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.