A Recipe for Every Neighborhood

In Cincinnati we’re known for some weird regional foods that go without saying.   But there are even hyper-micro-regional foods for every neighborhood of our fair city that have some legacy through a restaurant or a festival.    Here is a sampling of some of them.

Westwood has the Concord Grape Pie served for over half a century at Habig’s Restaurant.  The delectable pie was seasonal and based on the recipe by Margaret Habig.

Price Hill has Simon Hubig’s Ives Grape Meringue pie, made from the Ives grape, which was cultivated in Cincinnati starting in the 1850s by farmers on Cincinnati’s East Side, and is still being made into wine

Camp Washington has its Palazollo family spinach ravioli, served two times a year at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church spaghetti dinner.   It’s become so popular that it can now be found frozen at several local meat markets like Humbert’s Meats in Finneytown.

Evendale has the St. Rita’s Mock Turtle Soup, made from the Woebkenberg family recipe and served at their annual summer festival since 1916.   Now the festival is no longer held, but the legacy of the soup lives on.

Clifton has the Zinover from Zino’s in Short Vine.  It’s a delectable deep fried pizza turnover.   The son of the founders still makes them for festivals and events out of a food truck.

Clifton Heights had its Potato Crisp, made at the legendary bar and café Inn the Wood.   It cured many a college hangover.    It was carried to the Keystone Bar & Grille in Hyde Park, after Inn the Wood was sadly demolished for new development at the University of Cincinnati.

Corryville has Mecklenburg’s Mocha Pie, based on the Coffee Toffee Pie from Blum’s in San Francisco.   It was brough into being in 1975 by chef Rob Fogel.

The West End has the nectar soda, a flavor created at Mullane’s Confectionery and Soda Fountain. It’s pink and has the flavor of vanilla poundcake.

Deer Park has the Hippo Double Decker Sandwich, a heaping pile of ham and turkey, created by Harry Sarros at the Marathon Inn on Montgomery Avenue.

There’s the famous pickled herring and rye served complimentary on Shuller’s Wigwam’s relish tray.

Fairmount has the honor of creation of the original Cincinnati pizza pie, by the Church Lot Ladies of the San Antonio Catholic Church.   This was the pizza that inspired Cincy’s original pizza chains like LaRosa’s, Pasquales, Angilos, and others.   It was Aunt Dena, not Buddy LaRosa, who came up with sweet San Marzano red sauce.

Oakley has a dish called Baked Apples a la Oakley that was made by the Home Ec department and served at some of the local schools.

Madisonville has a pea hull beer that was served at one of the earliest taverns on the site of what is now the Bad Tom Brewery.

Winton Place has the made-to-order German hot slaw at the Old Timber Inn by nonagenarian Elmer Ferguson.

Northside had one of my faves – the Binkle Fries from Honey’s Restaurant on Hamilton Avenue.   They were double fried, crispy goodness, served with a sweet and spicy Thai chili sauce.    They were invented by chef Shoshanna Haffner, and carried with her to her restaurant Branch in East Walnut Hills.

The African American community of Dunbar off of Red Bank Road had its seasonal blackberry cobbler, made from berries picked by kids and shared with neighbors.

If you raid the church and community cookbooks of each neighborhood, you will certainly find more of these awesome recipes.

How A Soul Food Dish Made It Into My Mom’s German Kitchen

Fried Fish and tomato-cassava root puree – the Grandfather of my mom’s salmon croquettes and canned spaghetti

One of my favorite dishes growing up was my mom’s fried salmon cakes (or croquettes, as she called them) and canned spaghetti.   It was something that was definitely a frugal Friday Lenten dish, but it also spilled out into the rest of the year.   It was cheap, simple and good.   The canned spaghetti was Chef Boyardee or something of that sort.   The canned salmon had to be deboned and then mixed with egg, grated white onion, bread crumbs and salt and pepper and pan-fried.    I loved eating the crispy cakes with ketchup. When I transitioned into my first apartment, it was one of the meals I made to remind me of the comfort of home.     I still make salmon cakes, but now they’re accompanied by greens or asparagus or brussels, rather than the canned spaghetti of my youth. And instead of ketchup, they’re more likely to be topped with sriracha sauce.

