The German Brötchen Becomes the Boring American Bun

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Why did we replace the wonderful rolls our Germanic immigrants brought along on their transatlantic voyages in favor of the commercialized American white buns?    For way too long we’ve settled for the flavorless, industrially produced white bun for our hamburgers and other meat sandwiches.     As the ‘better burger craze’ increases momentum, higher quality buns are being brought out to the forefront.   The brioche bun, and even the pretzel bun are some of these upscale buns.   But none of them compare to the American bun’s European ancestor.

If we just go back a little bit in time, we find something called the brötchen.   It’s still a daily staple today in Germany.   The brötchen has been around for centuries, and is the ancestor of our American burger bun.     The hamburger itself, the largest user of our American bun, is named after a German port city favorite, the Hamburg steak. It was a ground meat patty that was chopped and cooked.     Hamburg, before the turn of the 19th century was known for its minced and chopped beef, a method borrowed from the Russians by German butchers.   Our term hamburger was a derivation of this product. This minced German product looked more like the Salisbury steak than today’s hamburger.

Today, a burger-like product called frikadellen, is popular in Germany. They look like mini, slider-sized burger patties, and wedge perfectly into their brötchen.   I imagine as the Hamburg steak moved from the bierstube to the street vendor, it took on this smaller, frikadellen sized form, and was sandwiched between a brötchen, for the convenience of the rowdy sailors who ate them on the run.

The early history of the American hamburger is sordid for sure.     There are at least six claimants of its invention.   The bottom line is the hamburger likely appeared in the late 19th or early 20th century. And, it was designed to meet the demand of a rapidly changing, industrialized society who had less time to cook for themselves.   That’s the genesis of a lot of other American convenience foods like the coney.

The brötchen, meaning literally, ‘little bread’, is an everyday bun.   In Germany you can get them for under 20 cents, fresh-baked everywhere – in bakeries, supermarkets, and even gas stations.   It’s a bit smaller than our American hamburger bun, like most portions in Europe.   We should take lesson from their smaller portions!   A brötchen is deliciously crispy on the outside, and fluffy and chewy on the inside. The secret to a good brötchen is the egg white wash, and baking at a high temperature with steam.

Whenever I’ve travelled to Germany or Austria I’ve always loved the fresh brötchen served with homemade marmalades, cheeses, and cold cuts at breakfast in every hotel.   You might even add a sliced egg, tomato or cucumber.   One over-the-top hotel breakfast in Vienna I experienced had an entire bar dedicated with fillings for their brötchen.   Katharina’s in Newport, Kentucky, serves this traditional German breakfast with brötchen.   It’s just like I remember in Germany.

Every region of Germany has their own name and version of the brötchen. They can vary in spice, type of flour – wheat, spelt or rye – and toppings.   Munich has its semmel, which could house a thick slice of leberkase or liver pate.  What’s schrippe to a Berliner is weck or weckerle to a Swabian in Stuttgart. Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg have their rundstuck – literally ‘round piece’, which could sandwich a frikadellen.   In the Baltic Islands and Mecklenburg, they’re called bömmel, which means ‘bauble.’   The doppelweck or ‘double bun’ is a Saarland specialty which consists of two rolls joined together side-by-side before baking. The Black Forest has its mutschli and Franconia has its kipf.    Even the elevated bun we call a kaiser roll in the U.S. is really a wannabe kaisersemmel, a type of brötchen from Bavaria and Austria.   It’s named after the Kaiser because the top has centrally cascading-out folds that resemble an imperial crown.

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In U.S. foodservice there’s a several million dollar industry supplying bun warmers, toasters, and buttering machines.   This is ensure substandard commercially baked buns are somewhat good when served with its burger patty.   You’d be surprised at the high sugar content in the typical fast food bun.   So why didn’t we just keep a great bun to start with that doesn’t need all this fuss?

I think we can blame our sinful conversion to the American bun on a German immigrant, H. J. Heinz, the condiment king.     He sold us a bill of goods that all our sandwiches require oozing heaps of ketchup, relish, and mustard. His evil empire taught us that our sandwiches needed to be messy to be good.   We Americans do love our messy loose meat sandwiches. Our barbecue, sloppy joes, and plethora of messy burger toppings need to be eaten with care.   A crispy-on-the-outside bun like the German brötchen, just didn’t lend itself to our eat-on-the-go, convenience lifestyle, with these messy sandwiches.   One bite through the crusty outside of a brötchen and plop goes a drop of messy on your business suit.       So we took the lovely brötchen and degraded it into a soft white bun that didn’t provoke that plop.   We kept the sesames on top to keep a bit of pizzazz – but that didn’t totally absolve our sin.

Germans don’t really eat any messy meat sandwiches. Brötchen are served at breakfast to sandwich their wonderful regional cold cut meats and sausages, or their beautiful marmalades and spreads.

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A basket of weissenbrotchen.

