2021 – My Year in Food

Overhead Cherry Thing-a-ling with coffee.

As we went into the second year of the pandemic, vaccines and boosters allowed us a bit more normalcy and the safer ability to go out in public.    More local restaurants opened for eat-in dining, and some regrettably closed forever.   Although my dining out was still very limited, I took advantage of the times I had to dine at some of my favorite restaurants and some new ones.   I made some pretty good stuff this year too in my World’s Smallest Kitchen.

There is nothing better to open the year with than Cherry Thing-a-lings from Schmidt’s Bakery in Batesville, Indiana, to celebrate Presidents’ Day.    It doesn’t help that they’re a cherry flavored version of my favorite and least healthy doughnut, the iced fried fritter.    The pandemic made them available by direct home delivery last year, preventing the trek to wait hours in a usually super-cold ,early morning line in years past.     We’re only a few weeks away from that time again this year. 

Sadly, Ice Cream Icon Jim Aglamesis passed away this past year, but his delicious Greek family legacy lives on at two of Cincy’s most fabulous ice cream locations.    Two of my favorite restaurants closed for good this year – Grande Finale in Glendale, and Commonwealth Bistro in Mainstrasse Village in Covington.   There will be no more mushroom crepes, Thanksgiving salmon, or Ma’s Pumpkin Pie (deemed the best in Cincinnati by my father, a self-proclaimed pumpkin pie connoisseur).       The location is so historic and charming it would make a great backdrop for a new chef willing to either reamp a Grand Finale 2.0 or open with a new concept.       Although a tragedy, I do understand why Commonwealth closed.   They were not a restaurant that lent itself for carryout during the pandemic.   They had charming, well menu-ingredients-and-specials-educated servers who made you feel like you were the only ones in the restaurant.  Their pastry chef was super-brilliant, and it was the first place I tried rabbit.   Everything on the menu made you moan in food-gasm. 

Another sad loss was the pastry chef at my local coffee shop Mad Llama who made the sausage, cheese and hot pepper stuffed kolache/koblasnick.    They were indeed a treat, even though short-lived.

I tried some new things this year.    I started the year with a roundup of all the green and red versions of zhug sauce.   It’s a spicy pepper-based puree from Yemen that’s good by itself as a veggie or pita dip, or on grilled meats.    It’s now a staple in my pantry.     I tried peanut butter flavored whiskey, which I decided was just meh, even after I mixed it with sugar free Frosty Root Beer to make what I called the Frosty Squirrel.   It took me from Spring to December to finish that few small airplane sized bottles I had.   I also finally got to try Henry Bain sauce from Louisville, invented by an African-American cook at one of the city’s high end white man’s social clubs.  A deeper, fruitier version of  A1, it has also become a staple in my pantry, when I can find it, which is not as often as I’d like on this Yankee side of the Ohio River.    As a comparison, I tried Indianapolis’s St. Elmo Steaksauce, which I though was too sweet and IMO is not a great balances of flavors.

Carolina Muscadine grapes.

While in Alabama, I tried red  and green muscadine grapes, and spicy boiled peanuts from a farm stand.    Both grapes have lots of seeds and have some interesting musky wild grape flavor.

Stuffed castelveltrano olives at Nicola’s in OTR.

During restaurant week at Nicola’s, my BFF Ramona introduced me to stuffed castelveltrano olives, which are superb, and hard to find.

A Vietnamese bahn chung lunar new years cake.

For the Lunar New Year, I tried Bahn Chung Vietnamese sticky lunar new year cake filled with mung bean paste from the Francis International Market in Northside on Colerain Avenue.     While I had high hopes, sadly, it was not my jam.

I tried the over-the-top fab Hanky Panky appetizer at Maury’s Tiny Cove on the West Side, and washed it down with a salty pickle juice-spiked Maury-tini.     I got to see this West Side icon, where the movie Carol was filmed and where over three generations of Cincinnatians have gone for a nice celebration dinner.

I was lucky to be given samples of two new legacy products made by  new Crystal Chili, from the legacy recipe of the old Newport chili parlor, and a new goetta called Rhinelander, even though goetta is from Northwest Saxony/Westphalia, not the wine making Rhineland.  Both are made by A & J Foods, a contract brander who uses the Worthmore chili factory in Northside in the old Bruckmann Brewery plant.

I found a supplier of sugar free authentic Dutch black licorice.   It’s fairly expensive, but really good, salty, black licoricy, and sort-of healthy.

Del Gardo’s Easter cannolis.

I tried cannolis from Del Gardo’s in Covington for the first time – with two flavors for my annual Easter family get together and they were super crunchy, creamy deliciousness.

BBQ and Burgoo in Orange, Virginia.

I also tried burgoo for the first time at a Barbecue Exchange outside of  Orange, Virginia, after visiting James Madison’s Montpelier.   I waited in line for about 45 minutes, but it was totally worth the wait.  It was deep tomatoey, tangy and had lots of the three meats – pork sausage, beef brisket and chicken.

There were some great new additions to build on our food heritage.   Innovative pastry chef Doug Faulkner brought us – through a pop-up at Dojo Gelato in Northside – several new flavors of Virginia Bakery’s indulgent invention the Schnecken.   Doug brought us such new flavors as  bourbon raisin, blueberry, and even a savory version, which was my fave – mushroom schnecken.      About a decade ago Doug operated THE BEST café and bakery in Northside on Hamilton Avenue called Take the Cake.     It had a great counter to linger after breakfast and brunch and catch up on all the latest news and gossip.

Some of my favorite restaurants and dishes of 2021 are:   the amazeballs Hungarian mushroom soup at the National Exemplar in Mariemont;   the spicy, crunchy General Tsao fried chicken sandwich and apricot slaw at the relatively new Governor in historic downtown Milford (they also had a fabulous Nashville fried fish sandwich for Lenten Fish Fry season); and always the bakla jan eggplant and tomato chutney/salsa/vegan chili from the Pickled Pig will be my favorite use of eggplant in Cincinnati.

