Gordonsville Virginia, the Birthplace of Fast Food Fried Chicken

African-American fried chicken ‘waiter carriers’ at the train stop in Gordonsville, Virginia, in the early 1900s.

After visiting Montpelier this past weekend, the home of President James Madison, I stopped in a little town about 20 minutes away called Gordonsville, Virginia.    It is home to a very popular restaurant called the Barbecue Exchange, known for its amazing ‘cue and fantastic sides like spicy cole slaw and pumpkin muffins, both of which I sampled.   I got there right at the lunch rush and waited in line probably 25 minutes for my lunch.

The restaurant is a small little roadside stop near the railroad tracks in Gordonsville’s historic downtown.   While the ‘cue was as amazing as all the reviews promised, I learned in Richmond from the gal at the Virginia Historical Society that they’re actually better known for their fried chicken.   In fact, Gordonsville is known as the fried chicken capital of the world, and host a Fried Chicken Festival in May every year. This year the pandemic has delayed it to October 2. The fried chicken contest requires bone in, skin on and prepared in typical Southern-American fried style. A pie contest judging cream, fruit and custard pies accompanies the main contest.

Forget Kentucky and the Colonel.    This little town has been serving up fried chicken since the days of Reconstruction to hungry travelers.   In the 1840s Gordonsville became a stop on the Alexandria and Virginia Central Railroads.  Following the Civil War, the railroad continued to contribute to Gordonsville’s identity.    It remained a rail stop even after ownership transferred to the Chesapeake & Ohio.   It was at this time that Gordonsville earned the illustrious title of Chicken Capital of the World.

There were no dining cars on trains back then and some shrewd African-American women spotted a business opportunity and seized it.   This is when the chicken literally crossed the (rail)road.

Virginia slaves typically raised their own chickens to supplant the meager rations of cornmeal, salt pork and lard that their owners bestowed them.  They sometimes even sold their chickens to the owners to earn their own money. So fried chicken was something they made very well, as it was a common meal.

When the African-American women heard the train coming, they would run out carrying platters of fried chicken on their heads and sell to the people on the train. The chicken was so good that passengers would wait until Gordonsville to eat and the route became known as the Chicken Bone Express.

These enterprising, formerly enslaved women, were like the praline vendors of New Orleans, or the potlikker vendors of the Carolinas.    They achieved rare degrees of financial independence in the post-Emancipation days.    Many even bought and owned their own houses from selling fried chicken.

While there are few written sources to document the lives of these fried chicken ‘waiter carrier’ women, one great document is from northern journalists who traveled the South by train on goodwill tours.   They documented their trip through Gordonsville in an 1873 book called The Pine and the Palm Meeting.    They described it as follows:

“Upon the arrival of our special train, we were surrounded by a swarm of old and young negroes of both sexes, carrying large servers upon their heads containing pies, cakes, chickens, boiled eggs, strawberries and cream, ripe cherries, oranges, tea and coffee, biscuits, sandwiches, fried ham and eggs, and other edibles which they offered for sale.”

Wow – what a bounty to be offered when there was no dining cart available.   Of course it was the fried chicken that became the most famous, and travelers purposely routed themselves through Gordonsville to have a taste.

The Mock Turtle Soup of Hannah, President James Monroe’s Enslaved Cook

James Monroe’s Highland estate in Albermarle County, Virginia.

I just visited Charlottesville, Virginia, and the plantations of Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Although Jefferson’s Monticello is fantastic, and Madison’s Montpelier is amazing too, I think the stories that are and will continue to come out of Monroe’s Highland are the most fascinating.

James Monroe lived in a property abutting Jefferson’s Monticello in Albermarle County, Virginia, that he called Highland, after his father’s Scottish roots.    Although duty of secretary of state, president, and foreign minister called him and his family away for many of the four decades he lived at the property, his 50  slaves tended his tobacco and grain plantation continuously.

As a result of recent learnings, the historic site, owned by the college of William and Mary is now learning about and connecting with the descendants of Monroe’s enslaved population.      It was only in 2014 that the site learned of a community of his slaves and their descendants called Monroeville, that existed in plain sight for two centuries only a few miles from Highland.   At the same time, they learned that the house they were presenting as Monroe’s original house was not the real house at all, but a guesthouse built after the original house was built in 1799.    The original house was in front of the standing house and had burned to the ground after the Monroes sold the estate.     An obscure insurance document, a random archeological dig employed by the new executive director in 2014, and the tree-ring dating of dendocrenologists on the wood of the guesthouse, confirmed this.

One of the enslaved that they’re learning more about is one of the most important – the cook, named Hannah.     Hannah was originally owned by Charlottesville realtor and land speculator Peter Marks.   He had purchased land from James Monroe, and as collateral put up his 33 slaves, of which Hannah was one.    When Marks died in 1795 without fully paying his debt, Monroe’s uncle, Judge Joseph Jones, brokered their ownership for him while he was serving as Minister to France.      Hannah’s husband Dick was not purchased and her sons Dick and Wilson were purchased by someone else ahead of Jones.

A recreation of the slave quarters where cook Hannah and her family would lived on Monroe’s Highland Plantation.

