Cincinnati USA 101

A newcomer’s guide to deciphering the region’s quirks.

By Marnie Hayutin

Five WayOn our first morning as newly relocated Cincinnatians, my husband suggested that I drop him off at work, take the rental car and begin exploring our new city. Good idea, I thought…

…until I drove the wrong way down both Broadway and Fifth Street, and crossed back and forth over the river five times (that’s the real number, no dramatic license), as each attempt to find my way to the Marriott RiverCenter in Covington landed me back on another bridge.

Overwhelmed by my harrowing morning commute, and too terrified to venture out again, I spent my first day as a Cincinnati resident watching Montel Williams and polishing off $45 worth of Pringles and macadamia nuts from the mini bar. Welcome to Cincinnati. Eventually, with my husband safely behind the wheel, I did learn my way around the city. But a few things continued to baffle me for years to come. Like, Why is there spaghetti in my chili? And What’s the deal with the pigs?

To help you acclimate faster than I did, here’s my unofficial list of things that are confusing (and great) about Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Chili
Yes, we do boast the world’s largest assortment of chili restaurants, but no, it’s not the red-hot Tex-Mex version to which you may be accustomed. Cincinnati chili is a milder, sweeter blend, with some recipes including ingredients such as cocoa and cinnamon. We eat it atop a bed of spaghetti and piled high with a mound of finely shredded cheddar cheese. That’s called a Three-Way; you can make it a Five-Way by adding beans and diced onions.

Cincinnati chili is something of an acquired taste for many newcomers. You’ll know you’re officially a local the first time you see a late-night chili commercial and scramble for your car keys.

Part Bean Bag Toss, part Horseshoes, this game is all Cincinnati—you’ll find Cornhole boards set up at church festivals, family picnics, camping sites, tailgate parties and neighborhood barbecues throughout Cincinnati USA. Players toss corn-filled bags aiming for the hole in the board; scoring is based on how close you are the hole, how well your opponents are doing, and how much beer everybody’s had. 

The Pig Theme
The pigs you see around the city are a reference to the time during the early to mid-19th century when Cincinnati was known as “Porkopolis.” In those days, Cincinnati was a leader in the meat-packing industry, and it was common to see pigs running through the streets of the city. As for the flying pig icon—as in the Flying Pig Marathon and the four flying pigs at the entrance to Bicentennial Commons Park at Sawyer Point—some say it symbolizes a pig with wings flying up to heaven, and it emerged to pay homage to all the pigs that lost their lives here.

The Crosstown Shootout
A city rivalry plays out on the basketball court each year in February when the University of Cincinnati Bearcats meet the Xavier University Musketeers in the Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout. Practically a municipal holiday, Shootout Day is not the time to schedule Book Club.

Cincinnatians say “Please?” when they mean “What?” or “Excuse me?”. Don’t be confused—it’s just your cue to repeat something.

The Real Rookwood
Much more than a shopping center or a street name, Rookwood refers to Rookwood Pottery, ceramic vases and tiles that are credited with putting Cincinnati on the international art map. The Rookwood Pottery Co. was founded in 1880 in Mt. Adams as an outlet for women to enjoy the hobby of decorative painting on ceramics. But soon Rookwood Pottery graced such prestigious buildings as The Vanderbilt Hotel, Grand Central Station and The Mayo Clinic.

The company closed in the middle of the last century, then reopened again under new leadership. Both the old and the new pottery are still around and remain highly collectible. If your new home features an original Rookwood fireplace, consider yourself lucky.

Snow Emergencies
As two winter-hardy souls from Colorado, my husband and I scoffed as our neighbors stockpiled bottled water every time forecasters predicted a half-inch of snow. We soon learned the reason: Our freeze-and-thaw daily temperature fluctuations turn the hilly terrain into a minefield of black ice. Now when they tell us to stay home, we stay home.

The Cut in the Hill
This stretch of I-71/I-75 that slices through the hills just south of the Ohio River is a star of morning traffic reports and a particularly temperamental diva when it snows. There’s a big payoff at the end of the bottleneck, though—if you’re heading north, the cut in the hill provides arguably the most dramatic view of the downtown Cincinnati skyline.

Where is the Cross County Highway?
The stretch of suburban highway between Montgomery Road on the east and I-275 on the west officially became the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway in the mid-‘90s. But ask a native how to get from Blue Ash to Wyoming, and she’ll probably tell you to take the Cross County, never mind what those highway signs say.

Watch for street names that change between neighborhoods, too. To name a few, Columbia Parkway becomes Wooster Pike through Fairfax and Mariemont, Vine Street becomes Springfield Pike in Wyoming, and Ridge is Marburg when you’re driving in Oakley.

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