The Norwegian Food of Winold Reiss’ Last Mural Model

This week I had the awesome opportunity to interview the last living model in Winold Reiss’ rotunda mural at the Museum Center, Roland Johnson.  He’s 92 and lives in Cincinnati and has a great story about his first and last model experience.  He was 16 months old at the time, living with his parents, Norwegian immigrants, in Brooklyn’s Norwegian Bay Ridge Community, which by 1940 had 55,000 Norwegian immigrants and was the largest Norwegian city outside of Oslo.

In 1932, Roland’s  mother, Solvieg Olsen Johnson, went to a party of a friend of hers in Brooklyn, where she met Winold Reiss.     He was nearly two years into the design of the murals and said he was looking for a baby with a fair complexion to model for his murals in Cincinnati.   She told Reiss she had a 16 month old son so Reiss told her to bring him down to his studio at 108 W. 16th Street between 6th and 7th avenues in artsy Greenwich Village. 

The City had  just repossessed Reiss of his first studio at 5 Christopher Street, to be used as a first aid center for the independent Subway.    The new location on 16th had been a former Butler Grocery warehouse and needed a lot of renovation, but he had just received payment from the Great Northern Railway for his Blackfeet Indian portraits for their calendars to promote Glacier Park tourism.    Reiss would incorporate three of his Blackfeet friends in the rotunda mural – Turtle, Chief Middle Rider, and George Bull Child.   The gallery was teaming with people, artists models, musicians and Bohemian friends of Reiss’.   There would even occasionally be students sketching a nude model from life.

So, armed with a blonde wig (Roland had ) and a white dress his mother bought for a dollar, Roland started his modeling career.    He modelled five days and received $4 a day.     Reiss did a profile closeup sketch of Roland, and then a sketch of Roland being held by a Norwegian immigrant friend of his mother’s.     That friend is holding Roland as a pioneer woman in the rotunda mural.    She moved back to Norway and Roland never met her nor did his mother ever tell him that friend’s name so she is lost to history.

Reiss’ brother Hans had moved from Baden Germany to Sweden in 1914 before the war, because he was a pacifist, like Winold was.   Reiss visited him in 1923 to paint a series of portraits of Swedish peasants.   It’s somewhat possible that the friend of Roland’s mother who he posed with was somehow part of this association with the Reiss brothers.

Above images: Reiss’s Swedish portrait series

Roland’s mother came from a large family of nine kids from a poor suburb just east of Oslo, Norway.   Her father was a blacksmith.  She came to Brooklyn at age 17 sponsored by an older sister.   She became a maid for another large immigrant family, the Johnsons, which is where she met Roland’s father.     He was an electrical  engineer who worked for the New York Bell Telephone Company.  He had the great experience of having wonderful offices at the Rockefeller Center and the New York Museum of Natural History.   His father, Roland’s grandfather , Harald Julius Johnson, was a commercial artist.

Reiss’ brother Hans, a sculptor himself, would create the lifesized scale drawings from the colored portrait Reiss made of the models.   Then the Ravenna Mosaic company in St. Louis would glue the colored tiles to a thick paper backing and send them to Cincinnati for Reiss to supervise them being laid in the stucco for the murals.    The project took Reiss 2 years to complete from his winning the job in 1930 and he was paid $21,000 for the project.   Originally, the architects had planned for the murals to be done on canvas.  But Reiss suggested mosaic murals and suggested halving his fee so that the rest could be applied to the project.   To save money (the Crash of the Depression had just happened) Reiss also designed only the human figures in mosaic and the background was completed in colored stucco to save money.     Reiss said that the colored tiles could be easily cleaned by just a wet wipe down and the brilliant colors could be maintained.

I of course asked Roland what Norwegian dishes he remembers his mother making growing up.   He said he had a buddy who loved coming over to his house because his mother would make smorgasboard boards of Norwegian cheeses like Nokkelost, Gamalost, Geitost, pickles, fish, and meat pies with sour cream based dough called Lihamurekepiiras.     She also made Farikal, the traditional cabbage and lamb stew that Roland said he was not fond of.   But she also made Norwegian cakes, like Julekake ( a Christmas bread with cardamom), and Krumkake a Norwegian waffle cookie shaped like a cone, traditionally filled with cream served with lingonberry jam.

Nokkelost means key cheese and is a mild semi soft cheese with unique flavors of caraway seeds, cumin and cloves, sometimes called kuminost.     Geitost is a brown goats milk cheese that tastes and has the texture of caramel. The third cheese he remembers, Gamalost is buried in the ground to age and is a course and pungent cheese, kind of like the German Limburger cheese.

Roland himself studied at Brooklyn Technical High School and Pratt Institute and became an industrial designer.   In the 1960s Roland moved to Cincinnati for his job, and his mother reminded him of his early modeling job for the Union Terminal murals.  He eventually went there and saw his image in the murals for the first time in his life.   At the 75th anniversary of the murals, the Museum Center rented him a lift and he was lifted up next to his image so he could touch himself on the mural.

Roland’s mother lived to be 102 and he aspires to do the same. I do believe he has a good decade ahead of him, but he’s already immortal.


Clumsy Bears:  The Soviet Era Kit-Kat

I just finished one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time – The Lost Year by Katherine Marsh, an adaptation of her own family’s  Ukranian immigration story.  It’s actually classified as a young adult book, but what attracted me was the topic, which is more than adult.   I would describe it as a modern Covid-era Diary of Anne Frank, and despite being classified as a young adult story, it did not skimp on the adult themes, nor did it feel like it was written down to a younger audience.    And with themes of living in the pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine, it felt very current.

It’s a dual storytelling that takes place almost 100 years apart.   A young teenage boy gamer, Matthew, is in the midst of dealing with living during the Covid pandemic, his father being stuck in Europe, and his great grandmother, GG,  moving into the house.   He gets his video game system taken away and is forced to go through his great grandmother’s personal boxes with her.   As he does, he learns the story of her immigration from Ukraine in 1933 during Stalin’s forced famine on the peasant class, now called the Holomodor.   

