New Orleans’ Thanksgiving Favorite Soup – Mirliton Seafood Bisque

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There’s nothing like a fall visit to New Orleans to reignite my interest in Creole cuisine.   I made a vinegary green tomato ketchup from Lafcadio Hearn’s 150 year old Creole Cookbook a few weekends ago.  The Cresent’s City’s standards like gumbo, etouffe, and crawfish, get your taste buds firing.   But in the fall, there’s an ugly greenish-yellow squash that finds its way into all sorts of New Orleans cuisine.   It’s the unofficial squash of New Orleans and you’ll find it at farmer’s markets and roadside stands this time of year.   You’ll also find it in restaurants pickled, deep fried, hollowed out and stuffed, and even served raw in salads and slaws.   But, there’s a signature soup made with it that finds its way onto many bywater Thanksgiving tables.   In New Orleans this squash is called the mirliton, but anywhere else we know it as the chayote squash, a native of Mexico.

It’s called many other things in the city– mango squash, alligator pear, and vegetable pear.   In Latin American it’s known as choko, pepipnella, pepinello, xuxu, xoxo, sayote, tayota, and in Jamaica and Belize, “cho-cho,” which means pet.     The only place other than New Orleans it’s called a mirliton is in Haiti.     Many Haitians came to the city in the 1790s after the St. Domingue slave revolt.

Chayotes or mirlitons made their way into New Orleans when France transferred Louisianna to Spain in 1763 after their defeat in the 7 Years War. Spain sent beaurocrats from Cuba and the Caribbean Colonies to Louisianna, and after that, trade increased dramatically with the Carribean.     Chayotes were a regular part of the diet of people from the Canary Islands, who when they came to New Orleans, were called “Los Islenos.”

The name mirliton (prounced mel-lee-tawn phonetically) stuck when the Haitans flooded the Crescent City.   It’s actually a member of the gourd family.   A tradition of growing this green, bumpy, pear shaped squash on backyard vines has been documented in New Orleans as early as 1867.     A blight and the use of plank fencing over chain link fency has decreased this tradition, but many are trying to bring it back.   It has a pretty orchid-like five petaled purple flower that becomes the ugly but delicious green monster.   There’s even a Mirliton Festival held on the first Saturday in November at Mickey Markey Park, Piety and Royal streets in the Bywater.

A raw mirliton has the crunch of a potato and tastes like very green cucumber, and a little like zucchini.  When sautéed, it tastes like starchy apples; boiled and fried, its translucent green flesh suggests what a honeydew melon would look, feel, and taste like if honeydew melon were a vegetable.

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One restaurant, Sammy’s in New Orleans, makes a mirliton seafood soup that became famous in it’s feature on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.   They boil the mirlitons and puree them with sauteed onions, mix with crab and shrimp and spice with white, black, and cayenne pepper, ginger, and nutmeg, cutting it with seafood stock and heavy cream.   The end result is a unique and flavorful bisque that’s warmed the hearts of native New Orleaners.

Although the store bought varieties that we have access to are from Costa Rica, and grown about 3000 feet above sea level, I’m going to have to make a trip to Jungle Jims and try my version of this favorite New Orleans Thanksgiving bisque.

Marcus L. Urann, A Man and his Canned Cranberry Log

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Americans gobble down over 5 million gallons of jellied cranberry sauce a year.   That’s Ocean Spray’s term for the canned cranberry jelly that retains the shape of the can as it plops out onto your serving dish.     That volume equates to 4 million cranberries or 200 berries per can.    Consider that only 2% of the entire U.S. cranberry harvest is sold as fresh fruit.   That’s why the fresh ones are so expensive, and why they seem to be only available around the Holidays. They’re the only native American fruit commercially grown.

This canned product is a bit like its canned meat cousin, Spam.     It has sort of a low brow perception, but the majority of people secretly love it.     It’s easy, sliceable into any desired thickness, tart, sweet and delicious.  They can be cut into shapes with cookie cutters and used as garnish or decoration on casseroles and baked goods. I know at our family Thanksgiving, no matter what cranberry sauce someone has made from scratch, we always have the canned version sliced alongside it.    My young niece calls them “CANberries”!   Only about 26% of Americans make their own cranberry sauce.     Consider that 100 years ago cranberries were only available fresh 2 months out of the year.