I’ve never thought much about the origins of this dish before I started watching the new Netflix series High On the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, with Stephen Satterfield, a sommelier-turned-food-writer.   He visits Benin, West Africa, to discover the origins of African cuisine that came to America with the transatlantic slave trade.   In the first episode he is eating fried fish and cassava root mash with tomato in a fishing village in Benin when he says it reminds him of a dish his father made for their church congregation on Sundays – fried fish and spaghetti with red sauce.      My antennae immediately went up and my mom’s salmon croquettes and spaghetti dish came to mind.

So I asked my mother where she first found the dish.   She said she learned it from her mother, who probably learned it from her mother – a line of succession through Germanic women.   Dad chimed in and said his mother also made the dish, which he said was common in Cincinnati among other Germanic families.    Wow, how did a soul food dish make into so many Midwest German kitchens by mid century?

Yummy canned spaghetti.

I called a childhood friend who is a Yankee transplant to Mississippi – an army ranger-turned-world-foodie.   I asked him if he knows any places in Old Miss that serve fried fish and spaghetti near him.   He said of course, it’s a southern black thing.  The fish is usually catfish or whitefish.   He also says salmon croquettes are a standard at a meat-and-three restaurant.  He seems to think Memphis is the epicenter of fried fish and spaghetti, which is popular all over the delta.

Fried fish and spaghetti is kind of like shrimp and grits, okra and tomatoes, and fried chicken and waffles (which was borrowed into the south from the Pennsylvania Dutch, who invented it).      As the African American diaspora spread with the Great Migration from the South to the North, these dishes spread out to where African Americans settled.   

However, fried fish and spaghetti is one of the dishes not embraced unilaterally as soul food by all Southerners.   The Midwest and the Deep South – like Mississippi embrace it wholeheartedly, but not necessarily in the Carolinas or elsewhere.    It’s the spaghetti thing that’s a head scratcher for non devotees.   But it shouldn’t be.  Italians have been in the American south for a long time as agricultural and railroad workers, and eventually restauranteurs.    Large populations of Italians settled in Louisiana and Mississippi (ala the muffuletta sandwich of New Orleans) in the late 1800s and early 1900s.   Then Italian and Greek proprietors featured pasta dishes on their menus.   That’s how African Americans in the Deep South became familiar with spaghetti – either by cooking it at the restaurants or patronizing them.   It eventually made it into their homes, where it was a natural pairing with fried fish, as natural as cole slaw or potato salad.      Black Southerners were early adopters of spaghetti decades before it entered the American mainstream.

 During the Great Migration, blacks settled in factory cities along the Mississippi River, like Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee.     And then there were some who came up the Ohio and settled in Cincinnati.    Michael Twitty, noted African American food author recalls his black family settling in Cincinnati’s West End in a mixed black Jewish community and eating challah bread at Sunday dinners because the Jewish bakeries were the only ones open.

The urban city housing didn’t offer migrated blacks adequate kitchen facilities, so they relied on their churches, restaurants and street vendors to sustain them until they had better home kitchens.   For restauranteurs, fried chicken, fried fish and barbecue were good ways to make a decent living.   Some black churches ran full service restaurants during the day, but weekend fundraising dinners were also common.

So, in Cincinnati, somehow this concept of fried fish or croquettes and spaghetti jumped from the African American migrant community to the immigrant Germanic community by mid century as a tasty and frugal dish.   I’m glad it did, because it’s part of my family foodway and its now wonderful to know that it can be traced back to the West African port of Benin.

Big Boy 2.0

Who is Big Boy?   Well we all know what he does.  He’s a carhop for one of our oldest hometown ‘diners’- Frisch’s.    That’s easy.   He’s had one leg up on the competition, burger in hand, for more than half a century.   He brought the tartar-sauced double decker burger to Cincinnati from the West Coast – where he was thousand-island dressed – and into our collective Queen City hearts.

His fish sandwich spawned the McDonald’s fish sandwich at Rob Grouen’s Monfort Heights franchise to gain the local Catholic bite during pre-Vatican II meatless Fridays.      His Brawny Lad spawned an entire Scottish burger chain called Sandy’s.    He even ignited a lookalike local chain called Big Mamma’s.     Numerous chains came and went, trying to ride on his overalls.     But nearly seventy five years later, the icon is bringing us some amped-up hometown comfort food we all so desperately need during this Pandemic. This is about five years into being sold by the Frisch grandchildren and being owned by an out of town conglomerate.

