From Japanese Interment Camps to Cincinnati Tofu Production

Yubu, fried tofu, one of the products made in Cincinnati in the 1940s on by Soya Products Company.
Long before the Hippie Farming Movement of the 1970s brought tofu and other soy products into the mainstream, Cincinnati had its own tofu manufacturing company.    A dark period in our history brought two Japanese immigrant families together to form a business that would supply the Japanese market and institutions with Cincinnati made tofu.
Soya Food  Products Company was formed in October of 1944 in Price Hill on Queen City Avenue by two Japanese immigrants, Takeshi “Ben” Yamaguchi (1903-1994) and Yoshio Shimuzu.   Like tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans, Shimuzu and Yamaguchi were detained in an interment camp.   They had become good friends playing mah-jong at the Poston, Arizona, Interment camp from 1942-1944.   A fellow detainee in the camp taught them how to make tofu .     After the war, Yamaguchi and Shimuzu travelled from the camp to Washington, Detroit, Cincinnati, and Chicago to find a place to for their families to settle.    Shimuzu’s brother-in -aw, Heishi Takao was already settled in Cincinnati, and the families thought Cincinnati would be a steady business for their bean sprout experiment.
Ben,  immigrated to the U.S. in 1918, adopted by his Uncle,  Yataro Yamaguchi, to help at he and his wife’s restaurant in Culter, California.  Ben had been born in Fukuoka, Japan, where he was second son and one of ten children.    The Cutler restaurant  was destroyed by fire, so they moved the restaurant to Dinuba, CA, calling it  the Dinuba Café.     The cafe served chop suey, chow mein, steaks, and short orders.      Shortly after he immigrated Ben’s uncle asked him if he knew the story of the wise and good American, Benjamin Franklin.    Yataro started calling his nephew Ben from that day on to help him assimilate to his new homeland.   Ben would pass on the name to his son, Dr. Ben Yamaguchi, a Cincinnati pathologist,  and his son, Ben Yamaguchi III, who would, with his brother, own the west side iconic restaurant, Maury’s Tiny Cove for several years.
The Shimuzu and Yamaguchi families found the Germans of Price Hill to be very friendly.   The kids came by and offered to take their kids to Sunday school at the Plymouth congregational church, where they would later join.     Two German brothers helped them find their second location in 1949 on Wyoming avenue when they needed to expand from  the first Queen City location.
Originally the company was formed to produce bean sprouts for local grocers.  No one was growing bean sprouts in Cincinnati in 1944, so they had absolutely no competition.  Tofu was added when a customer came in and said a sick friend wanted tofu.   Using the methods they learned at the Poston Interment Camp they made tofu and it took off within the Japanese American community around Cincinnati.   It became a boon for all Japanese restaurants and families with two hours of Cincinnati.   For the Japanese American customers, the food that Soya Products offered were the only daily  thread back to their culture.
When the bell of the retail store would signal a customer, Mrs. Yamaguchi, in her husky voice, would say Irashimassen (welcome in Japanese) and pour hot green tea into earthenware cups.   The warm muskiness of boiling soybeans permeated the store.  After their parents paid for their groceries, children were given free boxes of Botan rice candy from Ben Yamaguchi
Although the main business was bean sprouts and tofu, the company expanded into a retail and wholesale business that distributed mung beans, alfalfa and radish sprouts, chicken chop suey, fried tofu and Oriental cooking equipment and other Japanese foods  like canned eels, melons, radish pickled in sake and dried lotus roots.  Ben met with public school and general hospital dieticians, teaching them how to make nutritious vegetable chop suey with rice to help educate the non Asian residents about his products.      Soya sold their extensive product line to schools, hospitals, restaurants and other institutions within 100 miles of Cincinnati.     Being in a mostly Germanic neighborhood, it was tough to get German extracted Cincinnatians to try beans and bean sprouts.
One of the unique tofu products they made was called Yubu, which is fried tofu stuffed with seasoned rice and made into sushi
Two of Ben’s Grandsons, Robby and Steve Yamaguchi were featured on a segment of  Mister Rogers Neighborhood , demonstrating how they made tofu at Soya Products.
The business lasted into the late 1980s, and the torch was taken up by Chieko Tofu and Sunsprout Foods in Cincinnati.

