Wendell Steavenson

Grilled cheese donuts: what food in Cincinnati says about America

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 day
August 15, 2017

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?

In Cincinnati I was a pedestrian in the land of cars. I spent my time in forecourts, parking lots, driveways, shopping malls. I Uber-ed everywhere. All the drivers were doing it as their second jobs. The city was hilly and forested; lots of trees, but no way to walk. Distances were measured in the number of minutes it took to get there in a car: five, 10, 15, a different spatial reference. For several days I seemed to be on an endless highway that looped around downtown.

But then I found Over-the-Rhine, a district of red-brick Victorian row houses reclaimed from urban decay by hipsters who opened up new bars and restaurants. Here was the gamut of artisanal food, from sauerkraut to kimchi and kombucha. Here too was the famous Graeters ice cream. Butter pecan—wonderful.

One day I spotted a fast food restaurant called Tom + Chee. It started as a food truck by a couple of friends, who then took their idea for comfort food, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches to the TV series Shark Tank (the US version of Dragon’s Den). Now there are dozens of franchises across the Midwest.

“HOME OF THE GRILLED CHEESE DONUT” read the sign. This I had to try.

I think I thought it would be a grilled cheese in the shape of a doughnut. I ate one bite and recoiled in alarm. It really was what it said it was: a sugary doughnut covered with a slice of cheese and fried. I took a second bite to make sure. My teeth ached.

I waddled to the kerb to get my Uber, wondering at the folly of a country so bountiful that it had become so greedy and piled everything on its plate. I shook my head at the hotdog eating competitions and monster steaks and buckets of fried chicken.

And then for breakfast the next day Steve made me goetta, (pronounced get-uh) a local delicacy, handed down from the early German immigrants, a fat pork sausage with pin head oats mixed in. He said some people ate it with mustard but he preferred maple syrup. He kindly put a jug on the table. The goetta was delicious. I gingerly poured on maple syrup, sweet and salt mingled together. Yup, Steve was right.