Royal Red Shrimp – The Secret Delicacy of the Gulf Coast


Royal Red Shrimp (pleoticus robustus) native to the Gulf Coast, the Keys, and Connecticut.

I was driving down the 193 toward the Dauphin Island ferry in Southern Alabama when I got a lucky call.   It was my childhood friend, Mike, who lives not far in the Gulf Area of Mississippi.     He is a foodie from way back like me – a Midwestern-turned Southern one – one who knows goetta AND grits.     He saw my Facebook post from the night before about Mobile, Alabama, food, and wanted to give me some recommendations. He was driving in the opposite direction toward his former Cincy home to celebrate his fabulous mother, Barb’s birthday.   So, for the second year in a row, we missed each other in the Gulf.   One of these Septembers we’ll have a beer on a fishing boat in the Gulf.

He told me about a shrimp native to the area called Royal Red Shrimp (pleoticus robustus).     He proclaimed them the “best thing on the coast,” and directed me to a little unincorporated town of Bon Secour, east of Gulf Shores.   It’s a French fishing village meaning “Good Harbour” dating back to the late 19th century.   One fishing company has been in operation there since 1890.   Apparently, with Royal Reds, once you go red, you don’t go back – to pink, white, or brown, that is.

The primary catch for the Bon Secour fishing fleet ranges from Mobile Bay shrimp to this deep water “Royal Red” shrimp Mike told me I had to try.   Large shrimp boats dock on the inlet river in Bon Secour in front of processing plants awaiting packaging and shipment to all of America.   It’s these multi-generational fishing family companies that are folding due to competition with cheaper overseas farmed shrimp. These overseas critters are what we typically eat at local restaurants that serve generic shrimp dishes.     There is an Alabama Wild Shrimp program that bands together the local fishermen of Bon Secour and the Mobile area to help them ally with marketing, PR and branding efforts for Alabama wild caught shrimp.

Those who’ve had fresh wild caught gulf shrimp know there is nothing better.   And I was excited to try this Royal Red variety.     Royal Reds are a tastier species compared to the pink, white, and brown varieties. The Red’s higher fat content make them sweeter and more tender than coastal shrimp.     It’s that tenderness that makes them cook in about half the time as pink, white or brown varieties.

While few had even heard of the Royal Red before the mid-90s, they now have a cult following with locals and tourists in the know along the Gulf Coast. Royal Red Shrimp can be identified by their large size, rich crimson color and their naturally salty and flavorful taste that has been compared to Lobster and Bay Scallops.

Although still not well known, Royal Red shrimp have been plentiful for a long time. They were caught 100 years ago by Sicilian and Greek immigrants in deep waters 40 to 60 miles offshore in the Atlantic, at the edge of the underwater ridge known as the Blake Plateau.   These immigrants founded the modern commercial shrimping industry, which traditionally has focused on the inshore white, brown and pink species. They were found off the Gulf Coast in the 1950s, and off the coast of Connecticut in the 1980s.       Aside from Stonington Fisheries in Connecticut, the Gulf Coast, and the Florida Keys, you will be hard pressed to find Royal Reds anywhere else.   They never see the light of day in their 1200 to half mile deep habitats, and as a result are flash frozen on the boat.   If they weren’t, they’d go bad before the boats reached shore.

They were simply were not an economically feasible catch until fairly recently, partly because of the need to develop special deep-water nets and get them approved by the government.

With four main gulf coast shrimp species, each has a different flavor.   Watch for a new bar trend – shrimp flights – like a flight of wines or bourbons.   Brown shrimp (penaeus aztecus) have an iodine-rich diet, which imparts a strong flavor that goes great with robust dishes like gumbo and jambalaya.   On the other hand, white shrimp (penaeus setiferus) have a more mild flavor with natural sweetness because they’re found in areas with less salinity, like brackish estuaries and bayous. If you boil or sauté them, they’ll soak in the flavors of the sauces and seasonings. Finally, pink shrimp (penaeus duorum) are also sweet with an even more mild flavor profile, so they pair well with dishes that feature delicate sauces (like shrimp and grits) and they grill up well.


My Royal Red Shrimp grill in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

While Royal Reds can be found all year long, their season runs from late summer through the end of fall. The best time for the freshest Royal Reds is during the peak month of September. Lucky for me, I was there during the peak.   I found them frozen, as they should be, at Fresh Market Fish in Bon Secour, and grilled them that same night.     I might have slightly overcooked them, but we still enjoyed their sweetness.     They don’t need a pairing with cocktail sauce or anything for that matter.   I’ll have to do some scouting to see if they’re available in Cincinnati.




Conecuh – The Sausage of the South



Cincinnati certainly has some ‘street cred’ with our local sausages.   But we’re not the only ones who make great wursts.    And I’m always one to give props to a producer that makes great encased meats!  I met my new favorite spicy sausage in the land of gulf shrimp and moon pies –  Mobile, Alabama, recently on my yearly trip to Gulf Shores.     It’s called Conecuh Sausage, made in the county by the same name in Alabama, a Creek Indian word for “Land of Sugar Cane”.   I tasted it at my favorite restaurant in Mobile, Alabama :   Kitchen on George.

