U.S. 50 is a pretty good road that runs east to west, or west to east depending on your point of view, and about midway across the country pauses right dab in the middle of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Ohio River separates Ohio from its football nemesis, Kentucky, and I discovered long ago that the airport in Cincinnati sells just as much blue and white as it does scarlet and gray. I’m not a football fan and I had to google that information but I do think somebody in the Ohio airport is really a Kentucky Wildcats fan. Just saying.
My husband researched the route we took for months and in one of his magazines he discovered that Cincinnatians are pretty dang proud of their chili. There’s a big rivalry between some of the restaurants in the area and Rob told me it just wouldn’t be a decent road trip unless we sampled some Cincinnati Chili.
I was skeptical.
First of all, we live in Arizona, a.k.a. the desert Southwest. The only state who could possibly beat us in a chili flavor profile is New Mexico, but that’s because they invented Hatch Chilies, which have a scoville rating higher than Mt. Vesuvius. Only people with scarred tongues can eat that stuff.
So believe you me, we know something about chili. And it’s been years—about a hundred and fifty years—since anyone thought Ohio qualified as being “out west.” I can see Cincinnati having a reputation for serving good chicken pot pie or something like that, but if they think they’ve got something as earth shattering there as our Hispanic and cowboy cultures can serve up, they have some serious convincing to do with this Arizona native.
Here’s a kind of important thing for you to know about the way my husband and I travel—he’s generally (and by ‘generally’ I mean always) The Driver, and I am The Navigator. I don’t actually want to be The Navigator. I won the job by default when he climbed into the driver’s seat.
I’m not terrible at this job, and even my husband will tell you I’ve gotten us through some pretty tricky places the old fashioned way . . . no, not by prayer. Well, yes, by prayer, but also with a map made of paper and bazillions of chicken scratch lines. For example, I got him through Chicago at night one time. Without an accident. On this trip, I got him through the streets of San Francisco and never collided with a single cable car. I’ve navigated my own way (as The Driver) through Orlando, Florida. And I got him safely in, around, and beyond Boston. In a van. With two children inside.
Yeah. I’m that good.
I do have one little handicap, though. I am directionally challenged. True north, in my head and deep in my soul where it really matters, is always whatever direction I am facing. Up. Pretty much just that—north is always Up. I know that’s not acceptable in civilized societies, though, and so I’ve learned a clever little trick when using a map. Whenever we turn left, I turn the map left, too. A right turn means I’ll turn the map right. This way, the grid in my head always matches the grid on the map. Genius, right? In military terms, this is called ‘orienting the map.’ There’s no real explanation for how I wind up disoriented on occasion, but I suspect driver error. Now and then he doesn’t trust me. Weird.
But this time things were different. We still went to AAA for a triptik and maps and tour books, but we only got them for a backup. For the great Ocean-To-Ocean Trip of 2014 we bought an iPad. Ta dah! We also bought a fancy ice chest and some new underwear, but the iPad purchase was a stroke of genius. Once we forked over the bucks to turn Rob’s phone into a hot spot, we were a traveling internet wifi, using our new gadget to book hotels and keep up with Words With Friends.
And—it came with a navigation system. Cue the angelic choir.
I love this feature. An iPad, in case you’re technologically primitive, is at least four times bigger than the screen on a smart phone and when you stretch the screen a lot, you can almost read the letters on the side of buildings on the streets. Well, you can do that on Google Earth, too, but it’s a lot more impressive on an iPad out in the middle of nowhere.
I got really good at directing my husband in and around cities and towns and dinky desert off-roads. I never even took a look at the box of paper maps on the backseat. I just followed the flashing blue orb that represented us as it slowly made its way across America. It was so easy. It was almost like little munchkins serenaded us on our journey with their theme song, “Follow the flashing blue orb!”
Finally, I could take a nap. Finally, there was no road stress. Finally, we had a fool proof way of surviving new cities. Until, finally, we drove into Cincinnati. I no longer care about the rivalry they enjoy in their stupid town on the hill. They single handedly destroyed all my illusions about how I could navigate us to the moon as long as I had an iPad. All it took was a roadtrip in search of some infamous chili.
About twenty minutes west of Cincinnati, we passed a restaurant where happy diners sat in the window of a Skyline Chili diner, innocently enjoying the meal Rob had dreamt of for the last six months.
“Hey, honey,” I pointed out, “there’s a Skyline Chili place. Want to stop there?” All it would take was a quick left and another quick left and we’d be in the parking lot, all set for an early dinner. We didn’t even need the iPad to pull this off.
“No,” he responded, eyes never leaving the highway, “I want to eat Cincinnati chili in Cincinnati. I want . . . the Cincinnati Experience.”
Not since the engineer on the Titanic assured the captain they’d be home in time for supper has anyone ever regretted such a simplistic statement. Let me just say here in front of God and everybody, Rob and I got . . . the Cincinnati Experience.