I became familiar with the awesome riverfront outdoor restaurant, Cabana on the River – meeting family there twice to celebrate the summer – once after my niece’s soccer game, and another after Paddlefest.

It also wouldn’t have been summer without Flubb’s sugar free ice cream with three drive up locations in Fairfield, Hamilton, and Ross.   Their sugar free pistachio and sugar free blueberry cheesecake made my July.

I have met my brother, Tom,  in Dayton for lunch several times.   Since he works at UD, we meet at a place down the street from campus called Ladder 11.    It’s a sports pub inside an old fire station that has some of the surprisingly best food in the area.     At our December meetup, I had a cup of their gumbo while I was waiting for him.     And it is now the Best Gumbo I’ve ever eaten.   It had a rich, hearty tomatoey broth with a bit of spice, lots of well cooked veggies including non-slimy okra, hearty slices of smoked sausage and chicken, which were juice and not dried.   It barely needed my obligatory splash of hot sauce.

Winchell’s oyster platter in Mobile, Alabama.
Leftover Cuban pastellitos de gayaba make a great coffee dipper.

Out of town I had some great dinners.    In Bon Secour, Alabama, I had the best fish dinner in the world.  I continue to proclaim Gulf Shore seafood is the best in the world – look out Croatia and the Mediterranean!     I also went to my standard Winchell’s Oyster House in Mobile, Alabama, and found that mixing Oysters Bienvielle and Oysters Rockafeller produces the best love child.     For my milestone birthday cake, I had Cuban pastellitos de guayaba at Las Floriditas, a Hemingway-themed speakeasy in downtown Mobile.   I couldn’t have chosen a better birthday cake, and there were some leftover for coffee the next morning on the beach watching the sunrise.

Guiness Stew and soda bread at the Opry Barn in Metamora, Indiana.

It’s rare that I get fed when I do a book lecture.   But in November, I spoke at the Opry Barn in Metamora, Indiana, and was treated to a dinner of Guiness Stew, and the best Irish soda bread I have ever had!   It was a great dunker in the stew.

In Pittsburgh, I had some great Hungarian food at Huszar’s Restaurant.    I had creamy Bakony chicken , pickled creamy cucumber salad, and creamed onion soup.   I washed it all down with a shot of Jaegermeister wanna-be Unicum.  I also had some great Polish pierogi at S & D Polish Deli in the Strip.    It may have helped that both of these gnoshes were bookended by viewing some great art.

Bee’s BBQ – brisket and Lockhart sausage.

There were several new openings this year that now fall into my regular faves.   Bee’s Barbecue FINALLY opened a bricks and mortar in the heart of Madisonville.   Although its carryout only, it’s down the street from my house and my office, so a lunch time getaway is always on the table.    Before their opening Bee’s BBQ was a Sunday-only  popup at Dutch’s Market on Erie Avenue. Their Texas smoked Lockhart sausage is my jam and their brisket and specials continue to rock my world.

Gulow Street opened in a small historic corner building in the Little Penzlin area of Northside, where my first Woellert ancestors and their family and fellow villagers from Penzlin, Mecklenburg Germany settled before the Civil War.    August Gulow, was a cousin of my great great grandfather who was President of the Cumminsville Turners, the neighborhood tailor, and a Cincinnati City Councilman.  His son, August, Jr. would become the first physical instructor for the Cincinnati Police Force.      I gave the chef/owner a great photo of August Jr. in his Victorian man-tard exercise outfit.     They I think have the best salmon salad sandwich in the City, second only to my cousin Ken’s salmon salad.

Fillo Greek Pastry and Café which opened in August in Over-the-Rhine is a GEM of our city.  They handmake traditional Greek Pastries including savory pitas like spanakopita, pumpkin filled, and a version with tomato, onion and olive, that’s like a pizza wrapped in flaky puff pastry dough.   Everything they have is super-delicious.

I had Birria tacos from the Mexican province of Jalisco for the first time from another neighborhood haunt – Jorge’s food truck, parked at the gas station on Erie at the confluence of  East Hyde Park, Fairfax and Madisonville.     Now birria tacos are the height of popularity for all Cincy lovers of Mexican food.

The Syrian restaurant Olive Tree opened up as one of the inaugural restaurants at the fabulous new Oakley Kitchen, the brain child of Eli’s BBQ’s owner and bud, Elias Leisring.   Their Syrian chicken with Aleppo pepper hot sauce, and their maamoul fig stuffed pastries are deliciously addicting.

The things I made myself in the Worlds Smallest Kitchen by the World’s Tallest Chef, were pretty amazing.   I continued making my savory streudels filled with the Indian carrot salad halwa.      I found a regular farm supply of kohlrabi at the Hyde Park Farmer’s market to make my spiralized kohlrabi baked ‘fries’.     I made my sugar free pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and made a sugar free and  gluten free version of my grandma’s date filled Princess Squares.     My traditional Thanksgiving Oyster dressing this year was the best, as I used veggie flavored Ritz cracker crumbs over the regular saltine cracker crumbs.     I also made my now standard squash casserole, lifted from the Mary Mac Tea Room in Atlanta, Georgia.

My homemade sugar-free pumpkin pie.
German food night with my crime group
My sister’s Yoda Ears – a jalapeno popper/Hanky Panky mashup

I am lucky to be part of a food group that poses as a crime game solving club.      Every time we meet to solve a Crime Box, we have an international food theme.   We’ve done Italian, German, and are about to do a Greek night.     We have the world’s most skilled and scientific cookie baker, Anne, who makes THE BEST snickerdoodles in the world.   And New York-Italian chef, Kim, makes the best eggplant parmesan I’ve ever had and her first time making sauerkraut balls yielded the best I’ve ever tasted.      She say’s, “it’s just another type of meatbawl.”     My shiksa sister made some pretty awesome potato latkes too.      She also made a great love child, crossing a jalapeno popper with Hanky Panky for her daughter’s Baby Yoda themed birthday party.  She called them Yoda Ears.

