Schwartenmagen or Head Cheese.
In Cincinnati we’re known for our weird meat products of Germanic origin. And when someone asks you to “Please pass the jelly,” the last thing you’d expect in return is one made of meat. Last week I learned of another of these funky meat products classified as just that – a meat jelly. Its Germanic name is schwartenmagen.
I heard of this funny sounding meat jelly from an 86 year man I interviewed. Lou grew up over a German saloon in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. The interview was part of an oral history project I’m helping initiate. As a food historian I naturally questioned him about the type of food they served at the saloon. That’s how I learned of this funky meat concoction. As with most saloons of that era, free lunches were a ploy to sell more beer. Oddly enough this saloon was across the street from the Hudepohl Bottling Plant, so they brought employees in with these free lunches. Ah the days when it was ok to drink several beers over lunch and then operate heavy machinery!
Flamm’s Saloon about 1930, note the card tables with lower shelf to place your beer while playing.
Founded in 1905 by Baden-German immigrant Blasius Flamm, the saloon sat on the first floor of an 1880s Italianate on McMicken and Elder. The second story housed a meeting hall. It became the meeting place of many Germanic organizations – beneficial societies like the Baden, Swiss and Alsacer Unterstutzungsvereine; singing societies, like the Hudepohl Brewery Men’s Choir; and other organizations like the Daughters of Pocohontas. Above the hall were the living quarters where seventeen people shared one bathroom and two kitchens between them. The basement cooled the kegs, but also had a boxing ring for training. So, in addition to beer, the saloon had to serve food to a lot of people.
Blasius Flamm, Founder of Flamm’s Saloon in OTR.
The initiation ‘spanker’ of the Baden Unterstutzungsverein, which met in Flamm’s Hall above the saloon. It was loaded with a shell blank to make it seem to the blindfolded initiate that he was shot in the rear.
In addition to Hamilton and Leona Metts, true Cincinnati Germanic sausages, Flamm’s served this luncheon meat called schwartenmagen, in the 1950s. Lou said his mother loved it, but his Dad would not sit at the table when she or anyone else ate it. It sounded like sougmagen, a miscellaneous-meat-parts stuffed cow stomach dish from Germany I’d previously blogged about. As it turns out, it’s a miscellaneous-meat-parts cousin. Schwartenmagen is the Germanic term for what we in America call head cheese. It’s classified as a ‘meat-jelly’, because the meat parts are encased in gelatin and it’s formed into a lunchmeat loaf to be sliced. Imagine a sliceable savory jello salad.
Schwartenmagen or Head cheese is sort of the Frankenstein of miscellaneous meat products. All the meat parts are seen in cross section ‘stitched’ together by the gelatin. It’s another of those peasant foods, dating back to the Middle Ages, invented to deal with the off cuts and use all the byproducts of slaughter. Because of the mystery of said meat parts included, head cheese is not the most popular of deli products. I’ve never sampled head cheese. For me, it ranks up there with any type of blood sausage. I just can’t get over its contents. I’ve been told that if you can get overlook the different levels of crunchi from the different parts embedded in each slice, you will like it. And those who were brought up eating it, crave it.
The process of making head cheese begins by boiling the head of a cow or pig. What head parts are included vary, but often the eyes, brain and ears are usually removed. This version served in Cincinnati, from a Findley Market vendor, according to my interviewee, included brains. Other varieties include the tongue, feet, or heart. The cooked flesh is removed from the head and allowed to cool in the broth, which thickens as it is concentrated in collagen from the bones. Spices like black pepper, allspice, and marjoram are added to the broth. A version pickled with vinegar in America is called souse or hot souse if spiced with peppers. The German term for the souse pickled version of head cheese is sülze.
In the Franconian region of Germany schwartenmagen or sülze is served sliced in a salad with vegetables and a vinaigrette. There’s even a spam-like canned version sold throughout Germany. Here in the U.S. schwartenmagen is typically served as a lunchmeat sandwich, which was how it was served at Flamm’s Saloon.
Today the indie meat markets like Stehlins and Avril-Bleh, still make schwartenmagen from centuries old Germanic recipes. Although one must respect the age and uniqueness of this meat jelly, it’s one Cincinnati meat product this Food Dude is not rushing out to try.