Spargelzeit – It’s White Asparagus Time!!

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There’s a small farm just north of Hamilton that I pass everyday.     Every year in late April, a sign goes up at that farm to get your order in for asparagus.    They grow the typical green asparagus, but it always reminds me of that wonderful German time called ‘Spargelzeit.’    That means it’s white asparagus time.    Spargel is the beloved white asparagus that is harvested in early spring and revered as a super seasonal dish in Germany.

A childhood friend of mine who now lives in Swabia in Germany posted a dinner with spargel on Facebook yesterday that made me craving it. too

I’ve been in northern Germany several times during Spargelzeit and love the way they serve it.   Its cooked to a tender consistency, covered in a creamy Hollandaise sauce, and sprinkled with fresh chopped parley or herbs.   It’s usually accompanied by a regional potato dumpling and some sort of cured ham rolls.

The village where my grandpa’s mother Carolina, was from in Westphalia, Germany(Oppenwehe) has a Spargelfest around this time every year, and they elect a Spargelkoeningin or Spargel Queen and even have a huge Spargel parade through the small town – what fun, huh?    In fact there are several areas and cities in GErmany from the north to Bavaria in the south that have Spargel Day parades and elect a Spargel Queen.

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How cool to devote so much honor to a seasonal vegetable, but I feel like this is something we should be doing more of in the age of processed everything.

Three cheers for Spargel – “ziga zaga ziga zaga oi oi oi!!”

Judith Anderson, the Betty Crocker of Kroger’s Country Club Brand

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Food brands have been flooded with what advertisers call “Identification Characters” since the Industrial Revolution. They’re those fictional faces that appear on the boxes, like Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, Uncle Ben, and Mrs. Paul.   I know, I’m sorry to break the news that there never was a real Betty Crocker.   These characters act as brand ambassadors that humanize an otherwise faceless corporation and make the product seem more accessible. They tell us their fish sticks are made from real fish, and we believe them.   The convince us to use their mix because the pancakes come out lighter and fluffier than other mixes.

They’re different from cartooney characters like the Jolly Green Giant, or the newly upgraded and sexed-up Mr. Clean.   We believe that they are real people.

A few of these brand icons, like Orville Redenbacher and Chef Boyardee were actually real people. Ettore Boiardi, for example, was an Italian-American immigrant born in 1897, who passed through Ellis Island in 1913, and built a food empire that he sold for many millions in 1946.

Legend has it that the African-American chef  “Rastus” on the Cream of Wheat box  is the actual image of the butler of paper baron Peter Thomson at his Laurel Court Mansion in College Hill.    That’s the house where the Archbishop of Cincinnati used to live, and where real pizza king, Buddy LaRosa lived for a short while too.

Aunt Jemima is probably the oldest of these fictional ID characters.   She’s also the one whose image has changed the most over time, while causing the most controversy.     She has morphed from a post-Civil War tignon-bandana-wearing Mamie to a tight-quaffed, string-of-pearls-wearing, working Grandmother.

These characters have played themselves on TV commercials, in print ads, and some even travelled the country doing food demonstrations for their respective corporations.   In the 1910s through the 1950s Bisquick had a fleet of travelling Aunt Jemima’s performing in character at local fairs and showing the versatility of their company’s products.    One of our local Findlay Market vendors, Aunt Flora (Katrina Mincy), known for her cobblers, had a great aunt, Flora Saunders, who was one of those travelling Aunt Jemima’s.

Our local Dorsel’s Pinhead Oats had its own ID Character, Dottie Dorsel, named after the founder’s youngest daughter, Dorothea.   She ‘authored’ the Dottie Dorsel Cookbook, which presented different recipes, besides goetta, which could be made from pinhead oats and Dorsel’s other products like cornmeal.   Dottie has gone from a slim German-American housewife to a light-skinned African American chef.

Kroger had an interesting ID character too to promote their in-store Country Club brand.   Her name was Judith Anderson, and she was ‘Manager of the Kroger Housewives Service Department.’     I’ve found only one image of her, showing a delightfully bobbed middle class housewife in her mid to late twenties, smartly dressed and sporting a string of pearls.   She produced all sorts of small pamphlets promoting creative uses of the store brand products, each opening with a personal letter from Judith.

