The Greek Santa Claus and his New Year’s Cake

 

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The Greek Vasilopita, or St. Basil’s Cake, with hidden gold coin, served on New Year’s Day.

 

In the land of our Cincinnati Chili Pioneers, Santa Claus comes on New Year’s Day, not Christmas.   He’s a Bishop of Asia Minor, much like the Western Christian St. Nicholas, and his story is very similar.  But to the Greeks, Macedonians, and Bulgarians of the Orthodox Christian Church, Santa Claus is Agios Vasileios, or St. Basil, and he comes bearing gifts on his feast day, the day he died in 379 A.D., January 1.    Greek families celebrate his coming with the cutting of a very traditional cake, called the Vasilopita, which has a long standing ritual with it.

Here in Cincinnati you might be able to find a Vasilopita at places like Floyd’s Mediteranean Restaurant in Clifton, or at a celebration next weekend at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Finneytown.   If there is any Cincinnati chili parlor that would have a Vasilopita, it would be Greek owned Camp Washington Chili, but they’re closed on Sundays, which is New Year’s Day.     Something tells me Johnny and his family will be celebrating with the cutting of the Vasilopita.

St. Basil was Bishop of Caesarea in Asia Minor.    When the local military tyrant threatened the locals to hand over their gold, St. Basil was forced to ask the local poor to hand over their meager gold treasures.    Legend has it that a miracle rid the city of the tyrant and the citizens were not forced to turn over their gold.  When St. Basil went to return the people what he had collected, he baked bread for each household and put a gold coin or treasure into each loaf of bread.   That’s how the tradition of the Vasilopita or St. Basil cake started.

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St. Basil, or Agios Vasileios, the Greek Santa Claus.

The St. Basil cake is a traditional cake made with brandy and orange peel and juice – originally a luxury – and a gold coin placed inside.   It’s a tradition very much like the King cake surrounding the coming of the three kings to the Nativity.  Nowadays, many Greek families amp up the cake with icing and other ingredients to make it more interesting.     Traditionally, the man or woman of the house makes a sign of the cross over the cake, and then starts cutting the pieces.  The first piece is for Christ, then the Virgin Mary, then St. Basil, then the house.   Enough already, what about us!    Then the pieces are cut and named for each family member from the oldest to the youngest.    The last pieces are named for the poor, and the house again.  If the gold coin is found in one of the first four pieces, or the last two, then the coin is placed in the iconostasis, the corner of the house traditionally held for religious icons and the oil lamp.

Now the Kiradjieff’s of the first Cincinnati Chili Parlor, Empress Chili, Ivan and Athanas, married Bulgarian women.  In Bulgaria, the tradition is practiced and they call the cake, banitza, which is more of a cheese pie than a cake, but it still houses a hidden gold coin.   Additionally, groups of children in Bulgaria visit the houses of the village on New Year’s Day and tap each villager on the back with a stick known as a servachka, with its branches bent in circles and decorated with dried fruits, popcorn, colorful ribbons and wool.  They wish everyone good health and luck in the new year and are rewarded with treats and presents.

I love this tradition and hope that it’s still widely practiced in Greek and Orthodox Christian families here in Cincinnati.   I would love to have a recipe for the Vasilopita and the bantza, and would love to see either at a Cincinnati chili parlor in January!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Boozy Hessian Christmas Dinner, Crossing the Delaware, and The Birth of Our Nation

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Painter Emmanuel Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware.  Note how hungry the rowers look.

 

According to legend, we can thank the Germans, or the Hessians, rather, for our winning of the American Revolution.   Thanks to their boozy Christmas customs, which the English descended colonists didn’t share, Washington was able to quietly cross the icy Delaware River on Christmas Day Eve, 1776, surprise the British- hired Hessian mercenaries encamped at Trenton, New Jersey, and force their supposedly hung-over surrender.

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Me standing in front of the Delaware Crossing Memorial on the Pennsylvania side.

We’ve all heard of the terrible, starving winter our Continentals faced at Valley Forge, PA, that winter.   That night they would have had a hasty Christmas dinner of their typical rations of bread, salt fish, or perhaps some stale beef or pork, and maybe a slug of watered down whiskey  if they were lucky- not exactly a very festive Christmas dinner.   Then they boarded creaky ships to cross a pitch black and icy Delaware river.