Products of the Campfire – Gypsy Ham and Gypsy Bacon



Every Memorial Day Weekend in Cincinnati, there’s an arrival of a very mysterious group at Spring Grove Cemetery.  There’s both discretion and respect around their arrival, but the folklore about them runs high and has created a fascination of their customs with outsiders, especially with reality shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.     This is the arrival of the Gypsies, or more accurately, the Scottish Travelers, who make a yearly pilgrimage to adorn the graves of their families with a multitude of over-the-top flower arrangements.   It’s a tradition that supposedly has been going on for over 100 years.   And, it started because of the generosity of the operators of Spring Grove Cemetery.


The Scottish Travelers, who are related to the Roma gypsies of Eastern Europe, had been coming to Cincinnati since around the time of the Civil War, on their way north in their summer east coast migration.   They made their camps near the Cumminsville/Northside area on the Mill Creek, circling their wagons around campfires. The story goes that during their travel through Cincinnati in about 1890, a young child of the gypsy camp was struck and killed by a streetcar.   The gypsies asked Spring Grove to hold the child’s body until they could return and pay for a proper funeral.   The managers of Spring Grove agreed and the clans have been coming back ever since, burying their families at the cemetery, with rose colored granite tombstones and adorning every year with themed flower arrangements.   They range from Elvis themed, to shapes of favorite consumer products or foods the loved ones enjoyed in life.     The arrangements costs hundreds to thousands of dollars.


There are two deli products that harken back to the campfire days of these gypsy migrations.  They’re not as common in Cincinnati, but can be found at mostly Hungarian or Eastern European meat markets, in Cleveland or Chicago, or other areas where Eastern European immigrants settled.    The foods are called Gypsy Ham, szynka Cyganska , and Gypsy Bacon, Boczek cyganski. In America, the German version of gypsy bacon is called Zigeunerspeck.


Gypsy ham gets its name from its roots in gypsy camps where pork meat – usually the leg – was smoked over an open wood fire, giving the skin a darker color.    The fat was taken off the leg, netted, and then smoked.


Gypsy bacon is seasoned with garlic and paprika, and then cut and skewered so it can be easily held over an open campfire.   Once cooked, it is placed on a slice of rye bread with red onions and baked beans for a gypsy bacon sandwich.


Whether their names are considered politically incorrect or disrespectful today, these products have kept their origin story intact.   So now we can celebrate these groups with their food.

Cincinnati’s Hip Holtman Donut Dynasty


Holtman Over-the-Rhine’s Maple Bacon on Blueberry Cake Donut.


I have a soft spot in my heart for baking families, as my mother’s family were bakers.    But thankfully, I don’t have a soft spot in my enamel, at least this visit.   The last thing you think you’ll learn about in the dentist’s chair is the legacy of Cincinnati’s hippest donut empire.   Well that’s exactly what happened to me when I recently made my twice yearly cleaning appointment.   Little did I know that my dentist married one of the Holtman donut family, whose Over-the-Rhine donut shop has a line snaking down Vine Street almost any weekend morning.


The conversation was a bit one sided.   It’s kinda hard to carry on a conversation when a stainless steel scraper is spanning your mouth.   But it all started with a discussion of local restaurants that offer live music.   My dentist told me about his 80-something year old father-in-law, who still plays the saxophone, and goes out with he and his wife on the weekends to listen to bands, sometimes making a cameo appearance on stage.


This saxophone-playing octogenarian is none other than the oldest living original Holtman donut brother, Marvin Holtman Jr.     His brothers Charles and Roger Holtman started Holtman Donuts in 1960 in Newtown, Ohio, to give their father Marvin Sr,. a job after he had lost his as a milk delivery man.     Marvin Sr. opened a second location in Milford in 1964.   Then, as other family members saw the success, they opened multiple locations in Cincinnati.