That was until a brilliant businessman, Marcus L. Urann, in 1912 decided to change the cranberry industry forever.   We can call Mr. Urann the father of our canned cranberry sauce.       Urann quit his lawyering career to buy a cranberry bog.   With altruistic motives to help his local cranberry farmers in Massacheusetts, he immediately sought to find a way to expand the two month cranberry season.   Canning and juicing were the perfect way.

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Marcus L. Urann, the Father of the Canned Cranberry Log

Native Americans were the first to cultivate the cranberry, but it wasn’t marketed and sold until the middle of the 18th century. Revolutionary war veteran Henry Hall was the first to plant the first commercial cranberry bed in 1816 in Dennis, Massacheusetts. His family still operates and sells berries from this original bed.

In 1930 Urann convinced his competitors AD Makepeace Company, the largest grower at the time, and the Cranberry Products Company of New Jersey, to form a cooperative called Cranberry Canners, Inc.   This coop minimized risks from the crop’s price and volume instability. In 1946 the coop became known as the National Cranberry Association, and by 1957 had changed its name to Ocean Spray, borrowed from a fish company in Washington State.     Today Ocean spray is still a coop of over 600 individual growers.

It was at the time of the formation of the coop that production methods turned from dry to wet harvesting for cranberries.   Cranberries grow in sandy, acidic soil and require a long dormant period during the long, cold winters.   So, they are localized to areas like Massacheusetts and Wisconsin.    Although they’re also grown in parts of Washington, Oregon, and New Jersey, Wisconsin grows over half of the world’s cranberries. The berries can be picked by hand from the vine using a combed scoop device, or flooding the bog at the time of harvest. The water helps separate the berry from the vine and little pockets of air inside the berry help it float to the top of the water, as you see in the Ocean Spray commercials.     About 90% of cranberries are harvested by the wet method today.

Although Urann began canning and juicing the tart berries in 1912, it wasn’t until 1941 that the jellied cranberry log that we know and love became available.     It’s been gracing Thanksgiving tables every since, a truly American product.

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Indian Pudding – a Hasty Thanksgiving Dessert and a Privileged Men’s Club

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Ah, Burlington Vermont, the land of indulgences – Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Magic Hat Brewery, and the psychedelic band Phish.   But apparently it’s also home to another regional dish – one that’s not made the national notoriety that these three brands have.   It’s a dessert dish served traditionally at Thanksgiving and it’s called Indian Pudding.

I do business with a delightful design firm in Burlington, Vermont, where everyone that can grows a scruffy beard or sports a man-bun.   They all have an outdoor hobby, whether it be hiking, rock climbing, or extreme mud running.   When asked what would be on their Thanksgiving table this year, my colleagues turned me on to this regional fave.

Indian Pudding is served all over New England at Thanksgiving and Christmas.   Virtually unknown outside of that area – it’s not the prettiest of desserts, with what some call a baby-poop looking consistency.   Athough it’s appearance doesn’t dazzle, its warm, comforting, and apparently, very delicious.  It’s frequently topped with vanilla ice cream that melts and forms a moat around the edge. Bring in the Ben & Jerry’s Phish flavor.     For this reason, in some areas of New England, it’s sometimes called “Heaven and Hell.”     There is even a National Indian Pudding Day on November 13th every year.

Despite it’s name, it is not a Native American dish.   The colonial era Indians had neither milk nor molasses to use in their cooking, both of which are components of Indian pudding.   It’s based on Hasty Pudding, a centuries old English dish that consisted of slow cooking milk, flour and sugar, until it became a thick porridge.     In colonial America flour was hard to find, so Hasty Pudding deprived colonitsts used local cornmeal instead. The pilgrims called cornmeal ‘Indian meal’ and thus the pudding’s name. Printed references to hasty pudding in England date to 1599, while Indian pudding recipes start appearing in American cookbooks in 1796.

Some diehard New Englanders might say “Suck it, pumpkin pie!” with a preference for Indian pudding at their respective holiday tables.   And, as right they should – it has a Northeastern heritage that predates colonial times and the first Thanksgiving.   It’s legacy is referenced in a verse of the early American song “Yankee Doodle”, referring to the colonial era militia drill days:

Fath’r and I went down to camp

Along with Captain Goodin’]

And there we saw the men and boys

As thick as hasty puddin’

The first colonists in Virginia stepped off the boat with a love of British Hasty pudding. In the early American colonies, this dish was also known as Indian Mush, and Indian Meal. Although originally a sweetened cornmeal mush with maple syrup or molasses, in time, the dish evolved into one that was resoundingly sweet, with lots of molasses and other ingredients like butter, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, eggs, and sometimes even raisins or nuts.  There’s even a savory version of the dish, flavored with drippings or salted meat.

