So Oktoberfest season is not even over yet and already it’s clear that the most authentically Bavarian Oktoberfest is not in Cincinnati, but north in Springboro, Ohio. Our large Oktoberfest Zinzinnati – aside from the Moerlein Uberdrome – has turned into a completely Disneyfied, American-ized mess with very few authentic Bavarian options. Second in authenticity is the last Oktoberfest celebrated in Greater Cincinnati, the Donauschwaben Society in Colerain Township.
The Springboro Oktoberfest was held last weekend on September 10 and 11, sponsored by the Springboro United Church of Christ on Mill Street. It is recognized as the oldest German church west of the Alleghenies, founded in 1805 originally as the German Reformed Church. What’s cool is that all the proceeds of the fest go to local charities – the Pantry, Cincinnati Shriners Hospitals for Children, Hospice of Butler and Warren Counties, Hope House Mission, The Military order of the Purple Heart, and the Springboro Community Assistance Program.
What makes it so authentic is the food. Let’s start with the 13 varieties of German sausage they had – including Bavarian weisswurst, knockwurst, Berliner Currywurst, Bierwurst and Swiss Mettwurst.
To wet your appetite there were a variety of German ‘snacks’ including pretzels, zweibelkucken or onion pie, German eggrolls, sauerkraut balls, landjaeger (German meat jerky), wurst salat, and deep fried cheese curds – from Wisconsin, not Bavaria!
Then lets talk about the sides. They had both regular spaetzle and cheese spetzel, rotkraut mit apfeln (red cabbage with apples), Semmelknoedel (Bavarian bread dumplings), German potato salad, German green beans, Grunkohl mit speck (kale and bacon), and the obligatory sauerkraut.
In addition to the wursts they had regular and Jagerschnitzel, cabbage rolls, chicken goulash, roasted chicken and schwienebraten.
As if the entrees weren’t enough, you could eat a meal just from the dessert offerings! There were three types of tortes – sacher, dobash and Vienna tortes. There were three types of strudel: Apple, cherry and cheese. There were German chocolate cupcakes, cream puffs, bienenstich or beehive cake, black forest cake, schnecken with raisins, lebkuckenherz (gingerbread hearts), German chocolate, pumpkin and carrot cheese cakes, raspberry and German chocolate mousse. Helige sucherzahn!! (Holy Sweet Tooth)
As you sat down in authentic beer gardens or under the Weisn tent to eat your food, there was a variety of bands, dancers, a children’s hot dog eating contest, a stein holding contest, and a weiner dog run.
And then to wash it all down they had six German wines, including a Dornfelder, over a dozen schnapps and liqueurs, and over 40 different beers including imports from Germany and local craft brews. I think that’s an amazing effort at authenticity and Cincinnati’s societies should take heed and regroup!
There’s a new pest that’s in danger of decimating Ohio’s vineyards – just like the phylloxera mite did to a lot of our Catawba vineyards during the Civil War. Call them Phylloxera 2.0. It’s surprisingly beautiful and colorful when it spreads its wings. It’s certainly prettier than the phylloxera. But don’t let its beauty fool you! It’s called the Spotted Lanternfly, and they’re hitchhiking on trains and other transportation and spreading quickly from the east coast.
Unfortunately, just like the coronavirus, they came to the U.S. on a crate from China. They were first spotted in Pennsylvania about ten years ago where they have decimated vineyards. They have since spread to New Jersey. Thirteen counties in New Jersey and thirty four in Pennsylvania are in quarantine to try to stop the spread. That means in those counties folks are supposed to inspect their vehicles for stowaways before travelling out of the county.
Even though they have wings, they don’t fly, but are treehoppers. The spotted lanternflies secrete a sticky material known as honeydew, which is very high in sugar. It is a substrate for mold, and when it gets on plants, it prevents them from photosynthesizing which then leads to the plants dying. The mold these lanternflies leave can end up in backyards and decks and can attract numerous other bugs.
They particularly like fruit trees and grapevines. They have recently been spotted in Vermont and are likely to spread to Virginia and Ohio. They’ve also been spotted in New York City and Indiana.
There is nothing that kills them as of now, so its presence in our vineyards could be devastating. If you see these in our area please call the Ohio Department of Agriculture at (614) 728-6201 between 8 AM and 5 PM and report it.
Yesterday marked another happy return of one of our area’s longest running institutions – the Harvest Home Fair. Since its inception in 1806 in Delhi Township, it had only been cancelled three times. It was cancelled in 1813 and 1814 During the War of 1812 in fear of Indian attacks from the local tribes sided with the British. Then in fear of General John Hunt Morgan’s raid during the Civil War it was cancelled. Last year our war with the Coronavirus cancelled it. An association called the Green Township Agricultural Society was founded in 1854 to keep the festival going. That organization was replaced in 1861 by the Harvest Home Fair Association, which runs it today.
The parade runs from Harrison to the Harvest Home lot on North Bend and showcases the civic groups that make up Cheviot, Westwood and Delhi Township. While the parade is always a hit, the General exhibits Tent has always been a popular attraction. General exhibits allow anyone in the community to display their craft as a gardener, livestock farmer, artist, baker, or winemaker. One of the most hilarious events I’ve ever seen at a fair is their Cow Chip Bingo Game, which happens this Saturday at 5:30.
Because the West Side was the best side for winemaking, and where Longworth got his start with the Cape Grape and later Catawba Grape, this competition has always been competitive. Local Germanic immigrant winemakers like Carl Reemelin and Sebastian Rentz entered their premium wines before and after the Civil War years. Later entrants in the 1980s include the Witterstaetter family with their Elderberry Wine, whose original farmstead now houses the Delhi Historical Society. The category still includes fruit wine, as well as sparkling wine, which harkens back to our area’s world renowned Sparkling Catawba, first made in Westwood – not by Longworth, but by a French immigrant named Miller or Mueller, depending on which resource you read.
Another highlight of the Harvest Home Fair was the communal dinner that was shared by all. And the favorite dish was the Harvest Home Vegetable soup. Although no longer served, the recipe was recorded in 1896 by a smart woman who toiled to make it for many years, Ella McClusky Mahl (~1860-1925). It was made in a large iron pot over a wood fire and veggies were thrown in all day as needed to replenish.
