Refugees and Cincinnati Chili

The ethnic tapestry of the United States of America is intricately woven with threads of many, many countries. Most of those threads were added by refugees. Their reasons may have been religious, economic, or political, but they were all running for their lives to a country that has, since its beginnings, represented a safe,welcoming place, promising the freedom to start anew and prosper, with Liberty and Justice For All (albeit with a few notable exceptions). In 1903, these ideals were officially and indelibly woven into this tapestry when a plaque with a poem by Emma Lazarus was added to the Statue of Liberty pedestal:

“The New Colossus”

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Nowhere is our refugee history more apparent than in our food. Pick a regional comfort food favorite, and I promise you it can be traced to another place, where people once lived in peace and prosperity, until that became impossible, and leaving their homes behind was their only chance at survival; in the case of my latest research project, New Orleans, many of them weren’t even given a choice to come here or not.

I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to one such regional delight – Cincinnati Chili. In my search for recipes to compare, the origins of this Ohio favorite appeared again and again and again. Greek and Macedonian immigrants, refugees from the Balkan Wars, set up shop in Cincinnati and developed the original recipe now known as its namesake dish. On its face, something named “Cincinnati Chili” sounds thoroughly American, quintessentially midwestern.

But at its roots are the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. If you are tempted to equate the term “refugee” with the term “terrorist”,  The Economist published an article in October that is worth your time to read. Actually, it’s worth everyone’s time.

There may be economic reasons why a large of influx of new people coming to this country would be challenging and difficult. This has also always been a part of our history, and we have still somehow made room. Fear, bigotry, and intolerance are parts of our history, too, and we continue to overcome them.

This is what it truly means to be American. We are all people with refugee ancestors, who were fortunate that those who were the gatekeepers then did not turn them away. We must continue the legacy they left us.



  1. […] Chili. Cinnamon, allspice, and cloves are all used in the regional favorite Cincinnati Chili, so why not […]



  2. Reblogged this on Real Food Road and commented:

    When I wrote this a year ago, I had no idea we’d be where we are now as a nation. I am heartbroken that it is even more relevant today, instead of less.



  3. Our flag has become tattered at many points during our 240-year history. Fortunately, we are a nation that constantly weaves the cloth. — Thank you for this post. :-)



    1. Thank you for your optimism. It helps. :)



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