Off With Their Heads, But Leave the Opera Creams!

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Every Easter as a kid, I knew that there would be several opera creams in my Easter basket from Schneider’s sweet shop in Dayton, Kentucky, right across the river from Cincinnati.   My mother grew up in a baking family, whose bakery was only a few blocks from Schneider’s sweet shop on ‘the Avenue.’    My mother gushed about these sweet confections, and her love was instilled in all of us at Easter.       A Cincinnati company, the Papas Company, also made opera creams, but they just weren’t as smooth and silky as the ones made by Schneider’s.    There were even more flavors like cherry and pineapple cream, marshmallow, peanut butter – a dozen in all – but the opera creams were the best.

The opera cream is a candy uniquely Cincinnati, brought here by a German confection making family before the Civil War. It’s an oblong chocolate, sometimes mistaken for the round butter cream, with a rich, filling of sweet cream, sugar and butter.   What I didn’t know as a kid is that this opera cream had a legacy dating all the way back to the French Empire of the 1600’s and the extravagant Sun King, Louis XIV.  The same opera creams that we loved were the same recipe that Louis XIV ate in his gilded palace, as his imperial subjects starved in the streets.

It all started back in 1668.   A German chocolate confection-making family, the Bissinger’s were living in Paris.   That year King Louis XIV proclaimed the family, “Confiseur Imperial” or candy makers of the Empire, because their candies were his favorite.     Chocolate was extremely popular with Louis XIV and the members of his Court at Versailles. When the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa was betrothed to Louis XIV, she gave her fiancé an engagement gift of chocolate, probably Bissinger’s, packaged in an elegantly ornate chest. The Bissinger fame began to spread and the family continued to make confections for the royals and nobles of Europe.   The chocolate craze which took hold in Paris conquered the rest of France, and began a reputation of its aphrodisiac properties.   Art and literature was thick with erotic imagery inspired by chocolate.   Casanova was reputed for using chocolate with champagne to seduce his lovers.   Madame de Pompadour was advised to use chocolate with ambergris to stimulate her desire for Louis XV, but to no avail. Madame du Barry, reputed to be nymphomaniacal, encouraged her lovers to drink chocolate in order to keep up with her.

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Chocolate had become so fashionable that in 1662, the pope took a look at this bewitching beverage during the Lenten fasting.   The judgment: “Liquidum non frangit jejunum,” a chocolate drink did not break the fast, but eating chocolate confections didn’t pass muster, until Easter. This is perhaps where the tradition of giving Easter candies comes in.

The Bissingers continued making their chocolates for the French after the French Revolution, acting as confiseur to the Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonapart III.   Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte I carried chocolate morsels into his military campaigns in the 19th century, eating it to conserve energy, in a sense inventing the first power bars.

The Bissingers, led by Karl Friedrich Bissinger (1829-1905), left Europe in 1845, to escape the rising turmoil and dissatisfaction with the French King, Louis Phillipe, and settled in Cincinnati, continuing to make candies here.    They brought their delicious opera cream recipe.   Legend has it that they supplied these opera crèam candies to the Cincinnati Opera at the Music Hall, where operagoers received them free at intermission. After Karl Sr. died, his widow Theresa became the first female owner of a chocolate company in the United States.   Karl Jr. decided to spread his wings and moved to St. Louis. He opened the Bissinger’s store on McPherson in 1927, where it remained for the next 80 years until the move to Maryland Plaza in 2007

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Karl Friedrich Bissinger, the Inventor of the Opera Cream

Several other companies in Cincinnati started making the opera cream, as its popularity spread throughout the area.   Putnam Candies on Central Avenue took on the Bissinger recipe, which was then bought by Chris A. Papas and Sons in 1967.     Papas Candies was run by a Greek family, starting in 1935 as Lilly’s Candy Shop at Madison Avenue and 9th Street in Covington.   Greeks dominated the candy industry in Cincinnati and the Midwest in the first half of the 20th century.     The son of the owner of Schneider’s, Bob worked at Papas candies where he learned their recipes, and then worked at and purchased Bissinger’s, where he learned the opera crème recipe.  Bob took the recipe to his family’s Sweet Shop, where they continue to make this legacy recipe that survived the French Revolution.

