“Why, oh why, oh why, oh —
Why did I ever leave Ohio?
Why did I wander to find what lies yonder
When life was so cozy ay home?”
– “Ohio” From the Broadway musical Wonderful Town
I’ve been to many states in the Union, but up until very recently, I had never set foot in the great state of Ohio. I have to say, it had always struck me as kind of nondescript, in a shapeless, midwestern kind of way. Boy, was I wrong. There’s a lot going on in the land of the Buckeye Tree.
I had been invited to Columbus to speak at a conference in November, and in a surprise twist, a last-minute work-related trip had me rushing to Cincinnati in October. Two visits to Ohio in two months had me wrapped up in a crash course in Buckeye culture. Who knew?
Let’s start with the food, shall we? Undoubtedly the most distinctive thing about Cincinnati food culture is its chili. Cincinnati chili is characterized by a thin sauce with signature flavors of cinnamon, cloves and allspice, and an absence of hot chile peppers (though you can top the chili with hot sauce if you wish). The whole affair is served over spaghetti and topped with a mountain of shredded cheddar. Oyster crackers on the side for fun. It’s a unique dish, like no other chili you’ve tasted. I sampled the offerings at two of the popular Cincinnati chains: Skyline and Gold Star.
I was lucky enough to have a cadre of lovely ladies to show me the ins and outs of Cincinnati chili culture: Linda J., Lisa M., and Nicole D., all of whom shared their opinions and thoughts on the best way to enjoy this signature dish. It’s served with or without onions, with some combination of onions and beans or both, or neither, or just over a hot dog (with or without mustard). Simple, huh? The lingo for understanding these combos starts with “one-way” and works up to “five-way.” A one-way is JUST spaghetti and chili. A five-way is spaghetti, chili, shredded cheese, diced onions, and beans. It can take a little getting used to, and I was happy to have some help, especially from such pleasant dining companions. Being new at all this, I decided to go whole hog and try the five way. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.
While Cincinnati’s landscape is a bit hilly, owing to its proximity to the Appalachian Mountains (the sudden view of the city as you drive in from the Kentucky side is absolutely stunning), Columbus has more of that flatness we come to expect of a Midwestern city, as well as cleanliness and lots of friendly folks. Ohio has a rich food history, and the shining star on top of it may be the humble hamburger. Dave Thomas opened the very first Wendy’s right in Columbus, and now it’s the third-largest international hamburger chain. Some reports even claim that the hamburger itself was invented in Canton, OH.
In Columbus, my friend and colleague, the gorgeous Lisa M., took time to show me around a bit during our downtime between work obligations. My favorite part of our visit together may have been when she offered to show me pictures of her home – and then proceeded to pull out a MAGAZINE! (She wasn’t bragging, I was asking about her house.) As much as you want to hate someone who is beautiful and successful with a great husband who cooks Italian, wonderful children and a perfect home, Lisa is simply too nice and humble to despise. AND she went out of her way to be charming, helpful and hospitable during my visit, showing me her lovely city with pride and charisma.
Since Lisa has two young ones at home, she likes to dine at more upscale places (i.e., NOT Bob Evans) when the kids aren’t around – can you blame her? So she took me to the lovely Lindey’s (http://www.lindeys.com/) in the quaint German Village neighborhood, known for its charming cottages and cobblestone streets and sidewalks. This was a perfect choice for a fancy lunch – steaks and seafood, white tablecloths, impeccable service, and farm-fresh vegetables. We both started with a soup (Lisa had the lobster bisque and I enjoyed the delicious sausage and shrimp gumbo special), and we each rounded out our lunch with an egg dish.
445 N High St
Owned by local Cameron Mitchell who worked his way up from busboy to superstar restauranteur, Martini does modern Italian just right. I ate at the bar and made a meal of two appetizers. First I devoured the fresh mozzarella (in a way that only a business traveler dining alone is allowed to do). Get this — they actually make the mozzarella to order, in-house, as needed. Can you imagine? It was so incredibly fresh, simply dusted with cracked black pepper and sea salt, served alongside crispy crostini, basil pesto, and oven-roasted tomatoes. What could be more simple and perfect than that? I followed up with a nice cold plate of beef carpaccio, topped with a drizzle of bleu cheese crema and a crispy square of polenta.
Extra credit: No trip to Columbus could be complete without a trip to North Market, a great indoor marketplace in the trendy Short North area. Vendors sell everything from fresh vegetable to cookware to sausages to crafts. You could easily spend a day (and a fortune) poking around and shopping. I had a few favorite vendors, including the hearty Polish eatery Hania’s Olde World Cuisine, where I noshed on a few made-from-scratch pierogi, which were tender and delicious, slick with melted butter (below left) and served up by friendly owner Hubert. I even got a hat for my roommate Scotty to show his Polish pride!
Back in the northwest corner, you can’t miss North Market Spices, where I had a great chat with owner Ben Walters’s Mom, and picked up some hard-to-find powdered green chile. (What a nice surprise – I’ve never even seen it outside of New Mexico!) Ben’s Mom had some great information and suggestions. This place is the real deal if you’re a spice aficionado like myself. I highly suggest you check them out of you’re there, and you can even become a fan on Facebook, like I did: http://www.facebook.com/NorthMarketSpices.
You won’t be surprised to learn that another one of my favorite vendors was CaJohn’s Flavor and Fire, a salsa and hot sauce company that grows their own hot chile peppers right there in Ohio. Owner Sue told me all about how they partnered with my alma mater, the University of New Mexico, to figure out how to grow the famed Naga Jolokia pepper (the hottest chile pepper known to man) on Ohio soil. I tried so many samples (including their creative Pumpkin Pie salsa) my mouth was ablaze in the best possible sense, and I just had to take a bottle of their Jolokia hot sauce home to DC. You can visit them at http://www.cajohns.com/ – I know I will.
In the end, I have to say, my visits to Ohio, though short, were packed full of friendly people, great food, and fun surprises. I hope to return!
Heal her soul
Carry her, my angel
– “Carry Me Ohio” by Sun Kil Moon