Because New England was a stop in the “Triangle Trade” route of the 18th century, New Englanders found themselves with an abundance of molasses on their hands.    Molasses is a by-product of distilling sugar into rum.   The “Triangle Trade,” was when slaves were shipped across the Atlantic from Africa, then sugar cane was shipped to New England to be distilled into rum, and finally rum was sent back to Africa.

In 1662, John Winthrop, Jr., son of John Wilthrop (1588-1649), first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote the following about the pudding in his letter to the royal Society in London. (reprinted in New England Quarterly Vol. X No.1 [1937] p.121-133):

. . . this is to be boyled or Stued with a gentle fire, till it be tender, of a fitt consistence, as of Rice so boyled, into which Milke, or butter be put either with Sugar or without it, it is a food very pleasant. . . but it must be observed that it be very well boyled, the longer the better, some will let it be stuing the whole day: after it is Cold it groweth thicker, and is commonly Eaten by mixing a good Quantity of Milke amongst it. . .

In 1795, a society called the Hasty Pudding club was organized by twenty-one Harvard College students. The club’s purpose was to encourage “friendship and patriotism.” Its constitution stipulated that every Saturday, two “providers” were to carry a pot of hasty pudding to the meeting. For the majority of the 19th century, prospective members were forced to ingest large quantities of hasty pudding. According to Harvard University historians, the club was founded by students who sought relief from the food the college provided by cooking their own hasty puddings in fireplace pots. With this ritual, the Hasty Pudding Club found it namesake. Today it is the nations oldest theater company, which annually puts on a fabulous spring production starring men in drag.       Prominent members of the Harvard Hasty Pudding Club were J. P. Morgan, John Quincy Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, and even our hometown Speaker of the House, Nicholas Longworth III.

Some restaurants in New England still serve the dish year round, like the Wayside Inn in Waterbury, Massacheustts, and the Dirgin Park Inn in Boston, both of whose recipes are coveted by afficianados of the pudding.   Although it sounds wonderful, and I love the colonial history, I don’t think it will ever replace our revered spiced pumpkin pie, or my sister’s delicious strawberry bread at the Thanksgiving table.

The Real Heritage Breed Tom Turkey

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A Bourbon Red heritage breed turkey.

 

Basting the turkey is one of the most important and forgotten duties of the Thanksgiving day prep.     Forget this step and your turkey is too dry.    And, there’s nothing worse than chewing on dry turkey.   We can blame the need for basting on the commercial production of turkeys.

The turkey we get today is not the turkey of our pilgrim ancestors.   Their bird was much darker, more athletic, and ate real insects and foliage, rather than commercial feed pellets.   They roamed free – able to fly or at least leap into the air, with their thinner breasts.

The Broad-Breasted White or BBW turkey is the bird sold predominantly in the U.S.   It’s bred for production, not quality.   It’s super-large, Orange County CA-esque ‘engineered’ breast makes it difficult to even trot out in the open yard.   It can be distinguished from heritage breeds, which have darker and more varied plumage. The darker pin feathers make the dressed birds darker in color – not the pure white we’re used to seeing in the broad-breasted bird.   This darker complexion is what made these heritage breeds fall out of favor in the American market.   And, as we turned away from these heritage breeds, many were nearing extinction just two decades ago.   One count in 1997 showed only 1335 heritage turkeys in the entire U.S.

Thus, the advent of injected turkeys and the Butterball brand.   Natural, heritage breed turkeys are more mature at harvest, so there is more natural fat in the meat, which keep them from being dry, even if you forget to baste.   Take away the fat from the quickly-matured Broad-Breasted White and you need injection, butterballing, or other ways to put the fat back into the meat to keep it moist.

The American Poultry Association lists a few standards a breed must possess to be labelled a Heritage Breed.   It must be able to reproduce naturally and it must be allowed to mature slowly in 28 weeks, which is 8 weeks longer than the standard Broad-breasted White turkey.     The BBW can’t reproduce in the wild and so requires artificial insemination to produce fertilized eggs.   It all sounds very “Brave New World” to me.

