Of Restaurant Pyrotechnics and Tableside Gimmicks


A recent Friday visit to Purple Poulet, a relatively new restaurant in Dayton, Kentucky sparked a debate over restaurant service gimmicks.     Purple Poulet is an unexpectedly fantastic Low Country (South Carolina and Georgia) restaurant with the twist of Kentucky bourbon flavors.   I think they are fantastic from design to taste. I had their salmon perloo (think of South Carolina version of jambalaya) and their Redneck Oysters Rockefeller (think the regular version with country ham and pimento cheese added ) – both of which were out of this world. The flavors were deep and intense and everything was executed perfectly.


The chef/owner of Purple Poulet used to chef at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Quality Inn in Covington Kentucky.   He carried one of his service tricks with him. At the revolving restaurant they used to serve a small shot glass size of lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser in the early 80s. At Poulet, they served us a little shot of raspberry sorbet between app and entrée.   I thought it was cool, unexpected and even practical. It certainly says, “Get ready for some intense flavors coming up. Here, take this, on us, to ready your palate for the excitement to come!”


But this brought discussion as to whether the palate cleansing sorbet is an out of date gimmick, inappropriate in today’s dining.  Marketing success in America is certainly not dependent on restrained good taste.   Some may think these gimmicks are akin to roadside attractions or car salesmanship.   Do people really complain about being given something unexpected for free in the course of a meal?


The debate brought up other service tricks.       Is the tableside mixed Caeser salad out of place and an unneccesary expense?   What about any pyrotechnics like bananas flambee, cherries jubilee, desserts with sparklers, or flaming drinks like a Café Brulot?   Should these have been left with the Kennedy administration when they were initiated?  Also in this category are tableside fileting of whole fish like they do at Anchor OTR.    How about table made guacamole or table carved roast beef?


We can thank Joe Baum for over-the-top tableside pyrotechnics in restaurants. He was the idea guy with Restaurant Concepts who created the $ 4 ½ million Four Seasons in NYC in 1959, and The Forum at Caesar’s in Las Vegas.      With all the pomp and circumstance and ‘power dining’ aspect of the Four Seasons, they barely squeezed out a profit.   It was the touristy, themed Italian restaurant, Mama Leone’s,  that was the most profitable for Restaurant Associates.



Remember shortly after the 2008 recession how some Mexican restaurants started charging for the second or even first basket of previously free tortilla chips and salsa? What if all Cincinnati chili parlors started charging for the all-you-can eat bowls of oyster crackers.   There’d be a chili revolution.


Who can forget the famous free relish tray at Shuller’s Wigwam on Hamilton Avenue, that came with dark rye bread and pickled herring?   Is the free cotton candy at the end of the meal at Metrople downtown an unnecessary gimmick?   We’ve evolved away from personalized matchbooks and cocktail stirrers, but that’s largely because of the nonsmoking requirements at most restaurants.   But these were also good ways to strengthen your brand.


When I was a kid Frisch’s used to spike their children’s grilled cheese sandwiches with cool little plastic giraffes or monkeys.     When they stopped using these, did the taste of their grilled cheese go downhill? Well, not necessarily, but it did send a message that some of the fun was taken away.    The main reason for removing these was probably one of child choke safety and liability, but still, the adder was significant and remembered.   It’s no surprise that the McDonald’s Happy Meal  remains very popular today


Are these just spectacles that take away any reasonable appreciation of the food? Or is there value to these bringing comfort to those of us who remember them in their heyday.   Have we evolved to a new level of dining where fresh, seasonal, and artisanal outweighs show and entertainment?   That might be pretty boring. If we stripped everything dramatic or unexpected out of service, why wouldn’t we all just eat at home or go to a vending machine?

I think it really comes down to attitude and intent. If a server is rolling their eyes and looking around the room while mixing a Caesar salad, rather than being present, then the affect is certainly lost.    But with presence and engagement, these service aspects make the diner feel special.   They send a strong message that the staff views you, the diner, as more than just another customer to serve.   And, it makes eating out just a bit more fun.


German Bake Ovens of Over-the-Rhine

The basement brick bread oven of German baker,  Georg J. Schmitthenner,  at 1527 Elm Street.  Photo by Jim Uber.

One of the cool things about all the renovation happening in Over-the-Rhine, is finding the artifacts left behind in the mostly vacant buildings.     One amazing artifact several renovators have found are these great basement brick ovens made by the German bakers of the neighborhood.   Some have been lost with their buildings, like the ones found at 1302 Republic, and 12 E. 13th Street.   But one at 1527 Elm Street was recently found in the basement of a 30 year vacant building that has now received historic tax credits to be renovated.

Some of the new OTR restaurants like A Tavola and Sotto have spent tens of thousands of dollars installing new wood fired ovens.  They realize the beautiful products these ovens make, the kind that the working class Germans of Over-the-Rhine were eating every day.

What’s great about this one is its owner, builder and operator, Georg  Johann Schmitthenner Sr.  was the proverbial German joiner.  One of his clubs, the German Pioneer Association ,  printed his picture and a biography in 1904.   So in Georg’s case, his brick oven talks to us and tells a wonderful story about German breadmaking and life in nineteenth century Over-the-Rhine.

Georg was born in May of 1834 in a spa town called Bad Bergzabern, in the Rhineland, Pfalz.   The town is on what’s called the Sudliche Winestrasse on the German Wine Route near the border of France, on the southeastern edge of the Palatinate Forest.     Here as a young man, Georg learned the bakers trade, from an area rich in bread baking history, particularly rye bread.