But Is he Irish, Scottish, English Puritan, Welsh Fisherman, Creole, Bavarian, Ashkenazi Jewish, or Scandinavian?  Never since 1953 when he donned a kilt and bobby hat have we seen such a costume parade of the Frisch’s Big Boy mascot.    And I have to give a shout out to the Big Boy online marketing team for providing this parade of Big Boys.   It’s like we have a Mannekin Pis like they do in Brussels Belgium that sports an appropriate costume for each season or holiday.    Except ours is not holding his …um …you-know-what, he’s holding a double decker.

He was Bavarian when he introduced the Oktoberfest Big Boy.   He was an Ashkenazi Jewish schoolboy when he introduced the corned beef sandwich.  He was a Welsh Fisherman when he introduced the new line of fish sandwiches, which hadn’t been updated since their 1947 introduction. Maybe he should have a sea shanty written in his honor on Tik Tok.

Is he a West Sider, East Sider?   Does he have Northern Kentucky roots like a lot of us? What sport is he the biggest super fan – soccer, baseball, football, basketball?  Is he East Coast or West Coast.    The answer is he’s American.   He’s all of them.  

Sure Frisch’s has a way to go to be true to their legacy and pre-buyout quality, but as much flack as I’ve given them (over choosing a non-local brewery to partner with for their beer cheese on their Oktoberfest burger) they’re doing a good job updating a flat menu.

But how do you update a nearly 75 year old local yocal restaurant to keep it fresh and relevant?  

Yes, their quality has gone down a bit, with QSR cost mentality of its new owner, and something they really need to put diligence back into.   But their creativity has gone through the roof.   There are now three fish sandwiches to choose from, although they’re mostly the same thing with different tartar sauce.   They have nearly a dozen new big boys double deckers.   They’ve even made a pumpkin spice version of their hot fudge cake.   I heard someone yesterday arguing that you cant put avocado on a Big Boy (like they do with he California Big boy).    What about a goetta Big Boy?  I’d be game with that.  But then the debate would be – do you dress it with ketchup, jelly, or maple syrup?   That might start something like the Pumpkin Pie wars of the 2010’s with Busken Bakery. That feud even made it to the New York Times.

When they do a Nashville hot fish sandwich and have a African American Big Boy, or when they do a Tandoori chicken sandwich and have an Indian Big Boy, or when Big Boy dons drag and they have a Pride Burger – then I’ll bow down to their marketing genius.

Hamburger Helper – The Goetta of the 70’s – Turns 50

An iconic American convenience food, Hamburger Helper, celebrates its golden birthday this year. At its release in 1971, food prices were high due to post Vietnam war inflation. Hamburger Helper mix came to the rescue with its super-power ability to stretch one pound of ground beef into five servings for a family meal. It combined the meat in one pot with macaroni noodles and processed ‘cheese’ spread, that made it an ooey-goey sensation, and sales took off. It certainly made it to my family’s 70s and 80s dinner table. The original flavors were cheesy, Italian, and Mexican.

The product is still around and going strong after fifty years. It even spawned other products like the Suddenly Salad line which stretched a can of tuna into a meal. I shared many a box of Suddenly Salad for dinner in my college days. But with its wheat noodles, Hamburger Helper can technically be considered a Gruetzwurst or grain sausage. And, this makes it a modern evolution of our beloved goetta. We can call it the Grandchild of Goetta. I now wonder what goetta might taste like with an addition of cheese sauce before its jelled and formed into rolls and patties. Well, you’re welcome, General Mills, for being able to steal our city’s idea of German post slaughter frugalness.

It wasn’t until 1977 that Lefty, the creepy four-fingered talking white glove mascot came into existence. I’d love to have been in the marketing meeting where they decided the mascot was only to have four fingers. Was it a reference to a four-finger discount? Was it a reference to the fact that they stole the idea of goetta? Lefty could still, with only four fingers, stir the pot in the commercials. Oddly enough, the Adam’s Family, with their five fingered disembodied butler-hand, Thing, was a popular TV show in syndication at the time. Both hands still haunt my dreams.

Sales are nearly flat in this half a million dollar industry of dry mix (no meat included) meal kits. Hamburger Helper still occupies over half the category. But meal kits with meats, low carb/keto diets, and the entry of fresh meal kit services that skyrocketed during the pandemic have had their affects on this market.