My BFF Jeannie made some spectacular cauliflower soup and a great vegan pasticchio.     Her partner, Harry, made some great Cincinnati Vegan lentil chili.   And it wouldn’t have been Christmas without Sandy Hamilton’s beautiful orange-flavored, dark-chocolate dipped Springerlie cookies.     What a treat!

Of course one of the best things I had this year was Mom’s home made Goetta, which all of my siblings got for Christmas.   Its delicious, has the perfect ratio of pinhead oats to meat, and is made with tons of love.      Mom calls it her ‘spicy’ version because she uses the spicy Bob Evans pork sausage.  

Mom’s homemade ‘spicy’ goetta.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, delicious food-filled 2022 for you !!

Muhammara Mashup

Findlay Market’s Two Muhammaras – left is Harmony’s vegan smooth version, right is Dean’s traditional chunky version – both deliciously spicy!

For the last several years I’ve been exploring Eastern European and Balkan dips to expand my knowledge outside of hummus and babaganoush.     2020 was the year of Balkan Adjavar – eggplant and tomato dips – and their cousins.   Last year was the year of both green and red Yemeni Zhug, now a staple in my pantry.

My exotic dip of 2022 is the Syrian dip called Muhammara.   I first came in contact with it at Dean’s Mediterranean in Findlay Market.   I had never heard of it before and so when I saw it at the counter in late December (I’m such an impulse counter-product-purchaser), I had to bring some home.     The fact that I read it had ground walnuts – known to be one of the healthiest nut oils out there, grabbed my attention.

It’s an interesting adder to the herb, tomato and vegetable type of salsas and purees I’ve tried before, with an Arab origin associated with the city of Aleppo and its namesake pepper.  It consists of pureed walnuts, roasted red peppers, Aleppo pepper flakes, garlic, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses.   It’s usually served as an appetizer course to be scooped into with bread or pita.   But it is also used as an adder to meat and fish kebabs.

Sadly, the ongoing Syrian wars have nearly ended the cultivation of the Aleppo pepper in Syria.   Most Aleppo peppers are now being grown in nearby Turkey.   While it’s Syrian in origin, muhammara  can also be found in parts of Turkey that have Arab influence.

While I first saw it at Dean’s, I found it at Harmony Deli inside Findlay Market this past weekend at the annual Gold Star Chili-sponsored Chili Fest.    Harmony’s  is completely vegan – without the bulgar wheat addition – and is processed smoother, less chunky than Dean’s.   It’s closer to the consistency of hummus.    You might be able to sweet talk the owner of Olive Tree Syrian restaurant at the Oakley Kitchen to make you some.   She has access to the Aleppo pepper and already makes a great sauce with it for her amazingly juicy Syrian chicken.

As far as the mashup between Dean’s chunky traditional version and Harmony’s more hummusy texture – I’m not sure which side of the line I fall.     Generally speaking if something has a lot of ingredients like salsa I like it on the chunkier side.   But if something is mostly one ingredient like hummus – I like it smoother.      Oddly enough I like both the chunky and smooth versions of muhammara.   Certainly both flavors stack up to each other.   I think Harmony’s smoother texture lends itself better as a sandwich spread and dipper with softer breads, and Dean’s chunkier version lends itself more to a dipper with crunchier breads or pita chips.   Either way, it’s a great adder to your Levantine/Balkan/Mediterranean vegetarian dips.

Bengals Bites Named after Burrow

Busken’s Burrow Long Bomb Donut.

It’s a special time this week for Bengals Fans.   It’s the first time since 1991 that we have a chance at winning a playoff game.    And everyone is getting into the orange spirit.    The Purple People bridge will be lit up in orange for Saturday’s play off game at the stadium.   TQL headquarters downtown is all lit up in orange.     One of my neighbors has a full story sized blowup of a uniformed Bengals players on their front lawn.    And, the bakeries, chili parlors, and restaurants are getting in on the game.

Busken has made Bengals striped orange-iced smiley cookies and a special donut called the Burrow Long Bomb.   It’s a long john donut with orange icing and black stripes.    They also have orange and black iced donuts with orange and black sprinkles, and orange and black iced tea cookies.   Let’s hope quarterback Joe Burrow keeps throwing those 60 yard long bombs that he’s known for.

Servatii’s entry into the game is the Tiger Tail cinnamon swirl glazed yeast twist donut. That sounds delicious.

Del Gardo’s Cannolis in Covington has a Playoff Cannoli – an Oreo flavor cannoli cream and a white Ghiradelli dipped shell with an orange chocolate drizzle.

iDel Gardo’s Playoff Cannoli.

Gold Star Chili is getting into the game with free coneys if the Bengals win on Saturday, and Who-Dey Ways, a buy one get one free offer on threeways.   Skyline, so far has not entered the game.   I would hope they might have orange dyed spaghetti threeways like they do in green for St. Patrick’s Day.

The Governor in Miford has a Burrow-to, a burrito filled with refried beans, queso, pork and crawfish, covered in dark mole sauce and orangish salsa.    You can also get JaMarrvelous Burger, that’s loaded with cheese, KC BBQ sauce, onion rings, burnt ends and LSU Aoli.    The Kansas City BBQ sauce and burnt ends are inspired by the Bengals burning so many of the KC Chiefs defensive ends.

Down the street at Little Miami Brewery you can have a Bengals Buzz Pale Ale.   Jeff Ruby has the Steak Burrow, a 14 oz. prime strip with Creole crawfish sauce.   So what do Burrow and crawfish have to do with each other?  The Bengals recruited Burrow with 15 pounds of crawfish.   Burrow was the 2019 Heisman trophy winning quarterback at New Orleans’ Louisiana State University, the heart of Cajun country and crawfish eating quarterbacks.

Doscher’s Candies in the past have done a Who Dey Chew version of their French Chew nougat, but it doesn’t look like they’ve brought it back for the playoffs.

Just Brew Coffeehouse in Pleasant Ridge, owned by Kenny Anderson is offering 21% off of all Bengals gear today at the shop.

I wish Graeters or Aglamesis would come out with a Tiger Tail flavored ice cream like they have in Canada with orange and black licorice swirled flavors.