In April of 1853, he boarded a ship from Havre de Grace and landed in New York.  One month later he came to Cincinnati.    He was helped by an older German immigrant Lorenz Fox, who ran a boardinghouse for newcomers, and would co-own his family’s burial plot at the Walnut Hills German Protestant cemetery.    In 1864, with a Mr. Humbert, Georg started a bakery at what was then 25 Elder Street (which probably still has a basement oven), and then in 1873 built a four story brick building, with his first floor bakery at 1527 Elm.


Georg J. Schmitthenner’s 1873 bakery building under renovation at 1527 Elm.

Georg’s passport application in 1867 (probably to go home and sell other family members to immigrate) describes him as a short 5’6″,  with sandy hair, oval face, blue-gray eyes, and ‘a rather large nose.’       His biography says his intent was to quietly settle down, living over the new bakery, but it didn’t last long.  He married another Pfalz immigrant, Barbara Wolf, and had six kids – Georg Jr, Johanna, Lizzeta, Louisa, Friedrick, and Laura.    Also living with them were four of his siblings – he had a brother Michael, who would have his own bakery in the West End at 191 Freeman, and a sister Amelia, who would support herself as a single lady as a tailoress.

Georg’s hometown, Bad Bergzabern has a wonderful bread legacy.  The Rhineland Pfalz is known for its roggenbrot or rye breads and roggenmischbrot, or rye-wheat blend breads.   There are popular versions with sunflower (sonnenblumenkernbrot) and pumpkin seeds (kurbiskernbrot) too.     There is one bread native to the town Bad Bergzabern, which is a 60/40 rye to wheat flour mix.   There’s another native round dark rye bread, Pfalzer Bauernbrot, made with a mix of potato, wheat, and rye.  Another local dark bread, Pfalzer Landbrot is an 80/20 mix of spelt to rye flour.      Imagine Georg making all these wonderful , healthy whole grain, fresh breads every day for his neighbors that they might have served with their native sauerbraten, or dipped in their turtle soups.


Roggenmischbrot, rye-wheat bread of Rhineland Pfalz.


Bauernbrot.jpgPfalzer Bauernbrot.



Pfalzer Landbrot, a dense dark rye -wheat bread.

A Rhineland Pfalz baker, Gunther Weber, has come out with a book “Gut Brot,” in which he describes his artisanal wood fired bread making, the way our Georg Schmitthenner would have made them in his basement oven.



Rhineland-Pfalz traditional baker Gunther Weber, who uses brick oven baking like Georg Schmitthenner of Over-the-Rhine.

Like many other Cincinnati German bakers, Georg was a singing baker, a longtime member of the German Pioneer Sangerchor.  His brother Michael also was a member of a singing society, and Michael’s son George M. was a voice teacher in Covington.     So baking and singing went together in the Schmitthenner family. George Sr. was a lifelong member of St. John’s German Protestant Church on Washington Park (now the Transept events center), and a member of the German Orphans Beneficial Society.

In 1891, like many successful Germans of OTR, George moved his large family to Clifton, building two – two and a half story brick houses on the east side of Bishop Street, with help from German architect Anton Rieg, costing him a whopping $8730.

Georg operated the bakery until his death in 1904.  Sadly none of his sons took to the trade. His oldest George Jr became a lithographer at Donaldson Lithography in Newport, and worked there in the early teens, the same time my great grandfather John Muchorowski operated their four color press.     The siblings continued to live in the Bishop street houses after their parents died, and their father’s basement brick oven stayed at 1527 Elm Street to tell the story over a hundred years later of German breadmaking in Over-the-Rhine.






It’s Not a Cincy Party Without Bavarian Party Dip!!


The ‘classy version’ of Bavarian Party Dip, with sliced pimento olives.

If you were raised in the 70s and 80s in Greater Cincinnati, you know there are three party dips that you could expect to find at any ‘good party.’       They were, in no particular order, Hanky Panky, Cincinnati Chili Dip, and Bavarian Dip.     Many regional church cookbooks had recipes for all three in the section, “Fancy Appetizers.”   All three integrate a creamy cheese for which Cincinnatians have had a long love affair. Hanky Panks are still being recycled and updated, even in some new restaurants like Rookwood Pottery in Mt. Adams.     And Cincinnati Chili Dip never goes out of style – I just made it for a family reunion.

But the Bavarian dip deserves a bit of discussion.   It’s no longer as common as the other two, but it’s just as important in our culinary party dip lexicon.   Its rarity is probably because it’s anything but a diet food, maybe because of the unpopularity of anything pork liver.   It’s another easy dip to make, and it’s a huge bang for the buck.     It’s simply a mixing of grated sweet onions, a tube of Kahn’s Brauschweiger and cream cheese.    Some recipes add black pepper or a few dashes of Worchestershire. Now a classy version of this is not just mixed and served in a dipping bowl, but molded in the round and covered with sliced pimento olives and served on a nice platter with Ritz crackers.    It still has the creamy, pork-livery goodness of Braunschweiger, but it’s taken up a few notches with the cream cheese, onions, pepper, and the olives.

If you didn’t grow up in a Germanic family where sliced braunschweiger and onion sandwiches weren’t common, then you deserve a bit of background. Braunschweiger could be called the German foie gras, except that it’s made with pork instead of goose liver. It’s a delicious minced pork meat and pork liver concoction seasoned with onions and spices and squeezed into a tube like a sausage, before poaching it until cooked.   It’s pinkish and sliceable, and most who eat it tend to like a medium thick slice.   Many local recipes incorrectly called local Kahn’s Braunschweiger chicken liver pate, but it’s really all pork.   Apparently many were confused with the Jewish version, which did use chicken liver instead of pork to adhere to Kosher laws, and used a layer of schmaltz on top as a preservative. Liverwurst, a close cousin to braunschweiger, has more liver and is made spreadable by adding non-fat dry milk or potato starch.

