We’re fast approaching the season of the Fish Fry and the time where our city consumes a boatload of tartar sauce. The highest selling brand is Frisch’s tartar sauce, which is shipped around the world and sold in grocery stores. This famous tartar sauce has been made by a small family owned company in Reading/Silverton called Food Specialties for over fifty years. The company was founded in the early twenties by Louis Schulman and specializes in the production of sauces, spreads and dressings. Frisch’s sells more than 120,000 gallons of the creamy white sauce.
Ironically Frisch’s tartar sauce was not created for fish, but to top its Big Boy double decker hamburger. In 1946, David Frisch introduced the double decker sandwich to his new restaurant. He first saw the stacked hamburger in California at the Big Boy restaurants from whom he bought a four state franchise. In California, they were topped with Thousand Island dressing. But Frisch didn’t like the pink dressing on his sandwiches, so he created a tartar sauce with mayonnaise, diced pickles and onions.
One day, Melvin Schulman, son of Louis, made a delivery to Frisch’s for another food item, and saw David painstakingly mixing his tartar sauce by hand. Louis said his family’s company could make it for them and bottle it, they were already making a tartar sauce. David wiped the sweat from his brow and agreed, if Melvin and his family agreed not to reveal the secret recipe. A handshake cemented the business relationship that lasts today into the third generation of the Schulman family. The recipe hasn’t changed much since then.
Mel’s wife Zelma Scharff Schulman, was a local Cincinnati food writer and avid cook. She promoted use of their family tartar sauce in tuna salad and many other recipes.
But here’s the story behind the story. At the Over-the-Rhine Museum’s “3 Acts – Feeding Over-the-Rhine” program last night, Joe Tucker, owner of the recently re-opened iconic Tucker’s Restaurant in Over-the-Rhine lent some interesting facts on the rumor of ‘who topped their burger with tartar sauce first.” He told the audience that Specialty Foods was already making a tartar sauce that his family’s restaurant used. Joe’s father, Escom Garth Tucker and his wife Maynie, were already topping their double decker, the Big Tucker, with Schulman’s brand of tartar sauce, called Lady Rose Tartar Sauce. Because, Joe Tucker says, who had heard of topping a double decker with tartar sauce?
The original tartar topped burger, the Big Tucker.
Well, the tartar sauce-topped double decker was becoming a thing in Cincinnati – first Tuckers, then around the same time, the Green Derby and their Derby Boy in Covington, Kentucky. By the 1950s, nearly every me-too burger chain in Cincinnati, including now forgotten names like Country Boy and Red Barn.
Before the crazy idea of topping a double decker with tartar sauce, Cincinnatians were using tartar sauce to top much more acceptable things, like beef brains. An 1891 Cincinnati Enquirer article gave a detailed recipe for tartar sauce to go with brains, which included homemade mayonnaise made from raw egg yolk and then whites, gherkins, capers, chervil, parsley, and mustard – sounds delicious!
Those who could answer the rumor are now gone. Louis Schulman passed in 1972, and his son Mel in 2003. So, the Lady Rose brand was the precursor to our beloved Frisch’s and may be the final proof that Tuckers tartar-topped their burgers first!