Heritage breeds, like Bourbon Red, Narragansett, White Holland, Black, Bronze, and Beltsville Small White, get more exercise.   Imagine seeing them running outside and launching into the air to catch a grasshopper mid-flight.   The bugs and grass they eat change the makeup of Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils in their meat.   So this makes a flavor and texture that’s richer and more complex, with a bit wilder than our commercial fat breasted BBWs.   Some who’ve tasted a heritage breed turkey say it’s the best bird they’ve ever tasted.

The only farm local to Cincinnati that produces heritage breed turkeys is Morning Sun Farms in West, Alexandria, Ohio, a charming little town on US-35 midway between Eaton and Dayton, near Middletown.    Owner Dale Filbrun, an Amish-looking Church of the Brethren member, raises the Bourbon Red heritage breed, of which there are about 5000 breeding birds in the U.S.   A little farther south in Georgetown, Kentucky, John Bell raises Narragansett and Bourbon Red heritage breed turkeys at his Elmwood Stock Farm.

Although the demand for darker-meat heritage brands is slowly increasing, it  hasn’t hit a tipping point yet. Breeding these birds is more expensive than the production birds, but there’s bound to be more farms switching to heritage breeds over the next few years.   So the next time you cut into a commercial turkey, think about a heritage bird that doesn’t need the constant basting on Turkey Day.

Bountiful Bivalves Make a Great Thanksgiving Dressing

 

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The type of stuffing or dressing your family has at Thanksgiving is tribal.   It’s about where you come from and your family lineage.   It’s personal and any criticism of your version ignites fighting words.   Is your stuffing savory or is it sweet, with cranberries or raisins?   Is it cornmeal based?   Do you put meat or sausage in your stuffing? Is it made from the Stove-Top Stuffing box, or homemade? Do you actually put it inside the turkey, or is it served as a side dish, when it should rightfully be called ‘dressing’ instead of stuffing?   All of these questions are important formulary in the type of dressing that makes up your Thanksgiving meal.

Well for my family, we have two very distinct offerings. My mother spends days making the traditional non-meat, stuffing, made from stale bread crumbs and turkey neck-and-giblet gravy.   The other, a more exotic stuffing is an oyster stuffing, made from fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters with butter, cream, and saltine and bread crumbs.     The oyster stuffing is from my maternal grandmother, who made it for Thanksgiving as far back as I can remember.     As kids it was kind of weird, as we were not so familiar with eating oysters. But as we grew older and accepted it as our tradition, we all learned to love it.   I have since taken the torch and make it myself to bring to our family Thanksgiving every year.

I order fresh Chesapeake Bay oysters from my local grocery every year for my stuffing. I try to use larger-than-silver-dollar sized ones in the stuffing, and I take off what I call the ‘slipper’ or the gummy part that connects the oyster to the shell, which to me is a sign of the freshness of the oysters.

I’ve heard that oyster stuffing comes from the Northeast, but there’s evidence it’s a Southern dish, too. Both origins make sense.   You’d find oyster dressing close to where you find oysters. That could be in the waters on the East Coast, whether New England, the Lowcountry, or the Gulf.  As to why they’re in Thanksgiving stuffing, it’s the perfect time of year to highlight oysters, as tradition warns they should only be eaten in months that end in “r.”

But Cincinnati is not a coastal town.   Oysters aren’t native to our Ohio River.   We’re smack dab in the Midwest states. So why would an oyster dressing be such a tradition in our family?   This particular surf-and-turf dish is an old one—dating to the time even before the American Revolution. Even though one might consider it a coastal habit, thanks to railroad distribution in the 19th century, oysters, and oyster stuffing, penetrated our neck of the woods. Great gastronomical guru M.F.K. Fisher argued that oyster dressing was probably a bigger deal in the Midwest than along the coasts: “Not every man could buy [oysters], God knows, and a Middle Westerner was even prouder than a man from Down East to have those shell-fish on his feast-day.”

In Cincinnati, oysters were hugely popular and the city was home to many Oyster Houses before the Chesapeake Bay oysters began being depleted in the 1880s. So many oysters were transported to Cincinnati on ice from 1835 to 1850 , that the stagecoach line was nicknamed the ‘Oyster Line’. This oyster bearing trip was a five day extravaganza back in the day.   Oysters were to 19th century Cincinnatians what Chinese food would be like to their 20th century descendants.

