Grandma’s Famous Coleslaw
Today, January 26, marks the 80th anniversary of the day the 1937 Flood water crested at its highest point. Thousands of people up and down the Ohio River were flooded out of their homes. Some went to shelters, others were lucky enough to bunk with family.
When my father and mother met at a Dance Under the Stars at Ault Park they soon learned they had relatives living within doors of each other. They had probably even seen or bumped into each other as kids visiting those relatives. My mother’s paternal grandparents and my Dad’s Aunt Emma and children lived two doors down from each other. My grandpa had actually gone out on a date with my dad’s cousin Sylvia before he met my Grandma.
My great grandparents and my Aunt Emma were lucky enough to live up on the hill in Dayton, Kentucky, out of the wrath of the 1937 flood waters. Both hosted family who lived closer to the river for several weeks, feeding them and clothing them. Those that didn’t have relatives had to go to makeshift shelters in Church basements and school gymnasiums. Both sets of relatives were good cooks. Great Grandma and Grandpa had grown up on farms and Great Grandma Ling was used to cooking meals for men who spent 10 hours a day in the fields and tending livestock.
Staying with Aunt Emma would have been a treat for her relatives too. She loved to cook. She cooked for Cincinnati Public schools cafeterias, and at Ft, Scott Boy Scout Summercamp. Her last job before retirement was a nanny for a family of seven children in Price Hill whose mother was ill for many years. She certainly cooked for them. So, I wondered, what type of meals did they serve their displaced relatives during those cold and sorrowful days of the 1937 Flood?
Here’s where the coleslaw comes in. When my paternal grandparents married, my Grandfather learned his new wife, Emma’ sister, didn’t know much about cooking. She had been the youngest of four sisters, and didn’t have to do much cooking growing up. Her older sisters, Rose, Emma, and Mayme and her mother were all fantastic cooks. Grandma said she learned how to cook from their first landlady at their apartment in Newport – a German lady named Mrs. Herzog. She taught her hwo to make her first cherry pie.
Grandma would learn and become a fantastic cook, getting recipes from her sisters. Her father-in-law would brag to his Cumminsville neighbors about how good her barley soup was. One of the recipes of Grandma’s that lasts is her cole slaw recipe. It’s simple and one of those every day dishes, but its good. My cousin Dave made it for our family reunion last year. It found its way to my other grandmother’s recipes with the note “Mrs Woellert’s Recipe – Very good!” As a teenager I would cut her grass and she would make fresh cole slaw to go with our lunchmeat sandwiches. I was amazed at how she would turn a head of cabbage and some other ingredients into the most delicious cole slaw.
Enjoying Grandma’s famous coleslaw at the family reunion.
So I thought, this recipe, from Grandma’s family was one of the things Aunt Emma would have definitely served her displaced relatives staying in her house during the 1937 Flood – the simple, but delicious coleslaw that survived the worst flood we’ve seen.
The half fish log with homemade caraway cole slaw, homemade hot slaw, and house made tartar sauce at the Old Timber Inn.
My friend Matt asked me this week, as we were agreeing on a place to catch up, “How have you NOT had a fish log at the Old Timber Inn? You’re supposed to be the food guy! Do you know how much history that place has?!” I was food-history shamed!! I have had fish logs at other places in Cincinnati, like Lake Nina. And even though I had passed the Old Timber Inn hundreds of times on my way to Northside, I admitted I’d never stopped in for a log. You can’t miss the painted sign on the east facing side of the building.
The Old Timber Inn facing east on Spring Grove Avenue.
So we agreed to meet there for a Friday fish log, and step back in time when Spring Grove Avenue was a bustling thoroughfare. The gravel parking lot doesn’t exactly invite, nor does the Victorian era building look like its a restaurant, but the red flashing ‘OPEN’ sign does tell you it’s OK to walk in.
It’s more of a bar than a restaurant these days. Eighty five year old owner, Elmer Ferguson, was t-boned by a semi in his car several years ago and had to close the place for a while to recover. And, he says, the clientele he used to have from the industrial factories along Spring Grove Avenue have dried up with their reduction in employees over the years. At one time Elmer employed 14 people and had two dining rooms to handle all the customers.
