosher, I shall have to omit the bacon fat and cheese, but other than that I'm good to go, Thank you, John, for providing this much-needed public service.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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