One of Cincinnati’s most famous Oyster houses, the Central Oyster House at 120 East Fourth Street opened in 1893 and stayed open longest of any, until the 1970s. An 1858 menu from the Hotel Gibson in downtown Cincinnati showed that oysters were served in a whole host of different ways – escalloped, baked with finer herbs (probably a take on Oysters Rockefeller from New Orleans), baked into a pie, stewed with champagnge, baked with cheese, fried, pickled, raw, in aspic, and cold on a salad.   Oysters were considered a luxury and a delicacy, so serving them at Thanksgiving was truly a show of prosperity.   I had heard my grandparents talking about how they loved to go to the oyster houses around town, before they all closed.

Americans have been stuffing turkeys with oysters for centuries.   In 1763, a Mrs. Gardiner from Boston said, “Loosen the Skin on the Breast of the Turkey or Fowl, and fill it with “Mock Oyster Sauce” made up of beef suet, bread crumbs, anchovy, lemon peel, nutmeg, parsley, thyme, chopped and mixed with an egg. In 1796 Amelia Simmons says to place the stuffing inside the cavity of the bird. There was some debate as to whether it was best to stuff under the skin or to stuff the body. Simmons had several different stuffing recipes for turkey and chicken. 1) Salt pork and bread, 2) beef suet & bread or mashed potatoes and herbs, and 3) “To Smother a Fowl in Oysters – Fill the bird with dry Oysters”.   An 1885 Creole cookbook from New Orleans suggests mixing oysters into cakes, frying them, and placing them around the turkey rather than stuffing it with them.

More recently I’ve heard that some Midwest families served the canned, smoked oysters on saltine crackers as sort of an appetizer for Thanksgiving.   I’m sure the pilgrims probably had oysters at the first thanksgiving.   I’m sure they didn’t have macaroni and cheese.   So, I’m going to keep making our family’s oyster dressing every year and enjoying it’s uniqueness to the Thanksgiving table.

Krampus Bread – A Treat of the Sinister Santa’s Helper of Germanic Europe

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Krampuszopf in an Austrian Bakery Window

Here in the U.S. Santa has his jolly elves helping bring gifts to good little children.     With a ‘ho-ho-ho’ mall Santas dole out candy canes and sweet treats, asking kids what they truly want for Christmas.   There’s threat of a lump of coal, but no one mean enough on Mr. Claus’s American staff to carry this out. Well, except for my mother, who one year put a lump of coal in my brother’s stocking for a good laugh.   His real gift was hidden elsewhere after we all got the lesson.

In Germanic speaking Europe, however, Santa or St. Nicholas’ helpers have a more sinsister side.   And, the more remote you go, particularly into the Austrian and Bavarian Alps, the hairier, woolier, and wilder this helper gets.     This helper has centuries old pagan roots and was paired with the Christian St. Nicholas, when the Catholic church chose the pagan Winter Solstice as the time we celebrate the birth of Christ.     Unable to eradicate the pagan mythology of these solstice and winter deities, the Church compromised with pagan converts and tried to make these gift givers a bit less demonic and more human.  Then, when Martin Luther, who was saint-phobic, tried to eradicate St. Nick as a gift bringer, to be replaced with the Kristkindl or Christ Child in the form of a blond haired maiden, he only enhanced the popularity of Santa’s evil twins in Germanic Europe.  This gender-bending version of the Christ Child as gift giver is still practiced in parts of Germany and in Alsace-Lorrain.

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The Kristkindl or Christ Child as depicted in the Alsace region.

The darker legends of St. Nicholas’s helpers popped up, varying a bit region to region. Knecht Ruprecht is probably the most well known of these helpers in Germany.   The word knecht means “worker” usually referring to a farmhand. He’s a scraggly, hooded character who accompanies St. Nicholas. But there’s also Hans Trapp in Alsace-Lorrain; Schmutzli in Switzerland; Swarte Piet, the 15th century Moorish servant in the Netherlands, Pere Foutard and Rupelz in French Speaking areas of Switzerland and Alsace, Pezlnickel (also Pelzmartin, Graale, and Buzegrale) in Swabia and Northwest Germany, Bullerklas in Hanover, Braunschweig, and Holstein; Bartel or Wild Bear in Silesia, Hans Muff in the Rhineland, Klapperbock in Westphalia, Bur and Bullerclas in East Friesland, and Gumphinkel and his bear in Hesse.   And each region has it’s own special treat that’s passed out for being good.   For the most part, these gift givers are tattered old men with blackened faces in cloaks who punish bad children.   Each, though over the centuries has been tamed quite a bit and is less imposing. For example, Swarte Piet in the Netherlands has morphed from a ghoulish Moor servant to more of a comical jester who does acrobatics and stunts, rather than cause trouble.   He has also gotten a lot of attention in recent years for the perceived racism of his black faced, domicile charater.