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General Washington’s Mess Kit, on display at Mount Vernon – what he would have used for his Christmas Dinner in 1776, before crossing the Delaware.

The Hessians were as weird to the British as the unannounced French nobles, ala the Marquis de Lafayette, who were coming over to volunteer to be major generals and ‘help’ the Continental army, were to the American Continentals.     There’s a great scene in the new Turn series about Washington’s spy network,  showing the Hessians at their camp stewing sauerkraut and the British redcoats walking by and turning their noses up at its stench.    Whether or not the Hessians made camp sauerkraut is hard to verify, but it certainly points out how different their food customs were to the British they were fighting with.

The news of this much morale-boosting victory spread.     That Washington had gotten the drop on a few hundred napping Germans blazoned to a skeptical world that these scrappy losers (that’s us Continentals) might actually have a chance at winning.   This most notably caught the ears of the French government, who Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee were lobbying in Paris for money and help in the form of arms.    Franklin wrote back to the Continental Congress that the victory in Trenton “caused the most vivid sensation”  in France.

Although the French government wasn’t officially ready to condone and support the American Revolution, a covert arms deal was in progress and disguised merchant ships ready at Le Havre to be sent to America with cannons and supply.    This was being arranged by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the author of the play The Barber of Seville.    This deal was orchestrated by Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister.  This Christmas Day-After victory sent the ballasts of those ships toward America.

But alas, the incognito drama-queen Beaumarchais, heard of a group of local thespians in Le Havre botching a production of his Barber of Seville.   He revealed himself and directed the play, while arranging the arms ships.  Britain found out, made a stink and a threat to France, which delayed more and official help to the Colonists.   But the direction was already set in motion.

The postscript – confirmed by diaries of those who witnessed the battle of Trenton – is that the Hessians probably didn’t have too much to drink and were not hungover at the Battle of Trenton.   And, many of the Hessians who were fighting for the British would later change their minds over the course of the Revolution, siding with the Colonists, and ended up staying in America.

It was the element of surprise and the fact that the Continentals showed up the day after Christmas so early in the morning that caused the surrender at Trenton.   But it sure makes a good story with a lesson – don’t get drunk on Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

A Cincinnati Chili Christmas Story

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On Christmas Day, 1937, the Cincinnati Enquirer posted the above full-page photo of a young Billy Lambrinides singing “Silent Night” at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral’s Midnight mass the night before.     The headline was  GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST…. AND ON EARTH PEACE GOODWILL TOWARD MEN.    The angel behind him can now be seen in the Cincinnati Wing of our Art Museum.   And Billy Lambrinides passed on this year to that Great Chili Parlor in the Sky.

The story of that night is told by his son, Billy Lambrinides, Jr.,  in a book called Visions of Plum Street, which he describes as ‘an often true and inappropriate comedy about Christmas and Skyline Chili.’    Twelve years after that photo of little Billy in his pre-Vatican II server’s outfit appeared, his father, Greek-Macedonian immigrant from Kastoria, Nicholas Lambrinides, founded the first Skyline Chili on top of Price Hill.

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Nicholas Lambrinides, the founder of Skyline Chili.

 

Visions of Plum Street is like Cincinnati’s version of A Christmas Story.    Why it’s not a movie that’s replayed locally during the Christmas season is crazy to me.    Little Billy Lambrinides is similar in age to Ralphy and lives the foibles of a young middle class American boy in mid century America leading up to Christmas.  Instead of the anticipation of whether or not he receives his Red Rider bb gun, our Cincinnati Chili Christmas story is about the anticipation of Billy and his twin serving and singing a solo at midnight mass in our city’s cathedral.

Laden throughout the story are stories of Greek holiday food that Alexandria Lambrinides made, like her baklava and kourabiethes.  “Nobody can hide their excitement when they’re handed a plate of baklava.  What’s not to like about layers of nuts and phyllo dough soaked in sticky, sweet syrup?”  Billy describes.

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The deeply spiced and sugared Greek Christmas cookie, the kourabiethes, for which Alexandria Lambrinides was famous amongst her Plum Street tenement neighbors.