Over the years, the brand has made the convenience food even more convenient with microwaveable singles. The microwavable singles come in four delicious flavors – cheesy beef taco, cheese lasagna, cheeseburger macaroni and stroganoff. They even go so far as to say they have ’empowered teenagers” with this convenience. I question what they’ve empowered them to do – look for high sodium, high carb, super additive quick snacks? That being said, no one can argue how iconic this American meal kit has become, with food network dubbing it one of the top three trendy foods of the 70s.

Grocer vs. Vinedresser – Street Naming Rights Between Cincinnati’s Kroger and Brandstetter Families

An 1869 image of what is believed to be Isadore Brandstetter, a Germanic immigrant vinedresser to Nicholas Longworth.

All Cincinnatians have heard of Barney Kroger, the son of German immigrants who founded the national grocery chain of the same name.   But has anyone ever heard of Isadore Brandstetter?     Probably not.   But we should.  He was an important figure in the Cincinnati Wine Industry during the Catawba Craze of the 1840s through the 1860s.    He was one of the many of Germanic immigrants – men and women – who were the face behind the grapes that made our internationally known Longworth Sparkling Catawba Wine.   It was this wine that made poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dub our city the Queen City of the West.     Brandstetter was an immigrant from the Kingdom of Baden Wuertemburg in today’s southwestern corner of Germany, from a wine town called Renchen.     It is Germany’s wine country, and at the time, known for the world’s best wine – namely its Hock white wines that Queen Victoria had recently tramp-stamped as her faves.  

Longworth’s Sparkling Catawba, which inspired poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to dub us Queen City of the West.

Isadore worked on Nicholas Longworth’s Baldface hill Vineyards in what is now Mt Lookout and Columbia Tusculum .     His plot was called the Salem plot, after an obscure hybrid grape from the grape breeder Edward Staniford Rogers of Salem, Massacheusetts, that Longworth had tested and deemed not suitable for winemaking.    Not only did Isador work in the vineyards, tending the finicky Catawba grapes, he and about eight other families, many of whom also worked for Longworth started St. Stephen’s Catholic Church on Eastern Avenue.   They were tired of the bumpy, hilly trek to St. Francis de Sales Church in Walnut Hills every Sunday.   So, in 1869 after getting permission from Archbishop Purcell, they bought land from their employer Old Nick Longworth on Eastern Avenue at the foot of their vineyards to start a parish that from the very beginning has been a lay directed parish, very similar to those in Germany.       After Longworth’s death, he was offered by the estate a very rare and good 99 year lease-to-buy deal on the plot of land and vineyard he’d improved.       He had a two story frame house that he probably built – Longworth was not known for providing houses for his tenants.     And he would have split the profits of the grapes he grew on the vineyard he planted there.    Isadore was one of the few tenants who bought their former land from the Longworth estate.

Edward Staniford Rogers, a grape hybridist in Salem, Massacheusetts, who sent vine cuttings to Longworth to test

In 1917  Kroger Avenue, the street that runs from Delta Avenue up the hill to Tweed in Mt Lookout was still named Beechmont, until today’s Beechmont Levy was constructed and named.     Originally that street was to be named Brandstetter Avenue, after the Brandstetter’s who’d owned the farm now for nearly half a century.    But when Henry Kroger, Barney’s son bought the land next to the Brandstetter farm on todays Earl’s Court Way, he was more widely known to the City Hall street namers, and he got the naming rights for the hilly street.    And then the family of Isadore Brandstetter sank into historical obscurity.

Isadore’s original frame home was torn down and a new four square built by his son, Joseph, who took over the farm before his father’s death, and operated a construction and wood ash business.    Isadore moved to get away from the large gaggle of children his son had, and moved in with another son, John, who lived on Delta Avenue above his grocery next door to the Lincoln School.  

Joseph Brandstetters house moved from Longworth’s former vineyards to 555 Stanley Avenue
The housemoving company that moved the Brandstetter home and many other large buildings on Cincinnati’s East Side.
The original St Stephen Catholic Church, Columbia-Tusculum, and the rectory moved by the Witschger Company.

