I was at an event recently that sparked a childhood food memory. On the appetizer table, the hosts had graciously put food tags on each plate so people knew what they were sampling. A friend of mine came back to our table and said, “Dann, there is something on the table with a German-sounding name you need to translate for us.” It was a heaping plate of braunschweiger spread, or what us multi-generational Cincinnatians know it as – Bavarian Party Dip. For those of us watching our cholesterol, braunschweiger, or fatty chicken liver pate, is a bit outside of a normal staple, but I’ll always indulge when it steps into my chow path.
Most people talk about family recipes coming from the maternal line of their mom and grandmothers. But in my family there are several foods that come through the paternal line. One, that is now lamentably lost, was my Grandpa Woellert’s recipe for German Eierlikor, or German Eggnog. Now gone Aunts and Uncles, praised it as if it were the Holy Host. It was, in fact a connection to our paternal village in Germany, where Eierlikor is more common than lager. The other foods instilled by my paternal line are my father’s sandwiches. Early on as kids, my father gifted us an appreciation and the methods to prepare two of his favorite sandwiches – the smelly but delicious Limburger Cheese & Onion, and super-fatty Braunschweiger & Mayo.
But before I talk about the virtues of these sandwiches I have to talk about my father’s palate. My father has not had any professional culinary training. He’s not a pastry chef or a food stylist. But he is probably what is known in the food industry as a super taster. He developed or already has a particularly keen palate to detect spice levels and flavors in food. My father has a particular zen for listening to his palate and improving that which doesn’t hit the sweet spot. Much to my mother’s frustration, he was always adding more spice to her food at the table. But he likes what he likes.
He is indeed a pumpkin pie snob, and can detect trace levels of clove, and mace vs. nutmeg in the pies. He scoffs at contemporary makers who over-cinnamon the pies, and don’t balance the mace, ginger, cloves and cinnamon, like he says, my Grandfather’s (his father-in-law) pumpkin pie did beautifully. Pie tasting and discussion was something he bonded with Grandpa. He also appreciates sour and fishy umami, passing on his love for sardines and pickled herring. This was another connection to our paternal home village in northern Germany near the Baltic. The weird set of three creamed herring dips – white, brown, and red – at our early family Christmas celebrations was super-weird to us kids.
Not only does my father search out the best taste, he also has his own ideas of preparation of food. It always embarrassed us as kids when we’d go out to Frisch’s and Dad would order a Brawny Lad, which is a burger on rye bun with a slice of onion, but ask to have Swiss cheese and tartar sauce added, like the Swiss Miss sandwich had. It was like that scene when Harry Met Sally, where it takes her over two minutes to order a salad and apple pie a la mode. Any sauce must be on the side and her instructions on what to do with or without ice cream renders Harry silent for the first time in the movie.
My father also has a very specific way he orders his Skyline chili. He watches his carbs now, so he doesn’t go for the spaghetti of a three way, but makes sort of his own chili salad, ordered in three separate items. It’s very confusing, but the waitresses at his normal Skyline location know exactly what he means when he orders. They should have a name for it like the Roger-Way, and add it to the menu as a Keto diet item. I could go ad infinitum of the other weird things my father does in restaurants, like sprinkling parmesan cheese in his beer at pizza joints.
So, getting back to the sandwiches. The limburger cheese sandwich MUST be on rye bread. And not just any rye bread. Since Rubel’s is no longer available – the Holy Grail of Cincinnati rye breads in Dad’s opinion – he is always on a search for the best rye bread, which he says should include caraway, not just on the crust but the inside. The onion must be sliced thin, and implanted on the sandwich in full cross section, not in small pieces. No more than three slices of limburger cheese should go on the sandwich, and it should be warm, but not so hot that the cheese melts. That is achieved with a light toast of the rye bread, but not too toasted that its burnt, charred or out-crunches the crunch of the sweet Vidalia onion inside. My father’s sandwich does not call for any mustard or anything else. Its simplicity features the lovely taste of the limburger cheese. And the sandwich must be eaten while still warm. Oh, and I almost forgot, a sprinkling of black pepper on the onion before closing the sandwich.
The second sandwich, the Braunschweiger & Mayo, can and usually is made with white bread. It can also be made on rye bread, but white is preferred. The bread must be lightly toasted, but not too toasted. That’s to help with the spreading of the particularly dense Cincinnati Braunschweiger. If you don’t lightly toast white bread, the density of the spread will damage the bread. Nowadays local meat markets sell braunschweiger presliced in ¼ slices, that can simply be mashed onto the bread, rather than spread. The bread should be cooled before spreading. You don’t want to warm the creamy braunschweiger. It should be spread at a thickness of about a quarter of an inch or maybe more. Then a sprinkling of salt and a light layer of mayo on top, before closing and cutting diagonally. Germans would add something pickled in between to help cut and digest the fattiness of the braunschweiger, but not in our sandwich.
Although not a part of my regular dietary routine, these two sandwiches will always be a reminder of my Dad and my childhood, and a connection to Cincinnati.