The story goes that Christy, Billy’s twin brother, who was supposed to sing the Silent Night solo, lost his voice the night before Christmas eve.  They had lost their younger brother Johnny, who had gone by himself to see the live Nativity scene at Lytle Park (which would later be moved to the Conservatory in Mt. Adams).    Christy and a search party went around their downtown neighborhood on Plum Street singing Christmas carols, which Johnny loved, to try to find him , and that’s how he lost his voice.

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The center red brick building is the tenement apartment that the Lambrinides family inhabited during the Visions of Plum Street story.

The story continues that their father Nicholas, had to work at the Empress Chili parlor Christmas eve, so after midnight mass, the entire family ate their Christmas dinner at the Empress.  Nicholas had experimented and bought the ingredients for his version of Cincinnati chili and made it for his family who then tasted Skyline Chili for the first time that Christmas eve.

Billy describes how his grandfather came up with Skyline chili:

“Once he got to the (Central) Market, and started pricing items, he was still coming up short.  He perused the spices and picked up a few, but remembered the spices that Alexandria had purchased for her Christmas cookies.”     I call these the Sweet Apostoulos or the Sweet Apostles, the portion of the 18 Cincinnati chili spices that are in our beloved chili.  “He was sure she still had some left he could use and this started him thinking about some Greek dishes that share the same spices.  Moussaka uses ground lamb with a blend of tomatoes, onions, and cinnamon layered over eggplant and topped with a custard sauce and cheese.  He bought pounds of the best quality ground beef instead of lamb, and purchased a huge brick of mild aged cheddar cheese.  Eggplant wasn’t a staple at the market but he needed something to balance out the meat and expand the meal. He thought of another Greek dish that spices meat similarly, with allspice, nutmeg and clove, which his wife had also purchased.  Pastichio has a layer of pasta below its flavored beef, and this would work as an excellent model.  While the baked dish normally has a béchamel over the top, the melting cheddar would offer the same cooling effect.”

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Billy is describing the evolution of the Cincinnati Chili Threeway, which of course was invented not by Nicholas Lambrinides, but by another set Macedonian immigrant brothers in 1922, John (Ivan) and Tom (Athanas)  Kiradjieff of Empress Chili.      Note there is NO mention of including chocolate in the above description of Cincinnati chili – which so many recipes incorrectly claim.    But it’s a great story, and as Billy Jr. says, is mostly correct.   I’d like to believe that my favorite Cincinnati chili, Skyline, was a Christmas Eve invention.

 

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The Lambrinides brothers of Skyline Chili – Billy, Johnny, and Christy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tea Taxation Tyranny -Dump Your Bohea Tea!

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Today in history, December 16,  is the anniversary of the infamous Boston Tea Party.   Sam Adams, and 60 of his fellow pissed-off Sons of Liberty, dressed as Mohawk Indians, boarded three ships in the night  -the Beaver, Dartmouth, and Eleanor – and dumped 342 chests of tea into the Boston Harbor in defiance of King George III and his ‘taxation tyranny.’

 

There’s a great line from the song “You’ll Be Back” in the new musical Hamilton, where King George sings to the colonists, “You cry in your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by.   Why so sad?”   One imagines the crazy King George in his long white curly wig and velvet robes contemplating the brazen act of these American patriots.     Hmmm sounds familiar, we have another crazy egomaniac today with hair issues we’re having to contend with!

 

But exactly what type of tea did those brave Sons of Liberty hurl in the sea from those three Dutch East India ships that fateful day 244 years ago?

 

Firstly, all of the tea dumped that day came from the Chinese province of Canton via the Dutch East India Company.     It’s not so far from today’s issues with Chinese steel imports creating what some think an unfair trade advantage.

 

Bohea tea was the most popular tea in the English world.  Today, it’s referred to as Wuyi tea.  So popular was this tea, that it became the slang term for tea in Colonial America.   It consisted of scrap tea, broken orange pekoe, pekoe,, and souchong dumped in a pile then sifted.   The best was put in chests and the twigs, fannigs, and dust were used to make what was called brick and tablet tea, all of which were sold under the generic name Bohea.