The Evil Green Berets and Their New Brookies

The Adventureful, the new brownie-cookie released by the girls scouts for the 2022 selling season.

It’s that time of year again when the evil girls in green berets come tackling me and forcing me to buy their cookies.    Every year, without fail, they succeed in beating me down and making me buy at least two boxes.   I am a huge Samosa and Lemon Crème Chalet fan if you’re asking.    Their shortbread Trefoils come in a close third, just because they’re great as a dunk in my morning coffee.  They are as old as my brother Tom, both of which were born in 1968, although they were originally called Scot-Teas.  And although they’re sandy and crunchy, they’re also super sugary, which I’m avoiding.   Ok, I admit that I like the Dosidos and the Tagalongs too, because they’re both super-peanut buttery.    And while the most popular Thin Mints are good too – but only when frozen – they’re at the bottom of my faves.

The first girl scout cookies were sold in 1917 in Oklahoma – right before the onset of the Spanish Flu epidemic.    And most girls scout troops baked their own cookies until the 1930s when they started contracting with commercial bakeries.

This year the sugar terrorists in green are introducing a new type of cookie – a brookie – or a brownie cookie, called the Adventurefuls – with a caramel cream in the center and a hint of sea salt.    As a caramel not-a-fan, I think they missed the mark.     They could have gone with a peanut butter filling like a Buckeye and done so much better.    Or they even could have done a raspberry cream cheese filling – maybe even a coconutty German chocolate icing filling – anything other than caramel crème!     But kudos to them for venturing into the brookie category.

Last year the Greensboro, South Carolina area introduced the Toast-Yay cinnamon toast crunch cereal inspired cookie, which was not available in the Cincinnati area.   That’s because different regions of the country contract with different commercial bakers.

The last new addition available in the Ohio region was the S’more cookie, which for me didn’t really capture the taste or experience of a true s’more, nor did the gluten-free Toffee Tastics from two years ago knock my toffee-loving socks off.   I guess it’s the challenge of making a commercially baked cookie taste as good as a home-baked one with the shelf live it needs to go through the Girl Scout Supply Chain.      

Many years ago they tried to venture into the salty snack category with a cheddar cheese goldfish cracker knockoff called the Golden Yangle, but that only lasted a few years.    Another discontinued cookie that was a good concept was called the Juliette – a milk chocolate, pecan and caramel chewy cluster named after founder Juliette Lowe.    The Pixie coconut cookie came out in the 1960s from the Burry Biscuit Company.    

Another come and gone category are the crème cookies.   Von-cho’s – vanilla cookies with chocolate cream – lived from 1974 to 1983.   And there were lemon cremes, strawberry cremes, and even mango cremes.

There was a brief stint in the dessert bar category in the 1980s with the Kookaburras – bars of crisp rice, chocolate and caramel akin to the popular Little Debbie Star Crunch.

In addition to buying them direct and through the standard order form parents hock in office break rooms across the country, you can also order them through Door Dash.    That’s certainly a pandemic offshoot.   And with Omacron lockdowns imminent, there may be more cookies ordered for home comfort activities like binging on Netflix and Hulu.

Cincinnati Chili and Turtle Joe Cigars

The outside of the original Empress Chili Parlor on Vine Street, where the Main Public Library stands today.

Before there was the combo of a Threeway and a Peppermint Patty, there was Cincinnati chili-spaghetti and a cigar.    We’ve always apparently had something to enjoy for the after dinner experience of our Cincinnati chili.  We are lucky to have a photo from 1923 of the inside of the first Cincinnati Chili parlor at the Empress Burlesque theater on Vine Street.   Ivan “Johnny” Kiradjieff, co-owner, stands in a proud contrapasto position with one hand leaning on the back counter and the other on his hip. And it’s not a ‘hot dog stand’ like so many bad local writers have called it, who’ve probably never seen this photo. It was truly a parlor – the first chili parlor – like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, where nearby you can also get a Cincinnati Chili Threeway or Cheese coney, but that’s another story.   The original Empress Parlor had an L-shaped counter with about six stools and two tables.   It was not some New York City ‘dirty water dog’ cart.  The photo is owned by the youngest son of Johnny, and it shows great detail of what that first hallowed location looked like.    I sat down with him and the photo over the Christmas holiday for coffee and conversation about Cincinnati chili.

Performing some photo archeology we see a solo bottle of hot sauce on the counter next to the napkin stand – probably Frank’s Red Hot Sauce – which had just been introduced in 1920 by local Frank Tea & Spice Company.   We also see a large coffee carafe that undoubtedly held strong Turkish style coffee, which the Kiradjieff founding family loved from their Macedonian homeland.    The back wall also had three sets of shelves that had canned grocery items like tomatoes, coffee, fruit preserves, and soup.   Argiro, the first and oldest Kiradjieff brother in Cincinnati had a small grocery store in downtown Cincinnati before helping his brothers Assen “Tom” and Johnny start the chili parlor.   Above the ornate bronze National Cash Register (made by NCR in Dayton, Ohio) in the far left corner is a large menu that shows the original prices of the chili.   A chili spaghetti (the threeway with cheddar cheese on top would not be invented until the early 1930s) and a bowl of chili with beans were both 15 cents.   Coffee, soft drinks, and coney islands (also without cheese) were all five cents each.

The humidor and the boxes of cigars inside the original Empress Chili Parlor.

But there’s another interesting thing we see in the corner of the parlor – a large cigar humidor with numerous boxes of local cigars.   There are a pile of empty boxes on the shelves next to the humidor which allow us to see what brands Cincinnati chili eaters were smoking.    We can make out non-local brand cigars like White Owl and Chancellor.   But we see the famous local brand Ibold, made by the Thuringian German immigrant Ibold family – brothers Peter and Michael Ibold.     Another box stands out which reads Turtle Joe Cigars. 

I had never heard of Turtle Joe, nor a cigar named after him.   But what I found was that Turtle Joe was the nickname of one of the four drinking fountain figures on each corner of our beloved Tyler Davidson Fountain on Fountain Square, the heart of our city.    Turtle Joe is the figure of the boy riding the large tortoise, who spurts water from his reptilian mouth.    The cigar was made by another Cincinnati German immigrant cigar making family – the Louis C. Weisbrodt Cigar Manufacturing Company.   