What we do know about Hannah was that she was an adult by the time Monroe obtained her ownership, and she was ‘married to a man named Dick.   She and Dick had about nine children– Dick Jr., Wilson, Jesse, Spotswood, Charles, a daughter, Nelson and two other sons.

James Monroe was raised in Virginia, but his wife, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, was from New York.    So, although the Monroes ate what most other wealthy Virginians ate, some of their recipes have a Northern feel, from Mrs. Monroe’s upbringing.      The Highland site published a book of Monroe family recipes in 1988, which gives us a wonderful insight into the kitchen and dining table of one of the founding fathers.

The basement kitchen of what was thought until 2014 to be the original Monroe Highland house.

One of those recipes with a distinctly Northern feel is the Monroe’s Mock Turtle Soup.    While it resembles my Great Grandmother’s Cincinnati Style Mock turtle soup for the most part, there are two ingredients that have a distinctly African influence.    Both recipes use chopped or ground beef (Monroe’s add salt pork), carrots, onions, red wine, lemons and hard boiled eggs.     But the Monroe’s also included black beans and one red cayenne pepper.     These are amazing adders to a typically German and English dish.    Every West African soup, porridge or stew contained some type of bean.   You can imagine Hannah basing the stock for this soup on a spicy African soup that contained beans.   So when she was given the very English recipe for Mock Turtle Soup, she added her own African touches, which she probably learned from her mother, the Monroes liked it, and that became the standard for the recipe.   This is a perfect example of slave fusion cooking and the basis for how American food was invented, which was the adaptation from all of its immigrants.

We can conject that Hannah was born right before the time of the American Revolution, as she was an adult in the slave inventory of 1790 that Peter Marks used as collateral for the land he bought from Monroe.    So it’s likely that she was born in Virginia and it was either her mother or even grandmother who were born in Africa, and the method of cooking was passed onto Hannah through her matrilineal line.    Even though none of Jefferson’s slaves were born in Africa, cowrie shells, only native to Africa, were found in excavations of slave cabins on Mulberry Row at Monticello. This exhibits a clear passing down of African traditions in the Virginia slave communities of the Piedmont.

A very Virginian interpretation of the larder- pantry in the Monroe Highland guest house.

This is the uniqueness about Hannah, when compared to say Jefferson’s enslaved cook Edith Hern, who was trained in French cooking at the White House by Honore Julien –  that her recipes carry a distinct African flavor, rather than a French.   Even Madison’s enslaved cook Aisley Payne (another near neighbor of Jefferson and Monroe in Orange County, Virginia) used a French and Virginia hybrid style of cooking, more similar to Jefferson’s kitchen than the Monroe’s.

The ale and cider storage room in the basement kitchen of the Highland Guesthouse.

Other recipes in the Monroe family with an African influence were a recipes for Gumbo, curried fried fish, fried chicken, a type of fried oyster roll (like a New Orleans po-boy).   Although the recipe book by Highland claims the curried fish to come from the Monroe’s going out in London when they were serving as diplomats, it could also suggest an Afro-Caribbean slave origin as well. Other dishes in the Monroe family like Virginia ham; beaten biscuits, a type of biscuit made in the south before the invention of commercial baking soda; and pandowdy, a sort of apple crisp, were more local fare of the plantation.    Although the Monroes raised Merino sheep on the farm, there are few surviving recipes for any mutton based dishes.     The only mention of mutton is the Monroe version of macaroni and cheese, which called for beef or mutton gravy.   The Monroe family even liked Catawba wine, which they mixed into a super-alcoholic punch called Chatham Artillery Punch. Another version of the Virginia Mint Julip, called a Minted Fruit Cordial survives. Several other Monroe family cocktail recipes exist, indicating they were not teetotalers like some of their Albermale County neighbors!

The Unlucky German Chemist Who Unlocked the Magic of Cream of Tartar

My sister’s sister-in-law, Ann, is the queen of cookies.   I’m lucky to be one of her guinea pigs for her new recipes.   I’ve tasted countless chocolate chip cookies – the winner being the recipe with brown butter and sea salt. But last night she brought four batches of my fave cookie, the snickerdoodle, for us to taste.   The winner was the one with white chocolate chips and the highest amount of cinnamon.

For me, the brilliance of the snickerdoodle is a very cinnamon forward taste, with a crunchy exterior and a luscious, chewy interior.      Ann told us what gives the snickerdoodle both its traditional tanginess and its chewiness is cream of tartar.   And inclusion of this magic ingredient is what separates a standard sugar cookie from a snickerdoodle.    As an acidulant, tartaric acid has a taste that is naturally sour and gives food sharp, tart flavors.

Cream of tartar, also known as tartaric acid is an acidic regulator in food systems.    It enhances fruit flavors and stabilizes batter systems and color.   Its particularly known to stabilize whipped egg whites or meringue.    It also prevents sugar systems from crystallizing, and is a leavener.   It’s part of the two ingredient system of baking powder, which includes it and baking soda.   The tartaric acid neutralizes the bitterness of baking soda, but allows it’s leavening super powers to unfold.   If you don’t have Cream of Tartar, equivalent substitutes are lemon juice or buttermilk.