Don’t know what to do with that Country Club Marshmallow fluff?   No problem!   Judith could tell you how to whip up a dessert that was sure to impress your ladies’ tea group.     Want to find a product that was versatile and economic for kid’s meals?   Again, no problem –  Judith had over twenty recipes to use that Country Club Peanut Butter.

Kroger-shopping housewives could write to receive Ms. Anderson’s pamphlets in the mail every week.     From 1926-1930, Judith was the voice of Kroger, with her own cooking program on WLW radio, airing from 4:30 – 5 PM Eastern.  Kroger customers from St. Louis to Portsmouth could hear her talking through her recipes and offering family dietary advice into the Depression.

Nowadays most brands use celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse to promote their products, rather than these fictional ID characters.

“By Me Some Peanuts” … from Peanut Jim

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Baseball started this week with Cincinnati’s favorite unofficial City Holiday – Opening Day.   Starting with the over 150 year old tradition of the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade, the day is filled with festivities and frivolities.    It’s a sign of our city’s  love for the game and its heritage.   The Redlegs, after all, were the first professional baseball team in the United States.

The sounds and smells of baseball bring back memories to many –  hanging out with Dad or Grandpa or good friends.   If the smell of roasted goober peanuts and cigar smoke remind you of baseball, then you remember one of the longest lasting and most memorable food vendors outside of the stadium – Peanut Jim Shelton.

Peanut Jim was born in 1889 in Union, South Carolina, descended from slaves who worked the land around Union for the Shelton families.  Jim started vending roasted peanuts in front of the turnstiles at the entrance to Crosley Field in 1932 and continued to sell for almost fifty years.     In 1970 he moved with the Reds to Riverfront stadium, but passed away in 1982, before the current Red’s stadium was built.

He operated a fruit and nut store on West Liberty Street in downtown Cincinnati’s West End, but also roasted his goober peanuts on site in his coal-fired push wagons he called “cadillacs.”    One was on display at Arnold’s Bar and Grill for many years, and one is at the Red’s Museum at the ballpark.

What made Peanut Jim so memorable was his costume.  He was always dressed in a top hat, tie and tails, and always sang a tune to sell his peanuts.     Jim always usually had a half smoked cigar in his mouth as well, a strong smell that mixed with the smell of his roasted peanuts.

Jim Tarbell, as Grand Marshal of the Opening Day parade one year honored Peanut Jim by his signature hat, and coattails.    An image of Jim Tarbell in that costume now blazons the wall of one of the buildings on Central Parkway at the entrance to the Gateway Corridor of Over-the-Rhine.

Peanut Jim was memorialized by African American photographer C. Smith behind the counter of his West Liberty Store in the 1970s.   That photo was recently on display with the C. Smith photography exhibit at the Cincinnati Public Library on Vine Street.

By the time Jim passed away he was vending peanuts out of a wheel chair due to a bad hip that had been broken in an earlier mugging by teenagers in the neighborhood.

There are still peanut vendors at the Reds ballpark, but none as memorable as Peanut Jim.

 

Spitzbuben, an Over-the-Rhine Gang and a Delicious German Cookie

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A bridge closure near me on Marburg Avenue has really put a hitch in my morning giddyup.   Either of the two detours that I am forced to take are fairly roundabout and cause about a 10 minute delay in my already long commute.     One of the most logical detours is closed off because there are huge expensive mansions on that street and well, money talks, so there I go.     But who cares about my commuting delays?   One of the things it has forced me to do is get my coffee at the Coffee Emporium on Eire Avenue.     Their coffee is great – higher quality than my regular coffee stops.   This morning something besides the coffee caught my eye.

 

Coffee Emporium roasts their own beans and really has the best selection of coffees of all the shops in Cincinnati.   They also have both house-made and locally made pastries and breakfast items, like biscotti and other goodies.   Well this week I noticed a freshly made pile of German cookies called Spitzbuben of which I’d recently become familiar.       I looked down and said, “Ah Spitzbuben!!”   The hip coffee baristo looked at me like I had six heads, and said, “Huh?”   I told him, “That’s the German name of the cookie on your counter,” and he just looked at me like I had a secondary jaw coming out of my mouth like that scene towards the end in the first Aliens.   I decided not to expound.   I was running late anyway.