It’s an engaging and interesting story about survival and family secrets.   I related on a lot of levels to GG’s story about her family and their tragedy as it was similar to my maternal grandmother’s Eastern European family’s story.   It educates us Americans on the little known Stalin era Soviet Union in which the Holomodor famine took place.   At the time, the New York Times leading journalist Walter Duranty prevented American from knowing about the Holomodor, as he just reproduced Soviet propaganda and didn’t go out to the rural areas to see for himself the tragedy happening.   The book does an amazing job of explaining why first hand accounts are important in reporting  and  how important it is to dig around the fascade and away from political propaganda.   The theme echoes today’s battlefield about fake news, and of course the most recent Big Lie about the election, propagated by the last president, which incited one of the worst and most violent attacks against American Democracy.

The Holodomor was a tragic period of time in the 1930s in Russia’s past where Stalin forced the landowning farmers to give their land to the state and become collective farmers.   Many of course resisted and Stalin sent resistors to work to death in Siberian work camps.   He also made all Russians and Soviet Republics have ration cards, and took their grain, selling it overseas and bringing it to the wealthy Comrades in the city.   Millions of rural Russions and especially Ukranians died of hunger on their farms as their sources of foods were taken away.       The Stalinist government propaganda denied that this was happening to the rest of the world, and only a few journalists actually went to the countryside and reported what was truly happening.

There are two great newish movies about the Holomodor, Bitter Harvest (2017) and Mr Jones (2020), both of which can be found on streaming services.

There’s a chocolate candy that plays almost a character role in the telling of the story in the Ukraine.  They are called Bumble Bears.   And all three of the girl cousins who are from Ukraine are familiar with them and they are part of their lives as young children.

So, of course as the foodie, I researched, and this chocolate actually was quite a popular but short-in-supply candy during the Soviet Era.   They’re actually called Clumsy Bears, or Mishka Kosolapy in Russian and they’ve  been around since tsarist times, when they were handmade.

It’s a small sized dark chocolate bar filled with two wafers filled with almond praline (a favorite of Russians) and what I would imagine are similar to our kit kat.    However, in the book, the Grandmother quickly replaces them with 3 Musketeer Bars, which is the first candy her Ukranian-American cousin Helen gives her, and they become her new favorite chocolate the rest of her life.    The manufactured nougat of the Milky Way, celebrating its 100th birthday this year, like GG in the story, is the most similar to the almond praline filling of the Bumble Bears.

Even though it was a tzarist era candy, it somehow became a symbol of the Soviet Era and the USSR.   It was wrapped in a wonderful blue wrapper showing a fragment from the painting Morning in a Pine Forest, depicting four bears by Ivan Shishkin and Konstantin Savitsky.   The candy was expensive, costing almost four rubles, about $7 in todays economy.    Because of its expense and spotty availability, they were really only available to wealthy Soviet families in the cities, not the starving peasants in the rural areas.   These Ukranians and Russians would buy them and stockpile them for special occasions.    So, in a society that outwardly shunned Western greed and capitalism and luxury goods, the Clumsy Bear was just that – an expensive confection that the Russians craved and desired.

The candy’s first industrial production was in 1925 at the Krasny Oklyabr (Red October) factory.   And while there are many copycat producers today, the Red October factory version still remains Russians favorite.   Red October is the term for the Revolution in 1917 in Russia of the Bolsheviks against the Tsarist regime, that resulted in the execution of the entire Romanov family.

People would use them for New Year to decorate their New Year’s trees, called the yolka.    Communist USSR banned religion so what was once the Christmas tree moved to New Year’s the secular celebration of the Winter Season, with their Santa – Ded Moroz (Father Frost) and his cheerful helper, the young Snow Maiden called Sngegoricha     Children would get a bag of goodies at school on New Years which would always include Clumsy bears, as well as a similar candy called Little Squirrel, Golden Hen and lollipops.   But the top of this sugary ecosystem was the and still is the Clumsy Bear.

So I went to my source for all things Russian and Eastern European – Marinia’s Market (formerly Marina’s Russian market pre-Russian invasion of Ukraine). They dont have the Red October factory made Russian Clumsy Bears, but they do have a Ukranian version. Marina has tried to distance herself from Russian since the invasion last year, rebranding their name, changing their sign, and carrying less Russian products. The Ukranian Clumsy Bears are really good – they’re lighter and crispier than a Kit-Kat with more layers of crispy cookie and thinner chocolate layers – and you get that flavor of almond marzipan which is really nice.

Above Image – the Ukranian Versions of Clumsy Bear

What is a Weck?

Last night’s Season 4 episode of  Food that Built America on History Channel was titled “Flight of the Buffalo Wing.”   It finally gave homage to the African American, John Young, who was the first in Buffalo to use the then discarded chicken wings to make a food.    His Wing N’ Things restaurant – opened in 1961 with his sister Dorothy and friend Julius Blazer – was near the football stadium in the segregated African American neighborhood and was well known amongst that community, even drawing fans from visitors like singers Joe Tex and Rick James.   But his wings were different than what would become buffalo wings.   He didn’t separate the flat from the drum, and breaded the whole thing.   His sauce was based on a sweeter sauce that would become known in Washington,D.C. as Mumbo sauce.     Teresa Bellisimo’s sauce at the Anchor Grill used butter and Franks Red Hot Sauce and she didn’t bread the wings, making them have a crispier outside.   

The Bellisimo’s style of sauce and style of wing is now called Buffalo wings.    And it’s fame outside of Buffalo is due to two brothers living in Columbus. Ohio.   These  two stepbrothers Jim Disbrow and Scott Lowery, created the restaurant chain Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck, or BW3.   They had moved to Columbus, Ohio, from Buffalo, New York and were familiar with both the hot wings at nearly every bar in Buffalo, as well as the beef and weck sandwich at restaurants in buffalo.     They were discouraged not to find chicken wings or beef and weck in Columbus and decided they’d bring them to Columbus.   Their wings restaurant would make the regional hot wing from Buffalo famous when they franchised all over the country, but unfortunately they would drop the beef and weck from the menu and the weck from the name.

The beef and weck sandwich could be called the original German American slider.   Weck is the name for a small bread roll or bun native to  the far middle west regions of Saarland, Baden and Swabia.   It is called brotchen in the north and has a variety of other names in different regions of Germany, each with its own slight variation.   The weck is short for kummelweck.  Kummel is the German word for caraway, so the Buffalo weck has caraway seeds and salt on top.     Some sin Buffalo say it’s similar to a Kaiser roll, but its actually smaller and more dense.    The Kaiser roll is more of a supersized Americanized sweet brioche with seeds and salt on top.