In 1920, Joseph Brandstetter sold the former vineyard property, but not his house.   He had M. R. Witschger – House Movers – moved it a hilly mile away onto 555 Stanley Avenue, also on the site of another plot on the former Longworth Vineyards, where it stands today.     Witschger’s offices were on MIssouri Avenue, the site of the former Missouri plot in the Baldface Hill vineyards, named after another grape Longworth tested. Apparently house moving was a common thing back then and Witschger was one of the local go-tos.  They also moved the large three story rectory next to St. Stephen’s off site as well.     It would have been a sight to see a three story house rolled along the streets and set on its new foundation.

Isadore is buried at the Calvary Catholic Cemetery on Duck Creek Road in Evanston with other Longworth vineyardists.

Hot Pockets and Their Ties to Creepy Tommyknockers

In Cornwall, when you’re eating your lunch pasty deep in the copper mines, it’s tradition to throw off the excess pastry used to pinch closed the filling as an offering to the Tommyknockers, the invisible sprites who inhabit the mines.    That’s unless you want to risk a cave-in or an ‘accidental’ fall into a mine shaft or want to find the next good ore lode.   It’s the same tradition in Devon, across the Tamar River from Cornwall, eating YOUR lunch pasty deep in the tin mines.     But if you’re eating a Cornish pasty the excess pastry comes from the crimped side of the D-Shaped pasty, while if it’s a Devon pasty, the excess comes from its top crimp.   You’d think the shapes would be the other way around – you know “D” for Devon –  but it’s just one of the weird rivalries from the two areas in Western England.     It’s a bit like the difference between Dixie Chili from Kentucky, and Skyline Chili across the Ohio River in Cincinnati.

Both area’s pasties are filled with whatever your wife or mother had in her larder at the time – parsnips, carrots, onions, potatoes, maybe a bit of salt pork or smoked bacon if you’re lucky.  There’s a joke that anything could be used to fill a Cornish pastry and as a result the Devil never came there for fear he’d be made into such a filling.   And if it’s near Christmas and the females of your house were particularly industrious, you might wash your pasty down with a shot of house-made Sloe Gin, made from the berries of the many hedgerows separating farm grazing plots.

When the Cornish and Devon immigrants came to work the mines in the United States, like the copper mines of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; or the lead mines in Mineral Point, Wisconsin; or Butte, Montana’s copper mines; or even the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, they brought their portable lunch food with them.    Pennsylvania also had an influx of Italian immigrants who worked the coal mines and brought with them their Pepperoni roll, a version of the pasty – a pepperoni baked into a soft white Italian bread.     Steven King popularized the Cornish folklore of the Tommyknockers with his novel of the same name in 1987.   The series Ghost Hunters on the Travel Channel recently did an investigation of the Phoenix Gold Mine in Colorado Springs purportedly plagued by Tommyknockers.

America saw the potential of these portable foods and invented the Hot Pocket, which is sort of a mashup of the Cornish/Devon pasty and the Italian pepperoni roll.  Iranian-Jewish immigrant Brothers Paul and David Merage of Chef America, Inc. developed a pastry pocket that would stay crispy, like a pasty, when microwaved.    It was introduced in 1980 as the Tastywich, and then renamed the Hot Pocket in 1983.   Since then it has become a $2 billion dollar category, with 50 different flavors of Hot Pockets in breakfast, lunch and even dinner varieties.    They’ve even brought Germanic flavors into the mix with their pretzel dough hot pockets – I think a Goetta filled hot pocket is in order. 

David and Paul Merage, Iranian Jewish immigrant brothers who invented the Hot Pocket.

Whether you’re like me, who prefers the traditional pepperoni hot pocket, or you’re the more adventurous sriracha steak lover, the next time you microwave a frozen Hot Pocket at UDF, make sure you save some crust for the Tommyknockers, lest you fall into a mine shaft or have a pile of rocks fall on your head.

In Food Green is Good Unless its Fast Green #3

Ok all ye leprechauns who drank green beer or ate a green spaghetti’d threeway yesterday.   I hope your supplier used a natural dye, and not Fast Green # 3, which is used in a lot of commercial drinks, candy,  cotton candy, ice cream, sherbert, sorbet, jellies, fruit filled desserts, confections, dry bakery mixes, jellos, sauces and even fish.   If you had canned peas with your corned beef, you definitely had Green # 3.