But, Elmer will cook to order for anyone hungry who comes in. The place’s heyday speaks from an extensive menu, that in addition to fish logs, includes his personal recipe Cincinnati chili, double deckers, fried chicken, and even another specialty, fried pork chops. The regular customers are his other eighty year old buds who are in for a drink and some banter. The one sitting next to us at the bar was close to 90, sharp as a tack, and the has been the head volunteer / disciplinarian at the St. Francis Seraph Soup Kitchen in Over-the-Rhine. He gave us the scoop on Elmer’s menu, the house made tartar sauce, and some of the local lore.
A full fish log requires the appetite of a lumberjack, at about a foot long, so we ordered the half log. When asked where he gets his fish, Elmer jokes, that it’s fresh from the Mill Creek, which is just behind the restaurant. He also makes his own cole slaw, which has a good zing and a great caraway seed flavor. Elmer fine-shreds his own cabbage for made-to-order Cincinnati hot slaw, which is the best I’ve ever had. His tartar sauce is also house made, thick, and I think better than Frisch’s.
Elmer’s menu has a tongue-in-cheek history of the fish log:
“The earliest settlers of the New World would often hear stories from the indigenous peoples making references to strange creatures inhabiting the wilderness. One such account depicted a creature that resembled a large fish-like creature with an extended thorax with a body covered with a type of ‘bark’ where one would typically find scales. The native tribes referred to this animal as ‘yoopapwa’ or ‘fishlog.’
In 1813 a group of lumberjacks working in a remote region of northern Saskatchewan, an area known for its many lakes and abundance of wildlife, made an astonishing find. Who could have guessed that these men would be the first to record the bizarre discovery that would stand Darwinian Evolution on its ear. The fishlog of legend was not mere folklore! This was the first reliably documented evidence of genetic hybridization between species so diverse.
Today, of course, domestic fishlog farming has become a lucrative industry. Restaurants such as Old Timber Inn of Cincinnati have helped to bring the fishlog to the general attention of the public.”
Old Timber Inn’s ‘historical photo’ of a Saskatchewan fishlog.
The place is clean, and the great thing is that once Elmer has made your order, he’ll sit in his chair behind the bar, give you a history lesson, and make you roar with his dirty jokes.
There’s a huge framed old photo of the inside of the bar in 1872, with what Elmer says is Jesse James and his gang, all holding dark beers and smiling for the camera. They were probably drinking Bruckmann’s beer, which was brewed just a little ways down Spring Grove Avenue near what was then the Canal. Elmer goes on to say that Cincinnati had the first train robbery in 1865, which happened when a never caught gang derailed and robbed a passenger train on the way to St. Louis, between the stations of Gravel Pit and North Bend, Ohio, about 18 miles west of Cincinnati. And the James gang was known to have gone through the area.
An 1872 photo of the inside of the Old Timber Inn, with what is supposedly the Jesse James gang enjoying beers. Note the ‘peekies’ to the right of the gang – these were coin operated short movies of vaudeville girls in skimpy outfits that the customer peeked into.
At one time a traction car also went past the Old Timber Inn. In the early 1910s five female victims’ bodies were dropped on or near that traction car. The never caught criminal became known as the Cumminsville Ripper, and many stories linked him to Jack the Ripper in London, England, as either a copycat, or Jack himself.
The traction car, turn of the century, with the Old Timber Inn behind.
I highly recommend a trip to the Old Timber Inn for a fishlog and a great history lesson from Elmer.
Coney Buns being prepped for the oven, while cooked buns are being prepped for slicing on the conveyor behind at B & J Baking Company.
Our beloved Cincinnati Chili Industry, like the Automotive Industry, has what I call Tier II Suppliers. These are the companies that make some of the components that go into a meal at a local chili parlor. These are often items we forget about, but are as important a component as the secretly guarded chili recipes. You can’t have a car without an airbag, made by a Tier II supplier. And you can’t have a threeway without spaghetti and oyster crackers, made by a Tier II Chili supplier. One of the most important of these Tier II items is the coney bun.