In Germany a weck is a lot less fluffy and more hard on the outside than a Buffalo weck.   Germans don’t eat messy sandwiches like sloppy Joes and au jus dipped beef and weck.   The original German kummelweck was designed to be eaten with sliced cold cuts and cheese, so the hardness of the outside roll wouldn’t make the sandwich contents leak out.   In the north around Bremen and Hamburg, these rolls were designed to be eaten with their regional small sliders/meatballs called frikkadelen.   All of these little German sliders might be considered the grandpappy of our White Castle sliders.

Every region of Germany has their own name and version of the brötchen. They can vary in spice, type of flour – wheat, spelt or rye – and toppings.   Munich has its semmel, which could house a thick slice of leberkase or liver pate.  What’s schrippe to a Berliner is weck or weckerle to a Swabian in Stuttgart. Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg have their rundstuck – literally ‘round piece’, which could sandwich a frikadellen.   In the Baltic Islands and Mecklenburg, they’re called bömmel, which means ‘bauble.’   The doppelweck or ‘double bun’ is a Saarland specialty which consists of two rolls joined together side-by-side before baking. The Black Forest has its mutschli and Franconia has its kipf.    Even the elevated bun we call a kaiser roll in the U.S. is really a wannabe kaisersemmel, a type of brötchen from Bavaria and Austria.   It’s named after the Kaiser because the top has centrally cascading-out folds that resemble an imperial crown.

The story of the weck’s journey across the Atlantic is  that baker William Wahr immigrated from the Black Forest region of Baden to Buffalo and brought his kummelweck recipe with him.   He opened a bakery on Herman street which he operated from 1886-1924.  In 1901 he is said to have convinced John Gohn, owner of the Delaware House, to use his kummelweck to sandwich thinly sliced rare roast beef topped with freshly grated horseradish and dipped in au jus.    The kicker for Gohn was the salt on top of the bun, which made his customers thirsty and increased his beer sales.   Other pub owners caught on and offered the beef and weck sandwich around Buffalo and western New York state.

So, unfortunately History Channel missed a great opportunity to talk about German immigrant influence on American popular foods.

PieCaken:  The American Over-the-Top Three Layer Dessert

Well that crazy pastry chef Zac Young’s company is at it again.   Zac is the creator of the PieCaken and his company, delivered to you by Goldbelly, has come out with the St Patcaken just in time for St. Paddy’s Day.    His initial creation in 2015 started on a joke and  a dare – to create a dessert version of the TurDucken created by Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme in the 1970s. .  It immediately went viral featured on Live with Kelly and Michael, CNN, and the New York Times.    Now if you haven’t heard of a Turducken, well,  then you’ve been living under a rock.   It’s a Thanksgiving poultry feast consisting of a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey.

Now for all you leprechauns there’s the St. PatCaken.   It follows the same three layered, differing texture template of the PieCaken.   This Gaelic creation is a Guiness Green Velvet Cake on top of a Bailey’s Cheesecake, on top of a Jameson Whiskey Pecan Pie all covered in a salted caramel frosting.    With all the alcohol, maybe this should be called the Drunken LepreCaken.   Bring along your Irish Coffee and your insulin. What would the potato famine Irish think of this? Maybe that it’s magically delicious.

The Italians really had the three layered dessert idea going eons before Zac with the Tricolor cookie,  Neopolitan Ice cream, and the ultimate tiramisu – lady fingers dipped in coffee, whipped mouse of mascarpone cheese and cocoa dusted cake.

The 1970s jello salad – both sweet and savory versions – could be called a three layer dessert.  My mother’s poached pears suspended in lime green jello on a layer of green jelled yogurt was not my fave.

Sebastians in Mariemont is making three layer desserts with croissants and choux pastry, especially in the form of their Isophan St. Honore.

Even the parfait is a distant cousin, but it’s certainly not freestanding, which is a requirement of this portmanteau pastry.  A portmandeau blends two (or more) words together while truncating parts of each, like smoke and fog to create smog or Bennifer for Ben Affleck and Jennifer Aniston as a romantic version.  Words like starfish, which don’t truncate are just compounds.  Piecaken is the portmanteau for three combined words.

There’s a bakery in Brooklyn that’s making triangular jelly filled donuts they’re calling hamantaschen doughnut for Purim. Instead of the jelly filled shortcrust hamantaschen, they’re more of the fried dough sufganiyot in the shape of a hamantaschen. Try to portmanteau those two words – hamantaschiyot or sufganaschen!

But Zac wins the prize for going over-the-top and then continuing to take it to the next level.     His site on Goldbelly now carries a different version of the PieCaken for nearly every month.

He created the first PieCaken  in 2015 when he was working for a restaurant.  He’s that  guy from food network who has been a judge on Chopped and Top Chef: Just Desserts.  The PieCaken is  a three layer dessert with pecan pie on the bottom, followed by a layer of pumpkin pie and a spice layer cake.   Each pie has a real pie crust.  A rich cinnamon frosting runs through each layer and covers the entire cake.   The top is decorated with fluted mounds of frosting and a dollop of fresh applie pie filling.     If you’re one of those that cant decide between pecan pumpkin or apple at Thanksgiving – this one is for you!

Well as most popular creations, Zac wasn’t the first to come up with this monster stuffed cake. Cake Wars judge Chef Charles Phoenix in 2008 created the Cherpumple for Christmas. Technically six desserts, this indulgence is made with cherry baked in white cake, pumpkin pie baked in yellow cake and apple pie baked in spice cake, all stacked high under a blanket of cream cheese frosting.

Chef Phoenix also created the Pumpcapple with a pumpkin pie baked in a pumpkin spice cake, a pecan pie baked in a chocolate cake, and an apple pie in a traditional spice cake.

Now onto Chef Zac’s other Piecaken creations.    There’s the PieoLogin – a bottom layer of toffee pecan pie, an entire eggnog cheesecake and a chocolate caramel yule log or buche noel all held together with chocolate buttercream frosting was available for $65.

Winter PieCaken  has chocolate pecan pie, eggnog cheesecake, red velvet cake, cherry pie filling amaretto butter cream.

Valentine’s Day Red Velvet PieCaken is Chocolate pecan pie, vanilla cheesecake, red velvet cake, strawberry champagne butter cream

For the Jew at Passover – he offers the PassCaken.  I LOVE this! It’s matzo crusted coconut macaroon pie, flourless chocolate cake, and raspberry mouse cold coated chocolate and matzo crumble.    Use Manischewitz matzo for a Cincinnati flair!