The bad thing is that Green # 3 is a known tumorigenic, which means it creates cancerous tumors, particularly in the bladder.   And, despite this knowledge, it’s one of the seven approved FDA food coloring agents.  I know, I know I’m sounding like a Karen.  I know there are a lot of urban myths about food coloring – like that the yellow dye, tartrazine, in Mt. Dew significantly lowered male sperm count.    That has not been confirmed by studies and should not be used as a prophylactic    But these are known and tested toxicologies with Green #3.   It’s also an irritant to the digestive and respiratory systems.    But with the luck of the Irish, green food is not very popular or appetizing, so it tends to be the least used of the seven approved FDA dyes.   And there are more natural options for dying something green.

But that’s unless you’re a kid and you love the popular sour flavors and eat a lot of green candy.  That’s because one of the most common uses is in candy and energy drinks.   And the green color is super popular in sour and tropical flavored candy.    So if your kid likes green apple Jolly Ranchers or sour green anything or energy drinks – you may want to limit or reduce their use.

Why is it we need dayglo-dyed green or dayglo colored anything for it to be considered ok?   None of the food dyes exist as a normal in nature anyway.     What is it about our American psychology that makes us think a piece of produce has to be the perfect shape and color.    I love it when I see people pinching and smelling the produce at the grocery to see if something is good enough to bring home.   Unless it’s organic, there have been so many chemicals sprayed, pumped, and so much hybridizing done to the flesh  that there is no color change at the shelf, you’re not eating a natural fruit or vegetable.   They’re designed not to ripen.  

Thankfully, there are smart companies like Imperfect Foods who are selling off spec produce (and growing like mad) – i.e. weird shaped, off color, or anything that doesn’t meet the specs of the retail grocer buyer or product manager.   Those can be specs that have nothing to do with the taste or quality or even healthiness of the food, but some prettiness factor a well-dressed, office-residing geek drummed up.

The pawpaw is a green fruit that is a perfect example of how nature is supposed to work.    The Pawpaw was never commercialized, hybridized or treated.    As a result, you’ll never see it in a Kroger because it has a short shelf life and is just not profitable.    There is a very specific season they are available in the fall, and only a short maybe two week window where they can be eaten, before they start to turn bad.   This is how we were meant to eat – by the seasons, and with natural ingredients.

I was recently so excited to see Spargel, the white asparagus at my Whole Foods.   But when I brought them home, I realized they were not the tender, luscious spargel I was used to.  They were tough, thick and flavorless.    That will teach me to expect farmers market quality from commercial retail grocers.

I look forward to the opening of our local farmer’s markets and getting some real greens not dyed by FD&C #3.

FROG Jam – The Southern Appalachian Condiment Croaking for a Biscuit

I was introduced to another Kentucky product this Saturday at Farmstand Market – FROG Jam. When I saw the jars on the shelf, I thought, OK, clearly this is not jelly made of frog parts, but it’s gotta have a great story.     Upon closer examination of the ingredients, I saw figs, raspberries, orange peel and ginger.   But still, there was nothing about the name frog and how it became attached to what sounded like a delicious jelly.   This product was made by Spring Valley Farms in Caneville, Kentucky. Duh, well, if I were a crossword puzzler, or played any of the NPR word games, I would have pieced together that F.R.O.G is just the first letter of each of the ingredients of this rich jam.    And, It’s a jam to croak about – sorry, had to!

There’s even another sibling of this jam, again from the Appalachian South, that belongs to what seems to be an anacronym category of jams (funny named jams with the first letter of each ingredient).     The sibling is T.O.E Jam, which is NOT made of the fungus that grows between our toes, but of tangerines, oranges, and elderberries.      There’s even a maybe lesser known Christmas jelly, perhaps related to TOE Jam called SOC jelly, made with strawberries, orange peel and cranberry, that is recommended as a replacement for cranberry sauce.

There seems to be no good origin stories on the web, but these jams were clearly made by someone with a good sense of humor.   And, they’ve been around a bit because there are numerous companies making these jams.   They seem to have migrated north into Amish country, as a company called Amish Wedding Products makes them, along with a full line of other Amish jellies and relishes.      But I doubt the Amish – not known for their sense of humor – had anything to do with their origin.

One description of these jams relates that in the rural Appalachian regions of the south, women threw whatever fruits they had together to make a jam to top their biscuits.      This resulted in all sorts of combinations that seem a bit weird.   That makes sense, but I can’t imagine that tangerines or oranges were a plentiful thing in these isolated communities.  

