Recipe Roots™ – 91 years of Cincinnati Chili:
Any type of food that has been enjoyed for 91 years and counting can’t be half bad. Any food that was born on the hopes and dreams of two immigrants and has since turned into 100 million dollar plus industry is certainly worth a taste. Any food that can take you “home” with just one bite is pretty special. Everyone has their comfort food. Some of us have many. One of mine is Cincinnati chili.
Patricia Jonas marries Paul Hillen, 1953.
Both sides of my family hail from the banks of the Ohio River. My mother was born in Bellevue, Kentucky and raised in Mt. Washington, Ohio with her 6 siblings. My father was born and raised in Oakley, Ohio. He went to Withrow High School, met my mother at an Alt Park dance, served in World War II, went to Xavier University, served in Korea, got married, started working for General Electric and had 6 kids. The five oldest children were born in Cincinnati; me, the odd ball, was born in Cleveland. After several moves, the GE career landed us near Philadelphia.
My Mom and her Mom before, had lots of mouths to feed so our family chili recipe was a little soupy, not too spicy, loaded with inexpensive beans and served over mounds of spaghetti. It was a great way to stretch a meal. When we went on our trips to visit relatives in Cincinnati, they too served chili over spaghetti. It wasn’t until I was about eleven years old that I realized eating chili with spaghetti wasn’t a typical dish for most families besides those with some ties to the Cincinnati area. My sister-in-law’s family ate chili over rice, and in restaurants, Texas style chili came thick in a bowl without any starchy accompaniment. A few years later on one of our trips to Cincinnati we visited a Skyline Chili Parlor. It was there that I had my first taste of real “parlor style” Cincinnati chili. It was thick and rich and had a tangy, slightly spicy and sweet flavor. I learned the chili lingo of 3-ways, 4-ways and Coneys. (The name Coney, is thought to have come from the NY Coney Island chili topped dogs.) It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started tinkering around with my own Cincinnati chili recipe. Chili parlor recipes and many family recipes are kept secret. So, it’s with trial and error that you develop your own formula.
Vintage photo of Dixie Chili Parlor in Newport, KY. The original location was the smaller building on the right side. Photo courtesy of Dixie Chili.
It was one of those nights when I had an experimental pot of chili simmering on the stove, that I ran into a friend, Melanie Sarakatsannis, while picking up my daughter from her piano lesson. We chatted about what we were making for dinner, I mentioned I was making chili. I clarified that it was a different style of chili, she’d probably never heard of… Well little did I know that my friend is Cincinnati chili royalty! Her uncle on her Mother’s side owns a Skyline Chili parlor franchise and her Papou (Grandfather) Nicholas Sarakatsannis is the founder of the Dixie Chili parlors! Small world!
This past summer I took my girls and my mom on a road trip to visit relatives in Cincinnati. Melanie had arranged for me to meet her uncle Spiro at his Newport, KY Dixie Chili Parlor. Spiro, one of six sons of Dixie founder Nicholas Sarakatsannis, was very gracious to show me around his family’s flagship chili parlor. All of the family was involved in the chili business in some way. Currently Spiro, his brother Panny and other family members run the parlors. (There are currently 3 locations in N. Kentucky.) Spiro answered all my questions while we enjoyed cheese coneys and 3-ways (at 10:00 AM). It was a breakfast with 84 years of family history behind it! Even though Spiro has worked at the family chili parlors for over 40 years, you’d never know it. He seems to work everyday like it was his first. He wears his signature spotless white shirt and tie, keeps the cleanest restaurant I’ve ever seen and always has his eye on the door to make sure each customer is promptly serviced. The Newport location also houses the Dixie Chili Commissary. This is where they cook 150 pounds of chili a dayI Spiro boasts with great pride of using only the best ingredients: 96% lean hand trimmed beef, Wisconsin cheddar cheese and sweet Bermuda onions that are hand chopped. Also housed onsite is the top secret spice room. I got to peek inside this treasure trove of spices. The heady aroma of warm and sweet spices hits you as soon as the door is opened. When I emerged, I think I was covered in a fine dusting of paprika. The spices are purchased from several spice purveyors in an effort to protect the family’s secret spice blend. Only Spiro and a few family members know the exact components of the mixture.
Cincinnati style chili was born when brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff left Macedonia, which was in great turmoil at the time, to set up their lives in America. They opened a restaurant on October 24, 1922, and named it Empress Chili Parlor. They created their own version of chili using the spices of their homeland. They sold chili dogs, chili spaghetti, coffee, cigars and some grocery items. Their location right next to the Empress Burlesque theater provided a steady stream of customers. “The Empress” became the model that later chili parlors would follow and was a first job for many other immigrants. One of those immigrants was Nicholas Sarakatsannis. Nick worked at Empress for several weeks before scouting out a location of his own to open his first Dixie Chili location with his partner Petro Manoff on Monmouth Street in Newport, KY. This tiny parlor was right next to the current location I got to visit.
Cincinnati chili is usually an all beef chili that is simmered with water or broth, some sort of tomato product(s) and a unique mixture of savory and sweet spices and seasonings. My chili is a combination of lean beef and pork. Cincinnati was once known as “Porkopolis” and was a large pork production region. So, it seems like a natural addition. I have seen it used in other recipes, so I figured I wasn’t breaking any chili laws. The chili with spaghetti combos are served in shallow oval dishes (thank you Dixie Chili for my 1st official chili dish!) and are accompanied with oyster crackers.
You order your chili at a parlor with the following language:
- Two-Way: Chili on top of spaghetti
- Three-Way: Chili on top of spaghetti with shredded cheddar cheese
- Four-Way: Chopped onions added to the three-way
- Five-Way: Beans added to the four-way
- Coney: Vienna sausage or hot dog with mustard, topped with chili, onions and cheese
Cincinnati Chili My-Way Steps:
Spiro Sarakatsannis, thank you for your hospitality and time!
Melanie Sarakatsannis, thank you for setting up the meeting with your uncle Spiro!
Dan Woellert, your book, The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili was a great reference.
Thanks to all who follow epicuricloud! I hope you enjoy the recipe! Tina ( :