The recipe shows a bounty of veggies with some beef brisket and pork knuckle thrown in for some meaty flavor:
12 potatoes, 24 string beans, 6 diced turnips, 16 diced carrots, 4 large onions, ground, 4 kohlrabi, ground, 4 pork knuckles, 12 tomatoes, 24 pod beans, 16 red beats, diced, 24 pod lima beans, diced, 4 cucumbers, ground, 6 pounds brisket beef, water, sage, thyme, salt and pepper.
It sounds amazing and what a treat to taste this with your neighbors every year. I wonder if one of the amazing German bakers at the time made rye bread for dipping.
Mrs. Mahl’s grandson Herman Mahl was an exhibitor of his Bantam Chickens, which he bred for sixty years, and later a licensed APA (American Poultry Association) judge of the chicken category.
The Shawnee Indians lived in southwest Ohio in small villages along the Little Miami River valley from Springfield to Chillicothe Ohio in the late 1790s to the early 1800s. That was until they were pushed out after the death of Tecumseh in 1813. They were an Algonquin speaking people who may have been descendants of the Adena mound builders in Ohio who built a variety of mounds including the Miamisburg mound, the Serpent mound near Caesar Creek, the Newtown Mound and inhabited a large village in Mariemont, now covered by the the parking lot to a swim club. They were initially peaceful with white European immigrants until they encroached, battled and stole their land through shady treaties with those who didn’t have the rights to it in the first place.
Whites who ate with the Shawnees reported liking their food. And the Shawnee ate very healthily, and took great pride in their physical appearance. Men liked their bling, commonly wearing a nose ring and long bangly earrings, but never used tatoos like other Native American tribes. They thought facial and body hair unappealing, so they used local mussel and clam shells to manscape away their body hair. Some even wore long chain necklaces with medallions they got from traders. They had better physical hygiene than the white settlers around them. Adopted white children reported their parents plunging into frigid ice cold waters in the dead of winter to take frequent baths. They even had good breath, but not necessarily for a pleasant make-out session with their sweety. Tecumseh was reported to chew sassafras and other herbs in sort of a pioneer chewing gum to hide his breath from animals as he hunted.
The Shawnee ate a variety of foods. They were both farmers and hunters. Their planting began in the spring and was a job of the women. They planted what is commonly known in Native American culture as the Three Sisters – corn, beans, and squash – with an emphasis on corn for its versatility. Favorite Shawnee dishes were venison roasted over open coals with herbs and dipped in bear fat, beaver tails (which contemporary chefs also trumpet) duck or squirrel wrapped in wet corn husks and baked in hot ashes, and a dried pumpkin and venison cake – sort of like meat jerky. Unfortunately, many Shawnee men became way too fond of rum brought in by the settlers and the settlers used it to barter with the Indians and even make those shady treaties. Tecumseh’s younger brother, Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, apparently became an alcoholic from pioneer rum.
The main difference between frontier white food and Shawnee food was the lack of salt. Although they did like salt, it was hard to come by and without trading for it, had to be made from boiling water at naturally occurring salt springs with the yield of just a pinch. So, they made due with the variety of herbs available.
As far as sweets, the Shawnee favored molasses sugar and there’s even record they enjoyed chocolate that they traded on rare occasions with whites who brought it into the frontier. Corn was a staple, venerated as a divine gift to be harvested joyfully. Dishes made from corn included a wholesome cornbread mixed with fruit. Parched corn cakes were packed into winter hunting parties’ rations as emergency. The cornbread was more like a pancake and was adapted by frontier settlers as the Johnny Cake. Cornmeal was often referred to as Indian Meal because it was through their introduction that settlers learned how to grow and use it. We may have no Perkins or IHOPS if it weren’t for the Shawnee. We can only wonder what kind of corn cake methods Tecumseh’s mother, Methotaske taught his older only sister Tecumapease, and fed to an active teenage Tecumseh.
Two dances were a part of Shawnee tribal life – the festive Corn Dance took place around harvest time in late August to give thanks for their crops. Then in late September, under what they called the Paw Paw moon, the Shawnee celebrated their New Year with the Bread Dance, their most sacred tribal ritual. It was presided over by a leader from the Shawnee spiritual clan, the Pekowi. A sort of coed bonfire lit soccer game proceeded and then an orater implored the Master of Life for a bountiful harvest, good hunting season, and the general welfare of the tribe. A social dance ensued. From December to March the Shawnee hunted in nomadic camps, returning to their villages to plant in the Spring.
Unfortunately no descendants have published a Shawnee cookbook, so the only records we have of their cuisine are from white adoptees who were kidnapped in frontier raids as children and integrated into the tribes. Both Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton were short-term adult captives/adoptees by the Shawnee, both of whom as a result developed deep respect for their culture.
Every year I look forward to getting a box of Greek pastries handmade by the Yiayias (grandmothers) at the St. Nicholas Panegyri festival in Finneytown. They have everything from my favorite apricot filled Pasta Flora to honey drenched kataifi. A few of the gyro shops around town make their own baklava. But aside from that, a good assortment of authentic Greek pastries is hard to come by in Cincinnati. My cravings for them need to be satisfied more than just once or twice a year. It’s surprising given the size of our Greek community which supports the running of the Cincinnati Chili Industry that there aren’t more Greek bakeries. That was until this weekend, when Fillo Greek Pastry Shop opened on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine. Their name is a clever play on Phyllo dough and filling of a cup (of coffee or cocktail).
Fillo has renovated a sleek corner location with lots of windows to observe the street scene and be seen. The interior is clean, contemporary, with comfy low booths and tables, and has a distinct Euro café feel. Two large refrigerated pastry merchandisers make your mouth drop at the seemingly endless varieties of Greek confections. And they have a large expensive la Cimbali expresso machine behind the counter for the making of deluxe coffee drinks. Because it was their opening, they had samples of a dense honey bathed sponge cake, and a custardy fruit parfait served in champagne flutes. It’s a Greek hospitality tradition to be very generous at an opening.