One known thing is that both of these jams are just croakin’ to top a  good flaky, buttery Southern biscuit.    Or in my low carb, sugar and gluten free world, they make a fab topping on MY new biscuit – the Trader Joe’s cauliflower round.    With fig, the FROG jam would pair great with any Italian cheese, like a salty tangy Tuscan pecorino, or even spread over a block of Philadelphia cream cheese for cracker dipping.     They’d  certainly be good nestled in the center of a  linzer torte cookie, or a shortbread thumbprint cookie.    I might even try it in a barbecue sauce or mixed with a hot chili sauce for an eggroll or Asian dumpling dipper.

Henry Bain, The African-American Who Invented the Famous Louisville Steak Sauce

Louisville is known for its unique food inventions like the Hot Brown, the Modjeska caramel covered marshmallow, or the green Benedictine spread found at most Derby Day parties.   But a visit to the amazing Farmstand Restaurant & Market this Saturday in Union, Kentucky, reminded me of another – Henry Bain Sauce.    It’s a brown steak sauce I had seen at the Churchill Downs gift shop two years ago that intrigued me.    So, seeing it on the shelves again reminded me to buy a jar and delve into its story.

The sauce itself was an exclusive recipe only available until about 6 or so years ago to members of an exclusive all male white social club in Louisville called the Pendennis Club.    It had been created by their head waiter of 40 years named Henry T. Bains.    Not much is published about Henry Bains. Even the club has no picture or image of the man who made this sauce and their club famous.    Then I thought, all male white club in the South – ah – Bains must have been African-American if he was a waiter in such a club.    And he was – well mulatto, according to the 1910 census.    He was loved by club members for his impeccable manners, his knowledge of wines, and his well-roundedness – which means he catered to the whims of these elite group of white men he served.   But what’s cool is that Bains’ life exhibits the tribulations of Louisville’s first post-slavery middle class generation. Like being a porter on a Pullman train, being a maitre’d at a high end social club gave former male slaves and newly enfranchised black men a decent living, if still having to cater to whims of whites.

Henry T. Bains, from a 1909 Louisville Courier ad.

Bain was born in 1863 either in Ohio or Kentucky, depending on the source.    But he moved to Louisville and in 1881, started working for the newly formed Pendennis Club, where sources say he started as an elevator porter.   He worked up to becoming the prestigious head waiter.    He married mulatto socialite Daisy Welch of New Albany, Indiana, just across the river, and moved there with her.   They had no children, but were part of the rising black middle class.   In 1909, with over twenty years of good wages saved, Bains and several other African-American men, opened Mills City Cotton Mills, the first all African-American owned business in New Albany.     That same year his portrait was published in the Louisville Courier Journal with a tag honoring his 25th anniversary with the Pendennis club that had occurred several years earlier.  When he died (of complications due to diabetes) his death certificate listed his parents as unknown, indicating they were either dead before he married, or that Daisy, his wife had never met them.     As he was born during the Civil War, and possibly in Kentucky, and that he was listed as mulatto, he may have been the product of an assault by a slave owner and had run away from that past when he moved to Louisville.   That story is now lost to time.

The sauce he invented was popular at the club and its recipe indicates a high level of food sophistication.    Although many sleuthed recipes were published in local cookbooks, the real recipe was only revealed a few years ago by the club and now it’s bottled and available around Louisville.   Before that the recipe and the sauce was only available to members of the club.     It consists of ketchup, worchestershire, pureed pickled walnuts, a chili sauce, and something called Major  Grey’s Chutney.   Major Grey’s is a general English type of chutney made by many brands that consists of mangos, raisins, citrus, onions, sugar, and warm spices.   Supposedly the (probably apocryphal) Major or his cook invented the sauce while stationed with the British forces in India and brought it back to England.    Some of the early sleuthed recipes use Mrs.  Ball’s Chutney, another English product which is an apricot and peach, rather than mango chutney.  

While Bains originally intended it as a topping on beef dishes and on game brought in by club members, the club’s website now also recommend it as a barbecue sauce for shrimp and in a Pendennis Meatloaf.     It also makes its appearance at Louisville Derby Day parties poured over a block of cream cheese as a cracker dip.

A recent play of Bain’s life was written and performed for the New Albany Bicentennial a few years ago, which for the first time revealed details of his life and the African-American community of New Albany, which was known, like Cincinnati, and Ripley, Ohio, as being hotbeds of the Underground Railroad. 