The most iconic American bun, the sesame- seed topped one bears familial resemblance to the German weissenbrötchen, which can have sunflower, sesame or poppy seeds on them.   This connection to me is DNA evidence that our American hamburger bun is a descendant of the German brötchen.  Even though the sesame seed brought to America by the West African slaves trafficked to Georgia and South Carolina much earlier in the 1600s, there’s no evidence they used it as a bread or roll topper.       Germans had been importing their sesame seeds through Syria and the Middle East, not Western Africa. I think the first burger chain that comes out with a ‘Brötchen Burger’ will really set themselves apart in the upscale bun market.    For me the new food slogan should not be, “Where’s the Beef?” but rather “Bring Back the Brötchen!”

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First Communion Cake

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There isn’t a Graeter’s Ice Cream flavor for it yet- but there should be.   Especially with as many Catholic schools and churches as there are in Cincinnati.     If there was a flavor for First Communion Cake ice cream, it would be creamy and almondy, but simple.   It wouldn’t have large chocolate chunks, but it might have a few white chocolate and gold jimmies to give it that ‘holy crunch’ and to symbolize the color of the chalice and the host. It would be a seasonal offering, but one that everyone looked forward to around Easter.   And it would be served at the many thousands of family celebrations for First Communicants to go with their First Communion Cake.

These several weeks leading up to Easter are First Communion Season for Catholics.   This preparation is evident in parts of the city that are largely and multi-generationally Catholic.  For that matter, there are many Protestants and Orthodox who also prepare in their own unique ways for their First Communions.   There’s a whole industry surrounding this one-time event.   It’s nowhere near the size of the wedding industry, but it keeps bakeries and religious book stores busy for months.

My own nephew is currently ‘in-training’ for his First Communion.   It’s a rigorous process for the Communicant. Over many weeks, they learn catechism, symbols of the Church, and other physical aspects of the Catholic Mass.   Catholic parents, meanwhile are busy buying outfits for their kids, and planning the big post-First Communion feast, ordering that delicious ending to the feast, the First Communion cake.

For a young Catholic, making your First Communion is an important part of becoming an adult in the Church.   Eligibility for the sacrament begins in second grade, and it allows young 7 year old boys and girls their first chance to be a part of the Mass, by receiving what is called the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Jesus.   It’s one of the three sacraments of Initiation in the Catholic Church, in addition to Baptism, and Confirmation.   For Catholics, First Communion is the most important and most intimate sacrament.   The First Communion cake is the sweet end to the day that marks this entrance into the Church.

In preparation for the feast, mothers set up photo shoots of their kids sporting their First Communion wear. They’re posed like cherubs, holding rosaries and prayer books (called missalettes), their hands folded in meditation looking skyward.   These photos evoke images of the famous cherubs at the bottom of the 1512 painting, The Sistine Madonna by Italian master, Raphael (Sanzio).   They’re typically given out to relatives at the feast as sort of a collector’s card.   Having been raised Catholic, I have nearly a full deck of friends and relatives’ First Communion photos.

 

Girls wear elaborate dresses with veils, looking like little brides, and boys get decked out in suits and ties, sometimes white, to symbolize purity.   Some parents even go old-school, having the boys wear embroidered arm bands on the left arm and white gloves.

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I didn’t wear an arm band at my First Communion in the 70s, and it’s now sort of a lost tradition.   The custom goes back over 100 years. It was something brought over to the U.S. by immigrants from the Catholic regions of Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Germany.    It’s now usually only practiced in very ethnic Catholic neighborhoods, like the Little Italy neighborhoods of Chicago or Philadelphia.   Sometimes the communicant wears the old arm band of a parent, grandparent, or other older relative.   The arm band is a symbol of purity, like the girl’s veil. It symbolizes the state of sanctifying grace that you are supposed to keep your whole life.   Usually made of white satin, they’re embroidered with the chalice and host.

Prior to 1910, Catholics made their First Communion at a later age of 12 to 14 years.   Today, the age of discretion, or eligibility, begins at age 7.     This policy was enacted by Pope St. Pius X on August 8, 1910, in his Decree Quam Singulari (Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments).  My paternal grandmother told me as an 8 year old at that time, she was made eligible earlier than her older sisters had been.   This brought her great bragging rights.

 

My maternal great grandfather, made his First Communion in 1894, prior to the papal decree, not being eligible earlier like my grandmother.   He made his First Communion at the very German Catholic – Corpus Christi Church in Newport, Kentucky, which is now a home for older adults. In a very formal photo, he is seen wearing white gloves and the Miraculous Medal of the Immaculate Conception, another common adornment around that time at First Communion.   The Miraculous Medal was created as a result of the Marian visions of St. Catherine Labour in Paris, France in the 1830s.     Introduction into this society was common for children around their First Communion.   This Miraculous Medal image of Mary is the one that you see in the concrete statues in front yards – standing on a half globe, her gaze downward to earth, and her arms outstretched to her sides.   On the rustic table next to him in the photo is his baptismal candle in a bouquet.   It was common in group First Communions for the communicants to carry floral bouquets with their baptismal candles in procession at the beginning of the Mass.   He was baptized at another very German Catholic Church on the Ohio side of the River, Marias Hilfe (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) in Sedamsville, in 1884, when the church had just been completed, his parents and older sisters recent immigrants from Polish Prussia.   Although he’s not wearing an arm band, there is a white silk cloth stuffed into his lapel pocket that might be the band.