Mother’s Day PieCaken uses lemon cake, strawberry swirl cheesecake, zesty lemon frosting strawberry rhubarb pie.

So what’s my Bockfest piecaken idea?  The LinzLeckerUff.   It consists of a lingonberry filled Linzertorte, Swiss Leckerli (gingerbread cake), and Bavarian chocolate cream puff, all covered in rich opera cream buttercream.   Servatti’s, Busken, Bonbonnerie– any takers?

The Food of my “Mixed German” Franconian and Saarland Great Great Grandparents

Above image: Potato meat filled dumplings with Saarland bacon cream sauce. These meat filled potato dumplings, although called something different, are common to both Saarland and Franconia.

If you turn onto Central Avenue at Big Daddy Liquors in Newport, Kentucky, within two blocks you will come onto a rather large Victorian three bay two and a half story Victorian house.    This was the house of my great great grandmother Anna Maria Scharolt Gehring whose image I just received.   She was born to Johann Georg Scharolt and Catherine Berg in Hochstadt, Franconia, and her husband was from the Midwest border of Germany on the Rhine, called Saarland, next to Alsace Lorraine, son of Johann George Gehring and Catharina Weiss.   Then the Saarland was part of the Kingdom of Rhinish Bavaria, or listed as just Bavaria in American records.   This often confuses and misleads geneaologists like me.

Above image: My great great grandmother Anna Maria Victoria Sharolt Gehring (1831-1911)

Anna and her husband, John George Gehring were married in 1849 at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Cincinnati.   They raised 11 children within the Germanic Catholic Community of Corpus Christi Parish in Newport, Kentucky.   John George was a tailor, but his numerous sons became bakers and all worked their adult lives working for Streitman Biscuit in Over-the-Rhine, most commuting from Newport.   They came in chain migration with other families from the same area – names of Frischolz and Timmerman, all whom were witnesses for each others weddings and godparents to each other’s children.

Above Image: My great grandmother Francesca Gehring Schaeser/Schoesser

Above image: My Great Grandmother Francis Gehring Schaeser, back far left and her siblings – William and George Gehring shown here worked at Streitman Biscuit in Over-the-Rhine their whole careers

My Grandmother, Francesca Gehring met a man who worked as a tailor with her father, my great grandfather Jacob Nicholas Schoesser, who came from the same Saarland area as her family, namely the town of St. Ingbert.    His uncle Michael Schoesser had already settled in Cincinnati  in the 1860s at the foot of Mt. Adams at 3rd street and was a tailor.   He had three daugthers, was a tailor, and was the relative who sponsored my great grandfather.   Unfortunately alcoholism ran in this family.    Michael died of cirrhosis of the liver and his nephew – my great grandfather – would reak havoc on his family with his alcoholism and joblesseness as a result.  

My great grandmother was left to support six children on her own, which she did doing laundry and cooking for families in Cincinnati and Newport.     As her husband went from job to job to no job cutting for various clothing firms, Francis worked for a family in Cincinnati near 3rd street.  My grandmother, although raised in Newport, at the Central Avenue house of her maternal grandmother, Anna, was born in Cincinnati, when her family rented a tenement apartment on Broadway, and was baptized at St. Philomena German Catholic Church which was demolished.   As a young girl she often accompanied her mother to work at this family and ate meals with them.

After this life in Cincinnati became harder, Francesca moved her family of six into the house of her mother Anna Sharolt Gehring.    She had immigrated with a sister Kunigunda, a cousin Georg, who fought in the 108th infantrry in the Civil War and settled his family in Harrison, Ohio.  

I wish I had the  Franconian and Saarbrucken recipes of my great great grandmother.   But unfortunately that line of recipe inheritance was broken with my Grandmother, the youngest of five girls, who never had to cook a day in her life before marriage.    So, my unskilled grandmother had to learn how to cook from her first landlady in Newport, a German woman named Mrs. Herzog, who taught her how to make cherry pie, barley soup (which her father in law, Theodore Woellert adored when he moved in with them in his later years), goetta and other staples of a Germanic American household.      I have not been able to find this Mrs. Herzog and find what area of Germany she was from, but the dishes she taught my grandmother how to make like  goetta and whispering / poor man’s fruitcake (a fruitcake of only raisins)  are  both from Northwestern Germany.

Even the jam and pastry knowledge of my Great Grandmother Francis, was lost on my grandma.   But my grandma was a good cook, famous for her lasagna (from the Creamette noodle box), chocolate cake (which we would find out was the recipe from the Hershey’s Cocoa tin, goetta, and barley soup.      She found recipes like the chocolate cake from  Hershey’s cocoa mix and perfected them over many years to the extent that we all thought they were hers.

Above image: My grandmother at about six posing in front of her family house on Central Avenue in Newport before going to Cincinnati to get her formal portrait taken for her first communion.

Above image: My grandma’s older sister Emma Schaeser Greifenkamp, who cooked for many years for a large wealthy family in Cincinnati, perhaps using the Franconian recipes of her grandmother.

When I would cut her lawn in high school, she served me pickle loaf sandwiches with her handmade famous cole slaw, which my cousin David still makes for his family and our family get togethers.

In Hochstadt, where Anna Sharolt Gehring was from, fried carp, fresh horseradish with sausage and liverwurst, pork, sauerkraut, and horseradish,  and meat filled potato dumplings were the standard fare.    Also standard was Frankish Sauerbraten, which was thickened with the local lebkuchen or gingerbread and with raisins, giving it a distinct flavor .    One tradition that seems to have been practiced and passed on was the Brotzeit or early happy hour.  IN Franconia, which has the highest concentration of breweries in the world, around 3 PM a light beer like a pale lager or wheat beer is served with a small snack like slices of headcheese/schwartenmagen with sliced onions or small sausages with horseradish or mustard.   There’s a story that in her nineties my great grandmother lived with her oldest daughter Rose and would always ask what time it was because they would enjoy a 3 PM Brotzeit beer everyday together.

Any time something was served with sliced onions in Franconia, it was called ‘mit Musik’ or with music, because of the resulting flatulence it produced.