In the 50s and 60s, my grandparents were one of these local Tier II suppliers of coney buns and chili burger buns to the Dayton Chili Parlor, across the street from their bakery in Dayton, Kentucky. The Christofield family, who owned the chili parlor valued the proximity of my grandparents bakery and the fresh quality of their buns. I never had the pleasure of tasting a Dayton Chili Parlor Cheese Coney with one of my grandparents’ fresh, dense egg buns. But I did get to hear a glaring testimonial of how good they tasted from the daughter-in-law of the owner when I interviewed her for my chili book. Oddly enough, the old Dayton Chili Parlor came up for sale five days ago. I hope someone buys it and recreates the chili parlor tradition served by the Christofields for nearly 80 years.
Today the largest supplier of coney buns to our local chili parlors is B & J Baking Company, on Colerain Avenue in Northside. Owned by Macedonian immigrant, Steve Toleski, they have a long legacy of supply and operation in the local chili arena. A family owned wholesale baking company, they’ve been making and supplying quality coney buns for the chili industry since 1932. If you’ve ever had a delicious cheese coney at a Skyline chili parlor, you’ve tasted one of their buns.
B & J buns are inspected before being packaged to be sent to Skyline chili parlors around the region.
Klosterman Baking company also makes coney buns, but they don’t have the legacy in the chili parlor industry that the Toleski family has.
Owner Steve Toleski’s father was Alexander Tolevich (1909-1991). Alex came to this country in 1933 from Bolno, Macedonia, which later became part of Yugoslavia, after World War II. After working for Ivan and Athanas Kiradjieff at the Empress Chili Parlor, Alex would operate the Liberty Chili Parlor in Covington, Kentucky, on Madison Avenue, near the Liberty Theatre. Coincidentally, Alex’s sister, Luba Tolevich Naumoff and her husband Kime, would operate another Liberty Chili Parlor in Northside, in what had been the Liberty Theatre on Hamilton Avenue.
Alex Tolevich fraternizes with some of his customers in the 1960s at the Liberty Chili Parlor.
The change of last name from Tolevich to Toleski exhibits the complicated ethnic crisis happening in the Balkans between World War I and World War II. The Macedonian/Bulgarian vs the Slavic variations denoted which side you were on or what group you felt safest with which to be identified both in the region and over here in America. It’s kind of a similar, although more complicated version of the whole back and forth with the Alscace-Lorrain region on the border of Germany and France. The Tolevich/Toleski family did a great job of integrating into and even fostering and creating Cincinnati Culture in our Chili industry and for that we should be immensely grateful! One of Steve’s three daugthers, Lori Toleski Russell is Vice President of B & J Baking, so the coney bun business will continue on into the next generation.
Steve Toleski, owner of B & J Baking leads a tour of his facility.
Coney bun dough resting and proofing at B & J Bakery.
The large dough mixer and conveyer oven used to make coney buns at B & J Baking.
Lovers of Cincinnati chili probably are familiar with the loaded chili cheese fries offered by our regional chili parlors like Skyline, Gold Star, Camp Washington and others. Pleasant Ridge chili takes it up a notch with the addition of gravy for that poutine-y edge. My favorite are Chili Time’s in St. Bernard. They fed my over active teenage metabolism many late Friday nights after a football game.
But a newer entry to this family of Cincinnati chili products is the Cincinnati Chili Totcho, what some might call Queen City Poutine. Totchos are basically like nachos but with tater tots instead of tortilla chips as the base. Then Cincinnati chili is ladled on, with your choice of sweet Vidalia onions, beans, and a mountain of shredded cheddar cheese. If you need some spice, don’t forget the tobasco or sriracha sauce or a few sliced jalapenos.
Now the totcho was not invented in Cincinnati, but our chili version was.
A man in Portland, Oregon is given credit for inventing the totcho – or any other of its aliases – like dirty tots. Jim Parker, is the man behind the totcho. He opened the Oaks Bottom Public House in 2006 with partner Jerry Fechter. Their opening was the first mention of the tater tot nacho – later shortened to totchos. Parker is a well established pub man. If you’ve been served beer in Portland, the chances are high that it was by Parker. He’s worked at Concordia Ale House, the Horse Brass, the Green Dragon and other pubs in Colorado and Washington State. Today he’s a brewery consultant and part time bartender at Baerlic Brewing.
Jim Parker, Portland, Oregon pub-hound, who invented totchos.
Parker originally suggested the idea with one of his bartenders Jonathan Carmean, suggesting they be called nacho tots.
