I wondered at the folly of a country so bountiful that it had become so greedy and piled everything on its plate. Until I ate breakfast the next dayby Wendell Steavenson / August 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
I landed in Cincinnati in a thunderstorm. My Airbnb room turned out to be in an apartment in a dodgy neighbourhood. I was late to my dinner with friends. One of the guests, Carol, who had known me for about 45 minutes before hearing about my predicament, said: “Well, of course, you can stay with us. We are empty nesters, our kids are gone and there is plenty of room.”
And so I woke up in green lawn suburbia, well slept, to the smell of percolating coffee. I found Carol and her husband, Steve, in the kitchen. Steve offered me a steaming mug. I thanked them both profusely. “It really is the famous Midwestern hospitality!”
Steve had a printing business and in his spare time ministered in a federal prison. Carol volunteered with her church group and helped Bhutanese and Syrian refugees to resettle in Cincinnati. We talked about Trump and his anti-immigration rhetoric, we talked about the city and what to see. I said I was interested in food.
“Well you have to try our Cincinnati chilli!” said Steve. “It was invented by the Greeks who settled here. Basically it’s like a mock turtle soup flavoured with cinnamon and chocolate and a little bit of chilli, poured over spaghetti, with either kidney beans or raw onions or both and grated cheddar cheese on top.”
Carol took me to a diner dedicated to this specialty. On realising they had a foreigner for lunch, Laylayna, our waitress, went all out. “What you wanna do,” Laylayna said, placing a bowl of tiny pillow oyster crackers in front of me, “is to make a little hole in one with the tine of your fork. Then folks like to put a couple drops hot sauce inside.” Hey presto: insta-canapé.
“What kind of eater are you?” Laylayna asked. I said a little one. She wrote down “small” on her pad. Now, did I want the three-way, just plain sauce and spaghetti or cheese, or a four-way with either kidney beans, or raw onions or a five-way with everything. I said, “five-way, please.” Carol, a petite, blonde marathon runner, asked for a modest three-way.
My Cincinnati chilli was weirdly kinda good. I thanked the culinary largesse of a country that fed you such salty, filling, satisfying food, so fast, conveniently and cheaply. Was this the legacy of the land of limitless possibility that the first settlers encountered? “Give me your tired, your poor”—they must have been hungry too, those huddled masses. Was not the promise of America freedom, but also freedom from want?