Above image: traditional country rye bread from Saarland

In Saarbrucken , where Anna’s husband’s  Gehring family hailed, the potato, sour apples, and rye bread are king of the table.     Round potato dumplings called Gefilde/Gefulde filled with minced meat and served in a  regional bacon cream sauce and with sauerkraut is the common comfort food.       Yeasted rye breads and dense rye brown breads would be what my Great Great Grandmother would have made for her family.    And finally, they liked not beer but Riesling wines and the sour apple wine, called Viez, from the region.

Although a mixed German household – Franconian/Saarland – where the two regions met in the middle were through meat filled potato dumplings and rye bread.      Anna may have learned Saarland dishes from her sisters in law who immigrated with her husband’s family.        Man would I love to have my great great grandmother’s recipes

How  Gold Star Chili  Continues to Foster Amazing Restaurant Concepts in Cincinnati

Above image: Braheim Shteiwi plans to open Court Street Kitchen in Cincinnati

The Cincinnati Chili Family Tree I created in my 2013 Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili book shows how all chili parlors descend from the original Empress Chili parlor, which celebrated its 100 year anniversary in 2022.    But embedded within that family tree is a another one – the Gold Star Chili family tree – of all the non-chili parlor restaurants founded by family who started or still are in the Gold Star family franchise network.

And when we think of Gold Star we think of the original four Daoud brothers and their families who still run the business and own many of the 100 franchises.    But another less well-known Jordanian family name Shteiwi grows from that same family tree.

Braheim Shteiwi recently announced the opening of a new restaurant he’s calling Court Street Kitchen in the burgeoning Court Street District downtown.   He’s calling it elevated American cuisine.    And he comes from many years experience working in the Gold Stars of his family and the other restaurant concepts his father Rakan “Rick” Oudeh Shteiwi founded.    

Rick was born in Al-Fuheis, Jordan,  in 1937, to Oudeh and Jamileih Shteiwi.   He was  one of the oldest of four brothers and 7 sisters – a huge family just like the founding Daoud family.   He was hosted by his Daoud cousins in Cincinnati and started five Gold Star franchise locations.   From there he founded Caruso’s Italian restaurant in 1967 and then took over the legacy Caproni’s Italian restaurant in 1975.   That restaurant had been founded in 1886, but Rick revamped it and made it more than Italian – he added  international cuisine from Middle East, France, and Germany.   Before immigrating to America  – he had worked in restaurants in Germany, Italy ,and France, so he had great techniques and great ideas, but Cincinnati chili was his jumping off point in America and he never forgot it.

Above image: Four founding Daoud brothers of Gold Star

Above image: Shakir Tuimeh Daoud father of the founding brothers of Gold Star married a Shteiwi

The four founding brothers of Gold Star – Fahir, Fahid, Beshir and Beshara Daoud- were born to Shakir Tuaimeh Daoud and Nora Shteiwi – so the Shteiwis are cousins to the Daouds.    They also come from the same Arabic Christian village in Jordan – Al-Fuheis, as the Daoud family, where they grew tobacco for the Gold Star cigarette company – thus the name of the chili parlor.    Shakir – the patriarch of the Daoud family (Tuiemeh in Jordan) was a well-respected community leader and parliament member who was sought after for his advice and hosted many members of the community despite their meager means – a hospitality that extends into both families’ restaurant DNA.    The Daoud brothers helped finance their cousins and train them into the Gold Star Franchise system to get their American start.  

In 1981 Rick founded the iconic Spinning Fork in Fairfield and opened another location in Middletown in 2013.   He also owned Dipaolo’s/Three Trees Catering in Oxford and MIA in Milford.   Before his passing in 2016, Rick had started a new concept called the Silver Tee Kitchen and Craft Bar at the Elks Country Club in Liberty Township.

After his father passed in 2016, Braheim sold the family restaurants and worked for Jeff Ruby, only to revamp Caruso’s a few years later in the former Fairfield Spinning Fork location.

Braheim’s father, Rick hosted younger brother Hatem Shteiwi as a dishwasher at his Springdale Gold Star, while he attended Princeton High School in the early 1980s.    Hatem now owns his own Gold Stars – one in Mason and one on Oxford State Road in Middletown.  He took that Middletown store over in  1998 and it’s now in  the top 5 performing gold stars out of 100 in greater Cincinnati.     He ran the restaurant at the Forest Hills Country Club , and Dad’s restaurant and the Stand in Middletown.

Other Brothers Hukkum and Hakman “George,” were also involved in the various restaurants and all of their seven sisters worked at one time at one of the family-owned restaurants. 

Braheim Shteiwi’s sister Lana Shteiwi Wright ran the former Chateau Pomije in O’Bryanville with her bestie Kelly Lough Phillips for many years.   Lana  took that wine education to co-own today the amazeballs Abigail Street and gourmet hot dog stand, Senate in Over-the-Rhine, with her husband.       Lana’s bestie, Kelly went on to open La Poste in Clifton and Django Taco in Northside, which were two of my ultimate fave restaurants in the early 2000s.      Kelly got her start in the restaurant world working at the Springdale Gold Star, owned by Lana and Braheim’s father, Rick Shteiwi.     

So you see how tangled and many-branched this Gold Star Family Tree is.    You also see that Rick Shteiwi and his family built a restaurant empire that extends from downtown Cincinnati as far north as Dayton, and as far west as Oxford – maybe the largest family restaurant empire in Greater Cincinnati, certainly the one with the most geographic spread.      Much luck to Braheim for his new Court Street Kitchen, but with all that restaurant experience, I don’t think he needs it!

Taco Casa:  The Hyde Park East Taco Bell Competitor Still Gong Strong In Cincinnati

Above image: Polly Lafoon at her first Taco Casa on Erie Avenue

When I first moved to the East Side, the Taco Casa at 3516 Eire Avenue was still there, one of two in Hyde Park.   The other just vacated its location last year next to Chipotle on Wasson.    There were overlapping clay tiles on a small faux roof jutting out from the facade.     The Erie Avenue location became the amazing Cumin Restaurant after Taco Casa vacated and that whole strip of 1930s stores were renovated to a more modern aesthetic.   Cumin sparked the food revolution of East Hyde Park that spawned other amazing restaurants like Café Mediterranean and the fabulous Tuscan-inspired Forno, which now occupies the former space. 

