On Top of Spaghetti
by Jeffrey Toobin | The New Yorker
Edward Youkilis grew up in Cincinnati, and dreamed of becoming a painter and living in New York City. After leaving the Master of Fine Arts program at Yale, in 1971, he landed a job as an assistant to Helen Frankenthaler and found lodging on the parlor floor of her town house, on the Upper East Side. In time, he drifted away from the arts and down to the neighborhood later known as Tribeca. He started working in night clubs and restaurants and, in 2001, opened his own place, Edward’s, on West Broadway.
Youkilis, who is now sixty-two and has the demeanor and the girth of a born host, used his restaurant as a kind of temp agency for recent arrivals from his home town. “I hired all these Cincinnati kids as waiters,” he said the other day. “And one of them, his mom sent him some cans of Cincinnati chili as a present. Me and this other kid—a bartender from Dayton—we started eating it in here, and people started coming in off the street, asking, ‘Is that Skyline chili?’ ”—a reference to the brand. “So I thought maybe we could make a night of it.” At first, it was an informal thing. “We told friends from Cincinnati that we were going to serve chili, and people showed up.”
Cincinnati-style chili has little in common with the Texas variety except for the ardor of its fans. The core concoction consists of ground beef in a thin, tomato-based sauce that is tangy rather than spicy. (Chocolate is rumored to be a secret ingredient.) In the basic presentation, the chili is poured over slightly overcooked spaghetti and topped with shredded Cheddar cheese; this is known as a “three-way.” Adding onions or red beans makes it a four-way; adding onions and red beans turns it into a five-way. There is no such thing as a six-way, although oyster crackers are the customary garnish. Chili and cheese on a hot dog is called a Coney.
Youkilis prevailed on Skyline, the leading purveyor of Cincinnati chili, and a fast-food empire in Ohio, to ship a few cans to New York. In 2006, Edward’s started hosting occasional chili fests, but the public began demanding more. So Youkilis declared the last Monday of every month to be Cincinnati Night, featuring Skyline chili, ribs imported from the Montgomery Inn (another Queen City landmark), and ice cream from Graeter’s, a local chain that draws on the community’s German roots. On an average Monday, Youkilis serves about eighty dinners, but on Cincinnati Night the clientele doubles. (He also keeps a stash of chili on hand for his nephew Kevin, who often comes by with teammates when the Red Sox are in town.)
The monthly festival has turned out to be tough to pull off. Cincinnati chili has never really caught on outside the region bounded by Columbus, to the north, Indianapolis, to the west, and Kentucky, to the south, so there’s not much of an export infrastructure. “We’ve tried a lot of different things, and still none of our suppliers will give us a deal,” Youkilis said. The authentic shredded cheese, which is a fluorescent yellow, travels poorly, so Edward’s must grate its own. The Skyline company also refuses to sell him the intentionally tasteless franks (to keep the focus on the chili) for Coneys, so he buys a local substitute. “It’s complicated,” Youkilis said.
Still, on a recent Cincinnati Night the crowd that spilled onto the sidewalk in front of Edward’s resembled a Bengals tailgate. Nearly everyone was a Midwestern expat, and most seemed to be repeat customers; newcomers were asked where they went to high school, which is a universal greeting among Cincinnati natives and a useful proxy for determining neighborhood, class, and creed. Jennifer Sosna, Sycamore High School, Class of ’03, was there with her friend Mariel Friedman, Indian Hill ’05, and their boyfriends, who are not Cincinnatians but are chili converts. Friedman’s date, Adam Silevitch, was momentarily struck dumb when he took a look at the menu and its photograph of a Coney, crowned with a tangle of glowing cheese. “Oh, God, yes,” he said.