Now here’s where German-American history adds to the discussion of the dish. Named after a town in Northern Germany, Braunschweig, our fave local pork liver pate has been around for a while.   A trivia fact is that Braunschweig is about 45 minute drive from the birthplace of the licorice flavored liquor Jaegermeister in Wolfenbuttel. The town is a modern town that’s reinvented itself, but also kept its charming historic town center. In the old Braunschweig, you can wind through narrow cobblestone avenues, with little bierstube’s where you can get a bite, a beer, and cheer on the local fussball team.   There’s also one of the best steakhouses in Germany, called Ox, which I can attest is fabulous.     They do not serve Braunschweiger there.

So why would we name a party dip after a region, Bavaria, which is on the complete opposite end of Germany from the region the main ingredient, Braunschweiger, was named?     It would be like saying Minnesota Clam Chowder, rather than New England.

Well, in the 70s in America we were just recovering German-American pride from the effects of World War II.     The first Oktoberfest Zinzinnati was held in 1976, and the first German American Day was celebrated in 1986.   This was after our local German Lebensmensch Dr. Heinrich Tolzmann urged President Ronald Reagan to institute German-American Day.

As part of the resurgence of German American pride, there was still the need to disconnect that heritage from the connotations with World War II.   What better way than to feature all German-ness as Bavarian. After all, Bavarians are some of the most frolicky, fun loving, brand of Germans.   They were also the most recognizable to most Americans. They even had their own charming historic costumes – dirndles and lederhosen.   How could anyone harbor inhibitions with polka dancing, lager drinking, sausage eating, strudel chomping, happy Bavarians?

Kahn’s, founded in Cincinnati’s West End by Elias Kahn in 1882, are the guilty ones for this Bavarianization of Braunschweiger.    Herr Kahn immigrated from Albersweiler, in Germany’s Rhenish Palatinate in 1880, and his family ran the business until his grandson it to Consolidated Foods in 1966.   Consolidated Foods eventually became Sarah Lee, who took the German and the Cincinnati out of Kahn’s products to appeal to a wider national market.   Kahn’s introduced the Bavarian brand of Braunschweiger before the sale in 1966, and put the party dip recipe on the back that made it into so many regional cookbooks.    In 1971, Kahn’s even came out with a Braunschweiger Recipe booklet that I would love to find a copy of.   I wonder if there was a dessert section.

And thus everything German became Bavarian – even if it really wasn’t Bavarian at all – even the dip named after a northernmost town, Braunschwieger.

The Abridged History of Chinese Food In Cincinnati


The Wong Yie family portrait from Greg Hand’s Cincinnati Curiosities blog.


Yesterday I wrote about the San Francisco Mandarin Restaurant’s influence on Chinese food in America.   Today, I honor the pioneers of Chinese food in Cincinnati.


Chinese food, in Cantonese form of ‘Chop Suey Houses’, had made it to Cincinnati by 1900.   The 1907 Cincinnati Enquirer reported 10 such chop suey houses, in less desirable neighborhoods, catering to a diverse working class clientele.   A revolution against the Quing dynasty was the reason for Cantonese immigration, and the entire Chinese community in Cincinnati in 1920 was from Canton, numbering under 20. This was small compared to other communities like Dayton, which had over 150 at the same time.   All were men and worked in either laundries or restaurants.

Chop suey is said to have been introduced to the U.S.  by  the chef of a Chinese envoy headed by Li Hongzhang, and served at a banquet in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in 1896.  It was called in the papers ‘chow chop suey’ an approximation of the Cantonese dish ‘chao zasui,’ a dish of stir fried animal intestines with vegetables.    It was called ‘chop soy’ in Cincinnati.    This 1896 event created a chop suey craze that lasted until the 1940s.

Although he wasn’t the first, Wong Yie (1875-1926) was the first proprietor to take Cantonese-Chinese food out of the Cincinnati ‘underworld’ and into the elite as an exotic dining affair.   Not only the dishes, but the queer method of eating with chopsticks, was comical and interesting to elites who came to experience this new cuisine.


He had come to Cincinnati via Harvard, to help his cousin Wong Kee run a restaurant in Cincy. Wong Yie was manager of a restaurant called the Golden Dragon at Sixth and Walnut, from 1900-1914, owned by a man called “Shanghai Lou.”  Then in 1922 he renovated the second floor of a building at 28 east 6th street and Main in the Washington Bank Building.     By 1926 it had become Wong Yie’s Famous Restaurant. His restaurant was large, clean and exotic – with large red Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling, ‘tastefully decorated.’


Menu items at Wong Yie’s in 1922 were chow mein, yoco mein (or Yaka Mein – a type of beef noodle soup), chicken foo young, and chop suey.


What put Wong Yie ahead of the other Chop Suey houses was his panache for making the headlines. He was educated and articulate, and spoke in public in front of groups like the Advertising Club. As such, Wong Yie became the spokesperson for his community. He hosted many Chinese New Year’s parties at the restaurant, throwing a big one in 1912 to celebrate the birth of the Republic of China that year. In 1914, Wong Yie and his wife Lee Mon, celebrated the birth of their daughter, Wong Gut Ting, the first Chinese-American born in Cincinnati.