Bains sauce remains one of the few African-American food creations we can tie directly to its inventor.

The Sticky Lunar New Year’s Cake that Wards off Nian, the Chinese Krampus

As I walked into Francis International Market in Northside yesterday, I heard a flurry of Vietnamese being spoken as people were gathering stuff to make their Lunar New Year meals.     An older couple in front of me had five slabs of pork belly and a huge array of other things I couldn’t distinguish.   I was way out of my league.  Francis Market is a hidden gem in an old Italianate row house on the hill ascending Colerain Avenue.  If you’re looking for produce or foodstuffs from China, Vietnam, the Phillipines, or Africa, you’re in heaven.   I asked a lady at the counter if they had mung cakes for New Year and she pointed me to a stack, that she said she had just made.     They were square, wrapped in a banana leaf and had a red Chinese New Year greeting card in the center.    A man said to me in English – “not moon cake, Mung cake,” which sounded almost the same to me.   I told him thanks for distinguishing for me.  Moon cake was for another celebration later in the year.    This would be the first time I would taste one of these sticky rice cakes made across Asia in various ways, with various meanings, to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  

A Vietnamese Bahn Chung sticky rice cake from Francis International Market in Northside.
The above Bahn Chung unwrapped

February is one of those months that has ample food celebrations.   It’s also sort of the dead of winter, and unless you’re into sking, skating, sledding, or snow-man-making, there’s not a whole let else to do. There’s Groundhog Day at the very beginning, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, Bockfest, President’s Day, and finally Lunar New Year.    Score – what a lineup of holidays to eat over!   There are all sorts of cakes associated to celebrate.    There are groundhog cookies, like the super-sweet ones made by Bonbonnerie; paczkis, berliners, and Fastnacht donuts to celebrate Mardi Gras.    There are cherry thing-a-lings from Batesville’s Schmidt’s bakery to celebrate President’s Day.   There are Bavarian and Swabian pretzels to go with a bock beer for Bockfest.    And, finally there are all sorts of sweet rice treats – maybe not cakes in our Western frame of mind – that are symbolically eaten for Lunar New Year across Asia. This new year is the Year of the Ox, by the Chinese lunar Zodiac, which thankfully means there will be no major disasters and that hard work will pay off.

This year, I decided to explore one class of these cakes, bean filled sticky rice cakes.    In China they’re called Nian Gao – meaning tall, or expensive new year.   They’re meant to symbolize progress, advancement, and growth – all things I want to happen this year.     In ancient legend, the Nian was a dragon-like beast who would either come out of the sea or from the mountains to terrorize and eat people and livestock around the Lunar New Year.   This is a very similar story of the Germanic Krampus and Perchten – evil spirits who come to terrorize the Alpen people around the Solar New Year.   People would pack up and hide in the caves and mountains when Nian came to their villages.   But one year an old man stayed, put up red shades, wore a red robe, and lit bamboo, which sparked and crackled and made loud noises, which scared off the evil beast.    These became the traditions of wearing and decorating houses in red during the New Year.    A tradition of putting these sweet rice cakes out and giving them to family and friends also caught on in China.

In Vietnam, their version of this sweet rice cake is called Bahn Chung.  They are made of a square of sweet sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf filled with mung bean paste and pork.   It is super sticky, mildly earthy flavored and a huge carb load – great if you’re a sumo wrestler wanting to bulk up for the Spring championships, or about to run a marathon.     The story behind this Vietnamese cake is less violent than the Chinese one.   According to Vietnamese legend, Emperor Hung Vuong VI, had many sons.   One year he decided to abdicate his throne to the son who brought him the most unusual food.   All his sons went back to their houses and prepared elegant dishes.   But his youngest son, Tiet-Lieu, who was a simple farmer went home and saw that his rice was ready for harvest, made a simple sticky rice cake filled with bean paste and pork.       The Emperor said Tiet-Lieu’s cake was the purest and most meaningful food because it was the basic food stuff of the people and he gave him the throne.     Today, these Bahn Chung cakes are placed at each home’s altar of ancestors during the Lunar New Year, which I love.    So, if you want to be king (or queen) for the year, you might wanna eat a piece of this sticky cake, and then walk 10,000 steps or run a marathon.