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Pere Foutard in Alsace/Switzerland      Knecht Ruprecht in Germany

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Hans Trapp as portrayed in the Alsace region.

In northernmost Mecklenburg, for example at the Christmas Market at Rostock, St. Nick is accompanied by Märchenrtante, or Fairy Godmother, which seems to be a variant of the Russian Kolyada, a maiden in white cape who now accompanies Russian Father Frost or Ded Moroz, who wears a blue robe instead of red.   Kolyada is based on a Slavic pagan goddess of the sun who brings joy and fertility, and traditionally rode on a sleigh led by a white stallion.

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Weihnachtsmann (Santa) and Marchentante (Fairy Godmother) arriving by ship at Rostock, Germany’s Christmasmarket.

The Jultomten or Christmas gnomes in Denmark and Norway filter into some regions of Northern Germany on the Baltic as gift bringers.   And, the Joulpooki, or Christmas goat, of Finland as a gift bringer also gets into some regions of Northern Germany and Silesia as the Julebock or Christmas Goat.

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The personified Joulpooki, it’s straw version, and the Jultomten of Scandinavia.

But the Alpine Germanics have held strong to the extreme ying/yang of their pagan ancestry.   They were too remote for the Catholic clergy to stop their pagan Winter traditions.  For them it’s important to remind their children the lessons of being good, and that there are not so good consequences to doing the wrong thing.   For them Krampus, a hairy, horned devilish creature does this very well.   He carries chains and a switch to discipline children, and in some cases takes them back to hell with him in his rucksack or even devours them on the spot, as legend warns.

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Krampus can vary in looks from a furry, evil sasquatch to a red-skinned horned devil with goat feet.   1920s Postcards from Germany favored the devilish look of Krampus.   In either form, he is meant to terrify and bring home the lesson of obedience.

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Krampus travels with or without St. Nickolaus in a large group of hellraisers, in a parade called the Krampuslauf.   Other more comic regional folk characters also accompany Krampus in these parades.   Sometimes up to 400 horned, hairy demonic creatures parade through the old streets of Austria as Krampuses.   These events are so popular in the remote villages around Salzburg, and Western Austria, particulary in the Ponzau region, that he even has a type of bread in his honor. It’s called Krampuszöpf or twisted Krampus bread.     The zöpf or züpfe is a type of Swiss, Austrian or German bread made from white flour, milk, eggs, butter, and yeast.   Zöpf literally translates as braid.   The dough is twisted and brushed with egg yolk to give it a golden color.     A variant of the zöpf in Swabia is called Hefekranz or Hefezpöf and is sweater than a zöpf.   The Krampuszöpf are shaped into horned, hoofed beasts, twisted at the center and given dark raisin or prune eyes, and a red fruit leather snake like tongue.   They show up in bakery windows in the towns that produce these elaborate Krampuslaufen or parades in the Alpine towns.

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Various forms of Krampuszopf in Austria and Germany.

There are also figgy prune Krampus men called Zwetschgen menschen or Quetzchemänchen (prune people) sold at these Krampus festivals.

The Krampuslaufen typically take place between St. Nick’s Day on December 6, and Ephiphany on January 5.     There are different demonic deities called Perchten that often accompany the Krampus and vary from region to region. There are two main categories of these otherworldly folk-spirits.   Schönperchten or beautiful perchten, bring good luck and a good harvest or luck in the New Year, while the schlachtperchen or ugly perchten are supposed to ward off evil spirits.   These perchten are said to roam the earth during the 12 nights between Christmas and New Year.   This belief is popular in northern Mecklenburg Germany too, where Scandinavian mythology mixes with Germanic.   But there are not elaborate processions there – only a devious helper of Santa called Ruklaus or rough Nicholas.

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Groups from the Perchtenlaufen in Austria.