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To receive communion, Catholics must abstain from food and drink, except water, for one hour before receiving.   An obligatory overnight fast was relaxed in the late 20th century by Vatican II, held in 1968. This Second Vatican Council totally changed the Mass and many other century old Catholic traditions.   The Mass was allowed to be said in the language of the people rather than Latin, and lay people were now being allowed to participate in a more intimate way than ever before.   The tradition of taking the host on the tongue, was also relaxed with Vatican II, although some still receive the Eucharist on their tongue, rather than in their palms.

Both of my parents went to Catholic school and attended daily mass before classes started.   So, in accordance with this Eucharistic abstaining overnight, they couldn’t eat breakfast until after mass.     At that point they were typically starving, and had a half hour to run to the local bakery or five-and-dime to get a candy bar or donut for breakfast and run back for classes.

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The drinking of the wine or Pretiosissimi Sanguinis (Precious Blood) is not a requirement to partake in the Eucharist.   If someone is not able to drink wine but want to receive the Precious Blood, they can request something called ‘mustum’, defined in a guiding letter of 2003 to priests by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who would become Pope Benedict XVI).   The letter defines ‘mustum’ as grape juice where fermentation has begun, but stopped before alcohol content reaches 1 %.

Also defined in Rathsinger’s letter is the makeup of the Eucharistic wafer.   It must consist of only two ingredients – wheat and water – and must be unleavened.   It’s actually very similar to a matzoh cracker in that sense, but it’s very light and almost melts in the mouth, creating a paste that is best washed down by the Eucharistic wine. Unfortunately for celiac Catholics there’s not a gluten free option. But here’s the saving grace, pardon the pun.   Catholics believe in a process called transubstantiation.   It’s a ritual performed by the priest in the part of the mass called the Liturgy of the Eucharist.   During it the priest sort of channels Jesus to turn the host and the wine into His true Body and Blood. So, by the time you receive Communion, the host is actually the gluten-free flesh of Jesus, and the wine is the alcohol free Precious Blood!

Now we get back to the post-sacrament party.   In scanning these celebratory dinners and brunches, there seems to be no common dish or custom related to the meal itself. In a lot of cases they First Communion Feast happens on or around Easter, so traditional family Easter dishes might be served.   But there’s always a First Communion cake that accompanies the dinner.   I don’t remember what we had at my First Communion brunch, but I do remember my First Communion cake.

I was lucky that my Godparents, my maternal aunt and uncle, owned a bakery and made my First Communion cake.     I knew that they’d be bringing a bakery fresh – full sized sheet pan cake to my brunch.    It was a dense moist white cake with an almondy flavor.     The white butter cream icing was also dense and sweet.   It was not the lower-grade whipped kind you might find on a grocery store cake. It had a golden iced chalice and host and a wreath of golden and blue flowers hovering over.

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I was very much into the pomp and circumstance and ritual of the Church back then.     I felt connected.   The ritual and traditions gave me perspective of who I was and where my family fit into it all.       Heck, Cincinnati Catholics were responsible for the birth of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, that my family usually ate on Fridays during Lent. I had celebrated my 7th birthday party that year at the McDonald’s in Fairfield with five of my besties, and if McDonald’s could buy into Catholic culture, I could too.   The First Communion cake was a culmination of this Catholic pop-culture, and a connection back in my family history.

The First Communion cake used to be a plain white-iced sheet cake, with simple decoration or a personalized congratulation. This was supposed to symbolize the innocence and purity of the young communicants.     The cakes were simple and good, not showy or ostentatious. There’s something very appropriate and spiritual about a simple white iced sheet cake.

Simplicity aside, the First Communion cake was more important than a birthday cake, because you only received one such cake your entire life.   And, they were usually a lot bigger than the typical birthday cake.   If you’re from a big Catholic family, they had to feed a hungry army of relatives at the post-sacramental family feast.   The cake was the culmination of all your training – the memorization of strange catechism you’d forget later in life.   It symbolized the spiritualism of accepting the mystery of the Resurrection.

For décor, the First Communion cake might have a golden iced chalice with the Eucharist on top.   It also might include an iced cornucopia of bread and grapes, the makeup of the wine and host. It also may have an iced version of one of the common gifts you receive on the day, like a rosary, bible, prayer book, or crucifix.   If your parents were more hippy, there might even be more esoteric symbols iced on a First Communion Cake like a caterpillar and butterfly, or a hatching egg, or another symbol of the Resurrection.

It was still very early post-Vatican II, and the sky was the limit for open-mindedness, at least for a while. It was the days of the Theory of Liberation, which brought down the Communist Iron Curtain.   It was the days of liturgical dance & homily mini-dramas, outdoor masses, and small in-home masses.   The Catholic 70s were free and open, at least in our country parish.   And for my small, but burgeoning liberal mind, it was great.