This product of porcine valhalla was not so discreetly embedded in a side dish of smokey jamabalya.   It’s spicy, smokiness permeated, making it the star of the plate, even though the fish was pretty darn good too. I’ve never had jambalaya so smokey and tomatoey. I asked my waiter about the sausage and got a lesson on its origin and maker.   He said it’s made in Conecuh, Alabama, where all they do is make sausage and bacon.


The Pontchartrain Catch of the Day at Kitchen on George in Mobile, Alabama, with Conecuh sausage jambalaya.

Conecuh is a county in southern Alabama.   In the days before most had their own freezers, a man named Henry Sessions formulated his recipe for hickory smoked pork sausage. After returning from World War II, Sessions worked as a salesman for a meatpacking plant in Montgomery Alabama.   He started Sessions Quick Freeze in Evergreen in 1947 so that people could bring their pigs and cattle, have them slaughtered, and store them and their vegetables in his rentable meat locker.

But it was Sessions’ high quality smoked pork sausage that put his company on the map.   Customer demand for the sausage made the family butcher 250 hogs a week to satisfy these cravings. Today the 100 employee company makes 35,000- 40,000 pounds of sausage a week.   Henry’s son John Crum Sessions and his grandson, John Henry sessions, now run the company, which has a gift shop.   The smokey aroma from the plant pulls north Florida and Gulf Coast beachgoers of I-65.   To many this smell is the ‘smell of the beach.’   They call it ‘aromatic advertising.’


John Crum Sessions, current owner of Conecuh Sausage Company.

While I had this amazing sausage in jambalaya, I also had it the next morning at the historic Kate Shepard House – run by delightful proprietors Wendy and Bill James – alongside scrambled eggs and praline French toast made by Wendy.   It’s also good in gumbo and probably would be great in split pea soup or any dish that would be complimented with hickory smokiness.   John Sessions’ wife, Sheila, makes his favorite version in pork and beans.


The praline French toast and Conecuh sausage with eggs breakfast by Wendy James at the historic Kate Shepard house in Mobile, Alabama.

The sausage comes in small links and normal links, in hot and spicy, hickory smoked and Cajun smoked. It can be found in 21 states at Publix, Costco, Walmart, Piggly Wiggly, Rouse’s, Kroger, and many others. I am hoping to either find it or bring it to Cincinnati, so I can experiment with it in many more southern and Yankee dishes.   It’s simply amazing sausage!!




The Best of Oktoberfest Zinzinnati


Cream Puffs, Struedel, and Brats – oh my!    Add in sauerkraut balls, pretzels and beer, and you have Oktoberfest Zinzinnati.    In Cincinnati, we no longer have the largest nor the most authentic Oktoberfest.     And, the food and location just keeps getting weirder and weirder.       This year, instead of being on Fifth Street around our beautiful Fountain Square, cast at the Royal Bavarian Foundry in Munich, where Oktoberfest started, the whole festival was moved to 2nd and 3rd streets with a spectacular view of….. the Ft. Washington Way Highway and the stadiums.   Despite this new location, an estimated 640,000 attendees ate their way through the stalls, over 30,000 taking the new streetcar.


Our local breakfast delicacy, Goetta, is infused everywhere, which is not a bad thing, if done properly.   Goetta Balls are an acceptable variation on the more common sauerkraut ball.   But this year’s new Goetta Grill Donut Sandwich at the Busken booth just seemed a bit over the top to me.   The Strasse Haus had a Goetta Corndog this year.   But (with the addition of cornmeal) isn’t that really just a scrapple dog?


Despite these German fusian-fails, there were a few good local products that made their debut at Oktoberfest this year that deserve mention.


The Germania Society released their new house-made mustards and sauces at their own Oktoberfest in August.   They brought the new line with them at their brat booth over the weekend.     Bottled in Columbus, Indiana, they are house formulated recipes.   There’s a great Bavarian Sweet Mustard, a German Sweet-Hot mustard, a Sauerkraut Mustard, and a Curry Sauce.   They also have the dry rub spice blend used on their rotisserie chicken.   I bought all of the sauces and tried the sweet, sweet-hot, and the curry sauce.   All were pretty good, but I thought the sweet-hot mustard could have had a bit more zing.



I was very excited to see a new collaboration between local legacy meat market, Avril’s, and Cincy Beer Brats.   I think it’s a brilliant move on Avril’s part, and has been a long time coming.   They served a Bourbonwurst infused with Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and a Bratwurst with Braxton Brewery’s Oktober Fuel Oktoberfest Lager.    Cincy Beer Brats also have a Pale Ale Bierwurst, and a Pumpkin Bourbon Ale Bierwurst from Alltech Brewery in Lexington, Kentucky.   All are available at a few local retailers, including both Jungle Jim’s locations.   I’m very excited to see where this new venture with Avril’s goes!


The big theme this year at Oktoberfest was Bratwurst vs. Pretzel, which I though was odd.     And, in Cincinnati they’re just brats, not bratwurst.   Brat to pretzel is not an apples to apples comparison.   I think it would be smarter to have a brat vs. mett vote and maybe a cream puff vs. strudel vote. That way you’re comparing like proteins and like pastry.