The chemical name of tartaric acid is dihydroxybutanedioic acid.    It was first isolated in 1769 by a German born chemist in Sweden by the name of Carl Wilhelm Scheele.   Scheele was born in Pomerania, in the northwest corner of the Germanic kingdoms that is now part of Poland.     Although winemakers knew about tartaric acid for centuries as a biproduct of fermentation of the grape, he was the first to develop a technique to extract the crystalline organic acid chemically.

Scheele is an obscure chemist, never given full credit for all his work.     His most famous discovery was oxygen, which he called “fire-air” because it helped in combustion.   The problem was another scientist beat him to the printer and wrote about it before he could.    As it turns out he was the Jan to many scientific Marshas who took credit for the work he did.    He went on to discover six elements – barium, chlorine, molybdenum, manganese, nitrogen and tungsten.   British chemist Sir Humphrey Davy took credit for chlorine and barium.     Peter Jacob Hjelm took credit for molybdenum.

Scheele was known to taste and smell his experiments, and as a result he died prematurely in his forties in 1786, the official cause of death, mercury poisoning.   On his deathbed, Scheele married the widow of the town’s drugstore, who was his ‘housekeeper’ so she could inherit the pharmacy.    He has a statue in Sweden erected in his honor and a poisonous pigment with his name.

Scheele’s statue in Stockholm, Sweden.

The one legacy given to Scheel is a poisonous compound known as Scheele’s Green, that over the years has killed untold number of people, including perhaps Napoleon.    Scheele’s Green is a yellow-green pigment that was used to dye paper, wallpaper, cotton, linen, and some children’s toys.   It is a compound of the super-poisonous arsenic.    Back in his day, the toxicity of arsenic was not known, so people used his pigment in wallpapers in their rooms, ladies’ dresses, newspaper ads.    During Napoleon’s exile in St. Helena, he resided in a house with rooms painted bright green, his favorite color.   Although he died of stomach cancer, arsenic exposure is known to increase the risk of gastric carcinoma.   And analysis of samples of Napoleon’s hair revealed significant amounts of arsenic.

Chicken Fingers and Chili Parlors Follow a Similar Model

I spent a good portion of last week in the Florence, Erlanger, Ft. Wright, area of Northern Kentucky.   I noticed a new chicken chain, Guthrie’s, who was clucking their tenders to the market.     Having never heard of them, I thought I had to find out their story.      In the midst of the Fast Food Fried Chicken Sandwich wars, a new local entrant is an important data point.

As it turns out, they make the claim for inventing the American fast food chicken finger in 1978.    Their catchy little motto is “Golden Fried since ‘65”.  Chick-fil-A, by the way, claims they invented the fast food fried chicken sandwich.    Hal Guthrie is the founder and opened his first drive through restaurant in Haleyville, Alabama in 1965.     In 1978 he announced to his wife that they were going to start serving chicken fingers at their restaurant.   

Hal knew he needed a phenom dippin’ sauce to go with his unique breading, so he initiated a contest with his three kids for the best sauce.   His son Hud won the contest and made restaurant industry history by inventing what is now the standard Southern chicken sauce that is the basis for Raising Cane’s sauce, Zaxby’s Zax Sauce, and Chick-fil-A sauce.   That formula is basically ketchup, mayo, worchestershire sauce, garlic and herbs.     It’s a close sibling to Mississippi’s comeback sauce, and a cousin to Louisiana’s remoulade sauce, which has the addition of horseradish and mustard.

Consumption of fast food fried chicken on the bone is in decline in America.    Apparently we just don’t have time to sit and pick around a bone.   We only have time for bite sized, extruded, randomly shaped ‘nuggets’, or a patty in a bun.    Whole muscle chicken fingers offer something a bit more natural than the extruded, mechanically separated chicken.   I know it sounds grose.  You should watch British chef Jamie Oliver demo the making of mechanically separated chicken fingers to West Virginia kids.    They cringe in horror, but still eat the nuggets he made.

In 1982, Hal’s oldest son Chris, talked Hal into coming to Auburn to help start a Guthrie’s restaurant there.    At first they only served hamburgers, steak sandwiches and chicken fingers.   But after only a short time they dropped the beef for chicken only.   And to the best of their knowledge, this is the first American restaurant that served chicken fingers only.

The restaurant became a popular college spot and Chris opened more locations in Athens, Georgia, and Tallahassee, Florida; Hal opened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Hud in Birmingham and Auburn, and daughter Anna Margaret in Jasper and Haleyville, Alabama. 

Zach McLeroy was the first to copycat Guthrie’s. He became familiar with the chain while attending University of Georgia. His first Zaxby’s was established in  Statesboro, Georgia, in March 1990, near the Georgia Southern University campus. The company’s first restaurant outside of Georgia was opened in September 1994 in Bowling Green, Kentucky. They now lead the chicken finger market with over 900 locations, but they also serve wings, sandwiches and salads.

Raising Cane’s was founded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1996, by Todd Graves, who had worked at Guthrie’s in college at University of Georgia in Athens, and was the inspiration for his business.     He followed the “open near a University” model by locating his first store near LSU.   It’s the chicken version of our chili parlors – Unis instead of movie theatres.  There are now 570 locations of Raising Cane’s in the U.S., while there are only 40 Guthrie’s locations in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

Most of the burger joints and all the chicken joints have their own chicken strips, but the Chicken War hasn’t advanced onto the strips front. There are now three locations of Guthrie’s in Northern Kentucky – in Ft. Wright, Burlington, and Hebron.   The Ft. Wright franchise is owned by Bill Aseere and Michael Ash of the Space Cowboys Restaurant Group. The only location in Ohio is Cleveland.    

