Being close to slaughterhouses and their throwaway cuts of meat made many interesting dishes popular in Cincinnati. Because nearly half a million pigs trotted through our slaughterhouses annually, a lot of dishes associated with soul food and frugal cooking have long been delicacies for Cincinnatians.
The first of these was pork spare ribs. Originally they were considered a throwaway part of pork processing. In the 1840s Germans in Cincinnati noticed spare ribs were being thrown in the river and saw that a cheap source of meat could be had . One Philadelphian boarding in Cincinnati in the 1840s said of his landlady, “What a splendid table my landlady, Mrs. G. keeps. She gives us spare ribs for breakfast four or five times a week, and the finest I’ve ever tasted in my life.” His friend, a native said, “You don’t appear to know they cost her nothing. The fact is she can get a basket filled at any pork house in the city by sending for them and not paying a cent.”
Spare ribs are now considered a delicacy rather than a throwaway. The spare ribs are the front ribs of the pig that attach to the sternum. Spareribs tend to be less curved than the loin-back or baby back ribs. The problem with the whole rack of spare ribs is that the breastbone/sternum section has lots of tough pieces of cartilage in it, which end up as hard to chew bits. So butchers invented the St. Louis cut, which slices off the cartiledge laden part, as well as some excess flap meat at the end of the rack. The end result is a more uniformly shaped rack, smaller and easier to eat.
But this secondary waste, the cut-off portion of the breastbone portion becomes another dish – rib tibs – which can be barbecued and served. Eli’s Barbecue on Eastern Avenue in Cincinnati serves smoked rib tips at their very popular restaurant. The extra flap meat can be used to make sausage.
The pork shoulder, also a cheaper cut, was used in a lot of local goetta recipes, and local sausages, like the beloved Bockwurst. Even the cottage ham, a part of the upper part of the Boston Butt in the shoulder, is a result of making use of these cheaper cuts of meat.
Pigs feet were another throwaway part that became popular in Cincinnati, especially in the gelatinious pickled version. They were so popular, in fact, that they were given a local nickname, “Cincinnati oysters”. They were more readily available and cheaper than oysters. Before the Civil War in Cincinnati, pigs feet were the Buffalo Wings of the local bar and tavern scene – as a popular snack on most menus. With all this gnawing on cartilaginous parts of the pig, you wonder if Cincinnati was a great place for dentists in the antebellum and progressive era years. Even into the thirties, and during the Depression, pickled pigs feet were a cheap and calorie laden meal for Cincinnatians on a budget.
The last and probably the most controversial throwaway dish is chitterlings or chitlins, or the small intestine of the pig. Most meat companies and butchers have long considered them to be a messy byproduct of the pork business, which they sold as a necessary eveil to meet customer demand and to simply avoid the cost of disposing of them. Chitlins are a laborious product to clean and have a lot of waste associated with their processing. Most products on the market today are chemically bleached and as a result have a lot of grittiness to their texture.
One fifth generation local butcher, Louis’s meats, owned by brothers Rick and Rob Rothhaas, have launched a national chitlin product Called Uncle Lou’s, that caters largely to African-Americans. Their product, from a formula their father, Lou Rothhaas created, is a cleaner, more full-bodied chitlin, easier to handle than those sold frozen in messy 10 pound buckets by most butchers and supermarkets. Their neatly packed 5 pound product sold nearly 2 million in 2002 and has grown steadily. Their great great grandmother, Margaretha Reis Rothhaas, who started their family butcher shop in Cincinnati in 1887 would be proud.
The Rothhaas brothers also sell a spare rib, again catering to a the demands of a largely African-American consumer, who prefers smaller and less fatty spareribs than those typically sold today. They provide the St. Louis cut, made from younger or runt pigs – what our local Germans used to call “spanferkel” or suckling pig.
What’s interesting is that a burgeoning food movement is growing in the U.S., to use the whole pig, tail to snout. Dishes using exotic parts like spleen, tongue, nose, and even blood have popped up as trendy in this nose-to-tail movement. But here in Porkopolis, we’ve been doing this for centuries. Who was it that said that things happen many years later in Cincinnati? In this piggy case, Mr. Mark Twain, you were wrong!.