Cincinnati is for (meat) lovers

Portland suffers from culinary hubris. Everyone is an expert on such diverse topics as “How to properly share dishes when they are served in a small plates format” to “Which northwest beer is the bitterest, in terms of ibu’s”. In contrast, in my hometown of Cincinnati, it seems that people are content sticking to just exactly what they know. Primarily, chili with spaghetti, double decker sandwiches and Hot Metts. These they wash down with a variety of non- bitter beers: Bud, Coors, Keystone (hi dad), Hudepohl and Christian Moerlein. Christian Moerlein is for fancy people like me.

But what is the difference between one and the next? How can one tell the difference between Coors and Hudy or one chili parlor and the next. What qualifications does a double decker with deli ham and hard boiled eggs have that set it above the next? And what the fuck is a “Hot Mett” anyway?

If you can’t tell the difference between Bud and Hudy or Coors or …. the list goes on, then how can we begin to respect your opinions on the difference between a good vin de pays Provençal rosé and some tripe from  central california that’s been long forgotten in the dankest, dusty corner of a Trader Joe’s sale bin? There is a difference between one major brew and the next, If your palate is so jaded and desensitized from a daily battering of alpha acids, then you should take a break, or quit drinking beer for god’s sake, liquor is quicker, not to mention cheaper.

If you are one of those unfortunately enlightened and sensitive individuals who can appreciate the crisp, palate- cleansing tang and fine effervescence of an ice cold Budweiser and can differentiate that experience from the more coarsely textured bubbles and faint malty earthiness of a Coors Banquet beer (I am not here to defend, differentiate or comprehend the subtleties of “light” beer) then perhaps a trip to Ohio is something that you could appreciate.

I don’t think an outsider would, at first blush, notice the glaring differences between the Queen City’s various chili recipes. The heretofore woefully ignorant diner would still be reeling from the shock of the presentation: on an oval plate, over a mound of spaghetti, topped with a medium dice of yellow onions, canned red kidney beans and covered with a generous blanket, nay, a comforter, of feather- shredded mild cheddar cheese. The familiar diner however, is keenly aware of their preference. A little more cinnamon, less cayenne, more cocoa, less grease. Skyline is really spice- forward, a little too much so for my taste. Camp Washington is too fatty, they must use 40% and not skim it. So many of the Greek diners (late arrivals) make it real bland, perhaps they’re still afraid to assert themselves. For my money, I’ll take Pleasant Ridge or Blue Ash over any of the more popular joints. Not only is the Chili in these fluorescent throwbacks well balanced, they make good double-deckers besides.

A double decker, maybe you know what it is, I don’t know, they don’t make ’em in Portland. It involves neither Ciabatta nor aioli, nor even a shred of mesclun mix. It is simply a sandwich, usually on white bread, that involves two layers of sandwich in one, like some of the more popular club sandwiches. Only in Cincinnati, the sandwich might have ham and hard- boiled egg, Or roast beef and ham, or ham and tomato, or any of maybe five or ten other truly esoteric and obscure combinations of only the finest and most elegant products that money can buy.

This is not to say that all double decker sandwiches are created equal, far from it. I was reminded this past trip of the broad range of possibilities that can be explored with this simple palate. First, the bad (sorry dad). We went to a place called the J&J on the West Side of Cincinnati. Horrible. A sandwich can be large without being grotesque. How much meat do you want in a bite? The answer should be, “less than a quarter pound”. Also, just because it’s cheap deli meat doesn’t mean you need to buy the cheapest.

I ordered a five- way (spaghetti, chili, onions, beans and cheese), I advised Leona to order the Ham and Egg double- decker, add tomatoes. I regret misleading her so. Imagine, if you will, three slices of toasted white bread. Between the top and middle slice are a mess of overboiled eggs (all green around the edge and stinky) and some commodity tomatoes (not that that is necesarily a bad thing). Between the middle and bottom layer is two full inches of salty salty thin sliced cheap deli ham. Like a mountain of processed pork, trying to push up through the top layers of bread and sulfurous egg. Oh, and slathered with maybe four tablespoons of mayonaise. I’m not against any of these things per se (when I’m trying to have a cultural experience), but for fuck’s sake, put it together right.

The chili was that bland sort, the type with no cocoa, cinnamon or  chili powder to speak of, not to mention salt. It wasn’t a matter of some recent emigré family, afraid to offend the atrophied American palate, these were your garden- variety Cincinnati trashers. There is little on a plate that is less palatable than overcooked spaghetti topped with what is essentially boiled ground beef with onions and canned beans and cheese. Disgusting. This last trip I got to have no good chili, so you’ll just have to go yourself.

We went to Columbus to see a friend, a jaded ex- cook turned tattoo virtuoso. Now he makes money putting ink on people’s bodies, which is artistic and pays better than putting food in their bellies. Suffice it to say, he knows food. I got a tat of some delicious looking wild mushrooms, growing on the forest floor, in a ridiculously large caliber … this is not a tattoo blog (hi John). Anyway, we went a couple of places around this capital of Ohio, and we ate well.

We went to a Nuevo Latino restaurant called Barrio. Pleasantly surprised. I didn’t even know they had Latinos in Ohio. More important however, was breakfast the next day. We had already eaten breakfast once at our bed and breakfast. which was, coincidentally, an incredible place to stay and I was curious as to how I was going to fit more food on top of the bread pudding slab of “french toast” and three strips of bacon I had already consumed. Turned out to be not so hard.

The German Village Cafe looked like a slice of real old Ohio, but kind of cleaner. We ordered with trepidation, I had to have a double decker, they had a double decker club. The right ratio of bread to meat to sauce to vegetables, that’s what makes a double decker worth eating. In light of my having just feasted, I shied away from the special, country fried steak, a decision that I regret to this day. It came with The Ohio Triumvirate: mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans. The steak was thickly breaded and fried crisp and perfectly browned. Remarkably tender and thick for a cube steak, maybe it was pounded, not cubed.  My companions couldn’t finish theirs, I helped.

Which brings us to the Hot Mett. It’s not Mettwurst in the traditional sense, which is a cured raw pork sausage that you spread on toast, this is something you cook. I hadn’t had one in years but this trip I ate enough for maybe the next 10 years.

The Hot Mett is a sausage, sometimes a very large sausage, made of pork and beef and some organs and smoked. They come in two varieties “hot” and well… then there’s just plain Metts but who cares about those, the hot is where it’s at. I don’t know what all the seasnonings are, I tried to make some for my wedding feast, to no avail, but it definitely includes garlic powder and chilli flake and paprika, maybe some cayenne too. Hot Metts are available, to my knowledge, nowhere else in the world outside of  a radius of undetermined  length around the Queen City.  Queen City Sausage’s Metts seem to be the most popular and those are what we ate this trip. They aren’t ridiculous, growing up we would sometimes get these “five alarm Metts” that would hurt the nethers for days afterward, never eager to learn, we sought them out at every opportunity, whining, “Mom, I want the five alarm Metts! Why can’t we get the five alarm Metts?!”. But these were good, perfectly spiced, plump, moist without being greasy and just enough burn to keep you pounding those ice cold Budweisers. I hear there’s a family butchery left that still keeps some hogs and makes good Metts. Next trip I’ll hit them up, assuming they haven’t been assasinated by Krogers, maybe bring some back to Portland, show them around to the local meatheads, maybe they’ll learn a thing or two.