Having seen their soft opening notice on social media, I made a point to stop by to assess the situation Saturday afternoon. As it turns out, I couldn’t have come at a better time. The place was packed and the pastries were going faster than you could yell “OPA!.” They sold their last leek pastry (which I SO wanted to try) under my nose as I was chatting with the friendly owner, a middle aged Greek immigrant.
The owner is from central Greece in the area of Lamia, which has controlled flow of commerce from Southern to Northern Greece since the Bronze Age. It was supposedly where the Spartan 300 fought. He says their regional specialty is pita (what we associate with puff pastry). And, they make it a bit thicker than the southern Athenian version, which is what we’re used to. Not only do they carry the standard spinach and feta filled spanakotyropita, but they have prasopita (leek filled), tyropita (feta filled), and my new fave, kolokithopita (pumpkin filled).
The pumpkin filled pita is not as cinnamon-forward or sweet as most pumpkin pies and the pita dough is a lot lighter than the standard pumpkin pie crust. So, for me pumpkin season is now centered around Filla, not Frisch’s. In Greece, kolokithopita is usually filled with zucchini, but I like the way Filla does it with pumpkin. Think of all these pita offerings as a lighter version of our German struedel and not as sweet. The owner and I had a discussion of how the Austrians stole the struedel from the Turks, who, he says stole it from the Greeks! Don’t disagree with a Greek that they invented the pita!
In addition to several varieties of baklava, they had small thumbprint cookies topped with berry, caramel, or Bavarian cream, with a filling of honeyed nuts, like baklava. I tried the cream and berry topped ones and they are amazingly delicious. They will be at any cocktail party I host or go to in the future. I will go back to try the Bougatsa, which is a flaky puff pastry filled with cream and topped with cinnamon and sugar. It looks like the Greek version of our dense Cincinnati Cheese Crown.
They have redefined the sesame topped Koulouri, which is the Greek version of the bagel. Instead of being a ring, they have filled it with four cheeses and turned it into a baguette shaped bun for cutting into small pieces or stuffing the whole thing in your pie hole. I remember the owner telling me three of the cheeses its filled with – feta, cream cheese, and graviera, a hard rind sweet, nutty flavored cheese. I’ll be back for a taste of that also.
In addition to an even larger assortment of Greek pastries in the future, the owner says they will have small plates and a cocktail bar, with the obligatory ouzo, which they serve with ice in tall skinny glasses, not shot glasses. Off to the side they have a small market that sells imported Greek delicacies. The owner invited me back for an ouzo and his specialty, sand percolated Greek coffee. I can see myself there many nights in the future with friends after a night of live music at Ghost Baby or Queen City Radio.
I recently bought a travel magazine listing the 50 dishes you must eat in Chicago before you die. I’ve eaten my way through Chicago many times on business and pleasure. I’ve had every deep dish pizza from Giordanno’s to Gino’s. I’ve eaten Italian beef, Greek flaming cheese, Polish pierogi, Afghani meat stews, Japanese street food, Chicago Steaks, and Portillo’s hot dogs. But, I thought it was an epic fail that there was no mention of the Palmer House Brownie. The brownie is as iconic American as apple pie and chocolate chip cookies. It’s so ingrained in American pop culture that is even has its own National Brownie Day on December 8.
The luscious chocolate confection we call the brownie was created in Chicago through the vision of philanthropist socialite Bertha Honore Palmer for the 1893 Chicago Exhibition commonly known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Her husband Potter Palmer owned the popular Palmer House Hotel. She reigned supreme as the unsurmountable Queen of Chicago Society from their Norman Revival castle on Lakeshore Drive. She held salon and entertained in her house filled with a large collection of French Impressionist paintings by Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Picasso Her power led her to be chief of many of the Chicago social organizations, including President of the Board of Lady managers for the Exhibition in 1893. So she was responsible for feeding hundreds of hangry, gloved, dressed-to-the-nines, rich socialites who would be coming to the Women’s Pavilion at what was called “The White City.”
Luckily, she had one of the best German chefs in all of Chicago at her disposal, Chef Joseph Seyl. At the time, it was the cadre of German immigrant chefs who reigned supreme at the best restaurants, which were in the elegant hotels. The French chefs in the city all held minor positions in that Gilded Age restaurant world.
She asked Chef Seyl to create a delicious portable dessert that could be included in the boxed lunches for the ladies, and could be eaten less messily and more dignified than a piece of pie or cake. What came out of Seyl’s brilliant mind is the decadent chocolate brownie that is still served today at the Palmer House hotel and should be on that list of 50 Chicago things to eat before you die. Seyl’s recipe calls for an apricot glaze that’s brushed over the top hot right when the brownies are taken from the oven, and topped with walnuts, instead of integrating them into the dough. He knew that baking walnuts in a dough, rather than just pan warming them, makes them lose a lot of their delicious oils. The apricot glaze acts as a sort of glue or praline to keep the walnuts on top of the fudgey brownie beneath. While brownies come in two schools – fudgey or cakey, the Palmer House brownie is a rich fudgey version. And while I’m a corner brownie guy, I do like a bit of gooieness in the center with my crunchy corners. And who doesn’t like a warm apricot glaze?
After a rousing success amongst Chicago’s elegant ladies, the brownie was brought back to the Palmer House and served regularly on its menu, where it is still served using that same 1893 recipe.
Chef Joseph Seyl (1841-1921) was born in the Prussian-Rhineland in the town of Horchheim to Peter Seyl and Adelina Zuendorf. He arrived in America in 1856, settling in Chicago in 1859. He worked in several kitchens in the 1860s in Chicago including the restaurant at the Sherman House, as second cook and worked himself up to head cook. Originally hired by Palmer in 1871 as the Chef de Cuisine, the Great Chicago fire put a hold in his first year of employment as the hotel was destroyed in the fire. But his loyalty during the rebuilding hiatus won Palmer’s admiration and lifelong friendship. When herculean rebuilding efforts allowed reopening of the hotel in 1873, Chef Seyl was given the role of steward, which in addition to being honcho chef, he was also chief provisioner or buyer.