Ma’amoul: Oakley’s New (Date) Newton

There are several bakeries in Cincinnati that make an elevated pop tart.   Now there’s a Syrian food stall – Olive Tree – in the new Oakley Kitchen and Food Hall, that makes a Syrian version of our ‘fig’ newton.  In this case, though, it’s a date newton.    It’s called the ma’amoul and its made by Aleppo, Syrian immigrant Ibtisam Masto.     Ma’amoul is a date filled shortbread cookie that is used to break the fast during Eid or Ramandan, the Muslim religious festival that requires fasting from sunup to sundown.   These buttery cookies are the perfect reward after a month of fasting during Ramadan or Lent.

Ma’amoul, as it’s called in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, goes by kombe in southern Turkey, and as kahk in Egypt.  Kahk seems to be the indisputable ancestor of ma’amoul, as it’s depicted in temple paintings and carvings dating to the Pharaonic era. Like ma’amoul in other countries,kahk in Egypt is traditional for both Easter and Eid. But in addition to nut fillings, Egyptians also have versions stuffed withagameya (a honey-walnut concoction) and loukoum (Turkish delight).     It has close cousins in the date filled Jewish rugelach, and the Slavic kolache.

Masto and her husband and six children escaped Jisr al-Shughur, a city in northern Syria, after the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2013 and were placed in Cincinnati by the UN Refugee Committee with help from Catholic Charities.     Her five youngest kids help at the food stall.   Mohammed-Nour, a snarky 11 year old boy adds comic relief to the jovial headscarved sisters Amal and Asmaa, who ring you up at the counter.   I’m fond of their Syrian chicken and I’d put their secret recipe Aleppo hot sauce on shoe leather.     They need to bottle it and sell it in the hot sauce vending machine at the Oakley Kitchen. I’ve convinced Masto to sell the hot sauce to me in a containter, but she’s not giving up her secret recipe…. yet.

Masto at her stand at Findlay Market before opening her stall in the new Oakley Kitchen

Ma’amoul falls into a whole category of foods that survived a war.    Members of this club include the currywurst of Berlin after WWII; our own Hanky Panky, amped up from SOS served in canteen kitchens in WWII; the dominostein cookie of Dresden, Germany during WWII; and the franzbrotchen pastry that came out of Napoleonic occupation of Prussian Germany.

Some Syrian bakers make their ma’amoul with both rosewater and orange blossom and fill with walnut and pistachio fillings.   Others also add mastic, a sun-dried resin from trees, and mahlab, a spice made from the inner kernels of the St. Lucy cherry pit, to their dough.   Mahlab is a unique spice that adds a bit of bitter almond, cherry, floral and vanilla flavors to Mediterranean sweets. In Syria ma’amoul is served alongside strong Arabic coffee and chocolate to guests.

I met Ibtisam in 2016, at the inaugural Stir cooking class, hosted by Kate Zaidan of Mediterranean Imports at Findlay Kitchen.   Ibtisam and I were both food demonstrators at the event.  A Project Grant from local philanthropic lab People’s Liberty gave Zaidan the kick-start she needed to host a series of six cooking classes in Findlay Kitchen.  Our class was titled, Migration and Immigration in Cincinnati.   I demonstrated the Germanic immigrant dish goetta and Masto demonstrated her famous kibbeh, which seems to be a cousin of goetta. We bonded over grain sausages.

I highly recommend trying Olive Tree and immersing yourself in a taste of Syria in Cincinnati.

The Fat Emma: America’s First Nougat Candy Bar

The modern American candy nougat was invented in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the early 1920s by the Pendergast Candy company.    It fills the centers of our favorite American candy bars like the Snickers, Milky Way, and Three Musketeers bars.   This new nougat fueled the candy bar wars between World War I and II, producing hundreds of different curiously named candy bars.   Nougat originally came from the Mediterranean countries like Italy, borrowed there from Persia and Syria, where honey, nuts, and sometimes candied fruit were beaten into egg whites and then sun dried into a hard, but semi-chewable confection.  

There are two historical types of nougat.  The first is called Persian or white nougat.   White nougat first appeared in Allicante, Spain in the 15th century, and then in Montelimar, France, in the 18th century.   The Montelimar nougat was made famous in the opening line of the 1968 Beatles song, Savoy Truffle, as a chocolate truffle flavor of the famous Mackintosh’s Candy Company.

The second type of nougat is black nougat, which is made without egg whites and is harder and crunchier than Persian nougat.   There are several variations, like Viennese nougat, which has finely ground hazelnuts inside and is what the Germanic and Scandinavian countries think of as nougat.  There was one Italian white nougat available at the old Markets International when I was growing up that had pistachios and dried cherries that I thought was the height of class.   It was called La Florentine, and had an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferroniere on the tin.   Italian white nougat or torrone, is distinctive because it has citrus added.