There might even be a cake topper with a boy or girl kneeling at the altar in front of a priest or Jesus as the Sacred Heart, offering the Eucharist.  My first communion cake topper was a leftover from my grandpa’s bakery and was a 1950s bisque version made in Japan.   The First Communion cake topper, like the arm band, is also sort of a lost tradition.   The vintage First Communion cake toppers are now very collectible on ebay.

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Today, with the explosion of specialized cakes the simple white iced First Communion cake has morphed into more elaborate versions.   Some have several tiers like a wedding cake, coming in a variety of colors and designs.   Other families serve cupcakes or iced cookies instead of cake, or even have a dessert bar instead.   But to me, the plain white iced version is more spiritually appropriate and will never go out of style.    Graeters, in their current promotion of a new ice cream flavor, should for sure consider an almondy First Communion cake version.

The Cincinnati Fish Fry

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In the Midwest when we talk about our fish sandwiches or the  Lenten fish fry, we rarely refer to how great the fish is.   We gush about how good the tarter sauce is.   And usually you have to slather it on in heaping portions to cover the taste of the fish.     That’s because being in the center of the country most of our fried fish is freezer to fryer, not freshly breaded, so it has anything but a nice fresh fish taste.   It’s probably the reason a lot of Midwesterners don’t like fish. They’re used to frozen fish sticks from Mrs. Paul’s, or the infamous Cincinnati Fish Log, that you might find at Lake Nina’s on the Northwest side of Cincinnati.

Fish weren’t meant to be molded into unnatural log shapes, breaded, frozen, and THEN deep fried.

The Cincinnati Lenten fish fry is funny. Unlike barbecue, where it’s all about the meat, and the sides are subpar, with the fish fry, it’s less about the supposed star of the meal, and definitely more about the sides.     And each of the over 50 local churches who sponsor a fish fry during Lent are trying to one-up each other with their sides.     St. Bart’s on Winton Road in Finneytown, have become famous for their fried pickles.   St. Frank Desales in Walnut Hills has made a name for their plethora of homemade pies.   Others are famous for their mac and cheese, or even their crab cakes like Guardian Angels in Mt. Washington. Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenhills is famous for the salted rye they use in the sandwich.   But very few are actually known for the quality of their fish.

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It’s funny that we think Icelandic Cod means good quality.   How long does it take for fish caught in Iceland to be brought to the U.S., processed, frozen and then served during Lent?   Not that I think selling Fresh Ohio River fish would be any more appetizing, but we can certainly do better than using industrial molded and frozen fish.

I have only found two Churches who actually freshly bread their unmolded fish filets on site.   One is St. Frank Seraph in Over-the-Rhine, who hosts their amazing fish fry at the Moerlein Tap Room on Moore Street. Their homemade mac and cheese is amazing too.   Franciscan Brother Timothy can typically be seen here presiding over and supervising the frying.   You know it’s good because you do have to wait for your fish to be made to order.   But while you wait you can guzzle a Moerlein micro brew from the tap room.   Good local beer and freshly breaded fish – what a treat!

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The other freshly breaded location is at Prince of Peace Montessori on Pike Street in Covington, Kentucky.

Even one of the oldest of our famous fish sandwiches, from Frisch’s, is just another frozen deep fried fish log.   You hear more about how good the rye bun is, or how displaced Cincinnatians have Frisch’s tarter sauce shipped hundreds of miles.   They’ve actually probably sold more volume of their tartar sauce than they have of the fish sandwich!   You can tell Frisch’s fish log sandwich has been frozen because a lot of times a bite brings a gush of hot liquid, from the defrosted water trapped inside the breading during a quick pressure fry.     And that’s a terrible experience!

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But you do have to give credit to the Frisch’s fish sandwich for one thing. It was this fish sandwich that motivated McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen to create the iconic Filet-O-Fish sandwich to compete with the Catholic Friday abstaining crowd in Cincinnati, who were all going to Frisch’s.     But the McDonald’s fish sandwich, even with its smart addition of melted cheddar cheese and lots of tartar sauce is typically mushy after being held too long in a warming drawer.

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Thank God the elevated taco trend has brought fish tacos into the mix with our  local fish fry.   At least there, you’ll have some interesting flavors, rather than the tartar sauce soaked fish log sandwich.

So we still have a long way to go to make our local Lenten fish fry  a tourist attraction. Maybe if we just market our delicious Cincinnati Tarter Sauce Rye Sandwiches, we’d have more luck.

Donald Trump and His Illegal Ancestor’s Connection to Goetta’s Cousin

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An ad for the butchery Saumagen Paradies, in Trump’s ancestral German town of Kallstadt.

 

I do enjoy politics, if for nothing else than the ridiculous promises and rhetoric offered by candidates vying for nomination.   Mr. Trump ridiculously promises that as president he would build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for its construction.   His promise continues as he proclaims he will prevent all Muslims from entering the country.   He also would like to deport all illegal immigrants from this country. But what he forgets is that all of us descend from immigrants and the majority of us, including himself, descend from illegal immigrants. These were people running to our country, many illegally and without permission, for freedom and new opportunity, and who contributed to our growth and prosperity as a nation.  The immigrant story is the most important story of our nation.