Seyl didn’t create fancy French foods, he made good comfy American family foods that the common folk could enjoy. His kitchen was maybe more of an upscale Cracker Barrel, than a Ritz Carlton. So it’s appropriate he invented a comfort food dish that every class of American enjoys. At a time when hotels showed their prowess with large scale catered luncheons, Seyl was famous for integrating a native home dish for visiting groups. For example when the Maryland society feasted there in 1898, he served them “Oysters and biscuits from home.” When President Grover Cleveland dined at the Palmer in 1887, he catered to Cleveland’s love of meat and homey fair, serving roasted, smoked and tenderloin of beef, lambchops and turkey.
He was no celebrity chef, unlike other chefs who put their names in the papers and named dishes after themselves. Chef Seyl preferred to be in the back of the house and give all the prestige of his amazing cookery to his employers, the Palmers. Despite that, he was considered the Dean of Chefs and instructed many who would go on and become great chefs in their own rights. He was kind of like a Gilded Age Jean Robert.
He ran the kitchens at the Palmer House from 1871 to his retirement in 1917. During those forty plus years he saw the stove go from charcoal to gas, the electrification of the kitchen, the entire delocalization of food with Chicago’s many transit lines. He presided over some large crisis including a rival oyster house in 1875 that moved in under the hotel, the great tenant walkout of 1884, and a foodworker’s union strike in 1890. His funeral in 1921 was attended by all the adoring food industry and he is interred at Graceland cemetery in Chicago, where you can leave him a brownie bit and maybe a glass of milk.
The first reference to the chocolate “brownie” in America appears in the Sears Roebuck Catalog published in Chicago in 1897. It became so popular the Sears Roebuck company sold their own brownie mix. That product probably became a thing because one of Chef Seyl’s proteges, Chef Knapp, went to Sears and Roebuck after working 14 years with Seyl.
A recipe called “Brownie’s Food” appeared in the 1899 Machias cookbook on page 23 in the cake section of the book. Marie Kelley from Whitewater, Wisconsin, created the recipe. The Brownies referred to were the popular comic imps who had just made it to print in 1893 at the hand of Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox. They were based on Scottish folktales and came out at night to perform their mischief.
By 1907, the brownie was established in its now recognizable chocolate fudgey form, appearing in Lowney’s cookbook by Maria Willet Howard as an adaptation of the Boston Cooking School recipe for a “Bangor Brownie.” Adding an extra egg and one more chocolate square, it created a more indulgent version. The name Bangor Brownie appears to have been taken from the town of Bangor, Maine (the setting for many Steven King novels…) from which an apocryphal story states the brownie was invented there by an unnamed housewife. Maybe Stephen King should consider a brownie horror story.
Variations of the brownie abound. There’s the minty grasshopper brownies; caramelly brownies, brownies with berry jams, brownies with peanut butter or butterscotch chips. There’s the cheesecake brownie and all its permutations. There are even blondies that use brown sugar or molasses instead of chocolate.
My mom made the most decadent of brownies – Rocky Road Fudge – a love child of the blondie and the fudgey style brownie with added marshmallows, chocolate chips and walnuts. My sister fed us Easy Bake Oven brownies, cooked in minutes by UV light. My baker uncle developed cake and brownie mixes for decades while working for Proctor & Gamble’s. I now make my own keto brownies with a natural non-sugar that I can’t pronounce and gluten free almond flour. I admit they’re nowhere near as delicious as a gooey Duncan Hines brownie, but they kill a craving and don’t spike my blood sugar. Locally, Dorothy Lane Market in Dayton has invented the killer brownie, which are now shipped nationally and come in over a dozen insulin-depleting varieties.
The most interesting variation on the brownie came about in the early 1960s and descend from a recipe for “Hashish Fudge” that appeared in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Toklas, the life partner of writer Gertrude Stein, received the recipe from her good friend Brion Gysin. Brion’s fudge was more like an energy bar than what we think of as a modern chocolate brownie. They were a pulverized mix of dates, figs, peanuts, cinnamon, black peppercorns, nutmeg and coriander. Ironically it was not even baked! Alice warned not to eat more than two ball sized pieces of this fudge. And although it was omitted from the first American editions, Toklas’ name and her “brownies” became synonymous with cannabis growing and 1960s counterculture.
Then in the 1980s the hash brownie played an important role during the AIDS crisis. Mary Jane Rathburn, popularly known as Brownie Mary, was an American medical cannabis rights activist. As a hospital volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital, she became known for baking and distributing cannabis-infused chocolate brownies to AIDS patients to give them a bit of respite in their last days. This is where we get the nickname Mary Jane for cannabis. Appropriately enough, Mary Jane was born in Chicago, the birthplace of the brownie in 1922, within the year its inventor Chef Seyl died. How’s that for the Circle of Life? Her mother was a conservative Irish Catholic and she was raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota in Catholic schools before moving to San Fran.
Along with activist Dennis Peron, Rathbun lobbied for the legalization of cannabis for medical use, and she helped pass San Francisco Proposition P (1991) and California Proposition 215 (1996) which achieved that. She contributed to the establishment of the Sand Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first medical dispensary in the United States.
Rathbun was arrested on three occasions, with each arrest bringing increased local, national, and international media attention to the medical cannabis movement. Her grandmotherly appearance generated public sympathy for her cause and undermined attempts by the district attorney’s office to prosecute her for possession. The City of San Francisco eventually gave Rathbun permission to distribute cannabis brownies to people with AIDS. Her arrests generated interest in the medical community and motivated researchers to propose one of the first clinical trials to study the effect of cannabinoids in HIV-infected adults. Rathbun is truly a hero of modern health care. Now maybe today if we put the COVID-19 vaccine in a brownie we’d have a higher vaccination rate.
Chef Joseph Seyl had no idea how widely integrated his brownie creation would be into American culture. Something tells me he’d be happy at how much joy and happiness it has created, especially the hash brownie.
This summer I’ve been tasting various pork rinds and chicharrones. I’ve been doing the Keto diet and one of the few snacks I’m allowed to have are pork rinds. I’m a fan of the Grippos, because of their spice, shape and crunch, but have also found some tasty Latin American versions – like the chili lime – at local gas stations. Shape and crunch are important to me in a good pork rind. Some brands have pieces so large they’re hard to fit into your mouth. I like a one bite size rind piece.