Wong Yie’s became the de facto meeting spot for groups like the Kiwanis Club, the City Club and numerous Women’s Auxiliary clubs. After Wong Yie’s death in 1926 his wife and children – daughters Ping and Ting, and son, Lan – took over the restaurant, running it into the 1960s, and paving the way for other Chinese restaurants in Cincinnati.


It wasn’t until 1975 that Szechuan food first came to Cincinnati. It was Thomas Li, who opened the Yum Yum restaurant on Race Street.   He billed the Yum Yum from the beginning as offering exclusively authentic Hunan-Szechuan spicy foods – ‘the favorite of Chinese emperors’, just as Celia Chang had marketed her Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco in 1961.   One of the earliest dishes they promoted was their “Three-Fresh” – pork, shrimp, and abalone (a type of snail) cooked with mushrooms and bamboo shoots, along with Ding Dong Chicken, a spicy Szechuan dish they still serve today.     Yum Yum remains one of the oldest continually operating Chinese restaurants today, outliving the adult bookstore next to them.

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The Yum Yum Restaurant and their Ding Dong Chicken signature dish.


Shortly after Yum Yum’s opening in 1977, two brothers Larry and Bing Moy, opened respectively China Moon in Montgomery, and then China Gourmet in Hyde Park.    China Moon became well known for their fantastic Dim Sum on Sundays.   This was where I first tasted tripe with a Chinese friend in grad school.   China Gourmet took direction from the Mandarin in offering high end, non-kitchy Chinese food of Northern China – Hunan and Szechuan, while also offering higher end Cantonese food with which Americans were familiar.   They even have a signature dish – squab lettuce wraps – that’s a direct steal from Mandarin’s dish.


Today most Chinese restaurants are adding Vietnamese, Korean, and even sushi their menus to get a piece of the Asian fusian explosion.   A new Szechuan restaurant, Sichuan Chili is getting rave reviews in Evendale.




The Accident that Spawned the Potsticker and America’s Two Most Popular Chinese Chains



Sometimes we ask the question – what is America’s most popular food? If we’re to judge this by sheer numbers, it’s Chinese food.   There are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America – that’s more than the three largest chains – McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King – combined.    But when we say Chinese – what do we really mean? The food in China is as diverse as it is from North to South in America.   And, what we eat as Chinese food is very different, even unknown, to most Chinese.


The two most recognizable Chinese chains across the country are P.F. Changs, with over 200 locations, and Panda Express, at over 1900 locations.  I had the golden opportunity a year ago in Dallas, Texas, to hear Peggy Cherng, CEO of Panda Express (who’s actually Burmese) talk about what has made her chain so successful.   One of those points is a commitment to quality, and a focus on education.   That mission statement stems from the family connection to one dynamic woman.


Chinese, or should I say Americanized-Cantonese food, has been in America since the California Gold Rush of the 1850s.   Chop Suey houses were popular from the 1880s into the 1920s.   Cincinnati had several as early as the 1910s, all considered seedy and inappropriate for higher class diners.     Chow Mein, chop suey’s lagging cousin, has been popular almost as long.    Items like General Tso’s chicken and Mongolian beef, which are as made up American dishes as the first two, are on almost every modern Chinese menu.


But the difference with the two largest chains are a break from the forumulaic Cantonese based menus, where owners can add and subtract from a list of several hundred standard Chinese-American dishes.


We have one very strong and entrepreneurial woman to thank for this. Her name is Sun Yun “Celia” Chiang.     Celia was born in 1920 Shanghai to an aristocratic family, and raised in Beijing in a 52 room mansion with 11 siblings. She is often called the Julia Child of Chinese cooking and is famous for introducing the now ubiquitous potsticker, as well as hot and sour soup.


Celia Chiang, founder of the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco.


Her early life was marred with tragedy. She escaped Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1942, with a sister, walking several weeks to Chongquing, where she married her husband.   She and her husband escaped the Communist Revolution in 1949, landing in Tokyo, Japan.       Her family that stayed behind were treated poorly – her parents died poor, one brother died in a labor camp, others were killed by Communist soldiers, and a sister committed suicide.


Facing the knowledge of her family’s dire situation back home, and living with the people who were responsible for her exile in early life, she tried to make a go at life in Japan.   She opened a 250 seat restaurant there called the Forbidden City, with other relatives who had escaped Communist China.  It offered banquet style Chinese cuisine, and was popular with Americans.


In 1960, she visited a sister Sun Sun (Sophia) in San Francisco, whose husband had recently died of cancer.   In visiting Chinatown, Celia accidentally ran into two women she knew from Tokyo, trying to open a restaurant. They asked her to invest, which she did.   But after they backed out, and she had already placed a non-refundable $10,000 deposit on a space, she decided to open a restaurant rather than go home and explain to her husband the failure.   She called her restaurant, the Mandarin.


At the time, non-Chinese Americans in the San Fran had no exposure to authentic Northern Chinese cuisine, Peking-Shandong and Sichuan-Hunan, specialties favored by the Mandarin ruling class.   Americans were familiar with only the Americanized Cantonese cuisine- like chop suey and chow mein – dishes bulked up with hunks of celery, bamboo shoots, and carrots – the cheapest ingredients that you could find.


Convinced that San Fran’ers would enjoy Northern Chinese dishes, but unsure what would appeal to them, she initially listed more than 200 dishes on the menu.    She also shunned the common kitchy elements of American Chinese restaurant decor,   filling her space with the opulence of the Ming dynasty palace where she grew up.   A few years later, Celia upgraded her location to the newly renovated Ghiraradelli Square, where she shaped Chinese food in America.