Oktoberfest Statistiken



This weekend we prepare for Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, supposedly the largest Oktoberfest outside of Munich.   Racine, Wisconsin, also has that claim, as do a few other cities.     While we put on our eating pants (or lederhosen) and eat German food to our heart’s content, the people of Munich will be consuming too.     Our Oktoberfest season starts even earlier than Munich’s with our region’s most authentic Germania Park Oktoberfest, in mid August.


The festival is now on its 183rd year – based on the wedding party of Bavarian Crown Prince Louis, and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. The Bavarian royalty invited the citizens of Munich to attend the festivities, held on the fields in front of the city gates. These famous public fields were named Theresienwiese—”Therese’s fields”—in honor of the crown princess; which has now been abbreviated to “Wies’n.”   The 16 day festival now starts in September, because the weather is milder than


Here’s what we consume in Zinzinnati on Oktoberfest Weekend, according to the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce:


64,000 sauerkraut balls

20,000 cream puffs

87,452 metts

80,000 brats

24,640 potato pancakes

23,000 soft pretzels

16,000 strudel

3600 pounds of sauerkraut

700 pounds of smelly Limburger cheese

400 pickled pig’s feet


Wow our German palate seems starved to eat our heritage!   The estimate is for 500,000 jolly attendees for the three day weekend.


We are also host the World’s Largest Chicken Dance, with 48,000 dancers in 1994.   We’ve had celebrities like George Takei, Nick Lachey, and Mini-me lead this crazy tanz in past years.


Only six Munich breweries are approved to brew the Oktoberfest beer, all of which strictly adhere to the Rheinheitsgebot, the German Purity Law of 1487.   They are: Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, Spaten, Hofbrauhaus, Augustiner, and Paulaner. And, an estimated 7.5 million liters of beer will be consumed under the tents.   This figure is actually down from the 7.7 million liters from 2014.     The 5.9 million festivalgoers also nearly choked on 122 oxen and 51 calves to go with the beer.


The drunkards in Munich lost 804 passports, 742 wallets, 479 cellphones, and three wedding rings at the 2015 Oktoberfest.


Similar to the stein carrying events that are held under the Uberdrome at the Moerlein Lager House, Munich has a stein carrying competition as well.   The current record was set in 2014 by German Oliver Struempfel, who carried 25 full beer steins without spilling over 131 feet.   The women’s record goes to Anita Schwarz for carrying 19 steins.



Stein stealing is one of the biggest problems at Munich Oktoberfest.   110,000 people unsuccessfully attempted to walk out of the Munich tents with a beer stein.

The biggest problems with Oktoberfest Zinzinnati is the arrival of non-German foods like jambalaya in the food area, and the lack of anti-acids.

A Tex-Czech Icon, the Kolache Enters Cincinnati Market – Sort of!



This morning as I stopped at UDF for my coffee, my eyes nearly jumped out of their sockets when I saw a Tex-Czech food icon, the kolache.   I glanced over at the counter warming shelf, that holds breakfast sandwiches.  Staring back at me on one of the wrapped sandwiches was “Cheddar Sausage Kolache: Hardwood Smoked Cheddar Sausage wrapped in a Sweet Dough.”     I had just written about the Tex-Czech foodways and the kolache.

UDF has really amped it up with their fresh deli offerings in the last several months.   In fact, they are trend-forward with the same thing happening across all American convenience stores, and doing a great job at it.   Gone are the days of hot dog rollers and warmed up taquitos as the only convenience store offerings.

Thankfully, UDF marketeers decided to describe what a kolache is on the package, as most  Cincinnati natives would not know a kolache from a venecek (another Czech pastry).     And, surely the Germanic demographic of Cincinnati fits with the demographic of the kolache.   But the UDF marketeers got it a bit wrong.     A  kolache is definitely a sweet yeast dough pastry.   But it’s a sweet filled pastry too– with some sort of fruit marmalade, a sweet creamy cheese, or poppy seed paste.   When you add a savory sausage in the pastry, it’s then called a klobasnek.   Both the kolache and its sibling come from the Texas Hill country around San Antonio and Austin, where Germanic and Czech immigrants settled just before the time of the Civil War.   Bakeries and meat lockers in that area sell these adapted foods of these groups including sausages and the kolaches.

UDF’s ‘sausage kolache’ comes two in a package.     They have the right sweet dough, but look more like what we would call pigs-in-a-blanket.       The difference is that pigs-in-a-blanket are usually Vienna sausages or cut hot dog bits wrapped in crescent roll dough.     What American kid didn’t grow up eating pigs-in-a-blanket?     But it’s interesting to see the fusion of Tex-Czech into Cincy-German foodways.   And who knows, maybe we’ll see a Cincy Bratwurst Klobasnek filled with Dusseldorf mustard or sauerkraut in our future.


The traditional American pig-in-a-blanket.


What’s interesting about the whole pastry wrapped sausage is that they all seem to go back to a Germanic origin.     Germany has a version they call Wurstchen im Schlafrock – literally ‘ little sausages in a bathrobe’.   Cute.   This dish was around long before the first American pigs-in-a-blanket reference shows up  in the 1957 Betty Crocker “Cookbook for Kids.”     Irma Rombauer had a recipe for “Link Sausages in Pastry” in her 1931 Joy of Cooking.   And, by the 1970s, pigs-in-a-blanket had baked its way into American cocktail party culture.


