“Whenever you’re feeling good and hungry . . .”

I have been working in Cincinnati, Ohio for most of the past two weeks. I have been busy. I shuttle between a hotel room and an offsite training location and my meals are on the run – Starbucks, Wendy’s, McDonalds or a ham on rye and sweet tea from a chain deli across the parking lot. I could be eating better, toting a bag of groceries from a nearby organic market, but I am lazy and preoccupied and don’t mind food that is bad for me. The result of this caviler attitude toward nutrition is a curvy-girl physique and an occasional stomach for adventure.

After noticing my catch-as-you-can diet, my Cincinnati-native coworkers insist that I try some of the local cuisine. Still fast food, but certainly more authentic, they recommend Skyline Chili. I roll my eyes. “Chili? Big deal.” “But this isn’t just chili,” they are getting worked up, “This is Cincinnati chili.”  

By now I am surrounded by ten people, in a circle, their voices intoning with undulating sound bytes, part tribal dance and part infomercial. I wonder, as their passion heightens and their word connotations become more bizarre, if I am being invited to a sexual escapade instead of a diner. They explain that I could order a 3-way: layers of spaghetti noodles, chili and cheese. A 5-way adds beans and onions and a 4-way means beans or onions. “A 3-way?” I snigger. They are understandably bored with the joke and ignore this. I move on. “Why would you add beans to chili?” “Cincinnati chili doesn’t have beans, only Texas chili has beans. Here it is just meat and sauce.” Another person adds that the taste is different as well, this chili is made with cinnamon, nutmeg and chocolate. I also find out that they boil the meat. “It is sort of granulated,” someone says. “But that means it’s not oily.” This speaker glares at the hint of skepticism, “granulated” apparently does not honor the necessity of this trade secret.

I am also told that I should order a “Coney.” This is a mini-hotdog smothered in more chili and cheese. They pronounce it like the island in New York only with a strange nasal lilt and a long Minnesota “o.” “They put on the mustard with a wooden dowel, spreading just the right amount every time.” I am hesitant about the addition of the hot dog but there is no reasoning with them, one cannot be eaten without the other. A 3-way must have a Coney. Again I repress a ten year-old smirk at the juxtaposition of these two phrases. Interpreting my naughty reverie as encouragement, they go on to describe oyster crackers that can be eaten plain, crumbled on your Coney or sprinkled with hot sauce.

I agree to any lunch they want to procure and while I finish a conference call, they go to Skyline and order take-out. They come back with bags adorned in the trademark blue and yellow with the unexpected skyscraper logo. Skyline Chili is aptly named. Cincinnati is a beautiful city, with hills, bridges and architecture more reminiscent of San Francisco than the cornfield towns to the north. It borders Kentucky, and driving through, I can sense the Appalachians beneath the heights and angles of the buildings. My friends excitedly unpack my order, organizing my Coney alongside the container of spaghetti and chili, setting their own tablescape with huge bags of shredded cheese and crackers and presenting me with a skyline bib, “All the business men wear them to protect their suits.” I tie the strings around my neck.

They narrate while I prepare to eat. The concoction is not pretty; it is a smeared brown color. I take a deep breath. It smells good. They remind me that in spite of this initiation, I should actually go to one of the restaurants some day. There are assembly lines to make the food and the cheese is graded fresh, “fluffy and very fine. They bring it to you in big bowls.” I sprinkle my cheese from the bag. When I go to twirl the pasta, they correct me. “That’s not how you do it, this isn’t Italian, it’s Cincinnati. You cut it into bite size pieces and then scoop it up, but never with a spoon, always a fork.”

My 3-way is delicious. Like Christmas nutbread and cafeteria spaghetti and Mexican molé, impossible flavors and somewhat mangled textures that blend inexplicably and perfectly. It tastes like knowing something I have always known but didn’t realize until this minute. The Coney between bites of 3-way is like a shot between bottles of beer. The oyster crackers, so out of context from my New England chowder days, are crisp and yummy until I gamely attempt to add hot sauce. This is much too much and I splutter. I eat them plain from then on. One woman leans over and whispers, “That’s OK, I can’t do the hot sauce either.” She looks sad and empathetic as if we share some genetic defect.

Their attention shifts from my lunch to their own, and they start swapping stories about people and chili in their lives. “My son used to eat six Coneys and a 5-way before football practice every day.” “My husband puts sour cream on his, but I think it tastes funny.” “There is a dip my girlfriend makes with cream cheese and chili and cheese on top, she uses the canned chili from the grocery store.” “I really like Gold Star Chili better but my wife likes Skyline so we go to Skyline.” “We go to Skyline when we visit my parents in Florida. My daddy eats there all the time because he says it reminds him of home.”