Trump’s grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was born in Germany in 1869 in the sleepy Palatinate village of Kallstadt. Many of its 1200 inhabitants have familial connections to Trump by blood or marriage. One villager, the very cute and blonde Simone Wendell, filmed a documentary about Trump, called The Kings of Karlstadt, travelling to New York to interview him, finding out how little he knew of his own ancestry.     This is probably because Trump’s father denied his German ancestry and claimed they were from Sweden.     This was because many of their customers after the second World War were Holocaust survivors.

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Friedrich Trump, Donald’s illegal immigrant grandfather.

The other King of Kallstadt, by the way is, American condiment maven H. J. Heinz, whose ancestors donated money to preserve the pipe organ in the town’s spired old church.     Unlike the Trumps, they have long lauded their connection to the village.

There is a well-known phrase in Kallstadt: ‘Before you put your mouth into gear, be sure to turn your brain on.’     Certainly the Don is not going to heed the advice of his ancestors.   And, although the townsfolk in Kallstadt are not likely to heap praise on Mr. Trump, the mayor, in his 2106 New Year’s speech said, “No refusal of entry, either for refugees, or for Trump.”

In 1885, Friedrich Trump, the Don’s grandfather, leaving a note for his mother on the kitchen table, boarded a boat to escape taxes and military service, and settled in New York City, working as a barber for several years.   In 1891, he moved to Seattle, Washington, and operated the “Poodle Dog” restaurant. Moving to the mining town of Monte Cristo, Washington, in 1894, the elder Trump operated another hotel.   Hearing of the Klondike Gold Rush, he operated yet another hotel, catering to arriving gold hunters. Then moving in 1898 to Bennett, British Columbia, Canada, he opened the Artic hotel, which was also operated a brothel.   No successful mining town would be without a brothel.   In 1901, fearing a crackdown on prostitution and the end of the Gold Rush, Trump sold his investments and returned to Germany.

In Germany, Trump courted his next door neighbor, Elizabeth Crist, but was deported from Germany for skipping out on military service.  Oops, now he’s an illegal!   So he and Elizabeth came back to America and started a family in Queens, New York. Trump worked as a barber and restaurant owner, before dying in the 1918 flu epidemic.   It was Trump’s grandmother Elizabeth and her two sons that started the real estate empire in New York into which Trump was born, and with which he went bankrupt several times.   Trump’s illegal immigrant ancestor Friedrich, created the pillar on which he amassed his fortune.   It’s quite a rags-to-riches story.

The Trump ancestral village, Kallstadt, is famous for two regional foods – its ice wine, which was served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I, and a favorite Palatinate peasant dish called saumagen.   Donald Trump’s Grandfather’s family operated a vineyard there which fed into the local ice wine industry  The village venerates the second dish, associated in Germany with peasant provinciality, with a yearly Saumagen Festival.

Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who came from the Palatinate, brought saumagen to international recognition. It was a favorite dish of his, which he served at state dinners to foreign dignitaries like Margaret Thatcher, Michail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and even Bill Clinton.   Kohl was often ridiculed for serving this unsophisticated hillbilly dish by Germans outside the Palatinate, but it gave him a sense of pride in his region.

Saumagen is an interesting dish that translated means ‘sow’s stomach’ and it is a close Germanic cousin to our goetta. Created in the 18th century by Palatinate farmers who used the leftovers of slaughter to make a new dish, it was a frugal food. Today the ingredients are not leftovers at all.   German butchers today creating saumagen use very high-quality ingredients.   It’s similar to goetta in that it’s a byproduct of pig slaughter, but it’s not a sausage, although it’s a stuffed casing, namely the pig’s stomach.   And it’s not a gruetzwurst or grain sausage as goetta is, because it uses the starch of potatoes rather than pinhead oatmeal.   The stuffing of potatoes, carrots, ground pork, onions and spices of marjoram, nutmeg, white pepper, and sometimes a variety of other spices like cloves, coriander or thyme, are stuffed into the pig stomach and then cooked in hot water below boiling point.  The stomach is more meaty and muscley than a sausage casing, so in that sense saumagen might be considered more of a force-meat.  But, like goetta, it is fully cooked in its casing, then pan-fried to finish.   Forcemeats are not pan-fried, but rather sliced like a lunchmeat.      Saumagen is similar to the Scottish haggis, but with a stuffing more similar to goetta, so it’s definitely on the same culinary family tree as our local favorite.

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Soumagen before and after being pan-fried like goetta.

I certainly don’t want to make Trump any more likeable by revealing the connection to a more humble ancestry and a connection to our local goetta.   And who knows if Friedrich Trump served saumagen in any of his hotels or restaurants.   But it’s certainly a lesson that we don’t have to go back very far in our own ancestries to find the likeness of those we’re currently shunning from the American dream.

 

The Courir de Gras – The Rural Cajun Mardi Gras

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Courir de Gras revelers in Eunice, Louisiana.

 

 

Everyone knows the craziness of Bourbon Street during New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.   But there’s another Mardi Gras – a rural hidden gem – that takes place in Central Louisiana’s Cajun country.   It’s called the Courir de Gras, and is focused on begging for the components to make a communal gumbo, the iconic comfort food of the region.   I learned about this revelry this past Fall while visiting New Orleans.