 

Next was souchong tea, a large leaf tea, which has less caffeine than the other teas.   It is smoked, like other black teas, but retains more of that smoky flavor than most.

 

Congou tea was the highest quality black tea.   It’s leaves are twisted for curing and was the original English breakfast tea.     Today it’s been replaced by Ceylon teas, or Earl Grey.

 

One variety of green tea, Hyson, would have been on board the ships too, as it was popular in America.   It is the most desirable green tea and the first picking in the spring before the monsoon rains.

 

The American Revolutionists recommended that in defiance of the tea taxation tyranny, Americans replace the above teas with an herbal tea called Labrador.   So, if you want to drink patriotically today, find a good Labrador tea and a good biscuit to dunk.

 

 

Christmas Love to Puerto Rico & Their Coconut Christmas Foods

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Temblique, the Puerto Rican Christmas Pudding

 

A recent call with a friend from Puerto Rico has me waxing nostalgic for the wonderful island I’ve visited many times.   I was asking my friend Manolo for his mother, Mama Chaly’s recipe for temblique, Puerto Rico’s coconut Christmas pudding.  He says it’s easy to make, but I guess I’ll find out.    It’s cooked with coconut milk and corn starch, and then cooled, gelled, and served with a sprinkling of cinnamon and lemon zest.    In Spanish it literally means ‘jiggly’ because it wiggles just like Jell-O when served.

Manolo and I met as plant engineers at two plants in Cincinnati’s Chemical Alley – the factories lining the railroad tracks between Winton Place and St. Bernard.    We were lunch buddies, and then grad school classmates, until we both graduated and moved on to marketing.   Over the last 20 years of our friendship we’ve had many crazy  adventures around the world, and I’ve been infused with the wonders of Puerto Rican food and culture.

Puerto Rican men are huge momma’s boys.   As a result, most are well trained in the art of cooking the foods of their upbringing, especially if they move off the island.   From this particular momma’s boy, I’ve learned how to make island delicacies such as  tostones (smashed and fried green plantains), plantanos, sorullos, sofrito, and rice and beans.

In Puerto Rico the food is wonderful, and so are the people.   They celebrate the Christmas season with gusto – hell – they celebrate life with gusto!    Where else can you be lulled to sleep by the gentle chirp of the coquis (native frogs) at 3 AM after pounding the clubs, and then rudely awakened 2 hours later by the cock-a-doodle-do of one of a roosters you’ll see at the local arena later that night?

Thank God the coffee is strong, so you can refuel for another action-packed day!  I could live on Yauco Selecto, and the tangy, crunchy  guava pastries from Toa Alta, and Mama Chaly’s rice and beans…

For Puerto Ricans, the Christmas season doesn’t end on December 25.   It extends into January, for the very popular Feast of the Three Kings.   And the wonderful food extends through the whole season.    Manuel was telling me about a batch of  coquito, the boozy coconut infused Puerto Rican version of eggnog that he had just made.   It’s made with rum, coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon and cloves.

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But you don’t need rum to amp up a Puerto Rican family celebration, especially if you’re from a big Catholic family like Manolo.   Stepping into his family circle is like entering the cast of a Telanovella.      Every event is drama rich and fun-filled.     A quinceanara  (a girl’s 15th birthday party the size of a wedding reception)  I attended there turned into a Latin Lalapalooza where I was passed between his aunts to dance the merenque.   I’ve had my ear talked off on topics like the Dominican slave trade by his Aunt Rachel, who’s a history professor in San Juan, and been chided on style and fitness by younger brother Daniel.

I’ve never really gotten a whole lot of sleep on my trips to Puerto Rico, but I’ve certainly eaten well,  enjoyed everyone I met, and partied like a rock star.