In the 1920s the candy makers at the Pendergast candy company were trying to come up with a manufacturable chewy nougat.  They screwed up with the formula and put in too much egg albumin, and the result was not chewy, but a fluffy, airy, puffier nougat.   This became known as the Minnesota or Minneapolis nougat, as regional candy makers began copying this fluffy nougat and making new candy bars.    

Before the nougat discovery, Pendergast had decided to call their chewy nougat bar the Emma, which was a popular girl’s name at the time.     With the new lighter, fluffier, and bigger nougat, they decided to rename it the Fat Emma.   They integrated walnuts into the nougat and the bar became a fave.  You would think this was an unfortunate name for marketing, but it became maybe the most licensed candy bar name in American candy bar history.

The first company they licensed to was the Sanitary Candy Company of St. Paul, Minnesota, which made a 2 oz. Fat Emma for a while.  Another license was George Willamson of Chicago, who had invented the O Henry! Bar, a chocolate covered, peanut laced creamy caramel bar.    It was named after a boy who came into Williamson’s candy company to flirt with the girl candy dippers.    His Fat Emma was the female counterpart to the O Henry, and he even hired a local high school girl to be the spokesmodel. The Sperry Candy Company of Milwaukee made a Fat Emma bar for a while in the 1930s.   And it  even made it across the northern border to London, Ontario, Canada, where McCormick’s Candy Company made a Fat Emma bar from 1927-1939.

Frank Mars saw the potential, and in Minneapolis at the time, introduced his Milky Way.   Pendergast, which was bought by Hollywood Candy Company in 1928, countered with their version of the Milky Way, a Double Milk Shake malt-chocolate flavored nougat candy bar.  Fenn Brothers of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, made the Walnut Crush nougat bar.   Two Walnut Hills walnut-studded, nougat-filled candy bars like the Fat Emma, were made -one by the Redel Candy Corporation of Milwaukee, in the 1920s and 1930s, and the other by Candymasters of Minneapolis, in the 1940s.  

Candymasters had been formed by two former employees of the Pendergast (now Hollywood Candy Company) who had moved back to Minneapolis from Centralia, Illiniois, to go off on their own.  They made several other nougat filled candy bars – the Coffee Dan, the North Pole, and the Brazil Hill, maybe the only nougat candy bar in American history with the Brazil nut.

Candy bar companies distinguished themselves by adding a variety of nuts to their nougats.    The Hollywood Candy company even came out with a new American nougat variation called the Divinity Nougat, which was the center of their Smooth Sailin’ bars.   Divinity is a Southern nougat- like confection made of egg whites and has the texture of marshmallow, fudge, and chewy vanilla taffy.    If the corn syrup is replaced by brown sugar, Divinity is known as Sea Foam.

I have found no reference to any Cincinnati candy companies that made a nougat candy bar.   We were much more concerned with Opera Cream filled chocolates.    And, oddly enough, there was no Opera Cream candy bar either, only truffles.   Cincinnati truly missed out on having our own Opera Cream Flavored Cincinnati Nougat.

Lawry’s and Grippo’s: A Tale of Two Seasoning Salts

A discussion with a friend about a childhood scouting favorite, campfire potatoes, brought up a discussion of two seasoning salts.    Campfire potatoes – or Hasselback potatoes to the gourmand -are basically a potato you slice in thinnish cuts not completely through the potato.   In between the cuts, you place butter, seasoning, bacon bits, or whatever else you want, wrap it in aluminum foil and place it on hot rocks or smoldering campfire coals.     My friend said they used Lawry’s seasoning salt on their campfire potatoes.   I suggested that you could also use Gripple, or the seasoning salt left at the bottom of the potato chip bag from Grippo’s Bar-B-Q potato chips, because it’s basically the same thing as Lawry’s salt.   And it was meant to season a potato.  Now you can buy Grippo’s Bar-B-Q chip seasoning separate as its own spice at Kroger groceries across the U.S.   

This discussion led me to explore the difference between Lawry’s and Grippo’s Bar-B-Q spices –  physically and historically.    What I found is that one has a glamorous Hollywood origin, the other has a small town Italian origin.    And both have pretty cool logo stories too.  Lawry’s has inspired dozens of seasonings, marinades, and breading mixes, and Grippo’s is starting to inspire a brand new generation of local and regional chefs.

As a kid I always thought Lawry’s was called Lori’s salt, because I had a cousin Lori who liked it.    It was a standard in my grandparents and my parents’ spice cabinet.  We used it on steaks, scalloped potatoes and freshly steamed stringed beans.       Before Kroger made it available in separate spice packages, and when I was a frugal college student, I used to save the Grippo’s powder at the bottom of a chip bag as my mom and grandmother used to save bacon grease for use later.     I’d sprinkle it on pasta, chicken and pork.   

As far as ingredients go, the main difference between Lawry’s and Grippo’s is yeast and natural smoke flavor.    Grippo’s also seems to be more powdery, while Lawry’s is more granular.     Lawry’s ingredients list salt, sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion powder, garlic powder, and cornstarch.   In addition to those ingredients, Grippo’s lists Torula yeast, MSG, caramel flavor, and natural hickory smoked flavor.

