Pancit & Politics

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Food sometimes becomes the symbol of a revolution or war– a unique dish that sustains us through the hard times of political turmoil.   Tea became the symbol of our independence from Britain.   With my Germanic heritage, “Liberty Cabbage”, what Cincinnatians renamed their sauerkraut, during the anti-German sentiment of World War I, is one of those foods.  Cincinnatians like to say that eating another Germanic dish, goetta, is eating back into our family history.   It transplants us back in time to when our great-great grandparents were struggling new immigrants fighting the Know Nothing  hysteria of the 1850s, or the anti-German sentiment of the World Wars.

 

For my high school friend Chris, that dish connecting to his Filipino heritage was pancit, a staple his family brought with them when they left the Philippines and the corrupt Marcos regime in 1973 to start a new life in Cincinnati.     That dish had a lot deeper meaning and a more current connection for his family, than the pre-World War I heritage foods of my family.   Pansit was that tie to their family and life back in Baggio, the village outside of Manilla, where they were from.   Marcos was their King George, and pancit their bohea tea.

 

Until recently you couldn’t find pancit outside of a Filipino family gathering in Cincinnati.   Now there are several restaurants where you can find it with other Filipino dishes like eggrolls and Filipino barbecue. It’s still not as common as Vietnamese Pho, but I have faith that it will become another of our city’s most popular dishes.   One place to find it in awesome form is at Christine’s on Harrison Avenue.

 

But back when I was first introduced to pancit by Chris’s family, it was the most amazing dish I had encountered. Along with eating pancit came stories of life back in Baggio, where Chris’ grandparents and a whole host of aunts, uncles, and cousins still lived.

 

I have often wondered why there weren’t Pancit Parlors in Cincinnati like there were chili parlors. It sort of resembled our threeway, without a cheese layer.   At least there should have been one in Forest Park, where a great deal of Cincinnati’s Filipino community lived.

 

I ate a lot of pancit in high school at my friend Chris’s family gatherings, where it, along with trays of delicious Filipino eggrolls, were a staple, even at Thanksgiving.   For me it was something fantastic, way outside of my family’s Germanic and American comfort food standards.   For Chris’ family, it was as common as spaghetti and meat sauce was to us.   Plates of a twinkie-like sweet bread called puto, often accompanied the pancit and barbecue feasts.

 

Noodles are said to have been brought to the Philippines by Chinese immigrants, but the pancit noodle originated in the Philippines. It’s a rice cellophane noodle that has a texture all its own and is brilliant for taking in the sauce in which it’s cooked.   To make pancit, the rice noodles are soaked and mixed with a combo of stir fried shrimp, pork or chicken, garlic and vegetables like carrot, cabbage, and onions.  Add garlic, teriyaki and soy sauce and you have this delicious dish.

 

 

Chris’s mom, Vilma taught me how to make pancit, and although I haven’t made it in a long time, I still have the recipe I transcribed from her, in a plastic sleeve, as if it’s an illuminated Bible passage.   I remember Vilma chuckling at me as I asked her questions and took notes in her kitchen for that recipe.   Pancit is something that every Filipino woman knows how to make from memory, and with their own family variations – no recipes needed.   The men focused on the pork barbecue.   But for this German Gringo for whom pancit was the most exotic dish he’d known, I had to record the secrets to its creation. I have also made puto, from a packaged box mix I found at Jungle Jim’s, but it could never match the perfection of Vilma’s homemade version.

 

Vilma and her husband, Dody, came with their young family to Cincinnati from the Philippines over 40 years ago, fleeing the martial law dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.   Marcos silenced the media, modified the constitution, and used violence and oppression against his political opposition.    According to a US report, the Marcos family plundered between $5 and $10 billion dollars from the Filipino people, to support their own lavish lifestyle.   At the end of the Marcos regime, the U.S. media seemed to focus on the number of shoes Imelda Marcos had in their presidential palace to drive home their extravagance.

 

Dody is now a retired architect, and designed many houses throughout the northwestern Cincinnati area.   Vilma is a retired teacher. When the family returned to visit relatives in 1986 after the downfall of the Marcos regime, Vilma was shocked at how much more poverty there was since they left.   So she decided to stay a few years and help rebuild.  She used her experience working with the Franciscans in Cincinnati to get vegetable and flower seeds for the Filipino poor and stayed until she saw them being planted.