Growing up in the 1980s  I was more familiar and a super fan of the other Cincinnati Taco Bell wannabe – Zantigo’s.   There was one on Winton Road near my gradeschool – St Bart’s Consolidated – where a Taco Bell now stands.    I can still taste their hot picante sauce that me and my gradeschool buddies would slurp right out of the condiment packages as sort of a Mexican version of the Skyline hot sauce cracker bomb.    In retrospect, it was a lot like Taco Bell’s current hot sauce.    Who knows which came out first with this formula.     My grade school hosted Zantigo Day several times a year, when we would choose and have our parents approve – from a limited menu of items to have for lunch that day.   It was heaven – a respite from the sometimes horrible cafeteria food we were submitted to in the 1980s.

Taco Casa started life in 1968  as  a Taco Tico franchise – Cincinnati’s first fast food Taco Bell wannabe franchise.    Taco Tico was founded in the early 1960s by Dan and Robin Foley and still exists today as a  privately held franchise, headquartered out of Wichita, Kansas.   It’s now owned by Jerry and Kim Gill, who had their first date at the Texarcana Taco Tico.

The Cincy franchise was bought for a measly $5000 by housewife Pauline “Polly” Laffoon, labelled the Queen of Tex-Mex by the Enquirer, and second wife of Polk Laffoon III, an insurance exec.   Their slogan was “Mexican Food With a Flair, ”   serving burritos, enchiladas, Taco Burgers, tamales, tacos, chili and beer.      Polly’s stepson Peter would bring another type of burger, the Mary Burger, to Cincinnati as owner of Cincinnati’s Hamburger Mary’s on Vine Street in the early 2000s.

By 1971 Laffoon absconded the franchise and went off on her own, renaming the business Taco Casa.   Laffoon claims she was the first to bring the Taco Salad to Cincinnati.   It combined hot spicy beef taco meat on cold salad ingredients with tortilla chips on top.   Taco Bell would come out with the over-the-top taco salad in a fried shell, that was me and my mom’s  jam to eat together in the 1980s.     Taco Bell no longer serves the taco salad.

In my professional career, I would work with the Taco Bell Brand corporate food scientists of Yum! Brands, at their huge corporate facility outside of Houston, Texas, to develop holding technology for their tortillas on the restaurant assembly line.     We would also work with another Houston-based taco franchise called Del Taco.   As it turns out, tortillas are hard to hold warm and keep moist for service.   Ever noticed how crackly McDonald’s breakfast burritos’ tortillas get?   That’s because they hold them wrapped in breathable paper without moisture and they dry out.    You can call me any time you want McDonald’s Corporate– I’m available for consult.

Polly was carted off to El Paso, Texas, from her native Ft. Thomas, by her first husband, an Army officer serving in the Korean War period.   That’s where she fell in love with Tex-Mex food.   They arrived back in Cincinnati in 1956, which at the time had no Mexican food, so she learned how to make it for herself and her family.  

She said that Taco Casa is more than Taco Bell.   It’s not just  bottled hot sauce and prepackaged burrito fillings or canned beans.     It’s fresh ingredients and homemade salsa.   Sound familiar Chipotle?

Her son Clif  Kennedy made the tortillas from stone ground corn masa in a factory he ran next to the Evanston outlet.   He also made chips and tortillas for the Cincinnati Zoo, and other restaurants like El Coyote, Barleycorns and Sylvia’s.   Her son Gene Kennedy also joined the business and she sold it all to him in 2000 when she retired.    By 1988 she had four Taco Casa locations and 55 employees – the original Erie Avenue location, 3700 Montgomery Road in Evanston, 2723 Vine Street in University Village, and 318 New Street downtown – a virtual Tex-Mex Republic.

So what’s happened in the Cincinnati Taco Scene since that first Taco Bell competitor came into town over 50 years ago?   Right now we are having a Birria taco moment in Cincinnati.   One of the best collabs in our city in the last several years has been that of recent Mexican immigrants and gas stations allowing them to park taco trucks on site.  There are several near me – the yummy Jorge’s Tacos on Erie Avenue (owned by an immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, Birria’s birthplace), one on Red Bank and Brotherton, and one at Madison and Ridge.    There are numerous ones in Price Hill and Fairmount as well on the West Side.    (Anyone who wants to go on a Cincinnati gas station taco tasting adventure let me know).   And then there are the myriad of fancier taco centered restaurants like the amazeballs Frida in Covington (which makes the best margarita in town – the spicy Prickly Pear Cactus Blossom Marg), and Condado’s with locations all around the city.       Bakersfield in Over-the-Rhine was sort of the first elevated taco-forward restaurant.   There’s even been a crossover from tacos to Birria Cheese Coneys, which means Birria is here to stay.   I’d love to try a birria four way myself.    Maybe Taco Casa should come up with a birria taco themselves.

I have to admit I never have eaten at a Taco Casa even though they have surrounded me for nearly 25 years.    I was always afraid of something they advertised in the window at the Wasson location – the Tuna Boat.       Former Cincinnati Enquirer food writer Polly Campbell defended the Tuna Boat against my naysaying several years ago, so I guess I should shut up and put it on my Weird Foods to Try List for 2023.    There are still locations of Taco Casa left in Norwood and Montgomery so my time is not up.  Given their legacy of being the first competitor to Taco Bell and the originator of the Cincinnati-style taco salad, I think it’s a requirement.

German Mardi Gras: Becoming a Waggi  And What Do They Eat

I had the wonderful experience last year to visit two ancestral hometowns – Merdigen, Baden-Wuertuemburg of my maternal Barmann ancestors and the Breitenach area around Basel, Switzerland of my maternal Brosi/Brosey ancestors.    I actually got to see the house and area where my third great grandmother was born and the deed of sale of her father’s property which funded their immigration to America.   I tasted the outstanding Spatburguner/Pinot Noir made by my Barmann cousins at their 200+ year old winery that was once worked in by my ancestors who left and made Catawba wine in Price Hill and Delhi Township in Cincinnati.     We also tasted Bibelskase – the great grandmother to our American cheeseball and beer cheese dips.       And I got to taste the amazing Hildabrotchen – sort of like a cross between a New York black and white cookie, and a raspberry jam-filled linzercookie.   The best experience though was spending the day with my fantastic 10th or more so cousins and learning the lives of my ancestors.