 

Spitzbuben are a sandwich cookie made of an almond shortcrust pastry, held together by raspberry jam, with a peek-a-boo window in the center, and then sprinkled in confectioners’ sugar.   They can be circular, or other-shaped.    They’re typically a Christmas cookie in Germany and Switzerland, but they’re so good that they are seen all year round.    The ones at the Coffee Emporium are a rounded star shape.       They’re very similar to my favorite cookie, of the same family, the Linzer cookie, made with the same cloves, cardamom and nutmeg-spiced shortbread used in the Austrian Linzertorte.

 

So the literal translation of this cookie means ‘peek-a-boo’ or ‘spying boy’.       And it reminded me of something I was reading while researching the Kroger company’s candy manufacturing for a recent project.       Barney Kroger gave an interview to the Cincinnati Enquirer in the 1920s.     At that time he was involved in local politics and was facing off with the local Republican political machine headed by the corrupt Boss Cox.     Kroger compared Cox’s “Old Gang” political machine to the Spitzbuben, or thieves and rascals from his days growing up and doing business in Over-the-Rhine.     The Spitzbuben were what the Germans of the neighborhood called the mischief makers, the ne’er do wells, who were always spying for the right time to steal something from his store – or a unknowing street vendor.    They were usually younger boys who roamed together in packs to pull off a heist – pulling attention away from someone, while another of the gang pickpocketed the target.     It sounded all very much like a Dickens novel, but set in the German Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

 

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A closeup of a group of the Spitzbuben, from Cincinnati artist Joseph Henry Sharp’s 1892 painting, “Fountain Square Pantomime.”      The extended arm is of a policeman, holding back the trouble makers who are making faces behind his back in defiance.

So the peek-a-boo translation refers to both a window to showcase jam in a delicious German Christmas cookie, and an eyeing street scoundrel ready to pounce and steal your money.

The Origin of “Cheen-chee-nati” Pizza Pie

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“My mother was a Minella,”   says a large guy at the doorway to the two eighty year old men taking tickets.      “Well, we won’t hold that against you!”  laughs one of the snarky ticket takers.   They add commentary to everyone walking in the door and ask the ladies helping serve salads, what glass of wine they’re on.

Less than 10 minutes later in walks none other than  Buddy LaRosa.    He gives a warm Italian hug to the quieter ticket taker, Donald,  and gives him a firm man-kiss on the cheek.     It’s not long before he’s making his rounds, holding court as the Pizza King of Cincinnati.  But here, at the undercroft of San Antonio Church in Cincinnati’s South Fairmount, our Little Italy,  Buddy LaRosa is  just another cousin.

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Buddy LaRosa holding court at the San Antonio pizza dinner.

Buddy’s a regal old man – about five foot five if he’s in dress shoes  – with his silver hair slicked back, wearing an embroidered untucked white shirt.     He’s a Don, a Godfather, a food legend.      Although he grew up in Little Italy, his mother sent him halfway across town to Roger Bacon high school, my alma mater, to be educated by the Franciscans, the patrons of Italy.

His maternal Aunt Dena was a Minella too.     She was the one he got the sweet San Marzano marinara sauce recipe from which he used to open Papa Gino’s Pizza, which would become the ubiquitous 67 location LaRosa’s Pizza powerhouse.       Aunt Dena was also one of the original San Antonio ‘Lot Ladies’, the women of the parish who would serve Cincinnati’s original 1938 pizza pie recipe from the lot of their church at the summer festival.      The non-Italians who came to the festival back then to hit on the gorgeous  dark-haired Italian girls, mistook the pizza for strawberry shortcake.     Can you imagine a time when people had not yet heard of pizza?

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This is the recipe they’re serving tonight, along with the more American and familiar recipe with sauce and grated provolone cheese.    The original recipe comes with sweet sun roasted San Marzano sauce and finely grated Romano cheese, as pizza originally came.   Our American palates later smothered it in melty provolone and mozzarella cheese.    The original pizza reminds me of the heavy pizza my grandmother would make for us kids when they watched us.      It was heavy on the sauce, and light on the cheese, and Grandma would load hers with a mass of sautéed onions.   But she was Polish, not Italian.   She and Grandpa pronounced it pizza pie with the two zz’s not “pitza.”

