Spitzbuben, an Over-the-Rhine Gang and a Delicious German Cookie

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A bridge closure near me on Marburg Avenue has really put a hitch in my morning giddyup.   Either of the two detours that I am forced to take are fairly roundabout and cause about a 10 minute delay in my already long commute.     One of the most logical detours is closed off because there are huge expensive mansions on that street and well, money talks, so there I go.     But who cares about my commuting delays?   One of the things it has forced me to do is get my coffee at the Coffee Emporium on Eire Avenue.     Their coffee is great – higher quality than my regular coffee stops.   This morning something besides the coffee caught my eye.

 

Coffee Emporium roasts their own beans and really has the best selection of coffees of all the shops in Cincinnati.   They also have both house-made and locally made pastries and breakfast items, like biscotti and other goodies.   Well this week I noticed a freshly made pile of German cookies called Spitzbuben of which I’d recently become familiar.       I looked down and said, “Ah Spitzbuben!!”   The hip coffee baristo looked at me like I had six heads, and said, “Huh?”   I told him, “That’s the German name of the cookie on your counter,” and he just looked at me like I had a secondary jaw coming out of my mouth like that scene towards the end in the first Aliens.   I decided not to expound.   I was running late anyway.

 

Spitzbuben are a sandwich cookie made of an almond shortcrust pastry, held together by raspberry jam, with a peek-a-boo window in the center, and then sprinkled in confectioners’ sugar.   They can be circular, or other-shaped.    They’re typically a Christmas cookie in Germany and Switzerland, but they’re so good that they are seen all year round.    The ones at the Coffee Emporium are a rounded star shape.       They’re very similar to my favorite cookie, of the same family, the Linzer cookie, made with the same cloves, cardamom and nutmeg-spiced shortbread used in the Austrian Linzertorte.

 

So the literal translation of this cookie means ‘peek-a-boo’ or ‘spying boy’.       And it reminded me of something I was reading while researching the Kroger company’s candy manufacturing for a recent project.       Barney Kroger gave an interview to the Cincinnati Enquirer in the 1920s.     At that time he was involved in local politics and was facing off with the local Republican political machine headed by the corrupt Boss Cox.     Kroger compared Cox’s “Old Gang” political machine to the Spitzbuben, or thieves and rascals from his days growing up and doing business in Over-the-Rhine.     The Spitzbuben were what the Germans of the neighborhood called the mischief makers, the ne’er do wells, who were always spying for the right time to steal something from his store – or a unknowing street vendor.    They were usually younger boys who roamed together in packs to pull off a heist – pulling attention away from someone, while another of the gang pickpocketed the target.     It sounded all very much like a Dickens novel, but set in the German Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

 

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A closeup of a group of the Spitzbuben, from Cincinnati artist Joseph Henry Sharp’s 1892 painting, “Fountain Square Pantomime.”      The extended arm is of a policeman, holding back the trouble makers who are making faces behind his back in defiance.

So the peek-a-boo translation refers to both a window to showcase jam in a delicious German Christmas cookie, and an eyeing street scoundrel ready to pounce and steal your money.

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