Turtle Joe – the boy riding the back of a sea turtle on the Tyler Davidson Fountain.

The January 15, 1916 edition of the United States Tobacco Journal documents the release of the Turtle Joe Cigar:

Louis C. Weisbrodt, Cincinnati manufacturer, is going to put a new cigar brand on the market under the name “Turtle Joe.”  Cincinnatians will receive with favor the new brand because “Turtle Joe” is known from one end of the city to the other and there have been but few visitors to the Queen City of the West who have not been invited to take a drink at “Turtle Joe’s Place.”    His place is on Fountain Square and “Turtle Joe” himself is a drinking fountain.   White its true that a majority of the persons who have been invited to take a drink at his place were more or less disappointed, Mr. Weisbrodt declares that there will be no disappointment attending the smoking of his “Turtle Joe.”

Louis’s father, Phillip Weisbrodt, and his uncle Lou Freudenberger, were also cigar makers.   Phillip was born in Reilingen, Baden-Wuertemburg Germany’s wine country.  Phillip and his wife also owned a cigar store on 1313 Walnut Street, which Charles’ son, Charles Jr., operated with his mother until he sold in 1978.

Cincinnati was known for its prevalence of small makers of inexpensive cigars.   Both Ibold and Turtle Joe were examples of these inexpensive 5 cent cigars of the working man.   And certainly these were the clientele of the first chili parlor, housed in a burlesque theatre.     The tobacco used was grown just north of Cincinnati in Miamisburg, Ohio, and was known around the U.S. as the best native tobacco for cigars.  It was a hybrid breed of tobacco called Zimmer Spanish, named after its first prominent grower, Jacob Zimmer.     There were a few Cincinnati cigar makers – like the Carcaba Company – who imported tobacco from Cuba to make their cigars, for the more expensive fine cigar market, but the majority of the hundreds of small makers in Cincinnati took advantage of the proximity to Zimmer Spanish tobacco in Miamisburg.    And before the threeway and the peppermint patty, this is what Cincinnatians were enjoying after eating their Cincinnati chili.

Pittsburgh and Cincinnati’s Two Smiley Face Cookies

Cincinnati’s Busken Smiley Faced Cookie (left), and Pittsburg Eat ‘N Park’s (right).

An icon of Cincinnati sweets is Busken’s iced smiley face cookie.  The hybrid sugar and shortbread cookie with a hint of almond flavoring is one of Busken’s most beloved baked goods.    It’s been on the punny Busken billboards around town wishing us to “Have  a Crumby Day.”    And since, 1984, it’s been part of the Busken Presidential Candidate Cookie poll – with charicatures of each candidate.   It’s correctly predicted the outcome of the election every time.     The smiley cookies change faces seasonally.   There are Jack-o-Lantern and ghost cookies at Halloween, Bunny Smiley Cookies at Easter, Shamrocks at St. Patrick’s Day, and hearts for Valentines Day.   He even dons a graduation cap during graduation season. There were masked smileys during the pandemic, and even the faces of the founders Joe and Daisy to celebrate their 50th anniversary.  In 2010 Busken released the Skinny Cookie – a thin ovular smiley cookie with 42% less fat and 18% fewer calories.

Busken’s variety of Smiley Face Cookies.

But legally, we can’t call it the Smiley Face Cookie, because the Eat ‘N Park chain in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, trademarked the term for their Smiley Face Cookie. The Eat ‘N Park Smiley Face cookie was released in 1986 with Warner’s Bakery in Titusville, PA.    Eat ‘N Park, was the second Big Boy franchisee of Cincinnati’s David Wian.   After Larry Hatch and Bill Peters observed the Frisch’s Mariemont Mainliner Drive-In in 1948, they paid the $1 fee to Wian to serve up the popular Big Boy.    They kept the franchise until 1975, after which the Big Boy was renamed the Superburger.

Eat ‘N Park’s variety of Smiley Face Cookies

The Eat ‘N Park Smiley faced cookie became so popular it would eventually become its logo and would spawn the Frownie Brownie from rival Kings Family Restaurants.   The Frownie was controversially discontinued in 2015 after Kings sold to a private equity firm, but brought back in 2018 for a limited time.      They have a walking Smiley Face Cookie mascot, and many loyal Pittsburgers have tattoed images of the cookie in themselves.  Eat ‘N Park filed several lawsuits against companies in Texas and Chicago, outside the restaurants’ operating area, to enforce its trademark on the Smiley Cookie.   But it has not taken on Busken, yet.

One loyal Pittsburgher’s Smiley Face cookie tattoo.
King’s Family Restaurant’s Frownie Brownie.

Like the Busken Smiley Cookie, Eat ‘N Parks comes in many forms – probably more than Busken’s – a heart, groundhog, bunny, shamrock, turkey, mummy, jack-o-lantern, Frankenstein, whale, leprechaun, star, and pirate.   They’ve even used local personalities like Pittsburg Steeler defensive tackle Cam Hayward, Curt Wooten, host of the Dad Show, and Emmy winning Pittsburg rapper Frzy, for charity fundraising.

Eat ‘ N Park’s celebrity Smiley Faced Cookies.

In 1997, Busken hired a new advertising agency, the Creative Department LLP in Over-the-Rhine. The end result was a series of billboards that featured only one product at a time, with no price information and few words. One of the more memorable boards was a Halloween ad that debuted in 1997, featuring a picture of a pumpkin cookie and the tagline: Boosken.

Since then Busken has used the smiley faced cookie and its permutations as a growth engine.   Even after losing the Biggs cookie account the 1997 billboard made that Halloween the best ever in cookie sales.    With this realization, Busken used the cookie to reap 5% growth over their previous $8 million dollar annual sales.