The Courir de Mardi Gras is a version of a centuries-old begging procession which began in rural Medieval France as a precursor to Lent. The area of central Louisiana, known as Acadiana, was settled by a diaspora of French Catholics expelled from northeastern Canada by the British in the 1600s.

The first Mardi Gras in the Gulf Coastal region is tied to explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, founder of the first permanent French settlement in Louisiana. In 1699 Iberville and his men, realizing it was Mardi Gras as they arrived along the Mississippi River Delta, drank all the booze they had in the canoes and donned animal pelts as costumes.

Over time, Louisiana inherited two distinct versions of Mardi Gras from French settlers. The more commonly known urban one, is what happens in New Orleans on Bourbon Street. But in the rural version, or Courir de Mardi Gras, the procession does the begging, from the people they’re visiting. The Courir, or run, visits farmhouses, connecting with neighbors and gathering ingredients for a chicken gumbo.   Onions, flour or rice may be offered to the beggars, or revelers, but the most prized donation is a chicken.   The catching of this chicken is an intense and exhilarating contest and happens at the end of the run.

 

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A painting depicting the chasing of a chicken at a Louisiana courir.

The Mardi “Grawers” don a homemade mask, usually with long pointy nose, and a conical hat, called in French, a capuchin, meant to mock French noblewomen. Participants can also wear mitres or mortarboards, to deride the church or the highly educated.   Accompanied by an accordion, a fiddle, and a tit fer (an iron triangle) revelers sing a traditional tune, begging the man or lady of the house for the gumbo ingredients.   Revelers kneel on the lawns of neighbors and sing in French, “Donnez-moi quelque chose pour le Mardi Gras!” (“Give me something for Mardi Gras!”)   Throws, like nickels and granola bars typically come flying out. Then the three musicians begin playing Cajun music and revelers dance, likely tearing up the modest family’s lawn.

Vintage courir reveler costumes and masks on display at the Louisiana State Museum at the Presbytere, on Jackson Square.

The Run is led by the Capitaine of the Mardi Gras, sort of a Creole-Napoleon, who’s costume typically includes a two pointed hat, a captain’s jacket and a whip.   Offering instructions before the hundreds of costumed, masked revelers before the start the run, he acts as the MC of the festivity.   Cautioning revelers not to leave beer bottles on people’s lawns and warning that no ugly women are allowed in the run, only pretty ones. And, if you’re ugly, make sure you wear two masks!   After the instruction masked participants on horseback, foot or trailer make their way through the community begging for components of the Gumbo.

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The last ingredient, and the highlight of the entire celebration, is the chicken. In some towns, like Chataigne, after the run, organizers prepare a ceremonial 20-foot pole with a caged hen on top. Someone climbs to the top and begins greasing the metal.  Then, a scrum of revelers begin to form the base of a primitive human pyramid.   Usually, after a day of drinking during the house-to-house run, nobody is coherent enough to structure the activity, and people climb up and over each other to get the chicken, many sliding down the pole before reaching its apex.   Finally someone reaches the top, rescues the hen and the run ends.

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Courir revelers in Eunice, LA, battle to rescue the caged hen at the top of the greased pole.

 

Sometimes a last stop on the run before heading back to town is the local cemetery.   The revelers will do this to pay homage to Dennis McGee, one of the most famous Cajun fiddle players.   The band serenades the dead, usually with songs like “Ma Chere Bebe Creole,” and there is a speech about the importance of ancestors and traditions.

When the course (another French word for the run) ends, the revelers return to town, where residents share the day’s bounty in a massive gumbo and enjoy a dance, and Cajun music, which ends promptly at midnight, the beginning of Lent.

In addition to the French-Canadian settlers, free African Americans and slaves who introduced African based traditions of processions and masking also added to the courir.   African American communities in Acadiana also celebrate their own versions of the courir.    Increasing Americanization and governmental suppression of the sometimes rowdy celebration resulted in the decline of the courir in many places by World War II – similar to the suppression of German American festivals in Cincinnati post World War I. While such communities as Basile and Duralde maintained their courirs, others like Mamou and Eunice revived theirs in the 1950s and 1960s.

Today about two dozen south Louisiana Cajun and Creole communities – Mamou, Ville Platte, Grand Praire, L’Anse de Prien Noir, Eunice, Church Point, Iota-Tee Mammou, L’Anse Maigre, Oberlin, Basile, Kinder, Hathawya, Evangeline, Jennings, Elton, Lacassine, Choupiquie and Gheens – celebrate Mardi Gras with a courir.   To many today, this rural version of Mardi Gras is like going to church.   It’s a rejection of the corporate, big business Mardi Gras that happens along the coast.   Away from the craziness of Bourbon Street in a rural field, the courir allows one to have a sort of Carnival epiphany, where it’s easier to reflect on the core tenets of Mardi Grad, the Lenten value of community and the abundance of life.