I recently found that the Cincinnati Italians – particularly those whose families immigrated from the Calabrian village of Fuscolda – make their own hyper regional pork rinds. The family of Tony Ramundo, who owns Ramundo’s pizza in Mt. Lookout, is one such family. His family has made their own Calabrian sausage, with garden grown fennel and Calabrian peppers for generations.
The fat trimmings from the pork shoulder that they use to make the sausage is saved, cut up into small pieces and fried into what the Fuscoldese call “frizzerati.” These can be used as a snack like pork rinds or sprinkled on pizza, or baked into focaccia called Pane con Ciccioli or, as Buona Vita Pizzeria in Dayton, Kentucky called it Fuscoldese Pizza. They might be served alongside homemade wine while playing an Italian card game called scopa, which is very entertaining to watch as it has many variations on standard rules and there can be much banter in between hands.
The Cincinnati Fuscoldese community centered around the Italian Catholic parishes of Sacred Heart in Downtown and later Camp Washington, and San Antonio in Fairmount’s Little Italy. Remnants of this Fuscaldese community can be found in Blue Oven Bakery, Buona Vita Pizzeria , Ramundos in Mount Lookout, Pompilio’s in Newport, and Gabby’s in Wyoming. A mural of the town of Fuscalda is immortalized on the wall of Pompilio’s in Newport. There were women’s and a men’s Fuscoldese Societies in Cincinnati who preserved the culture and networked with each other.
The word frizzerati, used by the Fuscoldese for this pork crackling, is a hyper-regional, version of the more commonly used name, ciccioli. It’s kind of like the German word for goetta, which is a hyper-regional village dialect. And, instead of the pork shoulder that frizzerati uses, the more common version uses fat back. In the rest of Calabria, where the village of Fuscolda lies, they are known as risimugli. But in central Italy, the names used are different: siccioli, lardinzi, frittole, sprittoli, and scittole. Throughout the various regions in Italy they have even more dialectual variations. In Emilia Romana around Bologna, they are known as grasul; in Piacenza, graso; in Ferrarese, greppole; in Brescianao, grasooli; in Modena, Lazio, and Umbria, sfrizzoli, and in the Piedmont, grasette.
In addition to the focaccia made with these fatty and crunchy pork bits, there is a special kind of savory pie called pizza ai ciccioli that Italians enjoy with an apertivo before dinner.
I would love for the Cincy Italian community to bring these back and serve at the Cinci Italian Fest in Newport. Maybe even Sacred Heart could have an option to crumble them over their delicious “pillows of heaven,” or spinach ravioli, at their biannual Spaghetti & Ravioli Dinner.
Food and art go hand-in-hand. Does your dining room wall contain a large painting or piece of art that enhances the experience? My own dining room has two mural sized paintings, and my childhood home had a carved wooden Last Supper and a painting of the immigrant ship on which my father’s family came over to America. There are several restaurants in Cincinnati with epic murals that create great ambience. The interesting thing is that the mural and modern interior restaurant design were invented by Winold Reiss, the German immigrant who designed our rotunda and industry mosaic murals at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Visitors can enjoy a hotdog, hamburger, and snacks under the brilliance of his mosaics before seeing a Omnimax movie or visiting one of the museums.
Reiss is known more for his Indian portraits commissioned for the calendars of the Great Northern Railroad, and his portraits of famous Harlem renaissance figures for Alaine Locke’s book, The New Negro. But lesser known is that he was the creative mind who set the template for the design of the modern restaurant.
After Winold Reiss designed our murals in 1933, he went on to New York City to design interiors and paint murals at about a half dozen Longchamps restaurant locations in Manhattan – Louis VX murals, Indian Mosaic Murals, City of the Future Murals (mirroring the Cincinnati Union Terminal Murals), abstract art deco murals, and an epic International Mural scene encompassing two floors at the Broadway location. He redefined the look, layout, furnishing, lighting, and decoration of New York’s best restaurants and bars, with elegant and stylish exteriors and interiors for the Café Bonaparte, Steuben Tavern, and the Crillon, Robert, Rumpelmayer, Dunhall’s, St. James, Lindy’s, and all of the Longchamps restaurants. Reiss exported his New York “look” with designs for the Hess Brothers Patio Room in Allentown, the Hotel President in Kansas City, the Longchamps in Washington, the Tavern Club and Sherman House in Chicago, and the Chic-n-Coop in Montréal, while many others emulated his work around the country. He even designed menus, logos, confectionery tins, and merchandisers for these restaurants and many other retail venues.
The mural as a central focus of the restaurant made it into many legacy restaurants in Cincinnati, and the Art Museum has four great examples of this new period in restaurant design. Two murals and one epic mobile from the Terrace Park Hotel are on display in the art museum. New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinburg’s “Mural of Cincinnati,” highlighting local scenes like the Roebling Bridge, the Tyler Davidson Fountain, and the Mt Adams incline, graced the Skyline Restaurant. One of the largest Calder mobiles every made graced the lobby, and an abstract mural by Juan Miro, graced the rooftop Five Michelin Star Gourmet Room. Both are now appropriately displayed across from the Museum’s café, which has a wall mural of framed rabbit paintings.
Another piece of that early time period on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum are Rookwood tile murals designed by William Purcell McDonald, from the old Mills Cafeteria in downtown Cincinnati. The restaurant was started in Columbus, Ohio, and had a Dutch windmill theme with Rookwood tile murals throughout. During the 1940s it was called “the most beautiful restaurant in the country.”
Grammer’s Café in Over-the-Rhine has a Germanic café scene and Rhine river mural in its entryway bar area. Although it’s now closed, many steins of beer and many plates of German sausage or schnitzel have been consumed under these murals.
An epic mural I have always loved since a kid is the Italian immigrant scene inside the Sacred Heart Cafeteria in Camp Washington, where the delicious Sacred Heart Spinach Ravioli Dinner is held twice a year. It’s about the size of Rembrandt’s gigantic Night Watch on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and I have always equated it with that painting’s quality. The artist was a Sicilian-American, Giovanni Cangelosi. The painting features Bishop Scalabrini in the center leading a group of Italian immigrants to America. To the right are a group of contemporary Italian religious figures, like Don Guanella, and St. Francis Xavier Cabrinini, praying for the newly arrived immigrants. Although the Camp Washington church was originally a German parish, it merged in 1969 with the Italian Sacred Heart parish in downtown Cincinnati and the Italians brought the mural which graced the main altar niche in their now demolished church.
