There has been much written about one of Cincinnati’s immigrant inspired regional delicacies – goetta. Goetta is basically a breakfast meat/sausage, made from the combination of a bit of pork shoulder, onions, spices, and pinhead oatmeal. It’s cooked and poured into terrines and sausage casings to set, and then sliced thin and fried crispy. It has been said many times that you won’t find anything similar to goetta in Germany or Europe, but that’s not exactly true. Will you find something on a menu called goetta in a Westphalian gasthaus? The answer is no, but you will find sausages and something that looks and tastes remarkably similar to goetta there called Grutzwurst. The fact is there’s a long history of European peoples making sausages with a bit of protein and a lot of grain filler to make a poor man’s gruel. Imagine a peasant in the middle ages trying to give some semblance of flavor to his gruel or porridge by dropping a few scraps of meat into it.
This legacy of poor man’s meat gruel has different names all over Europe. We can connect the goetta family tree to Scotland’s haggis, a combination of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, onion, oatmeal, suet and spices. I had haggis for breakfast at a hotel near Glasgow a few years ago on a business trip and besides being darker in color, it tasted remarkably similar to goetta. In Hanover a similar sausage is called Knipp, made with oat groats, pork head, liver, and spiced with allspice and pepper. In northern Germany Grutzwurst uses pig organ parts with buckwheat, barley or rye, onion, black pepper and marjoram. In Poland Grutzwurst is called Kishka. Even in areas of the U.S. where the Pennsylvania Dutch settled, there is a version called Scrapple, which uses cornmeal as the grain filler, but also uses pork parts.
So when the Hanoverian, Westphalian, and other peasant Germans brought their various traditions of grains sausages made with pork parts to Cincinnati before the Civil War, they were happy and surprised to see the prevalence and cheapness of pork in our city. You could barely walk into the streets in the Over the Rhine German community without being stampeded by pigs being led to one of the many slaughterhouses in the city. So, the Cincinnati German immigrants amped up their grain sausage with only pork shoulder or other equivalent pork muscle meat. Perhaps there was even a regulation agreed upon by Cincinnati butchers, similar to beer’s Rheinheitsgebot purity law, that specified only good pork cuts to be used in goetta like pork shoulder or pork butt and no offal or organ meats. Maybe this Uber-dem-Rheinheitsgebot for goetta has been lost to time, but it’s message still exists. My own grandmother’s recipe for goetta, which is over 100 years old, calls for only pork shoulder or pork butt. If someone describes goetta as livery or organy, it’s not goetta they’re eating but another poor man’s sausage.
Who knows if there was one butcher who invented goetta. Northern Kentucky, where the delicacy is as or more prevalent than in Cincinnati, has claimed inventor’s status. But it’s impossible to really pinpoint who’s responsible. It should be pointed out that Cincinnati, while adapting and uplifting goetta as a pure meat, grain sausage, had also been mispronouncing its delicacy for the last probably century. We always laughed when my northern Kentucky grandmother exclaimed “now that was some good goowda!!” She even spelled it how she pronounced it in her mother’s recipe as ‘Guetta’. We’d always laugh and say Grandma you’re not pronouncing it right, its ‘getta’.” Well Grandma was actually right . The German umlauted o, translated into English as ‘oe’ is pronounced with a round on the lips with more of a soft u sound than an o sound.
Again while we can’t really trace the exact origin, we say that goetta like products started showing up in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky meat markets in the 1840s, when Hanoverian, Westphalian, and north German immigrants flooded to Cincinnati leading up to and after the 1848 Revolution. And, while we can’t necessarily point to the mother of goetta as knipp, grutzwurst, or something else, we can certainly trace the roots from a recipe to one of those in the spices that it uses. One legacy meat market, Kroeger at Findley Market spices their goetta with cloves and allspice, so it probably can be traced to knipp. Glier’s goetta is more bay leaf, marjoram, and peppery, so it’s recipe can probably be traced to grutzwurst or a close cousin. My own grandmother’s recipe, which is actually her mother’s recipe, can be traced to Rheinish-Bavarian immigrants, an area a bit south of Hanover. Her recipe is spiced more similar to Hanover’s Knipp with clove and allspice, but still has bay leaf. Her recipe might indicate a mix of both knipp and grutzwurst recipes, due to a marriage back in the family of Northwest Germans to Northeast Germans.
Kentucky might have more hold on the goetta legacy. They host two goetta festivals throughout the summer – one in Covington’s German Mainstrasse neighborhood, and another in Newport, sponsored by its largest commercial producer, Gliers. Wherever goetta was invented, it’s culinary tradition runs deep on both sides of the Ohio River.