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Let Them Eat Rye Bread

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In Cincinnati, there was no sadder day for generations of German-American sandwich eaters, when Rubel’s Baking Company went out of business.   It’s famous brand, Rubel’s Heidelberg Rye Bread, had reached regional fame as the best rye bread, second to none.     Many generations of Cincinnatians sandwiched their braunschweiger, their stinky limburger cheese and onions, or their reuben sandwiches with Rubel’s rye bread.    It probably even accompanied some creamed herring or matjes as toast points on a ‘German relish tray’.    And we have founder and Russian-Jewish immigrant Elias F. Rubel to thank for this legacy. Elias founded the Rubel Baking Company in Cincinnati in 1882.   Originally at 570-574 West Sixth Street, the company grew with his five sons who all worked with him at the bakery.

Three of Rubel’s sons Ben, Max, and Sam, took over the business and were responsible for construction of the new Beaux Arts factory built in 1930 at the corner of Melish and Bathgate in Cincinnati’s wealthy Jewish Avondale neighborhood. When its construction was announced the factory was called one of the largest baking plants in the United States.   After completion of the factory and its large industrial ovens were installed, the company had a large open house on Tuesday July 22, 1930, from 10 AM to 10 PM.     They offered free bus service to the plant from Fountain Square, music, refreshments, and souvenirs to all who visited.

In the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Rubel company extended its open house invitation:

“America’s most wonderful plant throws wide its doors and bids you enter and marvel at the magic of modern industrial achievement… at the tremendous results brought about by faithful allegiance to an unswervinjg ideal of quality in serving the many, many thousands of Rubel patrons, and expresses its unbounded gratitude to the people whose loyal patronage has turned our dream into a reality.”

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And truly, the company had spent a lot of money on the latest automated bread making equipment, and would continue to innovate. In 1940 the U.S. Patent office would grant Patent # 219352A to Bertrand Rubel for a bakery machine that automated the sizing and preparation of loaves, especially rye, for the oven.    Many hundreds of Cincinnati school children were paraded through the plant on class field trips, and many still remember the smell of the fresh bread baking in the ovens that wafted out of the factory on their way to work.

Rubel’s was most famous for the Heidelberg Rye Bread, which was the first sliced, cellophane wrapped bread in Cincinnati when it was introduced in 1933.   But they also manufactured Milk Bread, Vienna Bread (with poppyseed), Kimmel Rye, Pumpernickel, Whole Wheat, Rolls, and Pastries.    The bread would come with cornflakes at the bottom for ease in transport over the conveyor belts and packaging equipment.   But to many, that made it seem even more handmade and became a signature of the brand.

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The Rubels also knew how to market their brand well.   They had a great presence in print advertising in the local newspapers with cartoons, and ads. Their slogan “Hearth Baked on Stone” was synonymous with their Rubel brand.   In the 1940s, they even sponsored a radio show called “Fans in the Stands” hosted pregame at the Red’s Crosley Field and hosted by Dick Bray.     Bray would interview both kids and adults, and everyone interviewed would get a photo and a coupon for a free loaf of Rubel’s Bread.   There was even a catchy jingle that could be heard on radio and TV:

Cincinnati is a rye bread town, Here’s the reason why I found

The reason is Rubel’s.   It’s baked on stone

Brought straight from the hearth to you at home,

And that’s the reason the bread we buy

Is Rubel’s Heidelberg Rye!

The company remained in business until March of 1978, nearly 100 years, when Pennington Breads, on Sherman Avenue in Norwood, Ohio, bought the formulas and trade names for Rubel’s breads.   Walter Rubel, grandson of the founder, company president, was the last member of the family participating in the company’s operation.   It was Walter’s wish that someday his daughter Barb would work in the family business and he could pass it along.   Struck with polio in the 1948/49 epidemic, through therapy and great determination, Barb learned to walk again after being consigned to an iron lung and a ‘never walk again’ diagnosis.   Her father thought that her struggle was the marking for a great company president, but she chose a career as a clinical psychologist instead, thus closing the chapter on a three generation family owned company.