Perchten are the female form of the Krampus evil deity, but in modern days the lines between Krampus and Perchten are blurred.   Frau Perchta was a half-woman, half-goddess who appears at the end of the old year, accompanied by various evil figures.   She watched over the people and protected them against bad demons, but also doled out punishment.   This pagan tradition is based on the Scandinavian legend of the Wild Hunt of Odin. In other forms of the myth Perchta is also known as Hulda or Freya, Odin’s wife.   Perchten were the name given to the evil creatures accompanying her. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Catholic Church tried to ban these heathenish customs, unsuccessfully.

In the Rauris Valley southwest of Salzburg, there are Schnabelperchten, who look like giant bird women, with 2 foot long beaks and headscarves and dresses. Their loud “qua-qua” lets the villagers know they are coming.     Usually coming in groups, they check the cleanliness of the farmhouse, and are said to cut open the stomach of a lazy farm woman and stuff it with the mess they find.   That’s why there’s always one in the group carrying a large set of scissors.   They also carry wicker baskets filled with gifts that they distribute to clean houses.

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The Austrian town of Bad Mittendorf, southeast of Salzburg opens its Perchentlauf with creatures called Schabmaenner or sweeper-men, dressed like large brooms, sweeping the way for St. Nicholas.

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In the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden, straw bundled monsters called Buttmändl or bundled men, accompany St. Nicholas, and his helper Nikoloweibl.     This helper is a girl dressed in the folk costume of the area who carries a basket for gifts.

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St. Nick and Nikoloweibl and the Buttmandl in Bavaria.

Goldegg, a little town in the Pongau region due south of Salzburg, has a Krampus/Perchten parade with several folk figures. In addition to the Schlachtperchten (Krampuses) there are Frau Percht and her witches, the Hassergoaβ (a large goat figure), Hans Wurst, a jester like figure with large pointed cap, a large group of Schönperchten (men in folk dress and masks and huge symbolic headdresses with their folk attired women), Zapfenmandl (a Knecht Ruprecht wooly man covered in pine cones) and Werchmandl (a Knecht Ruprecht man covered in fur), Kaminkehrer, a man in white cap and blackend face, who brings good luck, Baer und Baerentrieber (bear and his tamer, similar to the Silesian Bartel), Schneidermandl (a tailor charicature), Puppenweibl (a man in drag representing a dollmaker), Korbelweibl (a charicature of a man and his wife), Nightwatchmen, and finally the three Wise Men.

In the Pinzgau region southwest of Salzburg, a specific type of Schönperchten called the Tresterer,  are part of the Krampus/Perchten-laufen.   They wear bright red and yellow body suits with golden crowns with over 20 rooster feathers.   They travel in groups from farmhouse to farmhouse, dancing a folk dance to reawaken the earth and fields for a good harvest.   With them in this procession are of course the Schlachtperchten and a host of other folk characters.   There are Schwegler or flutists who play the folk music to which the Tresterer dance, the goat person and his handler, the Lapp and Lappin, similar to the Korbelweibl of Goldegg, the Huhnerpercht (a raven billed perchten), Krapfenschnappers (large wolf like perchten) and the the Zapfen and Werchmandl.

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Tresterer group in Austria.

In the region of Salzkammergut east of Salzburg, the Perchten procession is joined by Gloeckler, men dressed in folk attire with large lit semi-circular oversized headdresses that look like walking Mardi Gras floats.

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The Schonperchten called Gloekler on parade in Austria.

Krampus has hit the U.S. in recent years. Los Angeles has a Krampuslauf around St. Nicholas Day.   Cincinnati has started a Krampuslauf group a few years ago, and there’s a Krampus movie coming out during the holiday period.   As popular as Krampus is in Europe, I doubt we’ll see his popularity hit the shopping malls in the U.S.

Raisin Canes at the Doscher Candy Factory

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It may not be Black Friday yet, but one factory of Cincinnati elves has been busy for months hand making a Christmas delicacy.  It’s no small wonder that a guy named Claus started making what is Cincinnati’s oldest and most loved locally manufactured candy cane.   Clauses all over Cincinnati have been handing them out here for over four generations– like the Santa Claus in Kenwood Towne Center, and Santa Claus in the Winter Village in downtown Provident Bank Tower.

Also maker of the famous French Chew, in flavors of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and banana, Doscher Candies have been making candy canes since Claus Doesher left his uncles’ candy business in 1871 and opened his own factory on 5th street between Broadway and Sycamore.