Lawry’s salt was introduced to the market in 1938 at Ralph’s grocery stores, but before that was used exclusively at Lawry’s The Prime Rib Restaurant in Beverly Hills.    Originally called Seazn-all, it was developed by Lawrence Frank at his first restaurant, Tam O’Shanter, and served only to guests.

The fanciful “L” logo on the package was created in 1959 ala Madmen by type designer Saul Bass, who was famous for designing the titles for classic movies like Vertigo and West Side Story.  Another cool design story associated with Lawry’s The Prime Rib Restaurant is the pure art deco stainless steel carts they used to serve their famous Prime Rib.   They were designed by Lawrence Frank and were heated by pans of charcoal in the lower section.   A fully loaded cart weighs nearly 900 pounds, so heavy that asphalt tile had to be installed in the original restaurant to make sure the floor wouldn’t collapse.   In 1937, one of these carts cost $3200 to make.   Today the same cart would cost nearly $32,000.

The spicy sweet Grippo’s flavoring has a less glamorous Hollywood style origin  The Grippos Company  was formed in 1919 as the Grippo’s (Ice cream) Cone Company by Italian immigrant Angelo Grippo (1892-1956).   He had immigrated to Cincinnati from the town of Senerchia, Avellino, Italy, in the state of Campania, where Naples pizza and the snail-like pastry sfogliatelle also hail.     Coming from the area in the alps where ice cream was supposedly invented, he saw that Cincinnati was an ice cream town and took advantage, making cones in a small garage in downtown Cincinnati.   And, Italians were dominating the ice cream trade in the U.S., despite our dominant Germanic-Graeter’s.   But Angelo also saw that it was a pretzel town with our plethora of Germanic beer gardens and saloons where pretzels were engulfed as quickly as the beers.   So, he invented the loop or teardrop pretzel in 1923, the same year the Hollywoodland sign went up in California.

Angelo and Emma Grippo.

As ingenius as Angelo was regarding pretzels, it wasn’t he who invented our venerated Grippo’s Bar-B-Q chips.  It was his wife, Emma Louise Abrecht Grippo, about four years after his death.   Her father, Paul Abrecht had immigrated to Cincinnati with his brother Otto from Lengau, Switzerland, to work at the Cincinnati beer breweries.    He worked at the Hudepohl Brewery until his retirement.   So, being exposed to the brewery and beer drinking crowd, Emma was probably familiar with snacking along with beer drinking and the fact that spicer snacks induce more beer drinking.   So in 1959, she added salty potato chips to the Grippo’s snack line, shortly thereafter adding their iconic Bar-B-Q chips.  

The business passed on to their daughter, Dorothy Grippo Pagel, and to her son, Ralph William Pagel (1947-2017), and now is in the hands of the third and fourth generation of the same family.

In the early 1960s, Hesmer’s potato chips of Evansville, Indiana, needed to find a new production home.   So then president Allan Proctor contacted the Grippo’s Pagel family.   They formed an agreement where Grippo’s would co-pack the plain chips for Hesmer’s, but would not manufacture barbecue chips for another label.   

The cute little Grippo’s Bar-B-Q grilling boy mascot has an interesting evolution story.     Originally he was the teardrop pretzel boy for the wax paper package developed by Angelo Grippo in the 1920s for his new pretzel line.     Instead of carrying a bag of charcoal in his right hand and a bag of Bar-B-Q chips in his left as he does on the Bar-B-Q bag, the boy held a teardrop pretzel in his left, and a pretzel log or pretzel stick in his right if he was on those bags.  But Hessmer’s Bar-B-Q chips had a leaner, taller grilling man mascot on a black and red foil package with script that is identical to Grippo’s.     So, the pretzel boy mascot became the grilling boy mascot, and the Grippo’s Bar-B-Q bag took on an almost identical design to the Hessmer’s bag, which Grippo’s refused to co-pack for Hesmer, and which were eventually phased out in favor of Grippo’s Bar-B-Q in Evansville.    So the Hesmer’s Bar-B-Q grilling man became the Grippo’s Bar-B-Q grilling boy.   Grippo’s Grilling boy has even recently got a new update with a red grilling apron that he sports on the spice container label.    In addition to the Grilling Boy, Grippo’s has a potato chip head chef for their regular potato chips, and a thin dancing onion girl for their green onion potato chips.

The original Hesmer Bar-B-Q bag, the original Grippo’s Pretzel Loop bag, and the current Grippo’s Bar-B-Q bag, unchanged from the early 1960s.

Grippo’s Bar-B-Q chips have as much of a cult following in Evansville as they do in Cincinnati, and their local chefs have embraced them as an adder to mac and cheese, pizza, and even to a brownie sundae.

A Grippo’s Bar-B-Q brownie sundae from Evansville, Indiana.

The Hollywood Candy Company: A Tale of Two Candy Bars

A 1940s Tuesdae Candy bar wrapper I scored at the Lawrenceburg Antiques Fair.