After moving south to Beverly Hills to open another Mandarin location, Celia’s son, Phillip Chiang in 1993 teamed up with Paul Fleming, to open P.F. Chang’s. They were the first multi-unit concept in the U.S. to make wok cooking the center of the guest experience, with moderate prices, in the atmosphere of an upscale steakhouse.   They now feature a Farm-to-Wok menu highlighting their scratch cooking methods and freshly chopped ingredients.   The carb-conscious lettuce wraps are an offshoot of his mother’s minced squab in iceberg lettuce dish, an original menu item from the Mandarin.


Celia’s chef at Forbidden City, back in Tokyo, Ming Tsai Cherng started Panda Inn in Pasadena, California, in 1973, with his son Andrew, featuring the Mandarin and Szechuan cuisine of Forbidden City and Mandarin.  Then, in 1983, they opened the Panda Express in Glendale, California, that is the model for its chains today.


Celia sold the Mandarin in 1991, and without her at the head, closed in 2006.   But Celia Chiang, at 95 is still working as a restaurant consultant with the same passion and vigor she had when she first opened the Mandarin.   Chiang was recognized for her influence in 2013 by receiving the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award.   And, backed by P.F. Chang’s, Celia is launching a 6 part PBS cooking show, called Kitchen Wisdom of Celia Chiang.

Franken-Food Commonality: German and Vietnamese Love for Two Forced Meats


Pho Lang Thang’s Dac Biet Bahn Mi, or the ‘special.’


A German and a Vietnamese man get a sandwich….   Sounds like the beginning to a bar joke, right?   Well, it’s not.   The German and Vietnamese share a love of two forced meats – head cheese and pork liver pate.    It sounds like a super weird pairing to have in common, but they do – and both use them in sandwiches.


The Vietnamese call their head cheese gio thu, while the Germans call it schwartenmagen.    And the Vietnamese call their pork liver pate bahn mi pate gan, while the Germans call it braunschweiger.   Gio thu is made in a similar fashion to headcheese – meat from the pig’s head, including the tongue, snout, eyes, and ears.     The pork liver pate is maybe a bit more garlicky than the German brauschweiger.


A closeup of Gio Thu, Vietnamese headcheese.


The Vietnamese combine the two into a dagwood type sandwich called the Dac Biet – a type of Bahn Mi sandwich that translates into ‘the special.’    In the Dac Biet sandwich, the Vienamese put the gio thu and bahn mi pate gan on a crisp French baguette with pickled vegetables, jalapenos, fish sauce, and mayonnaise.


The Germans use the pate and head cheese along with other cold cuts and nestle them in a smaller, but equally as tasty bun called a brötchen, with cucumber or pickled veggies.    This is something you would see at a German breakfast bar at a hotel or for a light lunch spread – something like you’d see on the Belegte Brötchen or Brotzeitteller plates at Katharina’s in Newport, Kentucky  (soon to re-open with new beer garden).    The Germans would typically eat the brötchen as a breakfast or light midday meal, while the Vietnamese make a hearty meal out of the Doc Biet bahn mi.


Really the only difference between the two sandwiches is that the Vietnamese version has more spice than the German version with the jalapeno, and also has more umami flavor with its fish sauce.


In downtown Cincy, there are two good Vietnamese restaurants where you can get the Dac Biet – Pho Lang Thang, at Findlay Market, and Let’s Pho at Court Street.   The first makes their own gio thu, but the second doesn’t include the head cheese/gio thu on their Dac Biet for some reason.

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The window of Pho Lang Thang in Cincinnati’s historic Findlay Market.


Pho Lang Thang’s Dac Biet packs a punch with a layering of this Gio Thu (headcheese), garlicky pork liver pate, Cha Lua (steamed pork sausage), and Xa Xiu (Chinese barbecued pork).     What makes the Banh Mi so tasty is the crunchy veggies that go with the meats – cucumbers, jalapeno, pickled carrots, daikon radish, and fresh cilantro.   All this gets layered on a wonderful baguette and slathered with mayo, fish sauce, chili sauce, or whatever condiment you like.

The Dac Biet was born in and around the city of Saigon.     Locals recall seeing it on the streets around the early 1940s in Saigon.   The makeup of this sandwich – the baguette, the condiments and the meats are the legacy of French and Chinese colonialism, but the sandwich itself is fully Viet.     Adopting and reimagining foreign foods is central to Vietnamese cuisine.   The bahn mi melds East and West, in its juxtaposition of ingredients.

You’d think with the French influence in Viet cooking, they’d use foie gras, a goose liver pate, rather than the pork liver version.   But in Vietnam, just as in most of Germany, the pig is sacred.   It was used as a dowry gift at weddings, and plays a central role in the Vietnamese New Year Celebration.

Now whole roasted pigs are often served at engagement ceremonies and other celebrations.   At the feast of Tet – the Viet celebration of the New Year – slices of Gio Thu are dipped in chili paste or soy sauce.

Maybe there’s a sauerkraut laden version of a Banh mi-brötchen that we will see in the near future!

Camp Springs – A New Kentucky Wine Destination


12 Mile – Oakland Schoolhouse 2016 harvest of Cayuga grapes.


This past weekend was the 10th Annual Herbst Tour of Camp Springs Kentucky.   Camp Springs is a not-so-well-known historical gem in Northern Kentucky.   Founded in the 1840s by German, Swiss, and Austrian immigrants, its hills are nestled with German vernacular fieldstone houses built before the Civil War and unique to our area and the country.   Most of the residents there today are fourth and later generation descendants of the original founders.