It’s appropriate that the totcho was born in Portland. In 1952 brothers Nephi and Golden Grigg bought a foreclosed freeze-drying plant in Ontario on the Idaho Border to make frozen frnech fries. They named the business Ore-Ida. The production at the plant left a lot of waste in the form of potato shavings, which were sold as livestock feed, at very low profit. The Griggs brothers came up with a more profitable and ingenious waste solution. They mixed the shavings with spices, extruded them in pellets and par fried them. The tator tot was an immediate hit and has donned grade school cafeteria and football fan tables since then.
The original totchos come with melted cheese sour cream salsa and other nacho toppings like say jalapenos. In Portland, totchos are a mainstay of sports bar menus and the concession stands at Providence Park. In 2013 totchos started trending nationally as they appeared in hipster faux dive bars from Seattle to Brooklyn and filled up the food blogs.
Other versions exist around Portland and beyond. Boxer Ramen has ‘okonomiyaki tots’ with spicy mayo, worchestershire-like tonkatsu sauce, bonito flakes, togarishi spice and dried seaweed. Seasons and Regions Seafood Grill has a salmon and cream cheese version. Jolly Roger bar has a garlic and parmesan version.
Add our Cincinnati chili version to the mix, and another permutation is born. Unfortunately, there are no chili parlors yet that offer this hearty comfort dish. But, they’re perfect for the upcoming Superbowl.
The Tyropita, the Macedonian version of the Greek Vasilopita, served on New Year’s Day.
Before the end of the Balkan Wars, many of the early Cincinnati Chili parlor pioneers, like the Kiradjieffs of Empress Chili, who immigrated to the Queen City, considered themselves Macedonians, even though their villages now are renamed with Greek names and part of Greece. Macedonian customs were a bit different than the Greek, and more similar to the Bulgarian customs than Greek customs. In Greece and the Orthodox Christian East Mediterranean, New Year’s Day is the bigger celebration than Christmas. It’s when Greek Santa, St. Basil comes, and when the Vasilopita or St. Basil’s cake is eaten. But for the Macedonians, a similar but different custom was practiced on New Year’s Day.
One of the families I spoke to in writing my book, “The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili,” were the Manoffs. Petro and Sophie Manoff started the Strand Chili Parlor in Newport, Kentucky, after Petro left partnership with Nicholas Sarakatsannis of Dixie Chili, which was just a few blocks south on Monmouth Street. The Manoff chili recipe is probably the most authentic to the original Empress chili of any of the recipes out there. That recipe found its way to Hamburger Heaven through Petro’s son, Thomas, and then to Gold Star Chili when the Daoud family bought Hamburger Heaven. It found it’s way through Petro’s daughter Mary Elcoff to West End Chili Parlor and Mary Lou’s Grill.
As a result of the interviews with the Manoff family, I received a fantastic family Macedonian cookbook of all the recipes of Sophie Manoff (known as Baba Feke to her grandchildren), from her granddaughter, Karen. Embedded in the cookbook, is a wonderful snapshot of what a Macedonian immigrant New Year was like in Cincinnati. All her life, Baba Feke was part of the Macedonian league in Cincinnati, called “Bistrita”, after a river that flowed through Bulgaria and Macedonia. She served as a delegate to the larger national Macedonian league, who were lobbying to get Macedonian independence from Greece. She never considered herself Greek, and never really learned to speak English – her daughters, Flora and Mary serving as her translators. She left strong memories to her grandchildren of their Macedonian heritage through her cooking.
Instead of the Vasilopita, Baba Feke, would make a Tyropita or cheese pita pastry (like the Bulgarian feta cheese banista) for the large New Year’s Dinner celebration. She would craftily stuff it with a blade of grass, a leaf, and several dimes. If someone found the grass, it was their job to cut the grass for the year. If someone found the leaf, then come fall, it was their job to rake the leaves. The dimes were always guaranteed to be found by her little grandchildren. It was considered by the Macedonians that cabbage was good luck and so either lamb stuffed cabbage rolls, or lamb and cabbage stew was the main dish at New Year. Along with the pita and stew, Baba Feke would serve sides of feta cheese, black olives, sweet peppers, baklava, and karoubiedes, or spiced half moon cookies flavored with ouzo. Turkish coffee was also served with the desserts. What a festive New Year it must have been at Baba Feke and Dedo Pete’s table!