Marvin Jr. was one of those other family members, who operated two Holtman Donut shops in Norwood, one at Smith, and one Allison Roads near the baseball field.     That’s where my dentist met his wife, Marvin’s daughter, even though he was not a donut fan himself.  I wonder how many of my dentist’s patients are loyal Holtman eaters.

Another family member who branched out was Charles Hotlman’s daughter Marcella Holtman Poole.  She opened Marcella’s Bakery, recently passing it on to her daughter, Carmen Meholick, and Carmen’s son, Tristin Meholick, who now manages the Amelia, Mt. Carmel, and Eastgate locations.   The 21 year old is passionate about growing the business.   He’s landed an account with the Hotel Covington and has released his version of the New York invented cronut – the croissant-donut love child.

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Fourth Generation Holtman descendant, Tristin Meholick, owner of Marcella’s Doughnuts & Bakery.


Marcella’s sister, Toni Holtman Lazarin, is the current keeper of the original Holtman donut recipes. She and sister Marcella are two of 10 children of Charles Holtman, all of whom learned to make the signature hand-cut Holtman donuts. Toni and husband Chuck run the Loveland and Williamsburg shops, with help from other family members, while Toni’s son Danny Lazarin and wife Katie are the ones who opened the super-popular Over-the-Rhine location in 2013.



The Holtman Donut Family.

In addition to the traditional Holtman donut recipes, the Over-the-Rhine location offers specialty pastries like the sufganiyot, a deep fried jelly filled donut available during the Hannukah season.   They also make a completely decadent maple bacon-iced blueberry cake donut.      My sister bought Holtman’s  oversized donut cake for one of my nephew’s birthdays and its delicious.

It’s so worth the wait in line for a Holtman donut if you are ever tooling around downtown on the weekend.    But make sure you brush after eating!

Breaking Bad ‘Habits’ – Portuguese Nun Pastries in Chicago


The Nasty Nata  from Nando’s in Chicago – a Portuguese Nun-invented egg custard tart.

Last night in Chicago, I was looking for a quick, but good meal on the way to see Hamilton.   I found one of the few international fast casual chain that we’ve actually imported.    America has certainly exported our quick service chains overseas.    It’s a chicken joint called Nando’s that features a spicy sauce called Peri Peri used on grilled chicken, and it’s cuisine is African-Portuguese.     The seemingly fusian food comes from a time when Portugal owned the high seas, and had a colonial influence during the 15th and 16th centuries, that spanned, India, Africa, Asia, and South America.

Peri Peri sauce originated in Mozambique.    But the chain originated fairly recently – in 1987, when Portuguese born Fernando Duarte and Robert Brozin bought a South African chicken place called Chickenland that served the grilled chicken with peri peri, in which their now 1000 world locations specialize.

After a wonderfully spicy peri peri chicken leg with spicy brussel sprouts, I had to try one of what they call their “Nasty Nattas,” a small egg custard the size of a silver dollar that they serve warm with cinnamon and sugar.

The pastry is based on a Portuguese pastry known as ‘Pastel de Nata’ that was created by nuns at the Convent of Santa Maria de Belem outside of Lisbon.     In convents and monasteries, egg whites were used to starch clothes, especially nuns’ habits.      So they had a lot of leftover egg yolks that they used to make the pastries to give to visitors and sell to support themselves.    This led to an entire industry, still strong today called, ‘dorcaria conventual,’ pastries made in convents.     There are others – like one called barrigia de freira – or nun’s belly.         The Portuguese wine industry also created a bumper of unused egg yolks.   It was found that using egg whites as a filtering agent for wine was very effective.  So the winemakers also had cheap egg yolks to supply the convents and bakeries.

The particular Pastel de Nata has been made continuously on the same site in Lisbon since 1837 and is a huge hit with locals and tourists alike.   Nearly every corner in Portugal has a bakery that makes its own egg custart tart.

