Sunday, October 28, 2007

Day 85 - Cincinnati, NY

Photo credit: A bowl of 4-way Skyline Chili by Cathy Erway, noteatingoutinny.com

NYC being as cosmopolitan as it is, I've always been fascinated about where folks who are from somewhere else gather to be around compatriots. Almost everyone from someplace else longs for the comforts of home: a crowd with whom to root for the home team, people who speak with familiar cadence and terms of speech, and comfort food. New York must be filled with these sorts of places and I wanted to start visiting them.

So I recently put out a request to a few dozen of my more worldly friends here to ask them for suggestions.

The most intriguing spot I heard about was Edward's in TriBeCa. One night a month, Edward's creates a little Cincinnati in New York by importing a handful of classic dishes from the city of seven hills. Things like Montgomery Inn Ribs, LaRosa’s Pizza, and Graeters Ice Cream. Now, this was not, strictly speaking, what I was thinking of when I was asking about expatriate bars, but that may be why it captured my interest.

But first, I had a lot to learn about this fair city: its people, their food and, quickly, the geography. In particular, whether one is from the East LinkSide, or the West Side.

I pulled a seat up to a table with Ben Berman. Ben's a real estate development consultant from Cincinnati who works in San Francisco but just happened to be in New York on business and joined a friend from Cincinnati at Edward's.

“The east side associates itself with the eastern United States, essentially, I think," Ben told me. "And the west side seems to be more heartily Midwestern. So all the connotations of whatever that means for people in other part of the country are probably true for people who live there and the way they conceptualize themselves. They educate their kids in different places. They go to church in different places. They live in different cities when they graduate from college. I mean, it makes a very big different in terms of how you orient your life.”

He might be right about where folks settle when they leave Cincinnati. I interviewed more than a dozen people and all said they were from the East Side.

Brady Richards is an author from the Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati, living in NYC after leaving his hometown for college 10 years ago. I asked him what characterized the typical Cincinnatian.

“We’re extraordinarily down to earth, humble, ouch!. I think there’s a strange groundedness to a lot of the mid west and Cincinnati is the heart of that, as they say. I’m also a meat and potatoes guy—it’s that kind of person. There's a real community feeling there. Growing up, it’s generations of the same families that you know everyone’s parents grandparents, that kind of thing. It’s a little harder to get here. But it’s nice to grow away from that in a way and try to establish that sort of feeling elsewhere."

At the next table over, Nicole Ginocchio, a new kindergarten teacher at a public school in the Bronx who also grew up in Hyde Park, was having dinner with a couple of other friends who recently moved to New York City after graduating from college. I asked her how she’d describe Cincinnati to someone who has never been there.

“The thing about Cincinnati is it’s kind of confused," Nicole said. “It’s in the Midwest geographically. But the people are this southern Midwestern hybrid. It is either like the most southern Midwestern town, or the most Midwestern southern town, ever. My dad always jokes that if they ask you where you went to school in Cincinnati, they don’t mean where you went to college, they mean where you went to HS, because they assume you never left, because everyone stays in Cincinnati.”

And then, a classic Cincinnati moment--or what must be. Brady had overheard my conversation with Nicole and leaned over and asked if she was related to the Ginocchio he went to school with.

"That's my sister!" Nicole said. And with that, the she and Brady caught up with a totting of houses bought, babies born, etc. "There you go," she continued, turning back to me. "Old Cincinnati right there!"

Which brings us to the food from Cincinnati. It's what seemed to unite all the Cincinnatians I met that evening: a nostalgia—or, at least, a craving—for particular dishes that are not easy to get away from the greater Cincinnati area: Montgomery Inn ribs, LaRosa’s pizza, and something called 3-way.

“A 3-way is three ingredients," Brady explained to me. "Spaghetti, chili, cheese. 4-way, you have you choice of either adding onions or beans. 5-way is adding both.”

Now the chili served at Edwards and in Cincinnati is different from what people in other parts of the country think of as chili. “I think that people who grew up with chili as its own meal probably do not understand--and possibly even hate--this being called chili because it’s just, in a way, meat gravy. You would never, in my experiences, order just a bowl of Cincinnati chili. But it’s much better as a condiment than regular chili is. While I’d love to a bowl of chili from Texas, or something like that, when you’re having a 3-way, the only way to do it is with Cincinnati chili.”