Pennington Breads went out of business by the mid 1980s and Klosterman Baking Company took over some of their brands, but apparently not the Rubel’s line.   No other rye bread comes close to Rubel’s according to anyone who grew up eating the bread.   Supposedly Price Hill Chili still has Rubel’s rye bread made for them from another bakery for their Reuben Sandwich, but the brand is defunct and only a wonderful memory to generations of Cincinnatians.

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Gambling Royals and their Convenience Foods

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Today is National Sandwich Day, a day where we venerate a food item we think of as typically American. But, like so many other food items we take for granted, the sandwich was invented outside America.     It was a gambling problem that made John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, invent what we named in his honor. He slapped two pieces of bread around a piece of meat to keep his fingers from becoming greasy, and to be free from the knife and fork at the gaming table.    He created a new convenience food and freed us from the hot lunch.

Sandwiches have taken many forms around the world, and there are certainly some that are truly American.   The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is certainly American.     Whether you prefer crusts cut off, crunch vs. creamy peanut butter, or even the addition of potato chips, you won’t find a European eating one of our American childhood favorites.     The grilled cheese is most certainly American, with the insertion of our unnaturally bright neon orange American cheese.   And, the sandwich has reached pop icon status with fast food chains like Tom & Chee, which specialize in all sorts of grilled cheese varieties, from those with barbecue potato chips, to gruyere cheese and caramelized onions.

Speaking of gruyere cheese, there’s the sandwiches that the French have contributed – the croque-monsieur and croque-madam.   The monsieur is grilled gruyere cheese and ham, with cheesy béchamel sauce, while the madam has a fried egg on top of the monsieur.   But, like the fussy French, neither of these can be picked up and eaten like a sandwich should be – one must eat with a fork and knife.   But then more recently the French have invented the crepe sandwich which is good and convenient and can be eaten on the go or at the gaming table.

Then there’s the piled high Dagwood sandwich of the 1920s, the Hoagie, and the Hero – other typically American sandwiches.     Although a sandwich is usually about the meat or the filler, the bread substrate has become the focus in fast food chains who have switched to the popular pretzel bun or the brioche bun, amping up a typically boring sandwich bun.

Ok, well then you mention the Kentucky Hot Brown – a state that we can’t blame for being fussy about their food, requires a fork and knife to eat as well.   Originally created in 1926 by Fred K. Schmidt at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, it’s an open faced sandwich of turkey, bacon and Mournay sauce, broiled until the bread is crisp and the sauce begins to brown. At its inception sliced turkey was rare, and turkey was reserved for Holiday feasts.   The hot brown, of course has many variations on the original, that take it far away from its beginnings.

With the infusion and popularity of Vietnamese cuisine in American cities, any sandwich on crusty French bread with pickled carrots, onions, and cucumbers is called a banh mi – the now beloved sandwich from far Asia.     The banh mi typically has either braised pork, tendon, chicken or even trip with the pickled trio, cilantro and jalapeno with the typical Vietnamese fish sauce.     It’s become so popular that KFC is test marketing a new concept called the Banh Shop that features chicken banh mi sandwiches.

Move south and you have the Po Boy – typically fried oysters or other seafood on a long roll; in New England, you have the infamous lobster roll; in New Orleans, you have the muffaletto, which has an olive-pepper relish over good salami , meats and cheeses. Go east and you have the pita wrapped gyro with lamb, beef or falafel and the delicious tzatziki sauce.   And, of course we’ve taken the burrito concept, called it a wrap, and filled it with everything from calamari to Thai chicken.

In Cincinnati, we have our traditional braunschweiger sandwich on toasted white bread with salt and mayo or the stinky limburger cheese and onion sandwich with pepper on good rye bread.

For me, my favorite sandwich of all time is from a little old school deli around the corner from my house.   It’s the hot crab and artichoke on a croissant from Carl’s Deli.   It’s a melted gooey hot crab salad with tender artichoke hearts, black olives, big lumps of crab and melted cheese on a crisp, buttery croissant.   It’s so rich it needs no accompaniment, other than a drink.   Whatever your favorite sandwich, make sure to celebrate it with a classic today, and thank the Earl for his gambling problem.