I sit in my plastic bib and remember performing the tea ceremony in Japan. This association seems as dissonant as eating oyster crackers with hot dogs but I let myself drift. I practiced eight hours a week for over a year. The school that I studied required me to be still, to string hundreds of intricate movements, to empty my thoughts and become the ritual. This level of concentration was as far from my natural wiring as possible. I was wobbly and forgetful, but I tried and focused on the purpose that was not a purpose, to become invisible; the process was the gift and I was to be no more obtrusive than the water, the kettle, the bowl. I picked up a spoon, set it down, picked it up again, wiped it with a cloth folded in prescribed points, set down it down in a different position. The drinker experienced the making of the tea and this was the experience of tea. My trying made it less than it could have been; the most skilled preparation is effortless. I learned as the host, to give. I learned as the guest, to be grateful. I learned that the giver and the receiver were part of the whole, leading to, culminating in, three sips of frothy green tradition. Together we completed the tea.

From Tokyo to Cincinnati, I am back to my diminishing plate of chili, spaghetti and cheese. What if I had brought my lunch from the healthy grocer? What if I had been too busy, or ill, or allergic to gluten? What if I had said no? I might have. And it would have been fine. We would have found something else to talk about. I have moments like this every day, sorting through trivial options and wondering if my choice will bring the most interesting outcome. In this case, I am thinking lunch with my new associates could not have been replicated over chicken nuggets. I am literally taking in a part of their home, their identity and we are blurring the lines between outsider and insider. In sharing their local delicacy, I am the receiver and in enjoying the food, I am also the giver. With a solemnity that seems absurd in reference to chili, I am reminded why there is so much religious liturgy that includes ingestion and transformation. There is magic in eating together. We have a meal and perhaps something shifts; a new perception of wholeness in the same mix of difference.

“You wait,” they caution and there is a wicked gleam in their collective grins, “you will be in the bathroom all afternoon.” As a matter of record, I was not.

13 responses to ““Whenever you’re feeling good and hungry . . .””

  1. swells says:

    My GOD, Pandora, your penultimate paragraph. Yo are magic.

  2. swells says:

    oops, and, so are YOU.

  3. Dave says:

    I love how vivid your evocation of your Cincinnati hosts is. Really, really great.

  4. LP says:

    I third that sentiment: this is brilliant. And now I am hungry!

  5. Jeremy says:

    I’ve always sort of disliked chili (perhaps mostly for aesthetic reasons), but this is making me reconsider… I often marvel at how important food is to my social life, how when I was a kid I couldn’t imagine anything more dull than just sitting around, lingering over a meal with the adults, and how, now, I can’t think of anything more glorious. Loved the post, PB.

  6. swells says:

    I used to have a roommate who had a magnet on our fridge with a recipe for Cincinnati Chili, complete with a photo. It must have been a 3-way because I just remember the spaghetti, chili, and heaps of cheddar; I have fantasized about that combo ever since (and this was years ago), but haven’t ever tried to replicate it. Now I know not to bother; I would have just opened a can, which sounds far from authentic. Between that and you saying that Cincinnati looks like SF, I may have to plan a visit someday.

  7. why would you add beans to chili?

    Wha? Beans are a vital component of a well-crafted chili, dude.

    (Funny, I seem to remember being in an internet conversation just recently where somebody said comparing non-Chicago pizza to Chicago pizza was like comparing non-Cincinnati chili to other chili, and I was surprised because I had never heard before about Cincinnati being famous for its chili. This was on the most recent open thread at Obsidian Wings if memory serves.

  8. — Oh I see, just now I read the next sentence and saw what I was missing re. the musical fruit.

  9. Mark says:

    Takes me back to Steak N Shake when I lived in St. Louis…that was the first time I ever saw Spaghetti topped with chili n cheese.

    I liked Ohio the couple the few times I drove through. Hope you’re having a good time and training the heck outta those people.

  10. ann f. says:

    well, there you have it. thank god.
    and i can’t wait until you bring me over my can!

  11. Missy says:

    Yep, Mark, I was just thinking about Steak N Shake, though they put beans in their chili. I might have to go there for lunch today.

    Beautiful post, Pandora. I lived in Cincinnati for five weeks for work one fall, and was seduced by the promises of Skyline, but I couldn’t get past the nutmeg and cinnamon. I like a more savory chili. Not really the point though, is it?

  12. a more savory chili

    Something the world needs: chili brittle.

  13. Annie says:

    I am reminded why there is so much religious liturgy that includes ingestion and transformation. There is magic in eating together. We have a meal and perhaps something shifts; a new perception of wholeness in the same mix of difference.

    This is how I feel about every meal I have ever eaten at your house–and often, too, how I feel about your prose, savoring it one word at a time.