Rhinelanders who immigrated to Camp Springs grew grapes on the hillsides, making their own wine, and supplying the large Cincinnati winehouses of Nicholas Longworth, which made Sparkling Catawba wine.   Other Cincinnati hillside communities – with German immigrants – of Sweet Wine, Columbia-Tusculum, California, Delhi, and Lick Run, also supplied grapes to Longworth. After phyloxera blight killed off many of the vines during the Civil War, and after Nicholas Longworth died in 1863, the local wine industry fell apart.   The Longworth Winehouses were converted into a brewery and then a cottonseed oil factory.   Many of the Camp Springs wine producers converted their farms to tobacco and livestock or dairy farms.

Fast forward 150 years, and now winemaking is coming back to the region.     Three families are bringing back the centuries old heritage of winemaking to the hills of Camp Springs.   At this year’s Herbst tour, a third family of Sandy and Steve Scott, is starting their winery, in a 1913 two room schoolhouse called the 12 Mile – Oakland School.    Steve’s father Walter, was actually a student there.   With help from the University of Kentucky Agriculture Department, the Scotts have planted several acres of what are called Cayuga grapes.   This is a grape that is very tolerant of the up and down temperatures of our finicky weather region.     The grape is a hybrid of Schuler and Seyvant blanc grapes, developed in the Finger Lakes region of New York.   It produces Riesling type flavors and good acid, balance, and aroma.

They’ve also planted a new red hybrid, the Noiret, also developed in the Finger Lakes region by Cornell University, which is also tolerant of the up and down temperatures of the region.  One of the grapes that it stems from is the Catawba grape, which was the main grape grown in our region back in wine producing days.   Wines made from the Noiret have overtones of green and black pepper, along with fruity notes of raspberry, blackberry, and even some mint. They also have a good tannin structure, with the absence of any hybrid aromas.   The other cool thing about Noiret is that it is suitable for making Port. Imagine a Camp Springs Kentucky port – maybe call it Steinbauer – German for stone mason, after the area’s heritage.  How great would that be?

The Scotts have harvested their first round of Cayuga grapes and sold to Seven Wells, another Kentucky winery just down the road in Grant’s Lick.   With the next harvest, they hope to make into their own wines.   Once they renovate the schoolhouse, they plan to add on a full kitchen off the back of the structure to serve food and handle receptions.   In talking with Sandy on the tour, they’d like to come up with a specific brand or style of wine indicative of the area that they came promote as a Camp Springs Wine Region.   I think it makes brilliant sense.

The other two wineries are Camp Springs Winery, opened in 2009, and Stonebrook Winery, opened in 2005. Camp Springs Winery make Cab Franc, Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin, and Merlot varieties.   They also have a kitchen that provide Saturday dinners by a Midwest Culinary Institute chef, Carlye Hopper, which are supposed to be out of this world.   Stonebrook is operated by the Walter family who renovated an 1890 farmhouse owned by the Kool family, for their tasting facility.   Their operation focuses on the vidal blanc and cab franc varieties only.

I think Camp Springs is sitting on a gold mine of opportunity in creating a Campbell County wine region.  They have a unique opportunity to offer heritage tourism, winetasting, and a unique culinary experience in a beautiful setting only minutes from Cincinnati.     Connect it to Nicholas Longworth and some themed events and it makes a great destination spot for adventure, heritage, and foodie travelers.

Now if they can come up with an historic wine variety to produce, or a signature Germanic dish they can promote, I think they are guaranteed to bring in a lot of business.


The Food and Fun of the Kirchweih – A Donauschwaben Church Dedication Festival


The Kirchweihnudeln, a specific donut made in Bavaria for the Kirchweih festivities.


This weekend the Donauschwaben Society of Cincinnati celebrates a beloved German tradition called the Kirchweih.   The Kirchweih is a German Catholic celebration to dedicate the village church, held in Bavaria and the Danube areas of the Donauschwab Germans   It was typically held near the feast day of the church’s patron saint or on the day of the laying of the foundation stone of the church.     In villages in Bavaria and the Danube, the dates can be varied.   Modern Kirchweih’s, like ours, are now generally celebrated on the third Sunday in October, after all the Oktoberfest celebrations are through.   It seems like a legitimate religious excuse to keep celebrating through the Fall.


The celebration lasts over two weekends, and started last Sunday, with the Kirchweih Mass in German, at Old St. Mary’s Church in Over-the-Rhine.   This Saturday evening is the festival’s conclusion with the Kirchweih Dinner and Dance.


The Cincinnati Donauschwabs at Old St. Mary’s Church in Over-the-Rhein at the Kirchweih mass.

At the mass, single men and women in traditional Swabian costume – men in black vests, white shirts and black pants; women in traditional dresses – paraded into the church with the Strass, a rosemary bush, decorated in colored ribbons, which is blessed by the priest.   Think of it as a Fall Christmas tree.   The Germans do love decorating a tree.


In the Austro-Hungarian tradition, rosemary symbolized virility, and men wore sprigs of rosemary as a boutonniere on their wedding day.   At the dance, the decorated and blessed rosemary bush will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.   The Kirchweih Strass is said to bring the winning couple a long and prosperous relationship.


A couple in traditional Swabian costume holding the Kirchweih Strass or rosemary bush.

At the dance old and young men bid on the rosemary bush in an attempt to snag it for their wife, sweetheart, fiancée, or even future in-laws. When the auction ends the entire club toasts the winning couple good luck with wine.   The dance starts with the grand march and the recitation of a Kirchweih poem in the Swabian German dialect.