 

The Feast and Food of Our Lady of Guadalupe

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St. Charles Borromeo Church in Carthage during their previous Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Today Hispanic Catholics across the Tri-State region will wake up early to celebrate Las mañanitas a la Virgen de Guadalupe, or the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  It’s a huge
celebration, commemorating the visitation of the Blessed Mother four times in 1531 near Mexico City, to a peasant, Juan Diego, by giving him a tilma or a cloth with her imprinted image.    A church, the Basilica Our Lady of Guadalupe, was built in Mexico City, to house the artifact, and since its devotion and the discussion of if it was made by human hands, has added to its mystique.
When I was a kid, my parents went to Mexico City on a business trip for my father’s company and visited the Basilica with the Guadalupe tilma.  They brought back rosaries and other souvenirs of the artifact.   I also remember the tangy tomatoey spiced fritos they brought back too, and for whatever reason have always associated that flavor with our Lady of Guadalupe’s image.
The iconic image of Mary from Juan Diego’s tilma, surrounded by rays of light, appears in tattoos, on cars, clothes, and buildings and is a spiritual symbol of Mexico.
Members of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Hispanic Center in Carthage have been celebrating this cultural and religious feast of Our Ladey of Guadalupe for many years.   They start early, with a mass at 5 AM, that includes Spanish songs in honor of the Blessed Virgin.    They dress their little ones up as Juan Diego.  After an hour of singing the community shares traditional Mexican baked goods and gallons of hot chocolate.   After the mass is a performance of traditional Aztec dancing and then a feast of traditional Mexican food, including tamales, chicken mole, and other delicacies.
The appearance of our Lady of Guadalupe was responsible for converting
the pagan Aztec Indians and uniting them with the Christian Hispanics of Mexico together.   So for Mexico, Our Lady is a powerful image of cultural solidarity.
So, if you want some of the best Mexican hot chocolate or tamales today, find a celebration of our Lady of Guadalupe.
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A young Juan Diego carries his snail pastry at St. Charles Borromeo’s Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration.

 

 

 

The German Baumstreizel – a Christkindlmarkt Fave – Becomes the Crème Horn in the USA

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If you’re lucky enough to go to one of the great Christkindlmarkts in Germany this Christmas season, you’ll see a host of sweet treats.   One of them that you might see is the Baumstreizel.    It’s a flaky, yeasty, egg washed pastry, that’s made into a thin pastry ribbon which is then wrapped around a conical form and grilled over special charcoal grill spits rotisserie-style.    The caramelized sugar on the surface creates a sweet, crisp crust. Once cooked to crispy perfection, it can be dusted with more powdered or granulated sugar, or even dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with nuts.

It’s called a Baumstreizel because it looks like a tree (baum in German) when it’s stood up.

A Baumstreizel rotisserie and food tent at a German Christkindlmarkt

 

What’s cool about the Baumstreizel is that it becomes a hollow vessel for whatever you want to put fill it with – whipped cream, jam, chocolate sauce, marshmallow cream – wherever your imagination can take you.   It’s kind of like a German version of the s’more if you think about it.  We don’t typically see all this variety in the American version, but we should.   One German site touts 1000 ideas for finishing Baumstreizel.

 

I’m big into food family trees.     As both a genealogist and a food historian I think the family tree is a great tool to trace origins of specific foods and their similar food relatives.      With the Baumstreizel, it seems to descend from a huge family of conically-wound and grilled bread products, called generically the spit cake.   And each region of Europe seems to have their own version and nicknames for them.   It’s a traditional pastry in Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia, and may have originated in the East before coming to Germany.       Some food historians think that they go back to spit roasted cakes made in ancient Greece starting around 400 B.C., for feasts for the god of wine, Dionysius.

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The Baumstreizel or Crème Horn Family Tree.

 

In Austria, they’re also nicknamed Schillerlocken after the golden locks of blonde Hair of German poet Friedrich Schiller. They’re also called schaumrolle or cream roll, after the filling.

 

The ingenious fest food has travelled to the U.S. with German bakers.   In Cincinnati, it can be seen as the crème horn at some of the legacy bakeries in town.   St. Lawerence Bakery in Price Hill has them. Bernhardt’s in Newport fills theirs with whipped cream, while Regina Bakery fills them with meringue.   Graeter’s Crème Horns are only available Tuesday and Friday.   Bonomoni in Northside has a wonderfully crispy version.

 

Cincideutsch Christkindmarkt planners take note – maybe the Baumstreizel is something, along with Krampus, that you can bring to next year’s event to educate Cincy on another fun German custom.