Skyline Chili. Photo: vidiot, Flickr
Porkopolis: Cincinnati nabbed its first nickname in the 1830s, when the city was America's hog-processing center and rogue herds of pigs were said to wander the streets. Indeed, the ready availability of animal fat was the reason two new arrivals from the British Isles, candlemaker William Procter and soapmaker James Gamble, were persuaded to found their world-spanning partnership in 1837 (the tallow was crucial in making both products).
Almost 200 years later, P&G is still thriving, but the swine are long gone. Chicago took home the bacon by the 1860s, when its hulking meat industry eclipsed Cinti's. But one idiosyncratic legacy does linger from its high-hog heyday: the local delicacy of goetta (that's GET-her).
"It's not really very pretty – it's kind of ugly actually and it is sort of a peasant dish," shrugs local food blogger Cole Imperi. Imperi co-runs the local chapter of tastecasting.com, the social networking riff on restaurant reviewing that's recently emerged. "Goetta's origins were with the pork industry: it's made of ground meat, usually pork shoulder or a cut of meat that's not desirable, with either pinhead or steel-cut oats that kind of makes a cake. You use equal parts meat and oats and add bay leaves, salt, pepper and rosemary into it, then bake. Then you cut off a slice and fry it up in a skillet."
Imperi's family tradition is to serve a wedge of goetta with a dollop of sour cream, but she says that some slather it in syrup or even dunk the crisp, fried strips in ketchup. She's such a fan that she makes a pilgrimage each summer to Goetta Fest, where local chefs riff on the staple. It can be a little bland, Imperi admits, so such reinvention's all-too-welcome. Last time, she even sampled goetta brownies. "They were absolutely horrid!"
Imperi laughs, "I like to sear the edges of a slice of goetta in skillet, so it's still a little bit gooey inside. Some people say if you add a lot of salt and fry the edges, it even tastes like a meaty potato chip. " She pauses. "There's such love for goetta in town that people will do anything for it." (Maybe P&G should consider some goetta-style Pringles – though a shop-bought alternate to home made is Glier's.)
The other delicacy that any Cinti native will swoon over is chili – though the spicy mashup served here is very different from the hearty, Tex-Mex style popular elsewhere in America. It's served, and ordered, by number: chili two-way? Expect it to come sluiced over spaghetti like marinara sauce. Three-way? Plus some shredded cheese. Four- or five-way? All that, then sprinkled with onions then kidney beans.
The Germans may have deeded Cinti the scrapple-like goetta, but it's the local Greek diner-owners who cooked up this idea, at least according to blogger and local food fanatic Julie Niesen of winemedinemecincinnati.com. "It's a bastardized version of pastisio, Greek lasagne," she explains, "We have a fairly significant Greek population and it uses all the same flavor profiles Greek foods do: you've got spices like cinnamon which are normally associated with sweet not savory foods in America." The longtime local brands of chili – among them, Skyline, Dixie, Empress, Gold Star -- have rabid followings from family to family.
Gold Star's pulled away from the pack thanks to some savvy marketing: it's locked up the endorsement to be the official chili of the Cincinnati Bengals – though it doesn't move Cole Imperi. "I would say a lot of Cincinnatians put on airs when it comes to chili discussions," she chuckles, "My family refuses to eat Gold Star, we prefer Skyline. I know it's ridiculous but..."
Cinty may be a city of chili fanatics and goetta gobblers, but there's an eclectic roster of other local delicacies, too: Frisch's tartar sauce for French fry-dipping like the Brits and even canned mock turtle soup. The reason is simple. "We're the southernmost Northern city – you can buy grits at a grocery store like in the Deep South, but we have corner delis from the East Coast," Julie Niesen explains. Sitting on the nexus of East, South and Midwest, Cincinnati's been bombarded with different influences that have established themselves in the city.
The hearty, gut-filling staples like chili or goetta are a legacy of the city's no-nonsense, blue-collar roots – it's no coincidence that these two signature dishes both use cheap cuts of meat and help stretch a serving to feed more people cheaply. "It's a conservative city, and it always has been," agrees Imperi, "Our cuisine is a reflection of that: we're conservative, resourceful, we appreciate simplicity in food."