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!