There’s also a version in Germany that’s called the geflugel sausage roll that’s more square than the Wurstchen in Schlafrock, but both are found in many train stations and street vendor carts all over Germany.   Sometimes the Wurstchen im Schlafrock has German mustard or curry ketchup, pickles, cheese or even bacon inside.


The German Wurstchen im Schlafrock (left) and geflugel sausage roll (right).

The corndog also has German roots in Texas, like the kolache and klobasnek.   The story is that the same German and Czech-Bohemian immigrants who came to Texas got lukewarm reception from the Americans on their sausages.   So they wrapped them in readily available cornmeal batter and deep fried them to make them more palatable.     The stick in the corndog came later, but the sausage-in-a-pastry concept is the same.     So corndog, sausage kolache, klobasnek, and pigs-in-a-blanket are cousins, all with a very Germanic origin.

Saveur Magazine’s recent September edition included an article on elevating the American pig-in-a-blanket.   They tried making with several different doughs – brioche (based off the French saussicon brioche), puff pastry, and croissant – but settled on the Southern buttermilk biscuit dough, with their house made sausages.

Look for more Tex-Czech fusian foods at your neighboring United Dairy Farmers market soon.


Old Aunt Nellie’s Pork Lard Biscuits



There’s no better way to relax the mind and enjoy the late summer than a drive along Kentucky’s AA highway.     It’s a very secluded drive winding up and down the hills of Campbell, Bracken, and Mason counties of Northern Kentucky.   I had that golden opportunity this past Saturday on the way to Old Washington, Kentucky, to print T-shirts for an upcoming family reunion.    There are no fast food joints at every exit on the AA like other major highways.    And the signs for little farmers markets and produce stands off the highway remind you of all the wonderful fall harvest items and dishes soon to come to the table.   As you near Maysville, Kentucky, the hilltops are bathed in bright yellow with fields of blooming sunflowers.

There are three burial sites of my mother’s family just off the AA.  I decided to stop at one of them to pay homage to her family.    I was reminded while strolling the family plot of one relative, Old Aunt Nellie Henderson.   She was my grandfather’s aunt, and I heard many stories of her as a kid.    Nellie was the sister of my great grandfather, Fredrick Gibson Ling, who was the first of his farm-raised siblings to go to college – in Chicago.   It was called ‘business school’ back then, but was more like an associate’s degree in accounting, which he used as clerk for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad offices in Newport, Kentucky.    For a young boy in his early twenties who’d never cooked for himself, who knows what kind of new food he was exposed to in the big city.   The big city lunchrooms, cafes, and speakeasies he would have seen must have been just a brave new exciting world.    I have the monogrammed leather suitcase he took with him to Chicago.   My Grandpa showed me the autograph book he had with all the great things his male classmates wrote about him when he graduated.   The ‘big city’ certainly made an impression on my great grandpa, because when he returned, he and his new wife moved to the ‘big city’ of Dayton, Kentucky, near the even bigger cities of Newport, Covington, and Cincinnati.    He spent the next 30 years raising his family, and recording freight inventory going through the area on the railroad.

But it was Aunt Nellie who stuck out in my head on this past trip.    Several years ago I had gone through my grandmother’s recipes for a legacy family cookbook I put together for a family Christmas gift.  Aunt Nellie’s biscuit recipe was one I found, among several others.     Grandma’s recipes were not the best for duplication.  Her recipes were more like notes or just suggestions of how to make a dish.  But Grandma always gave credit to the relative or publication where she found the recipe.

And Nellie’s biscuits must have been divine for my Grandmother to have snagged the recipe.       The recipe was probably the one her mother, Anna Gibson Ling, used for the family.   Anna was raised with six sisters in Suffolk, England, during the Crimean War.  Anna’s father, Cornelius Gibson, was the Land Agent at a manor house called Willingham Hall, owned by the Barnes family, and a fraction of the size of Downton Abbey.  Cornelius would have had a job similar to the character, Tom Branson, on Downton Abbey, who made all economic arrangements for the farms on the estate.

But English biscuits are known to be hard and dry. They squat on the dividing line between cracker and crisp cookie.   So, Anna probably adapted this English biscuit with which she was familiar to the country recipe with pork lard.  She might have also been instructed by farm neighbors that soft red winter wheat flour, with lower protein and gluten was the best for biscuits.   The end result – magic!

The country biscuit’s popularity on the table has to do with its versatility. There’s nothing like a biscuit as a vehicle for fresh jam, sorghum, molasses or honey.   They’re also fabulous layered with country ham or covered in white sausage gravy.   They can even transition to dessert, when covered in fresh macerated strawberries and whipped cream to become shortcake.   My grandmother made the best fresh strawberry shortcake, with her version of Nellie’s biscuit recipe.   If I close my eyes I can still smell and taste it.

