To anyone on the West Side of Cincinnati, the party pleasing appetizer called Hanky Panky brings up memories of superbowl and holiday parties from the 1970s. There were certainly many Bengals fans choking on Hanky Panky at parties west of Interstate 75, when the Bengals choked against the 49ers in the 1989 superbowl. Hanky Panks, as it’s affectionately abbreviated, is a simple pre-foodie appetizer that mixes equal parts of ground beef and ground pork sausage with Velveeta cheese, worchestershire, garlic salt, and oregano. It is usually broiled on rye bread or pumpernickel squares. It’s a perfect comfort food, kind of like an open faced slider, when served in the bruschetta form, or used as dip with rye points in the more interactive form. Some people, like my friend Lisa, think it’s not a party without the Hanky Panks.
With something so regional it’s hard to pin down it’s origin. Because it so specifically calls for Velveeta cheese, you might think it could be easily tracked down to a recipe book put out by the Kraft food company to increase use of their cheese product in the 1970s, when it reached its height of popularity. One imagines it’s name possibly derived from all the ‘key parties’ also popular in the swinging 70s. Unfortunately there’s no apocryphal recipe book from Kraft – and it’s known by different names in different parts of the country, but not consistently known across, so that evidence would refute a national recipe publication. It seems to be popular at the other end of the state in Cleveland, Ohio, with the same name, but in Missouri it’s known as Rye Pizza. While not really popular in Northern Kentucky, it is traditionally served at Derby Day parties around Louisville, Kentucky. Where it’s not known as Hanky Panks it can also be heard referred to by the all-purpose sobriquet, S.O.S. There’s even a reference to it being known in Ohio Eastern European neighborhoods as Polish Mistake.
S.O.S. is a military term used particularly heavily during World War II to refer to a meal made of creamed chipped beef on toast, flavored with Worchestershire and dried parsley. It seems Hanky Panks may have been an adaptation of this military convenience meal. The amp up to the American civilian table was its replacement of chipped beef with fresh ground beef and spicy sausage.
What makes Hanky Panks so good is that they appeal to all strata of society. While the name may turn up noses on the East Side, with its West Side connotation, you just can’t refute, the cheesy, gooey, meaty deliciousness that they offer.
There’s no doubt Hanky Panks have reached pop icon status in Cincinnati. There’s even a local band called The Hanky Panks. Maury’s Tiny Cove restaurant in Cheviot includes them in their Cincinnati appetizer plate. They’ve been popularized at the new Rookwood restaurant in Mt. Adams with the hipster craze of haute street food. Rookwood amps them up by using goetta instead of just ground beef. Maria Longworth would most certainly approve.
There’s no secret to the recipe, and no variations. It’s always Velveeta, and always equal parts spicy sausage and ground beef. There’s no mystery, no chef technique required to concoct this treat. While some chefs and restaurants have tried to sophisticate Hanky Panks by adding chorizo and gourmet cheeses like gouda, you just don’t stray from the standard if you want true Hanky Panky. I’d like to salute that now anonymous, but brilliant housewife, wherever she was on the West Side, who first concocted this now Cincinnati party favorite.