If we’re to do a side-by-side taste test – we’d have to choose foodies outside of both Cincy and Pittsburgh, because we’d each be too loyal to be objective.  I do think our Busken has a leg-up on Eat ‘N Park’s with our hint of almond flavoring and its hybrid shortbread/sugar cookie texture.   But, like our football teams, I think our cookie rivalry should be solved by a taste off.    Food Network – this could be big!

Holiday Treats Banned by Governments

The beloved English Figgy Pudding, banned by Oliver Cromwell in the 1660s.

We all seem to disregard our diets to indulge in the ‘once-a-year’ holiday treats that are everywhere.    From eggnog to Christmas cookies to cakes and pies, it’s a good thing there’s no supply chain issues with sugar – although if you make anything with cream cheese apparently there’s a shortage this year. And it seems peculiar that governments would ban the consumption of delicious Christmas treats, but it has happened at least four times since the 1600s – twice in England, several times in the Netherlands, and once in the Soviet Union.    It was not for their high sugar content, but for political and religious reasons.  

The 1660s were a particularly bad decade for banning Christmas treats.    In 1664, the Mayor of Amsterdam, Dr. Nicholaes Tulp banned gingerbread and St. Nicolas Day – what a scrooge!.  It was December 4, 1663, two days before the annual Sinterklaas parade, one of the most popular days of the year for the children of Amsterdam.    The Protestant Reformation had been in full swing in Northern Europe, since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the cathedral at Wittenburg in 1517.     Most of Northern Europe had converted to Lutheranism, although the Dutch provinces of the Low Country, now the Netherlands, were Protestant Calvinists.  The Dutch lowland provinces had allied under the Union of Utrecht in 1579,   After successfully throwing the Catholic Hapsburg King Phillip II of Spain out of the Netherlands in 1581, they formed an independent Dutch Republic.   The Republic officially became a Protestant country and the regents, ministers and clericals prohibited public Catholic Celebrations.

A Dutch family enjoying the feast of St. Nicholas in the 1660s.

Martin Luther did not like saints and instead suggested the Christ Child or Kristkindl as the new Protestant Gift Giver at Christmastime.    Only Christ could bring gifts and grace, not the saints. All reverence to saints was to be abolished.   Dutch cities responded.   The city of Delft in 1607 forbade the sale of gingerbread men, as did other cities like Arnhem.    Dordrecht banned the Sinterklaas festival altogether in 1657.  That same year Dr. Tulp’s (who had just become mayor of Amsterdam in 1654) city administration banned the sale of special gifts and candies and idolatrous dolls.   The ban named all molded cookies -which included spekuloos, the Dutch gingerbread, and moppen, a popular crispy biscuit, not as spicy as gingerbread, as did the city of Arnhem.   Gingerbread men, which had actually been invented in the English court of Elizabeth I, had been taken up by people of the occult who used them like voodoo dolls.   They would bake effigies in them that supposedly had special powers to make people fall in love, become pregnant, more virile, or reek havoc on their enemies.      

The revolutionary children of Amersterdam revolted, had a march, and the ban was lifted in Amsterdam.    The Sinterklaas parade still happens in Amsterdam – although toned down with his controversial black-faced helper Schwarte Piet (Black Peter).  

Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, which spawned the ban of Christmas celebrations in England in the 1660s.

Just across the channel in England, Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1664, and that included the consumption of the Figgy Pudding that the English love so much, and was popularized in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   

In England, the celebration of 12th Night evolved into a raucous, drunken event that Queen Victoria thought was way too decadent.   So in the 1870s, she banned 12th night celebration and the consumption of the 12th Cake.    Sneaky Brits turned the 12th cake into a Christmas cake, and it now vies with the Figgy Pudding for the most popular holiday cake at the Christmas table.

12th Night Cake, banned by Queen Victoria.

Twelfth Night Cake included a dried bean and sometimes a dried pea baked into the batter. The Twelfth Night cake was made with dried fruits in season and spices. According to Maria Hubert, author of Jane Austen’s Christmas, “These represented the exotic spices of the East, and the gifts of the Wise Men . Such things were first brought to Europe and Britain particularly, by the Crusaders coming back from the wars in the Holy Land in the 12th century…Twelfth night occurs January 5 and has been for centuries the traditional last day of the Christmas season. It was a time for having a great feast, and the cake was an essential part of the festivities. The cake was highly decorated. As the visitors arrived, they were given a piece of the cake, ladies from the left, gentlemen from the right side. Whoever got the bean became King of the Revels for the night, and everyone had to do as he said. The lady was his Queen for the evening. In smaller homes, the cake was a simple fruitcake, with a bean in it, which was given to guests during the twelve days of Christmas. Whoever got the bean was supposed to be a kind of guardian angel for that family for the year, so it was an important task, and usually, it was arranged that a senior member of the family would get the bean! In Britain the cake was baked as part of the refreshments offered to the priest and his entourage who would visit on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, to bless each house in the parish. This custom died out after the Reformation in the late 16th century, but was revived at the end of the 17th century, and became very much part of the Twelfth night partying again. It is recorded that in royal households, the cakes became extravagantly large, and the guests divided into two sides could have a battle with models on the cake! One battle was a sea battle, and there were miniature water canon on the cake which really worked!”

The Russian Christmas porridge, kutkya, banned by the Soviets as part of Christmas celebrations.
Pryanki, a typical Russian christmas cookie banned by the soviets.

In 1929 the atheist Soviet government banned open celebrations of Christmas officially until 1991, after the Berlin Wall fell.    The celebration ban included the eating of a symbolic sweet porridge called kutkya, made of barley, rye, buckwheat, peas, sometimes poppyseeds and fruits, and lentils mixed with honey.   The ban also included Russian Christmas cookies like the spiced biscuits called pryaniki traditionally served on Christmas Eve.

The Soviet government shifted the winter celebrations to New Year’s Eve and secularized and dechristianized all the rituals.     There were gifts, but they were brought by a Santa-lookalike called in Russian Ded Moroz (Father Frost), and his helper a Snow Maiden called Snegoricha.     Christmas Trees, popularized by Tsar Nicholas I’s Prussian wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, became New Year’s Trees, and eggnog shots were replaced by vodka shots.