A translation of the poem shows the spirit of the event:

Strauss, Strauss, big and fine

How I wish that you were mine.

We march and march and do our thing

And then we find out everything.

Whose name is pulled we can’t wait to see

I hope and hope that it is me.

Dollar for dollar is what is met

The Strauss is what the winner will get.

We love to stay up late to party

It is not for the weak but instead the hearty.

Breakfast comes when the band is done

And then off to bed is where we run.

The Strauss gets cut up and replanted

From that we hope next year’s Strauss is granted.

Kirchweih is a custom old of date

It was sometimes used to find a mate.

Kirchweih is what we like best.

It is our very favorite fest.

Another year has come and passed

Obviously, this will not be the last.

The Kirchweih is one of the most beautiful festivals of the year in the old country. The Donauschwaben people hold it close to their heart because it expresses the sociability and hospitality of the rural lifestyle of their former home. The entire family and village community participated in the preparations of food and all the cheerful festivities.

In the early years of the Donauschwaben society’s existence, the Kirchweih was held at St. Joseph of Nazareth on Liberty and Elm, until the church was demolished in 1963.     St. Joseph was originally St. Matthews German Evangelical Church, and became St. Joseph in 1919, a Hungarian-Catholic or Donauschwaben Church.


The feature of the dinner this weekend is a rosemary pork loin, along with other traditional German side dishes.     In Bavaria a special flat, rich donut called the Kirchweihnudel or Kirchweihkeuchle is made, fried in schmaltz or chicken fat and dusted with sugar while still hot, and served at all the festivities. It’s very similar to the Czech Texas kolachi pastry.

The Kirchweih is truly a unique event to experience.


Bring Back the Cloves: The De-spicing of Regional Pumpkin Pies



It’s that time of the year when the annual Cincinnati PPWs start.   That’s the pumpkin pie wars between local producers, Frisch’s and Busken.   Since 2010, they’ve taunted each other via billboards, contesting which pie is most popular regionally.     They even made national news with a Wall Street Journal article.   Busken employees defaced the Frisch’s Big Boy statue outside the flagship Frisch’s Mainliner restaurant in Mariemont with a Busken apron. That was after Frisch’s bought a defaming ad on the billboard on the Madison Avenue wall of the Busken flagship bakery in Hyde Park.   It’s all in good fun, both companies say, but the rivalry is serious among local pumpkin pie aficionados.

Two of the defaming billboards between Busken and Frisch’s.


From a business standpoint, the PPW (pumpkin pie war) is no joke.   Frisch’s typically sells 90,000 pies during their 16 week season, and Busken typically sells 2500.  Both saw upticks in sales of 5% and 25% respectively after the initial PPW in 2010.


In addition to pumpkin pie, the PSL or pumpkin spice latte is everywhere from Starbucks to your local gas station.   There are pumpkin spice cookies at Subway, and pumpkin cream pies at McDonald’s.   Unfortunately they all are diluting the strong spices that those of us who love the traditional pumpkin pie are used to.     Fast food producers have been challenged by the Fresh Revolution. Any way to remove cost out of their offerings, even Limited Time Offerings, like pumpkin pie spiced varieties, is a must to retain profits in a more competitive food takeout environment.


My grandfather’s bakery pumpkin pie is considered the gold standard in our family.   Grandpa’s blend, developed in the late 1940s, spiced his pumpkin pie strong, but balanced.   He used a balanced blend of cinnamon, mace (the outer shell of the nutmeg, for a stronger flavor) and cloves.     The pie was a darker brownish-orange than the typical bright dayglow orange of most of today’s pumpkin pies.  It had a smooth, non-gritty, non-mealy, but not custardy texture.   It was not too sweet, and you could taste the pumpkin.   It seems like most commercial pumpkin pies are now hued to resemble the light orange of a sweet potato pie rather than a traditional pumpkin pie.   There’s even some that add bourbon or caramel for differentiation.   But those are both travesties to the traditional and delicious pumpkin pie.


My father has long been a pumpkin pie aficionado.   He’s an October Libran like myself, so pumpkin pie is almost like his birthday cake.   Even at 75, he’s a super taster, and can detect any imbalance in the spice blend of any pumpkin pie. Dad takes his pumpkin pie seriously.   He considered Grandpa’s pie the gold standard.   But, until recently Dad thought Frisch’s was a very close second.   After a recent conversation, Dad told me he thinks that Frisch’s has changed their formula.


“They’ve backed off on the spice blend!”   Dad said, with as much importance as if the Fed had just raised interest rates.   Like other second class quality pumpkin pies, Dad says there’s too much a prevalence of cinnamon, and not enough mace/nutmeg and cloves.   Dad also says that most pumpkin pies are too sweet, and you can barely taste the pumpkin as a result.   His now favorite commercially available pumpkin pie is surprisingly, from Costco.   He believes they have not backed off on the traditional spice blend.


Is this de-spicing of pumpkin pie an evolution of current tastes?   Do Millennials prefer cinnamon over the stronger spices of nutmeg and cloves?   Why is this de-spicing not causing a revolution locally amongst traditional pumpkin pie aficionados?  And what’s causing pumpkin pie manufacturers from backing off on their spice blends?   Are they really reacting to evolving tastes or is it something else?