Then in Basel  I tasted the Leckerli or version of Gingerbread.  It’s a soft, chewy, not-too-sweet,  amber colored version with a very light icing.     We had lunch at a typical Basel Brotli bar – which serves deli salads as open faced sandwiches, washed down by the local Eichhof lager.   We had a wonderful farewell tasting dinner in downtown Basel at Hahn-Rickli Wine cellars, that consisted of all Basel regional dishes – a savory pastry called Fastenwahen, their Wurstkase salad (sausage cheese salad), Basler Mehlsupper (Basel flour soup), Zwiebeltarte (onion pizza), Fleischkase auf kartoffelsalat (sort of a goetta with potato salad), a pasta dish with potatoes, onions, and cheese sauce with apple compote, green spargel risotto, and Toberone mousse – one of the best meals I had in 2022!   I also tasted their super crunchy and tender version of schnitzel, but missed tasting Baseler Geschnetzeles – a featured regional dish of thin strips of veal in mushroom cream sauce served with spaetzli noodles, and of course, lots of Swiss white wine.       One of the other drinks I fell in love with, but was a post WWII invention, not experienced by my Brosi ancestors, called diet Rivella, a sort of floral Ginger ale.

But probably the coolest thing I did while visiting both areas, was a deep dive into both of their carnivals – called Fastnet in the regional Badischer German dialect.       Both southern Baden-W and Basel have their own very distinct carnevals, with defined masked characters who march in their crazy parades.   I’ve been a super fan of New Orleans Mardi Gras since I attended two in college.     So, this was right up my cultural alley.        My cousin Tanya and her aunt made me the traditional braided straw shoes, black knit hood and white pantaloons of my ancestors in Baden for me, that are now worn by both men and women who dress as Hexe or witches and march together with the masked Narran or jesters masked and dressed in frilly tricolor suits.   

In Basel, they have a group of characters called Waggi, that are known for their masks of huge wide toothed smiles and oversized noses.   The Waggi are a cultural lampoon of 19th century Alsatians and Baden peasant farmers who brought their produce to the markets of Basel.      Waggi has the same etymology as our English word Vagabond and basically translates to Hillbilly or country people.     The characters march in the enormous Basel Fastnet parades, which are held the week after Ash Wednesday for some unknown reason, and are loud, boisterous and throw and shoot rappeli or confetti out of canons.   The Waggi that ride on the parade floats or wagons throw flowers and oranges and small sweet treats, rather than the beads of New Orleans Mardi Gras.   When in Basel we ate at a restaurant Zum Braunen Mutz (The Brown Bear) that had a bunch of Waggi masks hanging on their walls and I got a photo in the most outrageous of one of them.

So this year, for our celebration of German Fastnacht at the Hofbrauhaus in Newport, Kentucky, sponsored by the German American Citizens League, I will dress as a Waggi to embrace my ancestry – both the lampooners and the lampoon-eed!      I had to revert back to one of my earliest maker talents – the art of paper mache to make a Waggi mask.  It will be accompanied by a traditional sparkly wig and black hat and my Baden pantaloons and straw shoes, and a tied kerchief and Fastnet beads.

I will march in the Fastnacht Parade at 7 PM and will represent in the costume contest.  

The Cult of Cherry Thing A Lings

So this weekend was the last of five days of cherry thing a ling production at Schmidt’s Bakery in Batesville Indiana.   It’s a President’s day tradition that has gone on for 50 years, started by Clem Schmidt to commemorate the mythical Washingtonian chopping down of a cherry tree – something modern politicians should embrace – owning their false statements.    So What is a cherry thing a ling ?  It’s basically a cherry flavored fritter.   They’re smaller than the average fritter – almost beignet sized – but pack a cherry flavored punch with the red dyed cherry icing and the bits of cherry baked into the fritter dough itself.    They usually show up in time around Mardi Gras and are kind of like our local King Cake or Fastnacht donut or paczki.  

People posted their triumphant box of a dozen cherry thing a lings online, some waiting up to three hours for them.    And then, of course the haters came out – why would anyone wait that long for a damn donut?   And ‘I don’t see what all the fuss is over a donut.”     Well there’s bonding and community while waiting in line.     You have a story to tell – “I waited in line three hours for these, and I’M sharing them with you.”   That’s love!

But similar things have been said about Cincinnati chili and goetta and even LaRosa’s pizza.     What these haters don’t realize is that all of these are really something special – regional iconic foods.   And yes, most of them are just simple comfort foods that anyone can make.

In the simplest form, food is just fuel.    But it’s also cultural and part of community and tradition.  Food memories are the strongest    Much research has been done on comfort food and our perceptions of taste.   Food just tastes better to us when it is connected to a warm memory.   Fod that comes out of a tradition that involves good memories, family, friends and community.   So yeah, maybe it is just a normal fritter, and yes maybe anyone in the world could make them.   But they don’t.  Schmidt’s does five days a year and they bring us this great cultural phenomenon of which I’m happy to be a part.

I’m a cherry thing a ling lover.  I’ve ordered them by phone and had them delivered, I’ve had friends wait in line for them.       This year I tried to avoid them because I’m watching my sugar intake.   But a generous co-worker waiting in line and brought in a dozen to share.   So I had to honor her generosity and love, and I had one.   Yes, I’m a cherry thing a ling weakling.

The Sordid Story Behind Tabasco’s Green Sauce

Above image: African Americans picking green tabasco peppers for Cornay Moss’s Green Heart Tabasco Sauce. Cornay his two sons, their family puppy, and wife are looking on to the far left.

Last September I took a day trip from my yearly fall trip to New Orleans. I headed out to New Iberia, a two hour drive west of the Crescent City for a hot sauce excursion. I met Marcia, the executive director of the Bayou Teche Museum, which has a great collection of New Iberia Louisiana hot sauce artifacts. She led us on a tour of the former Frank Red Hot Sauce factory and showed us the Estilette family’s final resting place in the New Iberia Catholic Cemetery. Adam and Constance Estilette originated the recipe and with their children grew the peppers and ran the factory for Jacob Frank, who bottled Franks Hot Sauce in Cincinnati. Her husband, a renowned New Orleans chef even fed us with maque choux, a Cajun spicy creamed corn and homemade boudin sausage, a cousin to our goetta. It was amazing. Then they sent us on our way to Avery Island for the Tabasco experience and with the great recommendation to try both flavors of Tabasco ice cream at the store.

