In my old hometown, St. Louis, it’s toasted ravioli. In my new hometown, Vancouver, its wild salmon with unlimited variations. Some of them include marionberries. In Philladelphia it’s scrapple. Local specialties, and they still exist despite the pizza epidemic, make U. S. travel more interesting. Regionality still rules. Travelers still eat better on the road if they have steak in Fort Worth and lobster in Bar Harbor. In Cincinnati, it’s chili.
Ruth & I asked the friendly lady at the main desk in the venerable Cincinnati Art Museum where we should eat and she said, “Camp Washington”. Then she tried to describe real Cincinnati chili and shuddered. “It has cinnamon in it,” she gasped. “You may not like it.” We did. Especially Ruth.
It’s true, however, that Cincinnati chili is different from any other I have tasted. It’s far more like Mediterranean meat sauce atop spaghetti than the St. Louis chili mac I grew up on. The Nati chili was developed by Greek and Macedonian restaurant owners who emigrated to Ohio in the 1920s. Today there are reportedly 250 chili parlors in the Cincinnati area. Camp Washington, Skyline, and Empress are the 3 main ones.
We walked into Camp Washington, noted what others were eating, and ordered the same combo. What came out were plates of meat sauce covered with cheese. Underneath it was a lot of slightly overcooked spaghetti. To me it was good but not great. It was spicy hot. The walls of Camp Washington were covered with magazine and newspaper raves, book reviews, and photos of TV cooking shows. There were many testimonials to the wonders of Camp Washington chili. As I was taking photos, Ruth disappeared. I found her copying the chili recipe from one avid article, and I learned that cinnamon was just one of the spices in what we had just devoured like starving Macedonian immigrants.
Camp Washington got its name from a historic neighborhood west of downtown. In 1846 when the United States was at war with Mexico, the plains north of this Ohio River port were where the Ohio regiments mustered. Horses and cattle were plentiful in this area.
Johnny Johnson has become a Port Washington legend. He emigrated from Greece in 1951 and is still making Cincinnati chili. Camp Washington’s 75th anniversary celebration in 2015 honored him by adding Johnny Johnson Way to the intersection, Colerain, and Hopple, where Johnny’s chili is served. I suspect he is one of the reasons why CW chili is rated among the top 3.
ps Even though it was March, we must have been in Cincinnati on its coldest 2017 day.