I moved to the Cincinnati area three years ago. My long-distance boyfriend at the time (we'll call him Boyfriend) had spent a lot of time here in his childhood visiting various relatives, including both sets of grandparents. He asked me early on, "Have you tried Cincinnati chili yet?" over the phone. I always told him no — I'll eat chili when I have to, but it has never been one of my favorite foods. My only association with Cincinnati chili was that it was served on spaghetti, which seemed weird to me.
When Boyfriend got a chance to come visit four months in, over his Thanksgiving break, the first thing he did when he arrived was take me to Skyline, one of the regional chain restaurants that serves almost exclusively "things covered in Cincinnati chili." I tried it on top of French fries and on top of a mini hotdog, both also topped off with a mound of shredded cheddar cheese. Cincinnati chili is thin, not chunky, and mostly a meaty, tomatoey sauce; it has a hint of cinnamon and a hint of dark chocolate. And I was in love. (But to this day, I never order Cincinnati chili over spaghetti.)
It was a good thing I loved my first Cincinnati chili experience, because Boyfriend might have broken up with me on the spot if I had hated it. I was especially grateful to the chili that first night reunited because Boyfriend and I hadn't spent this much time together in months; Skype calls and text messages were poor substitutes for real experiences, but we were almost shy around each other until we were stuffing our faces with chili and cheese. It was not an elegant reunion, but I loved it.
Over the course of the long-distance relationship, reuniting at chili restaurants became a tradition. I was invited to family gatherings where "Skyline runs" were a thing, where you had to take note of everyone's order in meticulous detail, like "Kim wants beans but no onions on hers, and Uncle Joe wants no mustard." We'd buy piles and piles of take-out, with little baggies of cheese on the side to "make it your own." I grew to love frying up sweet potato cubes and layering them with chili and cheese; the slight sweetness of the chili was perfect with the crispy earthiness of the sweet potatoes.
We had difficult conversations in Skyline Chili restaurants. Long-distance boyfriend became close-by boyfriend, and we stuck to our comforting routine: go in, order waters or Dr. Pepper, eat little oyster crackers, order more chili-covered things based on our level of hunger (usually without looking at the menu), eat quickly but with time for chatting about the future, and paying at the front, where we'd usually buy peppermint patties on the way out. We were both starting new jobs, finishing school, seeing siblings move or get married, watching family members grow older or pass away, but this ritual stayed the same. In two of the most eventful years of our lives, the chili remained constant.
The day Boyfriend proposed was a quiet Sunday, but I had to go into work that night. As I messed with the ring on my finger while sitting at the front desk at work, he came in with a plastic bag of takeout from... where else? He sent a picture of my hand with the take-out chili dogs to his family.
After Boyfriend had become Fiancé and then Husband, he mused to himself over a plate of that weird spaghetti covered in chili: "Would we have been able to get through all the craziness of these years without Cincinnati chili?"
I laughed at the time, but I'm pretty grateful for it, and it makes me realize that there is certainly a role for having "your place," be it a fast food chain or the corner Italian restaurant where they know you always get the lasagna. Husband and I continue to run into things all the time where we have no script, no idea what the other person truly wants and needs, and we worry that we cannot fit into each other's lives neatly. But then there's Skyline, the squeaky-clean tables and the vats of steaming chili, which have collectively witnessed so many quiet arguments and so many honest admissions, where I always know what I'm going to get and the only thing I cannot predict is where our conversation might go.
It's nice, just once in a while, for something to be certain.