Nellie was the youngest sister of my great grandpa.    And when her mother Anna Gibson Ling, died early, Nellie became the de-facto mother, cooking the meals for her three hungry brothers – Melbourne, Garrod, and Fredrick, and father, Charles an English immigrant.   Her older sister, Maud had already married Samuel White, and moved to her own farm just up the road.     Because of these family care-taking duties, Nellie married late in life, after all her brothers had married and left home.   She never had children, but was known far and wide for her cooking.    She always hosted Thanksgiving dinner for her siblings living near the farm in Carthage.    So it was Aunt Nellie’s three niece-in-laws, Mary, Virginia, and my grandma, who became the inheritors of her cooking methods and farm recipes.

I visited one of her niece-in-laws Virginia, on her farm in nearby Melbourne, Kentucky, several years ago, and she even praised Nellie’s culinary brilliance.    Virginia and her husband Elbert had been at those Thanksgiving dinner tables that Aunt Nellie prepared.   After Uncle Andy died, Nellie would walk down the hill of her farm and meet Virginia and Mary and walk with them to Church every Sunday into her late 80s, a three mile round trip.

Nellie was a teacher for Campbell County Kentucky District 21 as a young woman.  I found a Kentucky State School Annual Settlement document for teachers that showed Aunt Nellie made a salary of $74.81 for the 1897-1898 school year.    She was also very involved with the Mt. Gilead Methodist Church in Carthage, teaching Sunday school to young children.   Her famous biscuits most certainly made an appearance at church, school, and Grange Hall picnics and Sunday family dinners, which is where Grandma tasted them.

When Nellie married Andrew Henderson in 1917 she moved to his farm high on a hill off of Washington Trace, overlooking the Ohio River, and had an instant new family to cook for.    Uncle Andy’s farm was so high on the hill that my mom said Grandpa had to park at the bottom of their unpaved driveway because their car couldn’t make it up the incline whenever they visited.      Mom remembers the fresh Sunday chicken dinners they had at Aunt Nellie’s and that they had to pump all their water from an outside spring-fed well.    Grandpa would try to pay Nellie and Andrew for the farm produce they’d give them, but they wouldn’t accept money on the Sabbath.   A discourse would ensue, which resulted in Grandpa slipping money in their mailbox on the walk down the steep driveway.


A map of Carthage, Kentucky, showing the Charles Ling Farm, Aunt Nellie’s farm, Maud Ling White’s Farm, the school where Nellie taught, and the Mt Gilead Methodist Church.

The secret to Nellie’s biscuits of course was lard – cold lard as biscuit aficionados know.   And this lard was hand rendered from the fat of the heritage pigs her father Charles Ling, raised on the family’s ancestral farm.       Crisco would never duplicate the flavor of Nellie’s biscuits, and probably why the recipe fizzled out after my Grandmother.   And, because biscuits are hard to make well from scratch.   Pillsbury and other large food conglomerates made it easy to forget the handmade biscuits with their exploding premade dough in a cylinder products.


A groundbreaking ceremony in the late 1950s for the new Mt. Gilead Methodist Church – the congregation who were fed by Aunt Nellie’s biscuits.


The old Carthage Mt Gilead Methodist Church, built in 1900, now demolished, where Aunt Nellie would have served her pork lard biscuits.

The family farm would pass on to Garrod, the youngest and only son who didn’t move to the ‘big city.’    Nellie would inherit all the furniture and kitchen implements, Garrod would get the farm equipment, and buy his other siblings out to get farm. His son, Roger then inherited the farm, which continued to raise pigs.    I remember visiting his farm, with my grandparents when my brother and I were staying with them when my sister was born.   Everything on that farm smelled like pigs, even the chocolate chip cookies warm from the oven, that Roger’s wife, Mary, served us!

Aunt Nellie lived to be 88, but the legacy of her lard biscuits and her farm fresh cooking lived on in our family through my Grandmother, her niece-in-law.  I’m sure someone is still making pork lard biscuits today similar to Aunt Nellie’s on the farms of Carthage, Kentucky,


Before Instacart and AmazonFresh, there were Huckster Wagons


An early horse-drawn huckster wagon.

The web is rapidly changing how consumers get their weekly groceries. Online and app grocery delivery services are taking share away from traditional brick and mortar grocery stores.   This, at a time, when the largest Kroger retail store – larger than most Walmarts – opened less than a year ago in Oakley, on the site of a former machine tool factory.   Traditional supermarkets are biting back, offering store-supported delivery services.   Kroger has an app called Clicklist.

Actually, home delivery is nothing new. In fact, it’s where it all started, and like a big wagon wheel, we’re reverting back to our earlier days.   Only, today it’s with the help of technology.

Long before supermarkets and Walmarts there were hucksters.     These were men who peddled groceries door to door on a daily basis, fresh from the farm.     They were the mediator between the customer and the farmer.   They knew the customer’s needs, had a regular route, and offered value to the farmer who didn’t have to peddle.

Unlike the pushcart vendors in large cities – like the bagel peddler or the saurkraut peddler of New York city – hucksters carred a large variety of items.