We drove the 20 or so minutes south to the original Tabasco factory and took the tour. Although the peppers are now grown in South America, they still grow peppers for seeds on site in a greenhouse you can tour. Disregarding the many signs NOT to pick and eat the peppers, I did and my mouth was on fire the rest of the tour, fueled by 50,000 scovilles of heat, not diluted by salt and vinegar as in the sauce. As great as the history is that they present, there’s one story that’s not told at the Tabasco experience and that’s the one behind their green sauce. It’s now a mild jalapeno green sauce, but in the early 20th century it was a green tabasco sauce, a business scavenged by copywright infringement from a man named Cornay Moss and his Green Heart Tabasco Company of New Iberia.

Rewind to 1869 when Edmund McIlhenny sold his first bottles of Tabasco sauce in perfume bottles.   He had gotten seed from a plantation neighbor Maunsel White, who had gotten seeds from a returning soldier of the Mexican American war.    This soldier had seen, eaten, and fallen in love with the heat of this strange pepper from the Mexican state of Tabasco.     Even though the Maunsel White papers prove otherwise, the McIlhenny family to this day holds tight that their ancestor obtained pepper seeds on his own and invented American Louisiana style hot sauce.    

Above image: Maunsel White, the inventor of American Louisiana style hot sauce.

Above image: Edmund McIlhenny, inventor of McIlhenny’s Tabasco sauce.

The interesting story is that tabasco sauce was really a happy accident, as most food inventions are.    Maunsel just wanted to dry the peppers he received and grew like the Mexicans did with other peppers.  He could then throw the whole pepper in a stew and add some heat.   What he found was that this strange new tabasco pepper was too oily and juicy to be dried and to be preserved, had to be mashed, set with salt and then strong vinegar added.   The end result was a preserved pepper sauce that could be added to stews and dishes and thus was born American Louisiana style hot sauce.

By 1850, Maunsel had articles and ads in New Orleans newspapers that gave him credit for growing and proliferating his new peppers to neighbors and anyone willing to grow them.   While we now know that capsicum, the heat giving element of peppers is good for heart health, the new Orleans papers also said, “none of White’s negros came down with cholera,”  due to his giving them tabasco sauce regularly.   This makes us wonder if, like Jack Daniels’ whiskey, it was an unnamed enslaved person who actually came up with that first hot sauce formula on White’s Deer Range plantation. In Plaquemines, Louisiana.

Above image: John Avery McIlhenny, son of the founder and chief litigator for the family.

Getting back to the green sauce story.   Founder Edmund McIlhenny dies in 1890, but not before he writes an extensive memoir.   He didn’t even mention his tabasco sauce making empire, and more lamented the loss of his banking fortune due to the post Civil War economy.   But two of his sons – Edmund Jr. and John saw the future of a family enterprise in hot sauce.   The eventually would patent Tabasco, even though it was geographical and the name of the pepper, not a brand name, and would sue anyone who used the name Tabasco in their sauce.

One of those first guys they went after was Cornay P. Moss, president of the Green Heart Tabasco Sauce Company.    John McIlhenny became sort of the family’s litigation attorney against anyone using the word tabasco.    John  sued Moss and his company in years of litigation, costing the Mosses nearly $250,000, an enormous fortune at that time.    The Mosses countersued the McIllhennys for loss to their business and were compensated a measly $5000.    In order to pay for the costs of the first suit, the Mosses ended up selling the tabasco sauce portion of their business to McIllhenny’s, which ended their competition.   Problem gloriously solved for the McIllhennys.   Although the Mosses continued to grow and sell peppers, it no where near compensated for the loss of their hot sauce business.

Above image: The former Cosmpolitan Hotel in New Orleans, now the Astor Hotel.

So, in 1917, Moss checked into the Cosmopolitan Hotel in New Orleans, now called the Astor Hotel.    On Wednesday, January 10, 1917, Cornay Moss shot himself in the temple, ending his life.   His handsome photo and his entire suicide letter were published in The Weekly Iberian three days later.     In the note addressed to his dear “Pug” he said:

I  have learned to know this world of hypocrisy so well,

that I do not care to continue to live in it. I hate to do this on account

of you and our boys, but life on this planet has grown intolerable to me.

As you are familiar with every detail of our business and eminently

qualified to handle things, you are to make such business or other

investments as in your judgment seems best in the future.

I have no fear for the future of my soul because I know that I am a better

man at heart and in fact than 90 per cent of them all, and I do not believe

that over 90 per cent of them are going to the worst place in the hereafter.

it is my one wish that our two boys stick together through this life, and if

practicable that you always be near, if not with them. I leave all the love

I possess with you and our boys and may God be with you all. Good-bye.

The litigation with the McIlhennys had so affected Moss that he couldn’t bear living, a true tragedy.

History soon forgot Moss and his Green Heart Tobasco company, but John McIlhenny didn’t stop going after anyone who used tabasco in their name.  From 1922-1929, he sued Bernard Francois Trappey, their former blacksmith at the factory, who left in 1898 and started his own tabasco hot sauce company with his ten sons.   Trappey lost the battle and renamed his hot sauce Red Devil, which is still being made today.

Cornay Moss requested that the Green Heart logo be made on his tomb, in the New Iberia Catholic Cemetery (where other hot sauce families like the Estilettes of Frank’s Red hot sauce are buried).     But either that didn’t happen or it has since fallen off – it looks like there was once a plaque on the top of his gravestone that is no longer there which might have held the company logo.

Above image: Cornay Moss’s final resting place in New Iberia’s Catholic Hot Sauce Cemetery.

Other hot sauce entrepreneurs saw the repercussions of making a hot sauce with tabasco peppers and going up against the behemoth McIlhenny family.   So, that’s what led Buillards, Franks, Crystal (the Baumer family) and Louisiana (the Brown family) and others to make their hot sauces with cayenne instead of tabasco.

The same year Moss took his life, 1917, was the same year Jacob Frank first travelled to New Iberia to scout hot sauce makers and met Adam Estillette, forming the partnership that would become Frank’s Red Hot Sauce.

Above image: The Estilettes who originated Frank’s Red Hot Sauce recipe and operated the Frank’s plant in New Iberia.

And now the American hot sauce market is the largest growth sector of the condiments category in retail grocery.    John McIlhenny’s head would explode today at the tens of thousands of hot sauce competitors to their OG tabasco hot sauce.