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Each town’s Courir de Gras is special and has a unique twist. In communities like Mamou, Iota, Elton, Church Point, Faquetaigue and Soileau, you’ll find food and events more Cajun than the names of the towns. In Basile, there is a children’s courir held a few days before the traditional Fat Tuesday one. In Tee Mamou, there’s a ladies-only one. If running isn’t your thing, you can try your legs out with a little barn dancing in Lakeview Park north of Eunice.

In Eunice, the fun starts on the Saturday before Mardi Gras at the Historic Liberty Theatre where the history and traditions of the Courir de Gras are explained. Then on Sunday, the family-friendly fun begins with music, crafts and an old-time boucherie where you can eat just about every Cajun dish your heart desires, from boudin and cracklins to backbone stew. Tap your feet to live music on Monday and then come back on Fat Tuesday when Eunice really gets cranking. There’s an entire festival happening downtown while the Courir de Mardi Gras collects the ingredient list for the gumbo.

Having spent almost every college spring break in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, I think I prefer this rural version much more.   It’s more about tradition and ancestors and of course its central to local comfort food.   What better way celebrate Mardi Gras than a run to create communal food?

 

 

 

 

Dreikoenigskuchen: The German King Cake

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Last night was Fat Tuesday, the indulgent festival many associate with the craziness of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.   It’s about parades, flying beads, moon pies, and showing flesh in public.     One of the symbols of Mardi Gras is the King Cake, a braided sweet yeast cake, glazed with icing in the purple, gold, and green colors of Mardi Gras.   In the coastal south from Alabama to New Orleans, this cake is served from Epiphany to Fat Tuesday. With a hidden plastic baby Jesus inside, the person who finds it in their piece of cake without choking must buy the next cake, the process continuing until Ash Wednesday, when all indulgences are given up for Lent.

The Germanic Catholic countries celebrate their own version of Mardi Gras, called Fasching or Fastnacht.   It’s as indulgent as the French Mardi Gras, and there is a King Cake, called Dreikoenigskuchen, associated too, but it’s eaten a little bit earlier on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.    Fasching is celebrated from northern Germany to southern Bavaria. In Bavaria, the celebration is accented by men parading noisily through the streets in elaborately and grotesquely carved masks.

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Cincinnati’s German immigrants celebrated Fasching prolifically, and each organization hosted their own Fasching Maskenball, where a King and Queen were usually crowned and elaborate costumes were worn.   The Hofbrauhaus in Newport, Kentucky, hosts the German American Citizens League of Cincinnati’s annual Fastnacht celebration.    Last night’s celebration there raised a record-breaking purse for the organization.

Three Kings Day celebrates Die Heilige Drei Konige, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, who visited the baby Jesus in the Nativity. In Germany the Dreikoenigskuchen looks a bit different than the New Orleans version.  Rather than a braided sweet roll, the Germanic version has several individual sweet rolls surrounding a larger roll in the center.

Traditionally a Dreikoenigskuchen is divided by the number of people present plus one, with the extra piece left for those who can’t be present. In older times this center piece was then given to a person in need, either someone in the street outside or who had knocked on the door of the home.

The cake may be flavored with raisin, orange zest, or dried cherries, but it’s not bathed in dense icing like the New Orleans version.   In Lichtenstein it might be lightly glazed with a lemon glaze. In Switzerland, it may only be topped with almond slices.     Hidden inside can be a dried bean, a plastic Christkindl or Christ Child, an almond, or a tiny plastic King.

In Germany, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein, when a kid finds the hidden treasure inside the cake, they are crowned with the golden or silver cardboard foil crown on top of the cake, and become King or Queen for a day, often being excused from doing chores.     As much as I love the New Orleans version of the King Cake, I’d love to see any of the local German bakeries make the traditional German Dreikoenigskuchen.

 

German Sausage Making at Avril-Bleh

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One of my goals for 2016 was to take as many food technique classes as I could find.   One of the first I bumped into was a sausage making course at Avril-Bleh Meats in downtown Cincinnati.   They’re a legacy butcher shop, founded in the early 20th century by Ferd Avril, a German-American butcher.   Currently owned by Len Bleh, they still make the many old Cincinnati German recipe sausages, like oatmeal links – a close first cousin to goetta – and other unique Cincinnati items like cottage ham. Avril’s also supply great restaurants around greater Cincinnati – like the brat that goes on the Girthburger at Zip’s in Mt Lookout, Moerlein Lager House, and the dogs for the Senate in Over-the-Rhine.   I thought they had the ‘Germanic street cred’ I sought.

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Ferd Avril making oatmeal links (goetta sausage) 1920s.

So when I saw that they offered a 4 hour sausage making course for $120, I was in.   The class was open for 10 spots and gave students an entire morning working with the owner, Len Bleh, his son, and one of their other employees grinding, mixing spices, emulsifying, casing, and rolling a variety of sausages.     We made the typical Cincinnati brat, fresh mett, Italian, Polish, small link, Yard Sausage, Irish Bangers, chorizo, andouille and one they call Beer Baron, which is made exclusively for Moerlein and is a cross between chorizo and Cincinnati mett.       Avril’s distinguishes between their yard sausage and fresh mett, with spice blend. The Yard sausage has paprika and garlic, where the fresh mett does not.   Another legacy butcher, Ecklerin Meats, says they’re the same thing, although, they include mace (nutmeg) as a spice, which Avril’s doesn’t.   The name comes from the fact that yard sausage was originally sold by the yard and not by the pound.