I’m a sucker for finding an historic candy bar wrapper and the story it tells.   That’s because it’s truly an American food invention, and there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of local and regional candy bars that have since gone the way of the dodo bird.    So I was super-excited over the weekend to find a  Tuesdae Candy Bar wrapper at the Lawrenceburg Antiques fair for a buck.      It was from the 1940s and was in its original, but incredibly brittle wax paper wrapper.  It even contained the original cardboard tab that the candy bar sat on, showing its small size compared to today’s candy bars, which are about one quarter inch larger than war era candy bars.   After dampening the wax paper, I unfolded the wrapper flat, as wrapper collectors recommend for preservation.

The original tab insert of the 1940s Tuesdae bar, showing it about one quarter inch smaller than today’s candy bars.

So, of course, I had never heard of the candy bar, nor its maker, the Hollywood candy company, which the wrapper said existed in Centralia, Illinois, outside of Chicago.     Reading the ingredients, the Tuesdae bar was a peanut based candy bar around a whipped corn syrup nougaty-caramel like center.   And, as it turns out, it was offered at the same time as the company’s other candy bar, the Payday, and may have first been called the Sundae Nut Bar, which was the grandfather to the Payday Bar.  

The Payday Candy bar was first introduced in 1932 by the Hollywood Candy company of not Hollywood, California, but of Hollywood, Carver County, Minnesota by former macaroni maker Frank Martoccio, an accidental entrant into the competitive candy market.   The Payday Candy bar was marketed during the Great Depression as a meal replacement because of its dense peanut outer layer – perhaps the beginning of the energy bar industry.    Frank had bought the defunct Pratt and Langhoft Candy factory in 1911 to replace one of his macaroni factory’s machines that had burned out.  In 1927 he purchased the Pendergast Candy Company of Minneapolis and changed the name to Hollywood brands in 1933.   He moved the entire operation to Centralia, Illinois, in 1938.

Two innovations came out of Hollywood Candy company.  Pendergast Candy had discovered, by happy accident, the way to make a fluffy nougat for candy bars, which were taking off around the first world war.   This was later copied by Frank Mars in his Milky Way bar, which he introduced in 1923, and later with his Snickers and Mars bars.    The Hollywood Company counteracted Mars in 1927 with introduction of the Milkshake bar, which like the Mars had caramel and nougat covered in chocolate, but their nougat had a more malted flavor than the Milky Way.   Its nougat was also lighter and fluffier than the Milky Way and could be frozen and eaten like an ice cream bar in the summer.    The Milkshake was discontinued in the early 80s, but has quite a cult following.

The other innovation that came from Martoccio himself was a coating for his candy bars to keep them from melting in warm temperatures, which was a problem for summer candy bar sales.   Using only real cocoa butter and eggs, he was able to sell it for 3 cents versus the 5 cents Hershey sold theirs.   This technology became the Zero bar, or the Double Zero bar when it was first released in 1920.   It was the first and maybe the only surviving “white chocolate” coated candy bar.    It had a large blue and silver wrapper, which made it stand out at the candy counter from other bars.   I was excited to learn Hollywood made the Zero, because it was my grandfather’s favorite candy bar.    He introduced us to it as kids and to this day, he is the only person I know, besides us, who love the Zero bar.

Grandpa was a baker, so he was particularly the sommelier of sweet tastes and confections.   So for him to fall in love with what was then and still is a bit of an obscure candy bar, made it even more special to me.    It’s a combination of caramel, and peanut and almond nougat, covered with its trademark layer of white chocolate fudge.    In the 1950’s the Hollywood Candy company owned a Cincinnati-made Crosley Super Sport with the Zero logo and hired actor Max Bournstein as Mr Zero, to drive around promoting the candy.   Perhaps this Cincinnati connection helped sway my Grandpa to the Zero Bar.  

The Hollywood Candy company had numerous candy bars over their lifetime – the Payday and the Zero being the only two that survived.     Mars and Hershey copied their, especially nougat technology, and rode their technology coattails.    Hollywood’s rival to Mars’ Snicker bar, was the Hollywood bar, a bar with dark chocolate coating caramel, nougat and peanuts.    The family sold the company in 1967 to what would become Sara Lee Brands.   It has been owned by the Hershey company since 1996.

While the Payday was named the #3 most popular candy bar in the 2019 LA Times Candy Bar Ranking, the Zero bar has received less notoriety. It’s been called the white chocolate snickers, even though it predates Snickers by a decade and is maltier and more delicious.  In 2020 it was rated the Worst Candy Bar in America.   But for me, because  this now 100 year old American icon’s  nutty nougat, malted milk and white chocolate decadence was good enough for Grandpa, it’s certainly still good for me.

The Magic of Meghal Patel’s Softserve Swirls

Some of Maghal Patel’s softserve swirl flavors at Ameristop Bellevue in Northern Kentucky.

Who would expect a convenience store – an Ameristop to be exact – to be the area’s most popular place for soft serve ice cream.   It’s the Ameristop in Bellevue, Kentucky, run by Indian immigrant, Meghal Patel.     It just goes to show you how social media can boost a business.

Maghal Patel, the brain behind the unique softserve swirls.

A Facebook group called Chowdown Cincinnati has nearly 50,000 members, who post daily asking questions for the best place in the area for fried chicken, sushi, or hanky panks.    Back at the start of ice cream season in the spring, someone posted he had the best soft serve in the area, with his unique flavor twists, and he became an instant social media star.