Let’s hope there’s no more banning of Christmas sweets again!

Christmas Latin-American Style in Cincinnati

A Posada procession in Antigua, Guatemala, where the tradition was introduced in 1663.

Ever since travelling to Antigua, Guatemala, and Mexico City, I’ve been trying to tap into the inside world of our Hispanic Community here in Cincinnati.     I’ve been mildly successful, for a German Gringo.    But the community can be elusive to a non-Spanish speaking native.  A lot of the activities take place by word of mouth in a tight community and off my traditional tap-in mechanism, Facebook.

I’m lucky to have one of the best birria taco trucks in the area just down the street from my house at the gas station.   Jorge’s Tacos have a line waiting if you don’t get there before the lunch rush during the week.   Jorge is from the state of Jallisco in Mexico and will talk your ear off about birria and the other traditional dishes from his home region.

I so wanted to attend an early morning mass and gnosh for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe last weekend on December 12.    The closest I got this year was a live filming of the mass and music celebration at St. Boniface/St. Charles Borromeo in Northside on Chase Avenue.     

There’s a growing Guatemalan immigrant community in the West Side neighborhood of Price Hill who last weekend celebrated a first annual Posada de Navidad, a traditional procession or play enacting the Holy Couple on their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.       The Posada is widely celebrated in Mexico every night in the week leading up to Christmas, and in New Mexico and Arizona, and other Latino communities.   It’s pretty much celebrated in most Catholic Latin American countries around the globe.  Las Posadas consists of a procession of what’s called an anda or a decorated float with the statues of Mary and Joseph – usually from a church’s nativity – that is carried on poles by men or girls dressed as angels.    A procession with singers and kids dressed as angels or Biblical travellers parades through a neighborhood with the anda and it is refused by the first few houses (as happened to Mary and Joseph in the nativity story) and then its accepted at a house where it is placed inside and paraders are invited in for food and goodies.

In Guatemala, Hermano Pedro de San Jose Betancur introduced the tradition of the Posada on Christmas Eve in 1663.   He and several Catholic parishioners paraded through the streets of Antigua carrying the very first anda with statues of the Holy Family.

The anda at St. Boniface/St. Charles Borromeo in Northside, used for the Posada Procession.

St.  Boniface/ St. Charles Borromeo in Northside has an anda that they use for their Posada procession around the church at their Christmas Eve vigil.

The Guatemalans have a lineup of traditional foods they serve after the reenactment.      The host house receives travelers with tamales, chuchitos, hot fruit punch, agua de horchata or atole in Guatamela, which is a creamy spiced rice drink, and barquillos.

Chuchitos, the Guatemalan appetizer version of the tamale.

Chuchitos are small, appetizer version of masa corn tamales.  They’re little masa balls filled with a tomato sauce called recado, and either beef or chicken.     They’re kind of like a Guatemalan dumpling or matzoh ball.   The recado sauce tastes strongly of annatto and ancho chili powder, and is spiced with cloves, allspice, black pepper, Mexican oregano with vinegar and orange juice for an acidic kick.

Barquillos, the Guatemalan version of the Pirouline.

Barquillo means little boat and is the dessert of the Guatemalan Posada feast.   They’re a crispy hollow, rolled wafer pastry originating in Spain and kind of like the Pirouline cream filled wafers.    They’re traditionally sold roadside venders and are regarded as a Christmas cookie and popular during fiestas.

At the Price Hill Posada, sponsored by Transformations CDC,  they served tamales, chuchitos and atole after the anda procession.    The last Latin American Christmas celebration is the feast of the Three Kings – Los Tres Reyes  or Feast of the Epiphany – on January 6.   It’s the three kings, not Santa from whom most Latin American children receive their Christmas gifts.   Hopefully theres some place in Cincinnati where one can see Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in their regalia and have some good Latin American food.  Maybe next year I’ll be more prepared to celebrate Christmas the Latino way in Cincinnati.

When You Just Can’t Recreate Your Grandma’s Best Christmas Cookie

One of the favorite Christmas cookies that my maternal grandmother made were these fruit bars made with date jam.   She and Grandpa called them Princess Squares, although there’s a similar recipe from the bible of cookie books, the Betty Crocker Cooky Book that generically calls them ‘date-nut bars.’    How boring!   I guess they’re not really a cookie, but Grandma always had a plate of them out during Christmas.  They’re super-rich bars that have a homemade date jam sandwiched between two layers of crunchy streusel, laden with coconut, chopped almonds, and flavored with lemon and rum.    

There’s something about the taste that just instantly takes me to her mid-century baby blue kitchen in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, and the comforting memories of my 24-bit pre-adolescent Christmases past.   My very first set of Star Wars action figures in 1978 was accompanied by a Princess Square. Our Atari 2600 Centipede video game was played while chomping on a Princess Square. My sister burned her Easy Bake Brownies in her Easy Bake oven, but there were wonderful Princess Squares to eat instead.

I tried making them a few years ago, but burned the dates while making the jam – mainly because I didn’t chop them fine enough, nor use enough water in the pan while cooking them.      The whole batch went into the garbage and I gave up on making them for several years.  This year, I was determined to try making them again.   But this time, I was going to give them a bit of a healthier makeover.   They’re a sugar and calorie bomb in their original form.   And, at my age, I don’t need the sugar spike or that cholesterol boost the original recipe gives. But I thought I could still get the flavor I was looking for.   I replaced the sugar in both the jam and the streusel with sucralose.   I changed out the Crisco with healthier coconut oil.    And finally, I replaced the wheat flour with almond flour.

This time I knew what I needed to NOT do to burn the date jam.  I also considered just buying a pre-made date jam and forget about it.   But I knew I’d be hard pressed to find a sugar-free date jam, and I also wanted to challenge myself and prove to Grandma’s spirit that I could indeed make the jam.    I chopped the dates into super-small pieces that would easily jammify, and used more water than the ½ ounce in the recipe.   I also simmered on a medium-low heat.     And it worked!!    I made a nice jam without burning the dates.   I was well on my way to that taste-time-machine.  I put the first layer of streusel in the proper sized 10X13 pan, spread the jam over the crust and then put the streusel lid on top.    I didn’t sprinkle any more sugar on top as Grandma’s recipe calls out, but did sprinkle some slivered almonds on top for some crunch.