The majority of these families came from the Calabrian village of Fuscalda. That village is the spiritual ground zero for many of the Italian foods we eat in Cincinnati. Fuscaldese families were the DiStasis (tailors), the Ramundos (pizza), and the Mazzeis (restaurants). Other remnants of this Fuscaldese community are Blue Oven Bakery and Buona Vita Pizzeria (which has a Fuscaldese Pizza), Ramundos in Mount Lookout (which makes their own Calabrese sausage), Pompilio’s in Newport, and Gabby’s in Wyoming. A mural of the town of Fuscalda is immortalized on the wall of Pompilio’s in Newport.
Arthur’s in Hyde Park has a great mural covering one entire wall. From 1981 to 1992, Jerry Dowling, a Cincinnati Enquirer illustrator, painted caricatures of 142 regulars on a 44-foot wall. Customers who enjoyed happy hour then come for Hamburger Madness today. But preserved by cigarette and beer stains, as Dowling jests, the mural is a memory of fun and foolishness.
One of my favorite murals in Cincinnati is the mural at Jeff Ruby’s steak house downtown. The characters in the mural are taken from art deco portraits by one of my favorites, the Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka to add to an overall French art deco theme in the restaurant. Characters of the Roaring 1920s are shown,like Lempicka’s own husband Tjark, the Duchess de La Salle far left in yellow, and American actress Marjorie Ferry in the red dress far right. It’s reminiscent of the very art deco New York Russian Tea Room, which houses two actual Tamara de Lempicka paintings.
The Moerlein Lager house has a massive mural across from the main bar, showing the beer barons of Cincinnati like Moerlein, Hudepohl, Mulhauser, Hauck and Bruckmann, who my Woellert ancestors partied with in Cumminsville. The mural is expertly painted by local artist Jim Effler, who has for the last twenty years painted the Bockfest posters. The Moerlein Lager house hosts the Beer Baron Hall of Fame, to which two Cincinnati barons are inducted at each Bockfest.
There are two murals by Wyoming artist C.F. Payne, who was done countless cover art for numerous magazines like Rolling Stone and Reader’s Digest. The only mural of a Cincinnati chili parlor graces the walls of the Gold Star Chili parlor in Newport, Kentucky. And a 100 foot mural of playwrights and actors eating Cincinnati chili and pizza, by Payne graces the café inside the Playhouse in the Park Theatre in Mt. Adams.
Speaking of pizza, murals from the original LaRosa’s pizza parlor by artist William Hemsath are on display at various locations, including the Mariemont Square take out location.
And, a large epic mural of downtown Dayton, Kentucky (including my grandparents’ Ling’s Pastry Shoppe) which donned the back wall of Christofield’s Chili Parlor was unfortunately painted over by new tenants Galactic Fried Chicken.
In the spirit of art patronage by millionaire Nicholas Longworth, Vinoklet Winery’s dining room in Colerain Township has two murals by local artist Tracy Bezesky, depicting our area’s wine history.
Several new taco restaurants embrace the mural in their restaurants. Casa Figueroa in Pleasant Ridge have a giant mermaid mural in their outdoor dining area. And Condado Tacos in Oakley has an astronaut themed mural by local artist Jason Snell, which features an image of the Cincinnati Observatory in nearby Mt. Lookout.
Quatman Café in Norwood, which I think has the best hamburger in Cincinnati, has a mosaic mural of founder Albert Imm (1940-2007), by artists John and Marcia Koverman.
Sugar and Spice in Avondale has a jolly pancake mural that surrounds diners on several walls in the comfy food diner.
There are many more great murals in other Greater Cincinnati restaurants and I think there should be a coffee table book that records them.
When dissecting the weird foods of the Buckeye State, we have to recognize that there are five very distinct Ohios. That is the reason we are such a political bellweather and why many fast food corporations test market in Ohio. Each of these five regions is different in both its ethnic history and reflects different areas of the country. Southwest Ohio is conservative with an early Rhineland and an antebellum north Germanic and Southern Flavor. Northeast Ohio is post industrial with a pre World War I Eastern European influence and feels like the American Northeast. Northwest Ohio is a rural farming region that feels like the American West, but also has a Germanic immigrant influence. Southeast Ohio is Appalacia, and Central Ohio is modern with a suburban feel.
Southwest Ohio around Cincinnati has enough weird foods – Starting with the oddball Greek/Macedonian influenced Cincinnati Chili – the threeway and the cheese coney. There’s even a Cincinnati oyster cracker, which is hollow, so you can inject hot sauce into it and make an oyster cracker bomb. They are not the hard, thick starchy oyster crackers used to float in Northeastern seafood chowders.
We have the Germanic influenced foods like goetta, Johnny-in-the-bag blood sausage, and our Cincinnati White Brat, based on the Bavarian Weisswurst. Then we have more recent mutations like Hanky Panky, the melty cheddar and ground beef party mix brought back by GIs from World War II mess halls. We also have cottage ham, the fish log, city chicken (which is really pork), and Germanic mock turtle soup. Then we have some beloved brands like Frisch’s tartar sauce, which dresses the majority of our current and historic double decker hamburgers, instead of the pink thousand island knockoff sauces used by McDonald’s.
There’s the Cincinnati schnitzel, which is a breaded pork patty pounded thin and then topped with a variety of sauces like Jaegerschnitzel – a tomato and mushroom brown gravy. German restaurants like the former Lehnhardt’s in Clifton, had nearly a dozen varieties, including one topped with anchovies and fried egg. Newer restaurants like the Luebecker are carrying on the schnitzel tradition in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati also has a beloved barbecue potato chips from Grippos, for which you can now buy the spice blend separately. Although there’s not a Grippo Chip Festival, yet, they’re incorporated into anything from ice cream sundaes, grilled cheese, and mac and cheese.