Even calling it meat gravy—which I had growing up in an Italian neighborhood here in New York—doesn’t quite capture Cincinnati chili’s hints of chocolate and cinnamon. From what I gathered, chili in Cincinnati is served in parlors as ubiquitous as pizza parlors are—or once were, anyway—in New York. Unlike New York’s history with pizza, though, Cincinnati chili parlor families opened many outlets for their respective brands. The two biggest are Skyline and Gold Star. Brady’s tastes have evolved over the years, it seems.

“I think like many of the chili parlors, started by a Greek immigrants to Cincinnati who had their own recipes. My history is a little shaky even though it’s written usually on the menus and the walls. My personal history is that I was a Skyline—well, I guess I was actually a Goldstar kid for most of my youth. But then when I hit HS it was skyline all the way and it still it. It’s the most prevalent one. There’s one in every neighborhood pretty much.”

Edward Youkilis is the owner and namesake of Edwards and the instigator of these monthly reunions. He left Cincinnati in 1969. On this night, we were watching his nephew Kevin prepare to help the Boston Red Sox sweep the Colorado Rockies in Game 4 of the World Series on a big screen TV. In between innings and bites from a rack of Montgomery Inn ribs, he shared some of the thought behind Cincinnati Nights.

“We started the Cincinnati night about 3 years ago with a friend of mine who worked here named Seth Workman and I started it together. He’s also from Cincinnati and was the manager at the time. And we started small and we started realizing that there are a lot of people who moved here from Cincinnati or worked in Cincinnati who missed a lot of the very specific food they were associating with Cincinnati. So little by little we developed this menu. And I think tonight is our 37th or 38th Cincinnati night here, so we’ve had quite a few of them.”

Toward the back of this narrow restaurant I found Megan Schlegel, an event planner for a large department store and Alexi Tavil, a personal assistant. They met through work and when they realized they were both expatriates, they decided to get their other Cincinnatian friends together to check out the scene at Edwards. It just took them awhile to find the place.

“We’ve been trying to find this place for two years," explained Megan. “I was googling it and could not figure it out. We had a friend who was here on an internship and told us about it. And we could never figure it out where it was and we just did. And I’ve been looking forward to this all week.”

Alexi moved out of Cincinnati about 5 years ago and her family subsequently left the city as well. Does she miss it, I asked?

“Yes, it’s where I grew up. So I lived there for 20 years. You get used to a certain way of life and you get used to a certain kind of food, and then you go away and you can’t find anything similar. I was actually telling everyone before that my parents still will send me, when they go back to visit friends, they’ll buy me cans of Skyline, buy me bottles of Montgomery Inn, and they still have Graeters ice cream dry-iced and shipped to where they live in Washington.”

And how does Edwards compare to back home?

“You know, it’s good," Alexi agreed. "Tastes the same.”

And would they come back?

“Definitely. We’re talking about making our reservation for next month tonight.”

Megan and Alexi were surrounded by about 8 others who, in turn, were surrounding a few LaRosa's pizza pies. Were these their steady Cincinnati friends living abroad here in NYC, I asked.

Is this your kind of standard group of folks you know from back home?

“Actually we know each other very distantly through work, and so these are her friends and these are my friends," Alexi said pointing to each half of the table. "And we just came together.”

“Over Skyline,” crooned Megan.

“Over Skyline,” gushed Alexi, with a smile.

7 comments:

MSB said...

Mark, you've given me an idea. There is an active group of P&G alums in NYC, many of whom used to work in Cinci (myself excluded). I'm going to suggest going to the next Cincinnati night @ Edward's. Can't say that I have the same nostalgia for the food, but I did receive a bottle of Montgomery Inn BBQ sauce in a gift basket 1 year. I think it was yummy, but my taste buds have a selective memory.
Thanks!

Monica A. Peavy said...

Hi!
Where is Edwards? I'm from Columbus and can't wait to go. I've Goggles and can't find any info on it? monicapeavy@yahoo.com

Urban Rambler said...

Edward's is at 136 West Broadway. See http://www.nyc.com/restaurants/Edwards.53802/editorial.aspx

Nabeel Kaukab said...

Nice entry...I randomly stumbled across your blog and in typical small world Cincinnati fashion, went to school with Brady and Nicole's sister as well.

E. Tahlib Disney-Britton said...

What a great suprise! As an Eastsider (Cincinnati and NY) I can't wait to come. Where'd I go to school? Withrow High School!

-Ernest Britton

Margot Wood said...

I'm moving to NYC and just came across this post. I went to high school with Ben Berman! How does one find out when Cincinnati night is?

Urban Rambler said...

Ha... I love it. Usually one night the last week of the month, I believe. Give Edwards a call at 212.233.6436 to verify.