This past weekend was the first time since his Facebook popularity that Patel took a break from making ice cream.  He posted a pic of himself kayaking instead.   He likes his neighbor in Dayton Kentucky, Galactic Fried Chicken, in the historic Christofield Chili Parlor, which he says he gets a weekly dose of.     He also carries an extraordinary selection of local microbrew beers.   His store is not only kid friendly, but it’s also dog friendly.

Some of the twist flavor combos Patel has served up are German Chocolate Cake and Vanilla, Blueberry and Pineapple,  Grape and Vanilla, Peanut Butter and Chocolate, Orange and Vanilla, Strawberry and Chocolate, Strawberry and Pineapple, Strawberry and Blueberry, Strawberry and Banana, Cookies n Cream and Chocolate.  He also has a variety of singular flavors like Root Beer, Pistachio, Mango (a bright dayglo orange), peach (a dull orange color), coconut, watermelon, sour apple, and tutti-frutti.    With this Bollywood of flavor, I think he ranks among the top of all soft serve joints in Greater Cincinnati.

He consistently runs out, and his popularity this year has afforded him the ability to purchase a second ice cream machine so he can offer even MORE flavors.

Now he needs to come up with a sugar-free version for those of us fatties trying to lose weight and he’ll be some real competition to Flub’s in Butler County!

Where Oh Where Has My Little Lamb Gone?

A herd of sheep being led down Dayton Street in Cincinnati’s West End to the stockyards for slaughter.

The Fast Food Chicken Wars of the last few years have made poultry the king protein. But before the Civil War Cincinnatians and Americans in general ate more lamb or mutton than poultry. Certainly, in our Queen City pork has been king since it was nicknamed Porkopolis for all the swine we butchered. So, what happened? Our protein choices have gone down over the last fifty years.

In addition to pork and cattle, our 80 acre Union Stockyards in Camp Washington corralled tens of thousands of goats and sheep annually for consumption. Those stockyards opened in 1871 and closed finally in the 1980s.

Nowadays the only places you’ll find lamb meat served are in our many Indian, Pakistani and other non American ethnic restaurants. My favorite places to eat lamb are at Nawab Pakistani in Sharonville, or Baba India in Oakley. Last year I tried the only lamb goetta made by a restaurant in Cincinnati, made by Fond in Montgomery. It’s kind of odd that none of the Germanic immigrants who brought the goetta ancestors with them, didnt proliferate one called Heidjer Knipp from Hanover, Germany, made from their local heath-grazing sheep.

Stehlin’s Meats in Colerain Township is one of the few local butchers who still supply fresh lamb. You have to buy the whole lamb and you have to give them 10 days to order it. They carry ground lamb, lamb chops, and lamb shanks, but its frozen only , as it doesn’t sell consistently.

But for many decades lamb was a commonly enjoyed meal alongside beef and pork in our Queen City. The Kahn’s company cookbooks of the 1920s through World War II give us a view into how Cincinnatians ate their lamb. There are recipes for Minced Lamb on toast (maybe an early ancestor to our beef Hanky Panky?), Lamb and lima bean stew, lamb curry, lamb hash with peas, lamb pot pies, lamb balls with pineapple, lamb stew, lamb Irish stew with dumplings, and even a lamb meatloaf. All of them sound delicious to me.

Lamb does have a gamier flavor than beef, in the eyes of our modern palates. And it was never integrated into the American Fast Food culture, so that was one big strike against it. There was never a lamb slider from White Castle. It became a more symbolic meal served in a rack on Easter, with a dollop of neon green mint jelly.

While pork packing in Cincinnati was declining around the time of the Civil War, the production of sheep in Ohio was actually on the rise. This was mostly due to the price of wool increasing with the demand for uniforms and blankets for soldiers. From 1860 to 1940 Ohio enumerated more head of sheep than any state in the Union. In 1850, Ohio enumerated about 4 million head of sheep.

So what kind of sheep did Ohio raise? The Buckeye State’s most common mutton in the 1890s was the Merino Sheep – a fine wooled sheep. Ohio itinerant livestock artist Carl Freigau, who was known more for his Poland China hog portraits, also sketched the prized Merinos of local breeders.

Like the Poland China hog, which was bred in Butler, Warren and Hamilton Counties, the Breed B type of Merino sheep was primarily developed in Ohio. The breed came from selecting a heavy fleece on a sheep with a fair mutton form for meat. So it became one of the first sheep bred for both its coat and its meat. The Merino body is free from wrinkles but it carries heavy neck folds and heavy folds behind the shoulders and on thighs or rear flanks.

The Southdown sheep was a popular breed raised by local ‘gentleman farmers’ before the Civil War like Joseph Longworth and William Anderson and his brothers along what is now Grandin Road in Hyde Park. The American Oxford Down Record association was even founded in Ohio at Xenia in 1882.

Interest in sheep production dwindled in the 1980s and 1990s when lamb prices were low and parasites plagued flocks. But the renewed interest among people wanting to eat lamb has triggered more demand for meat in the U.S. Local farmers in eastern Kentucky in particular are bringing the meat back to the American table, driven by immigrants and their restaurants. Much of the demand, however is still being supplied by lamb imported from Australia. The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association says that now is a great time to be in the sheep industry due to the growing demand.