At one time Ohio was the second largest producer of independent potato chips, second only to Pennsylvania. Tiffin, Ohio’s chip producer Ballreich’s invented the wavy or ridged potato chip, or as it was called, the “marcelled chip”, after a popular 1920s women’s hairstyle.
From a confectionary standpoint, Cincinnati bakeries invented something called the cheese cup. It’s a dense Germanic quark-like cream cheese filled pastry, sometimes incorporating cherry or other topping. It’s Ohio’s answer to St. Louis’ gooey butter coffee cake.
There’s a pastry/cookie that has three names in Ohio. It’s called the Crème Horn in Cincinnati, and is a light spiraled pastry dough, filled with thick crème. They can be had at such local bakeries as Little Dutch Bakery in Mt. Healthy, Regina Bakery in Cheviot, or St. Lawrence Bakery in Price Hill. In Youngstown, Ohio, they’re called the Clothespin cookie, because the dough was originally wrapped around clothespins and baked like a German version of a cannoli. In Eastern, Ohio, around Steuben, they’re called Ladlylocks. And in that area, they are a common ingredient to the Wedding Cookie Table
Columbus has an Italian-American cake called the Cassatta Cake, which is a yellow sponge with custard and strawberry filling, adapted from the original Sicilian variety which uses candied fruits and ricotta cheese like a cannoli filling. Cleveland has a Jewish-influenced confection – the Coconut Bar, which are cakes dipped in chocolate and flaked coconut, similar to a Hostess Zinger.
Cincinnati also has two candy creations unique to our area – the cloyingly sweet cream filled Opera Cream chocolate, and the super chewy taffy like chewy nougat called Doscher’s French Chew.
Cincinnati’s long time confectioner Mullane’s invented the Nectar Soda, a bitter almond-vanilla flavored pink ice cream soda that tastes a bit like poundcake. New Orleans takes credit, but Mullane brought the flavor to Cincinnati from confectionery training in French Montreal Canada.
One weird food combo that speaks to Southwest Cincinnati’s southern connection is salmon cakes with canned spaghetti, a combo that travelled with the Great Migration of African Americans to northern factory towns.
We can thank local millionaire Old Nick Longworth for our version of sweet muscato wines, the Sweet Catawba made by both Cincinnati wineries, like Meiers, and Lake Erie Wineries, like Heinemann Winery, which also makes a Sweet Ives wine, a native grape that was originally cultivated in Cincinnati’s Indian Hill and Madeira East Side Neighborhoods.
Going from Southwest Ohio to southeast Ohio, our native pawpaws are an exotic fruit not found in grocery stores because of its extremely short shelf life. We incorporate them into baked breads, ice cream and beer. There’s even an Ohio Pawpaw Festival.
If you follow Interstate 75 north along the former Erie Canal and the Germanic settlements, you find the Germanic cousins of Goetta. In Auglaize County, north of Dayton, in and around Minster, Ohio, you have German grits, which is a grain sausage that uses pinhead oats. Further north in Henry County, around Napoleon,Ohio, you have another cousin called prettles, another grain sausage using pinhead oats. The only difference between goetta and these grain sausages are that they do not incorporate onions, because the immigrants who brought them to Ohio came from swampy lands of Northwest Germany, where onions were not grown.
The eastern European influence is felt in and around Barberton, Ohio, with Barberton or Serbian fried chicken, served with a spicy tomato-and-rice dipping sauce. That same influence can also be felt in pierogis in and around the Cleveland area, as well as the tangy, mildly spicy Chicken Paprikash.
There’s a battle between Akron and Cincinnati as to who invented the sauerkraut ball, an appetizer that’s sold by the thousands at bars and festivals in both cities. Akron’s includes the sour cabbage delicacy with meat bits, but the Cincinnati version includes a cream cheese, which indicates an independent invention from the Akron Sauerkraut Ball. Cincinnati Germanic restaurants were serving the balls before World War II, so we can document an earlier origin story than Akron. And, in Cincinnati we also have another version that has mutated – the Goetta ball.
Ohio is said to be the birthplace of the hamburger, invented in 1885 by two brothers from Akron, Fred and Charles Menches, who claimed to have invented it. For the enterprising Menches Brothers, it was at the Eire County Fair in – where else – Hamburg, Pennsylvania. They were food vendors at the prestigious fair and ran out of sausages. To restock, they ran to the local butcher for help. Being the dog days of summer – September 18 to be exact – the butcher was reluctant to slaughter another hog in the heat and suggested they use ground beef instead. The brothers experimented with a patty to fry on the grill, adding coffee and brown sugar for extra flavor. A fairgoer was attracted to the heavenly aroma, ordered one, and the hamburger was born. For the last decade or so Akron hosts the National Hamburger Festival to promote their local hamburger heroes. Ohio has also been the headquarters of the White Castle Corporation since 1933, and it was here that a Cincinnati franchisee suggested and introduced the six-holed slider patty to help its cook time and reduce cost during the Depression
In addition to the cheese coney and the Cincinnati white brat, we also have some other weird dogs. There is the Spanish hot dog. It’s basically sloppy joe sauce on a hot dog in a steamed bun, making a Manwhichey sort of chili dog or coney. It’s the love child of a Cincinnati Coney, and a sloppy joe. Although they’ll put chopped onions and warm Cheese Whiz on it, the original B & K Spanish dog is just the sauce. Cleveland has the Polish Boy hot dog which is Polish kielbasa sausage, barbecue and cole slaw, sometimes fries, and sometimes potato chips.
Representing Central Ohio around the Columbus area, there is a casserole dish called Johnny Marzetti. It is a casserole of macaroni noodles, cheese, ground beef, and vegetables covered in tomato sauce. It was first served by Ohioan Teresa Marzetti at her Italian restaurant on Broad Street. The restaurant was started in 1919 by her Italian immigrant family who arrived in America in 1896.
Columbus has Ohio Nachos, which are alfredo sauce with blue cheese and chives on top of kettle chips. Columbus is home to Wendy’s fast food restaurants, and we Ohioans like to dip Wendy’s fries in their chocolate Frosty.