Lots of the pastries have sort of cheeky nun names that point to the reason Nando’s calls theirs the Nasty Natta.   Even though Portugal’s Catholicism was a mix of Muslim, pagan, and devotional beliefs that was perfect for subjugating women –  love ruled Portugal.     It was a culture of contradictions.    Women wore a face veil similar to Muslim women and weren’t allowed to travel in public without escorts.    Women caught conversing on church steps could be imprisoned.   But even married women and nuns found lovers.   So many men fell in love with nuns in Portugal – there was a term invented for nun lovers – “freiraticos.”   These men seemed not to see the irony of subjugating their wives, but falling in love with nuns over whom they had absolutely no control.

A 2006 book called Letters from a Portuguese Nun,  by author Myriam Cyr,  documents one of these love affairs.

I was happy to have a tasty, but naughty, sweet ending to my spicy peri peri chicken whose history spans back to 16th century nuns.

Malted Milkshake – The Original Energy Drink


Where else but in Cincinnati can you get a great malt at a gas station convenience store?   I’m talking, of course, about any of the 200 locations of UDF, United Dairy Farmers. As the warm weather is finally upon us, our minds turn to cooler thoughts like ice cream.   I’ve always taken for granted the ready availability of a UDF malt.     UDF has only been around since 1943, when the Lindner’s decided to undercut all the milk delivery businesses in town, by selling direct.   But Cincinnati soda fountains served ice cream shakes and phosphates from about the 1880s onward.

Malt is basically a powder made up of malted barley, wheat flour, and evaporated whole milk. It was the original energy drink.   Early in its origin story, malt was used as a health food for infants and invalids.   English pharmacist James Horlick had developed this formula, and in 1873 started a company in Chicago with his brother, William, to sell their malted baby food.   In 1883 they earned a patent for a malt formula fortified with dried milk.


Horlick, the inventor of malted milk powder.

It quickly found another market.   Explorers appreciated its lightweight and stable qualities, as well as its high caloric content, and made it their provision of choice, on their treks around the world.   Horlick’s even sponsored the Byrd expedition in Antartica.


Plain malted drinks without ice cream, like Carnation and Ovaltine are still around.   Horlick’s original malt is still popular in India, where because of religious reasons, the drink is made from Buffalo milk instead of cow’s milk.

But how did the malt take the form that we see at UDF and other malt shops? Malted milk was a natural for the soda fountain. It was not only nonalcoholic but healthy. In 1922, Ivan “Pop” Coulson, a Walgreens employee, wanted to improve their chocolate malt beverage.   Ivan was a soda fountain guru who was always experimenting with fountain concoctions.   The original Walgreens recipe was milk, chocolate syrup, and a spoonful of malt powder.    Coulson, with the addition of one ingredient – ice cream – would invent a form of the malt that would stand the test of time -the malted milkshake.

Americans loved the taste and turned a health food into a pleasure food, as it would later do with peanut butter and granola.   And now, we have that brilliant soda jerk Ivan Coulson to thank for our delicious malts.

When Crackers were Biscuits in Cincinnati



The Strietmann Biscuit Company in Mariemont.

In the warm weather months, when the wind patterns are right, I can sit on my front porch and smell a wonderful vanilla cookie smell from the old Keebler, now Kellogg factory in Mariemont at the foot of the Red Bank valley from my house.    It’s a delightful summer bennie, and contrasts the garlicy grilled smells I get from the back porch of my house wafting over from Bankock Bistro and M.

My father used to be the account manager for the Keebler  employee cafeteria at the Mariemont site, back when he sold commercial food programs, and sometimes he’d bring back some of their product samples from a customer visit.

What I have known as the Keebler bakery plant has actually been in Mariemont since 1943, and the company who built it, Strietmann Biscuit Company, has a history that goes back to just after the Civil War in Over-the-Rhine, when crackers were still known by their English name – biscuits.     It was probably some time after World War I when Americans stopped calling crackers biscuits.