Avril’s takes their sausages seriously.   They don’t use nitrate preservatives, but when frozen their sausages can stay for up to 6 months.   They have a sausage of the month to try new and different sausages. Last month they did a Korean barbecue sausage, that I tried at lunch and was fantastic, and next month they’re trying a new Hungarian sausage called Debrecenerwurst, heavily spiced with paprika, marjoram, garlic and pepper.     They use a few heritage breeds of pork from Indiana, like the Berkshire breed, which Len says contains more fat and better marbeling of fat than commercially produced pork.

Our class was more diverse than I expected.   We had a woman from Spain, who was on the hunt for Spanish chorizo, a Russian woman & her Cincy husband,  an Australian foodie, a chef a month away from opening a new downtown barbecue place, his foodie bud, and two non-foodie guys who got the class as a Christmas present.

Each sausage had its own recipe, spice blend and grinding and mixing procedures.   We made them in about 15 pound batches.   Our first wurst was the Cincinnati brat, which was ground once, and then added to a 100 year old bowl turner called the ‘Boss Silent Cutter’ made in 1916 by Cincinnati Butcher’s Supply Company. The name silent mixer was ironic because the machine was anything but silent.   In fact, Len mentioned that it was because of the noise of these old type machines that made many butchers hard-of-hearing in later years.       Many of the other legacy meat markets in Greater Cincinnati have decades old equipment like this in their respective shops.

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Spices of salt, pepper, nutmeg and granulated sugar were added after the brat’s the first grind, and then parsley and onion powder were added later in the bowl turner, along with ice to keep the meat from heating and the fat from rendering.     Len says salt is typically added in the ratio of 34 ounces of salt per 100 pounds of meat, but that was the only spice ratio he revealed.   The goal of the bowl turner was to emulsify the meat mix into sort of a paste or a ‘meat cream’ before casing.   I asked why no milk powder was added to the brat, and Len said that’s only used when there is a lot of fat in the meat.   In that case after being boiled, the meat turns an unappetizing brownish gray, and the milk powder prevents that color change from occurring.

Brats are one of the few sausages piped into a collagen casing, because they are boiled to turn the typical whitish-gray of the brat.     Len’s son was the one to show us how to pipe and link the sausage, which he did with brilliant ease.     The machine has a changeable horn for the different diameter sausages, and is vacuum operated, with a knee pedal to pipe out the meat into its specific casing, which is preloaded onto the horn.

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I asked Len about the difference between the Cincinnati Mett and the bockwurst.   He said bockwurst is more simply spiced with just salt pepper parsley and chives, but similarly made.   In Cincinnati and the U.S., the bockwurst is more like the Bavarian weisswurst than the typical modern bockwurst. And the weisswurst is the grandfather to our Cincinnati brat.     Both weisswurst and Cincinnati brat are non-smoked pork sausages boiled to white color and made in a natural casing or without casing.

Fresh mett is spiced with salt, pepper, and whole ground mustard seed and was ground twice to a fine consistency.  The spices are added after the grind so to keep the mustard seed whole in the sausage. Bangers used a pork casing, which is the most common casing, and was the only sausage we made that had a grain filler, in this case, breadcrumbs.   Italian used salt, pepper, garlic, and whole fennel and anise seeds.   The tiny links sausage were ground twice and used sage, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and tomato juice, prevents the sausage from turning gray.   It’s ground twice and spices are mixed in with the second grind.   The Polish used salt, sugar, allspice, coarse ground pepper, and marjoram, a commonality with other Eastern European sausages. Their chorizo is more of a Mexican version than a Spanish chorizo and our version used uncured meat.   Spanish chorizo, according to our Spanish classmate, uses half spicy paprika, and sweet paprika.     Avril’s doesn’t use paprika, but garlic, oregano, chili powder, and other spices.   It was the last sausage we linked because the vinegar used acts as sort of a cleaning agent to the mixer.

We all got a chance to grind, mix, pipe, and link the sausages. It was interesting to see the different ways each sausage was spiced, ground, cased and linked, and great to get that hands on experience with commercial equipment.     Another delight of the class was that we tasted the sausages we were making at lunch, which were stewed with Avril’s amazing homemade sauerkraut.     As a take home, each student received  10 pounds of sausage, including each variety we made.   Our diploma was an Avril-Bleh T-shirt and it was clear everyone went away with a great experience.

It’s important we understand the benefits of still having indie butchers and legacy butchers around.   And, if we want them to stick around it’s important that we continue to patronize them as regular customers.    The quality of their meats and the freshness of their products is always better than the big box chain retail stores.   Many have access to local farms and heritage breeds, like Avril-Bleh.  And, taking a class puts you hands-on into this experience.   I highly recommend taking classes from your local butcher.