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San Antonio Original 1938 Recipe Pizza Pie with meat (the original didn’t have meat)

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Original Ladies of the Lot Pizza – hand stretched crust with simple sauce of tomatoes, sea salt, olive oil, basil, and garlic, with pecorino cheese, fresh basil strips, and “blessed” by the ladies with a sprinkle of olive oil (although the festival pizza is made by the men these days)

 

Standing at the door waiting for my carryout from the annual San Antonio Original Cincinnati Pizza Dinner, I have a rare glimpse into Cincinnati’s Little Italy – or what’s left of it.    There are Carmellas and Salvatores in the crowd in this tightly packed undercroft beneath Cincinnati’s second oldest Italian Catholic Church.       You can only eat in, if you’ve purchased your tickets ahead of time.   The tables have reserved placards with names like Panaro, Minella, and others.         I’m competing with the large crowd of hungry parishioners for my carry out pizza, but the ladies have given me a complimentary glass of Paisano red wine while I wait, and a lesson in Little Italy’s history.

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In the early 1900s to the 1960s, this neighborhood was a thriving concentration of Italian immigrants, many from the Salerno region, like Buddy LaRosa’s maternal family, near the beautiful Amalfi Coast of Italy.    The hills of Little Italy in Fairmount were covered in vegetable gardens and vineyards, as these immigrants tried to re-create their hilly Italian villages in Germanic Cheencheenati.

Salerno is where the sweet San Marzano tomato is native, and where the in the bay, the native Salernan aliche or anchovy swim in abundance.  They were used as a prized ingredient on the original Little Italy home pizzas as well, according to Donald’s partner in crime, the louder of the two ticket takers.      He relayed a story that as a kid his mother would say she was making pizza with aliche.    He would say “I’m not eating pizza with leeches.”    It took years to clear up that confusion.

This Italian parish still holds mass in the small 1922 church above where the pizza is being eaten in mass quantity.   They do not have a pastor, but many of Cincinnati’s retired priests love coming to the parish committed to keeping their Italian heritage alive.    Even the older members are second or third generation immigrants, and few still speak Italian.       They no longer parade the statue of Mary they call Maria di Constantinopoli Felitto along Queen City and the side streets of Little Italy, like the did in the early days, and as they did in the Old Country, where the statue was made and carried to Cincinnati.

 

They do venerate the local hero, Sr. Blandina, an Italian immigrant Sister of Charity, who helped start the parish and is now up for sainthood.     She unfortunately preceded the 1938 Lot Lady pizza, but the parish is eating pizza in her honor.        The banner of the parish’s Holy Name Society also adorns the walls, along with numerous historic photos of the parish through the years.

I’m enjoying my glass of wine and being heckled by the snarky ticket takers, and have the honor of tasting Cincinnati’s original pizza pie.

Jets and Sharks and Aglamesis Ice Cream

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George Chakiris, center, in Academy Award winning role as Bernardo in West Side Story.

In 1961, George Chakiris won the Academy Award  for best supporting actor in his role in the groundbreaking movie-musical West Side Story for the role of Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.    Although Greek, his brown skin was close enough to play the head of the New York-Rican gang, the Jets.    He made big news in the Cincinnati Enquirer upon winning his Oscar. Although he lived in New York City, he was born in Norwood, Ohio, and Cincinnati claimed him as their hometown hero – kind of the George Clooney of his day.

But he didn’t really remember much about Norwood, as his parents left with the family for Los Angeles when he was barely seven years old.     His father had aspirations of acting, and wanted to escape a discouraging Greek father, who ran a successful confectionary business in Norwood.      George’s father Stylianos “Steve” and his mother Ekatarina, father Aristotle,  and siblings, ethnically Greek,  had come to America from Turkey in 1916.

One of the first jobs Steve landed was at a Greek confectionary in Norwood called the Metropolitan.  It was owned by two immigrant brothers from Sparta, Thomas and Nicholas Aglamesis.    Nearly 100 years later the Aglamesis ice cream is still being made and a hometown favorite.    The brothers would open another ice cream parlor in the Oakley neighborhood, and eventually sell the Norwood Metropolitan store.