There are still huckster ‘chuck wagons’ as we used to call them, when I worked at a chemical plant near Ivorydale.   That was because the plant didn’t have its own cafeteria.   So, the huckster would pull up with his heated and refrigerated truck to all the plants along Mitchell Avenue near Ivorydale, and sell egg burritos and the like for breakfast and come back with burgers and sandwiches for lunch.   It’s along the lines of the modern food truck concept, only there’s more variety, and they’re prepared, rather than cooked on site or to order. They’re also mobile and service a route, like the old grocery hucksters.

Some hucksters were based out of stores in town. Customers paid cash, bought on credit, or traded butter, eggs, or chickens for goods.

The huckster was a kind of consolidator of produce and poultry.   He collected in bulk from a number of small suppliers.     He even consolidated items country children foraged from the forest like mushrooms and ginseng or even rabbits.   Good hucksters carried anything that might be found in a country grocery store. And, they carried wishlists from their customers so that whenever they came in contact, they could buy or trade for that item.   Some hucksters stopped by country schoolhouses on their routes to sell snacks to the kids, who pooled their money to buy cookies.

Huckster routes existed locally as far back as the time of the Civil War.   An ancestor of mine, John Flora, was a huckster during that time.     He had his own horse-driven truck and would collect chickens from his Campbell County, Kentucky, farm neighbors, dress them, and transport them to the Cincinnati markets downtown.   Sometimes a huckster would also pick up other dry goods from the city for his farm neighbors, like a modern day Amazon. My guy, Mr. Flora, would transport church books for his local Carthage Methodist Church from the Methodist Book warehouse on Pike Street in Cincinnati, during his normal huckster route.

As motorized transportation became common, hucksters travelled even deeper into rural areas of Kentucky, often using Cincinnati-made Armleder and Schacht trucks with chain drives. Huckstering was especially important during the rationing of gasoline during World War II, which made rural people less mobile.     The practice of huckstering basically continued locally up into the 1950s, right about the time when supermarkets took off, and that became the preferred mode of shopping. Those small farmers who were formerly dependent upon the huckster used farmers markets to make up for the loss of the huckster convenience to them.


A 1930s era huckster.

We still have huckster-like home delivery and farmers markets, but now you can follow your vendors on Facebook and Twitter to know where and when they’ll be and what they’re carrying!

Ohio’s Ice Cream Innovation: The Novelty Bar

81-39-14 front Good Humor ad with girl Bolton Ad Co Youngstown.jpg

The dog days of summer make many reminisce about cooling down at the pool or at the ice cream truck with a good old ice cream bar.   There are many ice cream novelty bars. My favorite at the PRF pool of my youth were chocolate and strawberry Scooter Crunches.   Apparently, they were made by the Frecker Ice Cream Company of Columbus, Ohio.   I took for granted the genius and convenience of these delicious ice cream bars on a stick.   I also didn’t know that ice cream on a stick was invented in my home Buckeye state.   How cool is that?

Scooter Crunches, came in chocolate and strawberry shortcake, and were known as sundae bars. They are made of a core of chocolate or strawberry ice cream. Then, there is a layer of vanilla ice cream. After another thin chocolate or strawberry layer, the outside of the treat is covered in “crunchies,” which are the best part of these bars.


Christian Nelson an Onowa, Iowa, schoolteacher patented a chocolate coated ice cream bar, the Eskimo Pie, in 1922. But it was an Ohioan who invented chocolate covered ice cream on a stick – and thus the novelty ice cream bar market.   In 1920, Harry Burt, owner of a Youngstown, Ohio, ice cream parlor began tests to create a chocolate covered ice cream bar.   He used his daughter, Ruth, as a tester, and although she liked his smooth chocolate coating, she said it was too messy.   Harry’s son, suggested using a wooden stick like a lollipop, as a handle to solve the messiness issue.   So, they tested and found the stick formed a strong bond when the ice cream crystallized, and thus ice cream on a stick – the Good Humor Bar – was born.


Harry Burt, creator of the Good Humor Bar and ice cream on a stick.

Apparently Youngstown, Ohio, was a hotbed of novelty ice cream innovation.   The Klondike bar was first mentioned in 1922 in the Youngstown Vindicator as an invention William Isaly, son of Swiss immigrants, who also owned a dairy there.   In addition to the Klondike, Isaly’s sold a famous chipped ham sandwich and Skyscraper Cones.   They later partnered with Kraft Foods to distribute the bar, and Kraft knocked it off with their own, instigating huge litigation.


Burt outfitted twelve street vending trucks in Youngstown with men in white uniforms and bowties, and simple freezers and bells to sell his “Good Humor Ice Cream Suckers” in 1920.   This was the grandfather of my favorite Scooter Crunch Sundae Bars and many other novelty bars to come.   Burt applied for patents in 1922, but they were not granted until 1923 because the patent office found his creation too close to the already patented Eskimo Pie.   So, Burt visited the patent office in D.C. with samples, and they were granted – for the equipment and process to manufacture frozen ice cream novelties on a stick – not the actual product, like the Eskimo Pie.   Not patenting the actual product allowed other regional and later, larger ice cream companies, to make knockoff sundae bars, making the family tree of novelty pops like the Scooter Crunch, hard to trace.

