“Cincinnati Chili” has earned quite a reputation among a growing number of people who have personal and professional connections to Cincinnati.
It all started nearly 100 years ago when the Kiradjieff family immigrated from Macedonia to escape the country’s strife during World War I. While other expats came to Cincinnati to join family and work in factories or for railroads, the entrepreneurial Kiradjieffs invented a whole new category of food that today dominates Cincinnati’s fast-food industry. They opened Empress Chili in downtown Cincinnati in 1922. By combining a savory and spicy Macedonian (Greek) stew with spaghetti, and also serving the stew on top of “coney” hot dogs in a style that was already well established in the American experience, the Kiradjieffs laid tracks for many other Macedonian entrepreneurs to open similar chili parlors throughout the city and in nearby Kentucky.
On a lark, I decided to explore the possibility of a loving relationship between Cincinnati Chili and wine. With such vivid descriptions of spices and savory flavors, I felt confident that enjoyment of Cincinnati Chili would be able to move beyond soda and beer pairings!
I had recently learned that Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking would soon be updated for only the 8th time since it was first self-published in 1931. Fourth generation great-grandson John Becker, and his wife Megan Scott, are spearheading this newest release, already launched digitally with an app.
While reading about Rombauer and Becker family ties to Cincinnati, I stumbled upon a recipe for “Cincinnati Chili Cockaigne,” named for the Becker family property in Cincinnati. John’s father, Ethan, had interpreted a version of the tightly held secret spice recipes.
Becker’s recipe unleashed my curiosity about a hotly debated subject that gently ties Cincinnati Chili to wine: is there any chocolate in the secret chili recipe, and does red wine go with chocolate? In researching whether anyone had already tackled this topic, I found a slim volume by Dann Woellert called “The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili” (2013). It turns out that my question will remain rhetorical, the answer a secret. Ethan Becker says “yes” and includes chocolate in his Cincinnati Chili Cockaigne recipe. Dann Woellert says no: “The chocolate myth has been spread far and wide, and the taste may come from the type of vinegar used, such as red wine or apple cider. But there is no chili parlor in Cincinnati that uses chocolate in its chili.” (p. 141)
Guiding my quest for a perfect wine pairing, I loved using Woellert’s summary of the roughly 18 spices known to be used to varying degrees in Cincinnati Chili:
- The “holy trinity” of Greek cooking: nutmeg, cinnamon, clove
- Sweet spices: coriander, cardamom, anise (licorice), ginger, allspice
- Spice and heat: garlic, chili powder (or chili peppers), paprika, cumin, turmeric
- Savory herbs: oregano, thyme, bay leaves
- Black and white pepper, celery salt
Since none of the chili parlors in Cincinnati serve any alcohol, and probably wouldn’t dream of serving it with wine, I decided to take one for the team and structure my own experiment. Sticking with pure chili for the taste test – no spaghetti, hot dogs, cheese, beans, or onions – I “paired” four chili samples with three wines. The chili samples were from two independent parlors (Empress, Price Hill) and two chains (Skyline, Gold Star). The three wines were all French from my own cellar, a bias on my part to focus more on spicy and savory wine styles: two varietal (Cabernet Franc, Syrah) and one blend (Grenache and Syrah).
OK, I cheated a bit. I really wanted to see what difference finely grated cheddar cheese makes to the flavor pairing. But only after the chili-only taste. Spoiler alert: it does make a (positive) difference, lifting a sweet note to complement savory flavors, and calming the heat of chili peppers.
Hands down, the Grenache/Syrah blend worked best with all four chilis, although the most peppery of the four chili samples worked best with varietal Syrah. Know your chili, know your own palate, but pick a red wine that can stretch to the edges of fruit and savory herb character. Oh, and if your favorite (dry) red wine makes you think of chocolate when you take a sip, give that a try as well!