The thing we’d read about the way Ohioans eat their chili kind of gave us both pause. Cincinnati chili is served atop spaghetti. That’s just not normal. They also top it with beans and onions and cheese, which is normal, but not on top of spaghetti. I repeat—That’s.Not.Normal. And we’re talking a lot of cheese. We had no idea how much cheese until we waded through it trying to reach our table when we finally arrived. Boy, do they ever love cheese in Cincinnati. But that spaghetti connection? To this day, the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that their freeway system also looks like a plate of spaghetti.
And that’s the reason I could not figure out how to get us to the Skyline Chili place I’d located in downtown Cincinnati. Because of spaghetti highways.
I dropped a red pin on the navigational map iPad offers, pointed the iPad in the direction we were driving and watched the flashing blue orb head east towards supper. Of course, that involved a diversion onto another strand of highway which would take us north where we faced a creative path navigating one-way streets. But I was confident that our trusty blue orb would deliver us safely to the red dot sitting smack on top of an authentic Skyline Chili in downtown Cincinnati.
I forgot that even iPads are only as smart as the person operating them. I couldn’t figure out how to get off the U.S. 50 strand and merge onto the new northbound strand while traveling 65 miles an hour. I watched helplessly as our flashing orb floated away from the red pin representing Skyline Chili.
“Where do I turn?” The Driver asked.
“I have no idea,” I answered frantically, “but the blue dot is nowhere near downtown now.”
I turned the iPad the direction we needed to go, but that’s where I realized paper maps have the edge on technology. Paper maps do what you tell them to do. iPads are self correcting. The screen righted itself and now I had no idea whatsoever where north had gone. East, with the orb, I suspected.
We got off the freeway and pulled over so Rob could look at the derelict blue dot.
“Well, we’re headed to the river,” he announced, “and we’re not going to find the city down there.” He was a firefighter for thirty-eight years and has mastered the obvious. He turned the truck around and began driving into downtown Cincinnati on surface streets. The obedient blue orb flashed along happily beside him. Traitor.
It was Saturday, late afternoon, when we finally were within reach of our target. Another thing we forgot about big cities is how little parking is available. As the roads shrunk, sidewalks grew and hordes of pedestrians spilled over into the streets, we realized that whenever our blue orb shook hands with our red pin, we might have to abandon them both for lack of parking.
But to our surprise, as we closed in on our supper, a huge, empty parking lot materialized next to the restaurant. I guess if we were a little more worldly, we would have realized how suspicious that was. But at that particular moment, all we cared about was paying for a parking space and getting the Cincinnati Experience.
“Parking costs three bucks,” my husband said, holding up a single dollar bill for my inspection. I looked in my wallet and found its twin. “We only have two dollars?” Rob said in frustration. I was pretty much done with the whole adventure, too. Digging in my stash of cash, I pulled a different bill out and handed it to Rob.
“I’m pretty sure the city of Cincinnati won’t mind if we give them a two dollar tip,” I said sarcastically.
Rob took the five, deposited it into the hungry parking meter, and returned with a receipt allowing us to stay parked until next Tuesday, but no change. We no longer cared. We were parked. We were hungry. And we were sick of aggravations on the noble search for an epicurean delight called Skyline Chili. Hand in hand, we walked down the sidewalk toward the front of the restaurant.
It was closed.
Of course it was. Locked up tighter than an angry woman’s lips in a lovers’ quarrel. There would be no happy ending thinking Fate had smiled on us and given us a parking place right next to our supper club. Instead, Fate was on the floor, laughing hysterically at the colossal joke made at our expense. We were no closer to tasting this famous chili or filling our grumpy stomachs than we were while taking the scenic route along the Ohio River an hour ago. But instead of losing our tempers, we fell against each other and laughed, too. Hey, it was either that or cry, and why should Fate have all the fun?
We turned to go back to the parking lot and tried to figure out what to do next, but our discussion was suddenly interrupted by an intruder.
“Hey, buddy,” the large man said, eyes wide and glazed, “I’m starving. Can you help me out? I’m an ex-Marine and I’ve just been released from the hospital.” He showed us the picture I.D. wrist bands he still wore. My husband recognized the soldier’s inebriated state right away, but the wind must have been blowing away from me because I didn’t pick up on that at all. All I knew was we were all alone now on the sidewalk with no one else in sight, blocked on the path by a large, pickled ex-Marine who hadn’t told us just how many men he’d actually killed with his bare hands. We had a truck full of apples and cheese sticks, but I didn’t want to volunteer that information or the location of our vehicle—I’m kind of selfish about cheese sticks. Rob just didn’t want him to know where his wallet was.
Drawing on his years of firefighter/paramedic experience where he often dealt with people down on their luck and high on chemical substances, he spoke gently with the stranger and assured him he’d go get some money for him if he promised not to use it for alcohol. I just wanted him to promise he'd let us escape in one piece. Well, two actually.