When it comes to pizza, we have Dayton Style thin crust pizza, like that served by Marian’s Pizza or the Pizza King. Marian’s has a distinct sausage with fennel seed that is out of this world. Cleveland has the very unique Pizza Bagel. We also have a weird pizza thing in southwest and central Ohio, where we dip it in Ranch dressing.
Ohio Amish country in Dundee, Ohio, has Troyer’s Trail Bologna, which many use to make a fried bologna sandwich.
From Northwest, Ohio is the Ham Roll. It’s like a meatloaf, but made with ground smoked ham and pork, some sort of cracker meal like saltines or Ritz crackers, egg, onion, usually pineapple bits, and sometimes maraschino cherries and spices. It is usually served with a sweet, barbecue like glaze made of apple cider vinegar, brown sugar or Coca-Cola, and mustard. Sometimes the acid component of the vinegar is replaced by pineapple juice. The ham loaf has been made by butchers in middle and northeast Ohio since about the 1950s, maybe earlier. But it’s the Amish and Mennonites of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who have the rightful claim to its origin. It’s been a staple of their community since the late 1800s. The ham loaf appears on the menus of any Amish family style restaurant and is present in any Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch cookbook.
Also from that area of Ohio is Guiggisburg Baby Swiss cheese, invented by Alfred Guggisburg in the 1960s. His objective was to come up with a taste that was more favorable to the less-developed American palate. The main differences with this cheese was that it featured smaller “eyes” (holes) and had a creamier taste. Alfred’s wife, Margaret Guggisberg, christened the new cheese “Baby Swiss” after she saw a wheel of it next to the much larger wheel of traditional Emmental Swiss. Guggisberg Baby Swiss Cheese was launched and Alfred’s cheese house began producing larger quantities of Baby Swiss wheels for the local community.
Ohio ranks first nationally in the production of Swiss cheese. Ohio produces over 138 million pounds of Swiss cheese a year, more than one-third of the nation’s total output (321 million pounds). Ohio is not only the leading producer of the dairy product, but is also credited for its creation. Swiss cheese is not from Switzerland, but from Ohio. The name “Swiss cheese”, is the North American cheese which shares a resemblance to Emmental cheese which originated in the Emmental region of Switzerland. Swiss cheese production began in the mid 1800′s as numerous Swiss immigrants started producing on farms in Tuscarawas and Holmes counties.Today, Brewster Dairy in Brewster, Ohio is considered to be the largest manufacturer of all-natural Swiss in the United States. The company alone produces 85 million pounds of Swiss cheese each year.
The Ohio Swiss immigrants also founded Isaly’s ice cream, which created the first chocolate covered novelty ice cream bar, the Klondike bar.
There are some weird food combos that likely came from grade school lunchrooms. There is the concept of Peanut Butter Sandwiches dipped in chili in Mercer County. There are some regions of Ohio that dip Oreos in Salsa.
Representing the northeast region are the Ohio Clam Bake which include clams, chicken, sweet potatoes, corn and other side dishes.
We have two sloppy Joe-like, loose-meat sandwiches native to Ohio. There’s the shredded chicken sandwich that’s a specialty of Northern and Central Ohio. It is made by cooking and fork-shredding chicken that is then cooked in chicken broth or condensed chicken soup with flour, bread crumbs, or crushed potato chips. The combination is seasoned with black pepper before being served on hamburger buns. The sandwich was especially popular in the 1960s, when it was a staple of school lunch menus, dairy bars, and church gatherings.
The second of these is the Maid Rite sandwich from Greenville, Ohio. A Maid Rite sandwich can be compared to a very dry yet flavorful sloppy joe with a touch of onion, mustard, and pickles.
Although overlooked and understudied, Ohio probably has the greatest food diversity and the largest number of weird hyper-regional foods of any state in the Union. And there are probably many more than the top fifty I’ve mentioned.
In the year 1774, four years before the American Revolution, the British Chemist Humphrey Jackson became a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemists. In 1760 he had discovered and patented the method to make isinglass from the membrane of the sounds or swim bladders of the common cod and ling fishes. You could make it at home, and didn’t need expensive and hard to find Russian sturgeon. Before his discovery, isinglass was received through Dutch traders, who obtained it through Russian merchants.
But why was isinglass so important to colonial kitchens? Well, there were two reasons. Commonly known as fish glue, it was used as a clarifying agent to flocculate out particles like yeast used in the fermentation of beer. Cool – now a cheap way to clarify and make your beer not so chewy. The second was that it was a particularly pure form of gelatin that could be used in cooking, for aspics and blancmangers. Before the entrée of commercial jello and gelatin on the scene in the early 1900s, this was how colonials like Thomas Jefferson were able to make super-fun, molded, jiggly desserts. And, it didn’t impart a fishy taste to what it stiffened.
Isinglass had several uses besides cooking and clarification. It was also used by monks to glue gold leaf into manuscripts. And, before refrigeration it was used for preserving fresh eggs, because it could help prevent bacteria from getting into the eggs and moisture from getting out.
Jefferson’s fave jiggly dessert that used isinglass was something called the Blancmanger. It was a sweet cream with crushed roasted sweet and bitter almonds made into a paste, cinnamon, coriander seeds, lemon peel and laurel leaves. It was garnished with currant jelly and quartered Seville oranges. Many of the hundreds of the guests Jefferson entertained at his Monticello estate were treated to Blancmanger for dessert. Jefferson’s recipe comes from 1788, after Dr. Jackson made isinglass available to the masses with his method of extraction.
If you’re a fan of Monty Python, there was a sketch where Andy Murray defeats an alien race of blancmange who try to win Wimbledon by turning all Englishmen into Scots, who are supposedly bad at tennis.
Unfortunately isinglass’ finder was not all that brilliant and kind of a charlatan. His method for extracting isinglass was just a copy of the same procedure used by the Russians to extract it from sturgeon bladders. Ok, he did teach the British that it could be make cheaply and easily from the common codfish. And he apparently duped Henry Thrale, the owner of England’s biggest brewery with his scheme of experimenting with making beer without malt and hops, sending him into financial ruin. So although he brought the wiggle to desserts for the masses, Dr. Jackson was blacklisted by the brewing industry and his name tarnished to history.