A typical blend of pumpkin pie spices includes ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.   The ratio of cinnamon to the others is typically higher. The agreed upon blend per pie is usually a 3:2:2:1.5:1.5 teaspoon ratio of cinnamon to ginger to nutmeg to cloves to allspice.     It just so happens that cloves is the fourth most expensive spice in the world, behind saffron, vanilla and cardamom.   Mace and cinnamon fall behind cloves.   So, it’s a cost cutting measure for large producers to remove the most expensive and strongest spice, cloves.     Remove cloves from the above ratio, and the already dominant cinnamon takes an even stronger role in the taste of the pie and throws off the balance. It’s kind of like the trash bag commercial – wimpy-wimpy-wimpy (with cinnamon), vs. hefty-hefty-hefty, with cloves.


Ask Johnny Johnson at Camp Washington Chili, or Spiro Sarakatsannis of Dixie Chili about spice blend balance.     They contend with a Cincinnati chili spice blend of 14 sweet, spicy, and herby spices.  Take any one of the 14 out of Cincinnati chili out and you’ll taste it.   The blend has been developed and balanced for almost 100 years.     When I got the rare privilege of going into the Dixie Chili locked spice room, Spiro told me he is constantly having to reformulate his spice blend when his suppliers change the concentration of their spices in oil or whatever carrying agent in which they’re supplied.     He has to make sure the ratio stays the same, so the flavor balance isn’t compromised.


People are so used to the Cincinnati chili spice blend that when Gold Star reformulated their chili a few years ago, it was noticed!     Pumpkin pie spices are a subset of the 14 spices of Cincinnati Chili, in what are called the Sweet Apostoulos (Sweet Apostles).   There’s also a group of Spicy, and Herby Apostoulos, along with the Holy Trinity, in the Cincinnati chili blend.


I’m in Dad’s camp on this one – and we don’t always agree politically.    Bring back the cloves!   End the de-spicing of American Pumpkin Pie!!

York Street Café and the Historic Swiss Sausages Eaten There


The outside of York Street Café in Newport, Kentucky.


Over the weekend I returned to one of my favorite eclectic eating spots in Newport, Kentucky – the York Street Café.   It’s nestled in an 1880s Italianate corner building that once housed the George Widrig Pharmacy.     The stained glass window above the original corner entrance still emblazons his name.     The restaurant serves great seasonal food, and is filled with lots of cool eclectic art and antiques.   It’s a fun pre-show dinner spot if you’re going to the Footlighter Theatre across the street, the Falcon Theatre one block over on Monmouth Street, the Carnegie Theatre in Covington, or a movie at Newport on the Levee.



The Widrig name sounded familiar from my Grandmother’s family tree.     If you’re of German Catholic ancestry of Northern Kentucky, and your family has been in the area over three generations, the number of people you’re related to exponentially increases.    Good Catholic families back then were fruitful and multiplied with large numbers of children.


Sure enough, after a lookup, I verified George Widrig was a brother-in-law of my Great Great Grandmother Philomina Krebs Brosey.    George had three other brothers, Louis, Tobias, and Edward, who all were pharmacists in Newport, Kentucky.    Two of their sisters, Rosalia and Maria married my ancestor, Philomina’s brothers George and Caspar Krebs.    Philomina’s father and mother were Germanic immigrants from the Rhineland and Holland respectively.   So they were one big old Germanic immigrant family living amongst and near each other in Newport, Kentucky.


George’s father, Tobias Widrig, had originally settled in Camp Springs, Kentucky, with other German immigrants from the Rhineland provinces, and had prospered from a successful feed business that allowed him to invest in other businesses in Cincinnati.


Tobias Widrig immigrated from St. Gallen, Swizterland, in 1844, with a small group of others from the same area.   Another of his compatriots from St. Gallen, John Andrew Gubser, ran the sawmill after which the community of Gubser’s Mill, Kentucky, is named.    This group of Catholic Rhineland immigrants started St. Joseph’s (1845) in Camp Springs, and then St. Peter and Paul (1853) in Gubser Mill. When their children moved into the cities of Newport, they became members of the German Catholic parishes of Corpus Christi and St. Stephens.


So, with this connection to St. Gallen , it made me think what kind of regional food this immigrant group would have eaten in their home country, what food culture they might have brought with them, and what role it plays in the evolution of our local Germanic foods.


The Canton of St. Gallen Switzerland is in the mountainous area around the Rhine River.     The area was known for its cattle and livestock rearing.   They did not typically raise pigs, so pork products were not part of their normal diet.     This means that unlike the flatland Germanic immigrants of Northern Kentucky, the Widrigs and their Swiss compatriots were not goetta eaters. Goetta and its grain sausage cousins were products of the Fall hog slaughter.   In fact, St. Gallen’s is famous for its Olmabratwurst, a white veal and beef sausage with milk that does NOT ever get dressed with mustard. Its first designation was in 1438 by the butchers guild of St. Gallen, and the recipe has remained virtually unchanged since.


The Olmabratwurst (far left) and Schublig (middle) of St. Gallen Switzerland.

Other dishes from the region are Rosti, a type of pan fried potato pancake, Chäschüechli , a savory cheese tart; and Biberli, a marzipan-filled honey-spiced cookie that probably morphed into a holiday cookie.


Tourists to the St. Gallen region today can be easily be spotted if they do put mustard on their bratwurst. Another sausage, the St. Gallen Schüblig is popular as well.     It’s a beef sausage that’s typically eaten raw.   Both of these sausages would have had influence on the evolution with Newport and Covington butchers – the Olmabratwurst resembles our Cincinnati Brat, and the Schublig resembles our Cincinnati Mett.     Who knows if the Widrigs made their own Olma and Schüblig or found a local butcher to make them to their specs, but each had their influence on the evolution of our local sausages.