I did some research on the history of Cincinnati chili and found resources that pointed to several immigrants who infused their chili with spices and served it over spaghetti. The dish went viral and others imitated, leading to a plethora of chili parlor chains in the Cincinnati area. Indeed, ask Tri-State people (southeastern Indiana, southern Ohio and northern Kentucky) today who has the best chili and you will get firm answers from fiercely loyal customers.
In my family we only eat homemade chili, or Dixie Chili from Newport, Kentucky (Cincinnati’s neighbor directly across the Ohio River).
But the story of Cincinnati chili is actually a little more involved. Newspaper recipes and advertisements from the mid 1800s through the early 1900s indicate the spices used in Cincinnati chili were already being used to flavor tomato based sauces. The first published similar recipe I found was in the Cheraw, S.C. gazette in 1837 for Spiced Tomatoes.
Later published recipes included the addition of rice, meat or macaroni/spaghetti. Recipes often included vinegar, for preserving the sauce; and sometimes actually began as tomato pickles, utilizing cloves, allspice and peppercorns for flavor and preservation (Tomato Pickles, St. Mary’s Beacon, Franklin Md. 1852).
I can just imagine a woman of that time taking down a jar of tomato pickles in the middle of winter and cooking them with whatever meat, beans or bread scraps she had available to feed her family.
So who started the chili craze? It’s really hard to say. Newspaper advertisements and articles from the late 1800s from San Francisco to New York touted the growth of “Italian Restaurants.” On the west coast they became popular vehicles to sell wines that were being made in California’s budding orchards. Is it merely coincidence that the texture of Cincinnati chili bears a resemblance to Italian Bolognese meat sauce?
At the same time, the founding and growth of the railroads created masses of hungry travelers. Thankfully, industrial canning had also grown; offering canned goods from coast to coast. Heinz “57 Sauces” advertisements listed many of the ingredients used in Cincinnati chili, including tomato ketchup, vinegar, macaroni and canned meat. Enterprising restaurateurs had only to find a good location and heat up canned ingredients to feed their customers. It seems to me chili of this era was likely the original fast food.
Out west, hungry travelers could simply visit a chili stand in the town square for some Mexican chili con carne, another dish that was soon being canned for distribution across the country. In 1882, The Press and Dakotaian in Dakota territory reported that “the secretary of war ordered the Inspector General of the army to place on the supply list for the use of the army the Americanized Mexican food, ‘chili con carne.’ It has been recommended by officers of the army as a most valuable diet, used for its anti-scorbutic qualities.” Anti-scorbutic meaning a good preventative of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) deficiency, also known as scurvy.
In New York, newly arrived immigrants created wealth selling hot dogs and chili from their stands throughout the city and at amusement parks, notably Coney Island. Did our Cincinnati ancestors simply import what they had seen in New York after arriving at Ellis Island?
While it may be impossible to determine who invented the modern concept of chili as fast food, further research seems to indicate the dish itself goes back much further in history. One of my favorite resources is Project Gutenberg. Perform a book search using the term “receipts” and you get all manner of old cookbooks to access. In this book:
I was fascinated by a recipe called Red Dear that seems a likely predecessor to our chili, except for the lack of tomatoes. Claret wine provided the red in the dish.
TO MAKE RED DEAR
Take a piece of the Buttock of Beef, the leanest of it, and beat it with a rowling-pin the space of an hour, till you think you have broken the grain of it, and have made it very open both to receive the sowsing-drink, and also to make it tender. Then take a pint of Vinegar, and a pint of Claret-wine and let it lie therein two nights, and two days. Then beat a couple of Nutmegs, and put them into the sowsing-drink; then Lard it. Your Lard must be as big as your greatest finger for consuming. Then take Pepper, Cloves, Mace and Nutmegs, and season it very well in every place, and so bake it in Pye-paste, and let it stand in the oven six or seven hours. And when it hath stood three hours in your oven, then put it in your sowsing-drink as is aforesaid; and you may keep it a quarter of a year, if it be kept close.
It was this recipe for Red Dear baked in a “pye-paste” that inspired me to make Cincinnati chili pies. What better way to make an original fast food portable than by encasing it in a sturdy pie crust. For this, I used a hot water crust. It’s no-fuss, no-muss ease makes it my new favorite quick crust!
Hot Water Pastry for Chili Pies
1 cup all purpose flour (or ¾ cup flour and ¼ cup corn meal or corn flour)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup shortening
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon whole milk
2 tablespoons water
1 egg beaten with a teaspoon of water
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stir flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl.
Heat milk, water, shortening and butter together in a small saucepan just until fat is melted. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and stir until it dough comes together, it might still be a little crumbly.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead several strokes until you have a cohesive ball. If it’s still too crumbly add warm water a teaspoon at a time until it kneads well.
Cover with cling wrap or a damp towel and leave out for 15 minutes.
Roll out thinly and line pastry tins or cut out pie shapes.
Fill pies with small amount of Cincinnati Chili (and anything else you want to add, I included cheese and pickled peppers), brush around the outer edge with beaten egg and seal with fingers or a fork. Brush tops with beaten egg. Bake for 8 to 12 minutes depending on size of pies/tarts. The pies should be a nice light golden brown.
I love this crust because it rolls out easily on my granite counter. If you have difficulties with sticking, try flouring lightly or rolling out between layers of plastic wrap.
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