I plopped them in a hot 375 F oven and watched them like a hawk, knowing that the date jam is capable of burning quickly.      I took them out about 7 minutes shy of the 35 minutes required, seeing that the jam on the border was starting to burn and the top was starting to brown.     I let them cool and then started cutting into bite sized squares.   I knew that almond flour doesn’t bake as crunchy as wheat flour, so I wasn’t completely surprised when they weren’t as crispy as Grandmas.   The taste was different and not as rich as Grandma’s.   I knew then I should have used more rum.   Although the recipe only called for a tablespoon of rum flavor, Grandma was known for using significantly more than a recipe stated.      The dates tasted a bit different.   I used fresh medjigool dates, so I wonder what kind she used or if she added some other secret ingredient to give a richer flavor.

Anyway, as much as I was disappointed they didn’t taste like Grandma’s version, I was somewhat proud that I made the date jam successfully.   At least that feat was accomplished.     I finished cutting the bars and put them in storage tins for Christmas day with the family.    The next morning I had a bar with my coffee and thought, these aren’t half bad – they’re actually pretty damn good – AND they’re a hell of a lot healthier than the original version.    I think I’ve got some ideas on how to improve them next year while still keeping them healthier.  I’ll add some raisins and a few figs to the jam, use a lot more rum, and maybe a bit of clove.     I will bake them longer at a lower temperature and may add some oat flour or even wheat flour to give the streusel a bigger, more granola-ey crunch.    Maybe the experimentation and the journey to make Grandma’s Princess Squares my own is just what Grandma intended in her typical not-enough-information recipes she left us. 

My Holiday Milkshake is Better Than Yours

The holidays offer a time for restaurants to capitalize on limited time holiday flavors – from McDonald’s holiday custard pie to Frisch’s Peppermint Hot Fudge Cake.   One of the most consistent holiday offerings, oddly enough, seems to be the holiday shake.    It might sound counterintuitive that a frozen ice cream-based drink would be the blockbuster holiday menu item, but it’s true.   In the world of shake machines and slushee-type drinks, Manitoba, the coldest province in all of the Americas, is the top seller of machines.  Maybe this data point justifies our creamy whips to stay open through the winter and serve up their own holiday shakes.   

Not that anyone is really watching calories with holiday treats, but these holiday shakes are also the highest calorie offerings on any menu.

Locally, it seems peppermint is the top holiday shake flavor, with eggnog being a second.    Graeter’s makes shakes with any of their holiday ice cream flavors – peppermint, eggnog or cinnamon .   Aglamesis can do the same with their rum raisin, peppermint stick, cinnamon or butterscotch seasonal flavors.    UDF can make malts or shakes with their peppermint or eggnog ice creams as well.    They can even make it with their new Homemade brand Santa’s cookie flavored ice cream – sugar cookie flavored ice cream with holiday cookie bits and red and green icing.

UDF’s holiday ice creams ripe for a shake or malt.

Frisch’s is all about the peppermint too, with their seasonal frozen peppermint hot chocolate frappe to go along with their peppermint ice cream fudge cake.  The drink is made with Ghirardelli Chocolate, sprinkled with peppermint and topped with “whipped holiday magic.”   But what is it – ice cream, a milkshake?  Does anyone really care?    No calories are listed for the drink on their website.      Again cold offerings for a winter holiday take center stage.

With our local national chains, Chick-fil-A’s peppermint shake is super popular and super advertised.   And it’s super high in calories.   The message seems to be “Drink Mor Calories”.  With a whopping 930 calories and 31 grams of fat you literally could have “Eaten Mor Chicken” – nearly four of their eight piece chicken nuggets.

Chic-fil-A’s peppermint shake

Although the closest Shake Shack is in Columbus, Ohio, they too have a legit offering of holiday shakes.  Their Sugar Plum Fairy drink  includes blended linzer cookies raspberry, white chocolate bark and vanilla custard – Yum!  They also have a Milk and Cookies Shake with malted chocolate custard and chocolate chip cookie crumble, and a Christmas Cookie Shake with sugar cookie frozen custard and sprinkles.    I’d hate to see the calorie count on those holiday bombs.

Arby’s is countering the pumpkin spice flavor with their new Caramel Cinnamon Shake, with a whipped topping and dusting of cinnamon.   A large comes in at 1030 calories, the equivalent of three roast beef sandwiches.

The local and chain coffee shops come into the Holiday Shake Wars with the frozen versions of their lattes.  Mad Llama  in Madisonville has come to the table with multiple holiday offerings.   They have a nutcracker latte (a mocha with pistaccio and macadmia syrup whipped cream and expresso drizze), sugar plum fairy latte (white mocha with wildberry and butter pecan syrup, whipped cream and cinnamon), and Iced peppermint mocha latte.

Adesso Coffee shop in Mason has an interesting sounding Winter Sage Latte, with sage infused brown sugar.    Both Adesso and Mom ‘n Em in Camp Washington make their own house eggnogs, which I’m sure could be made into a shake or latte if you ask them.

Dunkin Donuts has a peppermint mocha latte at 430 calories – equal to 13 of their mocha Munchkin donuts.   New at Starbucks this year is a Sugar Cookie Almond Milk Latte, along with their well known seasonal faves –the Eggnog latte (with the top calorie count at 630 for a venti size), Peppermint mocha, Caramel Brulee, Chestnut Praline, and Toasted White Chocolate Mocha.   They also have a Irish Cream Cold brew, which debuted in 2019. Even McDonald’s peppermint hot chocolate comes in at a surprising 430 calories – equal to a 10 piece chicken McNuggets meal.

For an even hyper local shake with an invented-here vibe, what about an opera cream shake or a  chocolate covered cherry shake?  Because, who’s really counting calories with their holiday shakes. Maybe next year.