“No sir,” the Marine said, sitting down on a window ledge against the building, “I wouldn’t spend it that way. I’ll just wait here,” he finished.
Reaching the safety of our parked truck, Rob found another five dollar bill, went back and gave it to the seated soldier—who didn’t try to beat us up—and then we got in our truck and locked the doors. We’d been parked for five minutes, were out ten bucks, and still hadn’t had any Cincinnati Chili. It was the most expensive dinner we’d never eaten.
You’d think once we made it safely out of the parking lot that all our stress was over. Not exactly. We still had that neurotic flashing blue orb to deal with. It only took a couple of blocks for us to realize that leaving downtown Cincinnati took us deep into the heart of the less attractive side of town. Finding the freeway out of here was our top priority now, followed closely by my Christmas wish not to get mugged on the way out of town.
I’ll admit. Sometimes the biggest enemy I face in a situations like this is my own imagination. I pictured paper-sack-carrying loiterers mobbing our truck, busting out the windows and stealing every last one of my cheese sticks. I’m pretty sure I read about something like that on the internet once.
Still, even Rob was uncomfortable with our surroundings and, just like that, gave up on eating Cincinnati Chili in Cincinnati. The fun in this experience was pretty much over, and the frustration built as even our flashing blue orb had no idea how to reach the elusive freeway and rescue us from our big adventure. I’m pretty sure I saw it sulk off onto the margins of the iPad screen. Fine with me. I was about to give it a timeout anyway.
Rob went into firefighter/navigator mode again, drawing on years of experience and logically deducing that if we drove north—away from the river—we might get out of here alive. Ten minutes later, a freeway on-ramp suddenly materialized and we got on it. I didn’t care if it took us south to Kentucky or north to Toronto. I was done with the merry-go-round we’d been on. And did I ever have some choice words for the AAA tour book that bragged about this elusive chili in the first place.
We crossed the Ohio River, immediately transported into the civilized state of Kentucky, and voila! Right there across the river, in Wildcat country, another Skyline Chili materialized. Rob decided he’d be satisfied with eating their chili while enjoying a view of Cincinnati and pulled into the parking lot. The free parking lot. Right next to the restaurant with the “OPEN” sign in the window.
I’ve never loved Kentucky more.
As for the infamous chili we’d talked about for the last three thousand miles, let me just say that New Mexico has nothing to worry about. I have no idea what all the fuss is about in Ohio. And serving chili with beans, onions and cheddar cheese on top of spaghetti is stupid. By the time Rob finished his authentic “Five-Way” Chili (they also offer three-way and four-way—don’t ask me, I don’t even want to go there), his plate was a watery wasteland of pink noodles and a couple of vagrant beans.
That’s just wrong.
By the time we finally got inside the elusive diner, I had no sense of adventure left. I ordered a chili dog and a salad and dove into the dog before Rob ever even sampled his Five-Way. When I got to the house salad, it was so covered in grated cheddar cheese that I couldn’t even see the lettuce. I’m telling you the truth. I took a picture of it on my cell phone just because I knew no one would believe me. I literally pushed aside the cheese in the middle of my salad bowl until I located a suffocating slice of tomato and some comatose romaine. When I finished the salad, I pulled the cheese back over the top like a blanket on an accident victim and gave it the Last Rites.
I realize you yourself may be from Cincinnati, Ohio. And possibly, though not logically, all of my griping about the ‘famous’ chili from your hometown might even seem a little offensive. But it only took a couple of bites of this creative concoction to discover the secret flavor additive in an otherwise unremarkable bowl of meaty tomato sauce.
They put nutmeg in Cincinnati Chili. Then they pour it over pasta, drown it in cheddar cheese and call it a masterpiece. More ridiculous than the double entendre names for the types of chili you can order, more than the half pound of cheese that adorns even an innocent bowl of salad, I am stupefied by the addition of a Thanksgiving seasoning in a sauce that is supposed to be. . . chili.
So here, in a nutmegshell, is my impression of you, Cincinnati. You are a very nice city with an impressive river and lots of nice artwork outside your downtown buildings. At least one person in your town was very friendly to us and even stopped us on the sidewalk to say hello and ask for a tip. No one in the sadder part of your city made any attempt to steal my cheese sticks. For that I am truly grateful. And when your unintelligible freeways wearied of harassing us, they gave us an exit and escorted us out of town.
On the upside, it was an interesting afternoon.
On the creative side, you convinced an entire metropolitan population how to be proud of a plate of schizophrenic spaghetti.
On the downside, I haven’t had this much fun since I had my wisdom teeth removed.
But . . . I will never forgive you for convincing my husband that we just hadn’t lived until we risked our lives to taste tomato sauce with nutmeg.
I hope Guy Fieri pays you a visit some time. Cuz, Lucy, “you’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”