After leaving Cincinnati, and in Hollywood, California, the nineteen year old George was able to take dance classes at the American Academy of Dance.    This led him to his first roles on screen.     He danced alongside Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.   The next year, George danced alongside another hometown fave actress Rosemary Clooney,  in the number “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,”  in White Christmas.     Fans clamored to know who the handsome dancer over the shoulder of Miss Clooney was in that scene.    Paramount was flooded with fan mail.

Although the Aglamesis taught George’s father, Steve Chakiris,  how to make their incredibly creamy and delicious ice cream, his passion was to be on the silver screen.   Steve had a great voice, taught himself how to play the mandolin, and loved the antics of Charlie Chaplin.   His father would have none of it.  The profession of actor was, in Aristotle Chakiris’ opinion, degrading and unthinkable.   “No son of mine will do anything but dip chocolates, scoop ice cream and make sodas,”  Aristotle might have said in a thick Greek accent above the shop at 1925 Sherman, where his grandson George would be born in 1933.    It took two generations, but George fulfilled his father’s dreams of becoming a successful actor.

In the 1920s, with the family knowledge of ice cream and confectionary, Aristotle had opened the Grecian Garden, which was a soda fountain, beer garden, confectionary, and lunch stand.   They served malted milk sundaes, ice cream sodas, sandwiches and beer.  It became popular with Norwood residents and created a good living for the Chakiris family.

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George became lifelong friends with his West Side Story Co-Star, fellow Norwood, Ohio, resident, Rita Moreno.      They would return to Norwood in 2011, and then help dedicate a new costume at the Rosemary Clooney House Museum in Augusta, Kentucky, having a celebratory White Christmas dinner at the Beehive.    George went on to have an illustrious career on stage and television.   He never married, and now 83, designs jewelry for his own business.   But thanks to the Aglamesis for teaching his father and grandfather the confectionary and ice cream business, he was able to fuel his passion for acting, singing and dancing.

 

 

 

 

 

Frisch’s Brawny Lad and Big Boy Mascots

 

 

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The illusive Frisch’s Brawny Lad mascot from 1953.

In 1953 carhops and burger joints were popping up all over Cincinnati.    Frisch’s was already five years into business with their Big Boy double decker and pull up service.   A new chain called McDonald’s had not come to Cincinnati yet -that wouldn’t happen until 1959, when Rob Groen opened the first franchise in Monfort Heights.

But the Frisch’s family might have seen the invasion of the Scottish coming.   In 1953 Frisch created two new sandwiches called the Brawny Lad, and the Swiss Miss.    With the Brawny Lad he created a new mascot using the Big Boy clad in Scottish kilt and bobby hat.    The Scottish clad Big Boy mascot is hard to find in local Frisch’s menus and ephemera, but I came across it for the first time in an old Cincinnati Woodward High School yearbook.

The Brawny Lad and the Swiss Miss both featured burgers on a rye bun – something the Germanic populous of Cincinnati loved.    The Brawny Lad is a steakburger on rye with a large slice of Bermuda onion.     The Swiss Miss, is a steakburger on rye with a slice of Swiss cheese and that famous Frisch’s tartar sauce.       Both sandwiches grace the menu today, and like my father, you can order a mashup of both sandwiches, by getting the Swiss Miss with a Bermuda onion.

Unfortunately for us burger mascot collectors, Frisch never created a mascot logo for the Swiss Miss, although a gender bended Big Boy with a blonde pigtail wig and dirndl would have been hilarious.    Maybe some marketing firm advised the Frisch family that only one logo, the Big Boy was needed, and the more logos you create the more it dilutes your brand.

Frisch did create a different Big Boy mascot in 1952, than the West Coast Big Boy from California.   He slimmed his mascot down, gave him striped instead of checkered overauls, gave him a sidecap of a soda fountain jerk, put him in a running pose, and gave him reddish or blonde hair.  Bob Wian’s original Big Boy was more pudgy, standing, and without the soda jerk cap.   Later the slingshot in the back pocket of the East Coast Big Boy was removed for it’s mischievous attribute.

Sadly, no statues, bobbleheads, or banks of the Frisch’s Brawny Lad were every created, but if they had, they would be coveted collector’s items.