Claus and younger brother Johann Doescher came to Cincinnati after the Civil War in 1865.   Sons of Johann Hermann Doescher and Margaret Steffens, they came from the village of Grossenheim, near Dresden, in what was then the Kingdom of Hanover, now Lower Saxony.   They came to join their two uncles, Albert Heinrich and Johann David Doescher, whose A & J Doescher Candy Company operated on Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine.   Joined by their two cousins John and Albert, sons of another uncle, Melchior Doescher, they packed into their Uncle John and Aunt Gesina’s house at 34 Jackson Street, with their five other cousins. They were all one big happy German-immigrant candy making family.   But 11 people packed into one apartment wasn’t uncommon then in the very German 10th ward of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine.

That was until 1871, when the enterprising Claus decided to open his own candy making business.     To avoid confusing Cincinnatian’s with a sweet tooth, he did his uncles a favor and dropped the ‘e’ from his name, becoming Dosher Candies.     He and Johann summoned their younger brother Heinrich from Grossenheim and the three were off.

One of the first products they made was caramel popcorn, which they sold to a new local team called the Cincinnati Redlegs.     The Doshers where one of the first concession products to be sold in American Baseball, two decades before Cracker Jack was introduced at the 1894 Chicago World’s Fair.   We should be singing “buy me some peanuts and Doscher caramel corn” at the 7th inning stretch here in Cincinnati.

Claus also made several other products at their candy factory, including chewing gum.   Apparently their candy was so good and so highly valued, it was a regular target for thieves in Cincinnati.   The Cincinnati Enquirer reported break-ins at the Doscher factory in 1883, and 1894, where several lots of chewing gum were taken.   At their apex Doscher made nine different candies and employed hundreds of workers.   Now they focus on candy canes and French Chew.

Johann Doscher took over the company after Claus’ death in 1883 and married Claus’s wife, Sophia.   Her sons John and Harry I became partners in the business. In 1896, the Doschers decided to capitalize on to the new Turkish taffy craze that was taking the south of France by storm and developed their recipe for the French Chew.   It was originally sold in big pieces that were broken up in the candy stores and sold by the pound.   After it became popular in Cincinnati – and dental bills went up – it was made into a long bar and wrapped in the now recognizable wrapper with the boy licking his lips.

After Claus’s sons, Harry and John both died in 1939, Harry’s wife Elsie Dosher enterprised and added chocolate and strawberry flavored French Chews. Elsie ran the business herself until her son Harry II joined in 1953 after getting a UC business degree.

Harry II worked the business until his son Harry III, an engineer joined in the late 90s.   Harry III wanted to update the manufacturing from the old taffy pulling machines and copper kettles his great grandfather had used nearly a century before.   Thankfully Harry II prevented that, and they sold the four generation family business to Greg Clark in 2004, who continues to use the old Doscher family recipes and original equipment.   Greg Clark was a candy legacy too – his father was a partner in the Marpo Marshmallow Products company.   Marpo makes the local marshmallow cones popular at swim clubs and candy shops all across the country.

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Third and fourth generation Doschers in 1996, Harry II and Harry II.

Now, getting back to the canes.   People say that they love Doscher candy canes because they’re crunchy and chewy and have a great peppermint flavor. The company attributes this to the fact they they are still handmade and rolled, and the red is not stamped on with dye, like other candy canes.  They have a silver translucent sheen that makes them seem jewel-like.     Dosher makes over a half million candy canes each season at their West Court street factory, where they’ve been since 1946.   Their canes are a big hit at Kroger, who is their largest retailer now.   Quality and the “Made in America” stamp are two big reasons their products sell well at 5 for $3.79 in competition with the 12 for 99 cents versions at WalMart.

Each 90 pound batch of candy canes starts with a mixture of sugar, corn syrup and water, cooked in 100 year old copper kettles.   After being cooled the glob of candy is laid on a metal table. A portion is taken off to be dyed red, and the rest has calcium carbonate added to keep the colors from bleeding together. It is then transferred to a taffy wheel and spun until it’s translucent.   During that process it also gets its peppermint flavor added.   The red portion is added back and the red and white mix gets rolled into the narrow thickness of a cane.   Each cane is hand cut and hooked before cooling and being packaged.

With all that peppermint flavor in house for the candy canes, Doschers has added a season peppermint French at Christmas time, and a green apple flavor for Halloween.

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Few cities are lucky enough to have such a special candy cane making legacy.   And to connect it to one jolly old German Claus – Claus Dosher – is a wonderful story.