The original 1899 built Strietmann factory on West 12th street adjacent to the Miami and Eire Canal (now Central Parkway) is now being renovated into luxury apartments.    The executive offices of that building were also used to pose as the New York Times offices in the new Cincinnati-filmed movie, Carol.     The company was founded in 1873 by German immigrant George H. Strietmann, who was a member of the Cincinnati Turner Society, a German sport and social club that became a national movement.

During their time at the Over-the-Rhine facility, Strietmann produced a variety of crackers – the graham cracker, sugar wafers, a variety of snap coookies, pretzels, and a truly American common brand, Zesta soda crackers, which was adopted by Kraft as their national saltine cracker brand and sold by Kellogg today.


The 1899 Strietmann Factory in Over-the-Rhine and some of their original products.

One of the products that Strietmann also made was called Cheese Snax.    The Cheese Cracker or Cheez-it was invented in Ohio, but not by the Strietmann Company.   It was actually invented in Dayton, Ohio, in 1921 by the Green and Green Company (founded by Greenville, Ohio-born, Weston Green) on the corner of Cincinnati and Concord Streets. His company would later become Sunshine Crackers, which is now owned by Kellogg, who still sells the immensely popular Cheez-It Crackers.


The Strietmann Company became in 1927 a regional bakery division as part of the United Biscuit Company, along with Godfrey Keebler’s Philadelphia based commercial bakery, and several others.   The Keebler Bakery was actually the first bakery in 1936 to bake Girl Scout Cookies.   Before that the girls and their mothers did the baking.

In 1966, United Biscuit decided to choose a united national brand across all of their divisions and Strietmann became Keebler.    In 2001, Keebler was acquired by the Kellogg Company, who owns the deliciously smelling Mariemont site today, and whom I have to thank for the summer vanilla cookie aromas.


Espelette – The Pepper of the Basque



Today I got the email from Dutch’s sous chef  that I had been waiting for over a week.   Basque sausages are in!    They had just been made this morning.    I had till 9 at night to stop by my neighborhood charcuterie and pick up some of these delicacies.

I’ve been enamored with the Basque region since high school after reading, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway.     In the 1926 classic, he romanticizes the whole festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain, where the infamous running of the bulls happens every July.    I love the culture, the passion of the Basque people and their food.  And, travel there is high on my bucket list.   I want to see the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, and I want to dance and drink at all the little festivals til the sun comes up.

So, if I can’t go to the Basque now, I’ll taste its flavors until I get there.

As the butcher who made said Basque sausages was talking me through their ingredients – roasted red bell pepper, pork, garlic –  I stopped him at Espelette.    What the hell is that, I asked?   I had never heard of that one before.    He said it was the pepper of the Basque region and the cornerstone of their regional cooking.   It’s sort of like paprika, but has a subtle otherness that paprika doesn’t.   He brought over the container of dried Espelette and let me take a whiff.   There was definitely the smokiness  of paprika, but there was a sweetness, and this other worldly sort of scent that was reminiscent of Grippos potato chip spice and a Vietnamese-Chinese sausage spice my roommate in college used to bring from home.    It was exotic and lovely and I can’t wait to use them in a weekend meal.

My weekend scavenger hunt is to see if Colonel D’s at Findlay Market has Espelette.  Hmm – I wonder how it would taste in Cincinnati chili?

The butcher at Dutch’s  learned his sausage art, oddly enough, making the homemade meatballs and sausages at Mt Lookout’s Ramundo’s pizza on the square.  I had no idea they made all their own.

Because this was such a clean and mild sausage, he recommended cooking it in hot water and olive oil – sort of like sous-vide and then give it a couple of turns in a pan or on a grill for the sear.      He said the mistake most people make is grilling or searing a nice sausage at too high a heat, bursting the skin and letting all the flavors out.

So this weekend, I’ll break out my beret, some good Spanish wine, and cook some wonderful Basque sausage – all are welcome – just bring more wine!