Dave Hackman’s Pitched-tators.
In 2003 the Cincinnati Enquirer reported about Dave Hackman of Green Township and his weird cookout specialty – pitched potatoes. For decades, he’s cooked whole Idaho potatoes in a homemade cooker of bubbling pitch or tar, and serves them to his guests.
That’s right, he cooks them in the petroleum based black tar that people use to seal roof leaks. It’s like a deep fat fryer, using tar instead of oil. To the normal potato-eater it may seem like a ridiculous and dangerous way to cook potatoes. But, Hackman claims that this method produces a delicious potato – one that’s fluffy and flaky, like baked potatoes before people began microwaving them. This process takes about 25 minutes, and Hackman says you have to be careful not to overload the cooker or it will boil over.
When a guest asks for a potato, he grasps the potato with both hands, thumbs positioned at the end and center of the tuber. Then he squeezes the hot inner pulp onto a paper plate, leaving behind the black, sticky napkin and potato skin behind. The most amazing thing is that the potato tastes nothing like the tar it’s cooked in. In my opinion, even though the tar doesn’t get into the potato, the petroleum based volatiles, like benzene, can potentially get into the potato, which is not good. It’s similar to how oil gets into a French fry when it’s being deep fried. It’s the simple laws of mass transfer through a semi-permeable membrane, but that’s the chemical engineer in me talking.
Ever since he was 10 years old, in 1947, Hackman says his father Arnold Hackman, made pitched potatoes. Since his father’s passing, he claimes to be one of the few people who cooks pitched potatoes.
Hackman tells his story of how the pitched potato method came into his family. His father was brewmaster for many years at the local Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewery, back when they sealed wooden beer barrels with tar. This indicates that Hudepohl was either not using quality made beer barrels, or, they were reusing them too much and they were springing leaks. A good German cooper, like the ones in White Oak, who supplied many of the downtown Cincinnati breweries would have made barrels that were naturally sealed and didn’t require tar coatings. Either way, Hudepohl were probably, and hopefully, using the more natural plant based rosin material to seal the barrels than the toxic petroleum based black tar.
The story goes that one day a stray potato fell into a vat of bubbling tar – or maybe someone dropped it in to see what would happen. What a raw potato was doing at a brewery in my opinion brings the credibility of this story into question. After a while this potato bobbed to the surface, someone retrieved it and mustered the courage to taste it. So because of either the novelty or the bravery of this taster, the tar-cooked method made it into the Hackman family.
In the 1975 Joy of Cooking, there is a pitched potato recipe that cooks them in the more natural plant based resin or rosin. This would be the most pristine extra-virgin olive oil, compared to the tar that Hackman uses, but he proclaims that resin is for sissies.
The pitched potato recipe is actually a fairly old one, dating back over 100 years. And it did use pitch/tar/resin, whatever you want to call it, but it was the natural pine tar resin, not the petroleum based product that Hackman uses. In its room temperature state pine tar resin was hard, and could be used to patch roofs and leaks, but if you struck it with a hammer, it cracks like peanut brittle. A wood fired cauldron would carefully melt this pine tar resin, the potatoes would be carefully dropped, cooked, and then set aside and cooled. Once cooled, the tubers would be tapped with a stick and the rosin coating would crack, peeling off like a hard-boiled egg.
There is a connection of this old method of cooking pitched potatotes, to Hudepoh-Schoenling. Back in the day, Cincinnati brewmasters jumped from brewery to brewery for the best opportunity. One of Hudepohl’s long term brewmasters was Charles Klink, who came from the Bruckmann Brewery, where he worked as brewmaster from 1916-1918, until he moved to Hudepohl. Klink was very influential in the local brewery community, serving as President of the Master Brewer’s Association in America, after the end of Prohibition in the 1930s.
Bruckmann Brewery started a local social group called the “Free Setters”, and hosted the group’s annual Beefsteak Dinner at their taproom at the brewery site on Ludlow Avenue near Northside. The founders of Bruckmann Brewery were Johann Caspar Bruckmann and his brother Friedrich, who were immigrants from a small town in Thuringia, Germany. A 1904 Cincinnati Enquirer article describes how the Free Setters, hosted at the Bruckmann Brewery, entertained a group of visiting and local newsmen at a dinner. One of the beloved dishes at these beefsteak dinners, in addition to Thuringian bratwurst, was pitched potatoes.
The bust of John C. Bruckmann at Spring Grove Cemetery.
Two things for which Thuringia was known, especially the village where the Bruckmann’s hailed, were their dense forests and potatoes. There’s even a special type of Thuringian cheese that’s made from soured milk and potato mash. In fact, it was a several year long potato famine in their home village, Berka vor dem Hainich, which probably motivated their immigration to Cincinnati in the late 1840s. An available quantity of pine tar and potatoes made pitched potatoes a common dish in Thuringia, and the method, along with their brewing recipes, were the valuables that the Bruckmanns, whose parents were innkeepers, brought with them across the Atlantic.
Klink worked at Hudepohl during the same time period as Hackman’s father, and is probably who transferred the pitched potato recipe to him, learned at Bruckmann Brewery. The story of the potato being dropped in a tar vat at the brewery is probably fiction. The petroleum black tar is more readily available and cheaper than the natural rosin today, and probably how the Hackman family recipe morphed into what it is today. Even though no reports of toxicity have been reported by their family or cookout guests, this foodie would prefer pitched potatoes cooked in pine tar resin than black tar.