This also presented a trade conflict when Frank Epperston began marketing frozen ice on a stick with his newly formed Popsicle Corporation in 1923.   He had originally called his accidental invention (he left out a syrupy drink with a stirring stick in the cold) the Epsicle, but his kid’s called it ‘Pop’s Sickle’, which was the name that won.   Burt saw this and sued Epperston, creating a great popsicle war, but they settled out of court. In the deal, Popsicle licensed the frozen ice and sherbet –on-a-stick market, while Burt kept exclusive rights to the ice cream, frozen custard, and other creams-on-a-stick market.


Burt passed away in 1926 and his widow, Cora, sold her interest to the Midland Food Products Company, a group of Cleveland biz execs, who changed the company name to the Good Humor Corporation of America.   They saw dollar signs and started selling Good Humor franchises across the country for a minimal $100 down payment.   Cora, smartly kept the license agreement with Popsicle.

A man named Thomas Brimer purchased a Good Humor franchise in Detroit.   When he refused the mob’s $5000 ‘protection fee’ of his ice cream trucks, they destroyed a fleet of his Chicago trucks in retaliation.     With the rule of no publicity being bad publicity, this incident helped put Good Humor on the map.

Enter the Frecker Ice Cream Company of Columbus, Ohio, in 1937. Eddie Frecker had operated a popular restaurant called the Lookout House in Grandview, Ohio, at the Grand Theater Building on High Street, near where the hipster Northstar Restaurant is today. He opened his ice cream factory and started making ice cream pops just like the Good Humor company.     All references to Scooter Crunch on the web give the Frecker company credit, saying that all others are knockoffs.   But it’s not clear that they invented the Scooter Crunch, only that they made it in their novelty ice cream plant in Columbus until recently.

So, to trace the origin of the Scooter Crunch Sundae bars is difficult.    A vintage label from the 1970s shows the Scooter Crunch brand was made at an Alabama plant of the Flav-o-Rich company of Louisville, Kentucky.   An ice skating polar bear in a knit cap and sweater was their logo.   That’s the packaging I remember from my youth swim club days.   It would be cool that the favorite ice cream bar of my youth was invented in my home state, but its spurious birth origin might never be found.


A 1970s Scooter Crunch wrapper.

Flav-o-Rich was acquired by the Blue Bell Company.   Today both Hershey’s and Greenie’s use the Scooter Crunch brand, and both Flav-o-Rich and the Frecker Ice Cream Company are gone, so it’s possible no one owns the brand exclusively.   Perry’s, Good Humor, Blue Ribbon, and Blue Bunny all make knockoffs that they call Sundae Crunch Bars. Good Humor has added a Toasted Almond Crunch Sundae bar and an Éclair Sundae Crunch Bar to their line.

I found a recipe online for a version of the Scooter Crunch Strawberry Bar that uses freeze dried, crushed strawberries for the crunchies. Let’ see if I can recreate the flavor of my summer youth!


Kid Bakers and Domestic Science


I’m amazed at the amount of kids cooking shows on the food networks these days.     There’s Chopped Jr., the Next Food Network Star – Kids, Rachel Ray’s Kid’s Cook off, the Kid’s Baking Championship (a fave of mine).   Even kitchen bully Gordon Ramsey has a Master Chef Jr. show.   Those kids have to have thick skins to deal with Chef Ramsey’s fire breathing commentary!

And locally there are tons of Summer Cooking Camps for kids and cooking classes at places like Farmers’ Markets, Cake Supply Stores, and even the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State.

It shouldn’t be surprising there are so many kid cooks in the kitchen.     Kids have been helping mothers bake and cook since the dawn of time – acting as sous chefs, icers, decorators – and observing over their mothers’ and grandmothers’ shoulders.   I wish I had done more over the shoulder observing with my grandmothers growing up.   Kids are quick students.   And why shouldn’t cooking be part of their early education as much as reading, writing and arithmetic?

Four H Clubs and state and regional fairs have sponsored pie and baking competitions for kids since the Civil War.     Even the Cincinnati Public Schools were teaching Home Economics to preteens and teenage girls in school over a century ago. Their cooking coursework was more involved at the turn of the last century, than any teenager could imagine today.

I recently found the 1907 Cincinnati Public Schools Domestic Science coursebook, owned by one teenage girl, Louise Smedley, at the Ohio Bookstore downtown.   They have an incredible section of vintage cookbooks that are a gold mine to food historians.   Louise’s teacher was a Mrs. Roberts, whose recipe for Welsh Rarebit was noted in the margin of one page.      Imagine a time before modern refrigeration, microwaves, gas fired stoves, running water (in most cases), frozen and canned foods, supermarkets, and electric appliances.   These girls were taught complex methods, like how to make soup stocks, how to cook tough meats, and the difference between spring and winter wheat and how it affected the bake (spring wheat being higher in gluten, for more elastic bread dough).       With Cincinnati being an oyster town back then, the course described how to prepare oysters five different ways.   There were recipes for the obligatory cream puff, and a German coffee bread.


The huge difference today is that kid cooks have exposure to more exotic ingredients, advanced techniques, and modern flavor pairings than ever before.   One kid, Liam, on the Next Food Network Star show made a Persian breakfast dish from his family that no one could pronounce, called shakshuka, which, unless you were part of that community, you would never be exposed to. Now ten year olds can articulate how to make a Persian dish. This fosters a level of engagement and understanding of cultures that we adults don’t have.     As our country gets more and more ‘pluribus’ or diverse, this becomes the new diplomacy, bridging the cultural gap.

I had the great opportunity to sample the baked goods of one of these new age kid cooks. My sister’s next door neighbors have a daughter who is baking cupcakes in all sorts of varieties.   During a recent family party, Marleigh brought over a plate of her bacon vanilla cupcakes for us to enjoy.   At her young age Marleigh knows the magic of pairing unique flavors – mixing the salty and sweet, the savory and creamy.     Her knowledge and technique are way beyond her years.   The bacon was perfectly crispy and just the right size on top of her well-iced and decadent cake.   Marleigh’s cupcakes could stand at any high end New York City cake shop. I hear she just produced a batch of s’mores cupcakes, and I can’t wait to sample her next brilliant creation!


Hidden in Plain Sight: Old Restaurant Architecture – North College Hill Edition


Over the weekend I had a cousin’s meetup to plan our upcoming family reunion.     The restaurant where we chose to meet was near my father’s childhood home.   So, for a bit of personal reminiscence, I drove by what I knew of as Grandma’s house and explored her North College Hill neighborhood.     The neighborhood has undergone some changes in the 25 years since we sold her house. But, there are still a lot of architectural remnants of the past. Interestingly enough, a lot of them are food related.

As a fan of preservation, and adaptive reuse, it’s fun to explore old neighborhoods to discover original uses of adapted buildings.  There are a lot of those adapted buildings in the old neighborhood, many hidden in plain sight.

My paternal grandparents built their house on Betts Avenue in North College Hill in 1928, just before the Great Depression, with three young kids under the age of 5.   It was a modest, but modern house – indoor plumbing, a modern coal furnace, two bedrooms, and a phone line.     With the help of a brother-in-law who needed a job, my grandfather built another modern convenience, a garage, for their Model A Ford.

Businesses quickly popped up around them to service this new influx of young, aspiring, middle class families.   But a lot of those business are now gone. Even the old Catholic school, St. Margaret Mary, where habited nuns tormented my father and his siblings, is now consolidated with three other parish schools.

The oldest surviving business is the North College Hill Bakery, built and opened in 1933.  The growing neighborhood needed a good source of bread.    And, when my young father and his classmates were let out of daily morning mass, it was where they got a pastry to break their fast before running back to their first class. The bakery is still going gangbusters – with longtime customers and young new arrivals lining up to buy their sweet delicacies.   Its architecture harkens back to the art deco era, with streamlined, polished metallic flashing, and a sign with a portly cartoon baker holding a cake.   What looks like the original sign, with a loaf of bread logo, still hangs from the original front facade.    When I stepped in to observe and smell, I was shoulder to shoulder with customers, all getting their large bakery orders for the weekend.   A special on Butter Krust bread had brought in a lot of customers.   I bought a half loaf of their onion rye, which was fantastic – there’s nothing better than bakery bread.


On the corner a block away from Grandma’s house was Wilson’s corner grocery and meat market. This was where Dad would stop on his walk home from school to pick up the dinner meat order for my Grandma.   It was where Grandpa got his Hamilton and Leona metts, and his favorite Fresca soft drink.   Before large refrigerators were common, most folks went to the meat market on a daily basis.   Now it’s a two family rental, but its architecture stands out in a street of one and a half story family houses.   It’s clear that the first floor aluminum siding is covering up an original storefront. The centered door and flanking showcase windows also point out at one time a sign with the store name hung over it.


The old corner grocery store on Betts Avenue.

As the children of the 1930s home builders grew into high school and dating age, the fast food burger craze hit North College Hill.     There’s an architectural clue to one of these long gone burger joints around the corner on Goodman and Hamilton Avenue.     On that corner a very prominent barn like structure now houses a drive-up dry cleaners. But during the fifties and sixties it housed a fast food burger joint called Red Barn, that had a couple of locations throughout Cincinnati.   For a quarter in the fifties you could get their Big Barney double decker burger, a Big Boy knockoff, and eat it in your car there at the carhop.

One historic sign from a long operating business, Budna Bar and Grill, no longer lights West Galbraith Road. The neon sign that once greeted patrons is now preserved as part of the display of local businesses at the Sign Museum in Camp Washington.   Built in 1928 as a car dealership, it became the Budna Bar & Grill in 1939, under the ownership of Bud Schlewinsky, the name a combo of he and his wife Edna’s names.   It had a good run and became Van Zandt’s Restaurant in 2008, and then became Swad Indian Restaurant in 2014.   Grandma would certainly not recognize vindaloo or tandoori.

I also remember the sign of a long gone local pizza joint, Germantown Pizza, that was also on West Galbraith.   Grandma used to stop there on Sundays after mass for a coffee and a piece of their fantastic cheesecake.     Their St. Bernard location, also gone, was a high school haunt for me.


The Angry Kraut logo of Germantown Pizza.

Many old Cincinnati neighborhoods have similar hidden food architecture like North College Hill, that house the stories of restaurants gone by.