 

Vilma and Dody hosted Benigno Acquino and his wife, Corazon, at a talk in Cincinnati in 1980, during his exile in the United States, three years before he was executed stepping off a plane in Manilla.    After Corazon became president, Vilma’s niece by marriage, Margie Lucio became the President’s protocol secretary, helping to break down the sexist opposition to the country’s first female president.

 

The Philippines faces its own challenges today, much as America does.   Current President Rodrigo Duterte is not held in high regard for his tactics to quell the drug problems.   And solving twin insurgencies of communists and Islamist separatists, poverty, and terrorism load his lengthy to-do list.

 

But there will always be pancit, to sustain and remind.

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America’s Only Pig Monument – In Warren County, Ohio

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The 1922 Dedication of the Poland China Hog Monument in Blue Ball, Butler County, Ohio.

 

Summer is for road trips and stopping along the way at bizarre roadside attractions.   One of the weirdest of these –  and it’s food related – is on the border of Warren and Butler Counties – the Poland China Hog Monument.  It’s located near the  busy intersection  of State Route 122 and Dixie Highway, in Middletown, Ohio, across from the Towne Mall.   This modest monument has the distinction of being the only one venerating the pig in all of America.     It was moved in 1976 – across the street from its original location, the farm of William Cheeseman Hankinson, which had become the Towne Mall.    The Hankinson farm was less than a mile north of the now forgotten farm hamlet of Blue Ball, Ohio.  I know what you’re thinking.  There used to be a large wooden blue ball greeting visitors into the said town.   The monument is the most interesting relic to our area’s Porkopolis past.

 

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The Poland China Monument as it stands today, in Warren County, Ohio.

Tens of thousands of Poland China hogs were driven through Hamilton County on Colerain and Hamilton Avenues in the Fall to the Cincinnati slaughterhouses and to packers in Middletown.   The breed’s sturdy bones made it ideally suited for the journey to market.  Both turnpikes were dotted with Farmer’s Hotels, where weary farmers, and their swine could rest on their way.   The free range, naturally fed, Ohio bred Poland China hog made the sausages and goetta that early Cincinnati German immigrants devoured with their beer.    This was the pork of your great grandparents, before the industrial-grade hogs of today, raised in confinement facilities.

 

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An 1874 painting of L. A Parrett of Fayette County, Ohio, loading his Poland China pigs for market, by itinerant livestock painter, Henry Douse.   From the Cincinnati Art Museum’s 2017 Folk Art exhibit.
So, I had to visit and pay my respects to this pork monument following the ‘Poland China Hog Highway’, State Route 122, on my way home from work.  I call it that because between breeders in three villages off 122-  Union Shaker Village, Blue Ball, and Red Lion – was where the breed originated.   The monument now sits over a the north branch of Dick’s Creek in Warren County, on a high point off of Dixie Highway.  The monument inscription reads:   ‘The first pedigree of a Poland China Hog was written on this farm in August, 1876, by W.C. Hankinson, owner of farm and Carl Freigau, compiler of the original record. This strictly American breed of swine originated within a radius of a few miles of this place, and in the making occupied the period from 1816 to 1850. The first volume of pedigrees was printed in 1878. This monument was erected by the Ohio Poland China Breeders Associations. Unveiled, June 15, 1922.'”

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Over 600 people attended the monument’s dedication.   The crowd was made up of all the principal hog registration agencies, national hog dignitaries, farmers and breeders and their families from Butler and adjoining counties.   The Poland China hog was a big deal to Warren and Butler county farmers.   It was known as the ‘mortgage lifter’ and those who raised them called themselves ‘fancy breeders’.    Ed Rosencrancs, the Emcee of the porcine event, and the son-in-law of William Harkinson, said the Poland China Hog was the hog that won the Civil War and put the Kaiser to sawing wood.    Armies gotta eat.

The feeble 89 year old Hannah-Jane Hankinson, widow of William Hankinson pulled off the shroud, revealing the monument as “movie cameras clicked and the band played.”   There was one person alive at the time of the unveiling who had seen the Grand Dame of the Breed, the Old Harkrader Sow, and that was Mrs. Harkrader, who at 88, was not well enough to be at the event.

Carl Freigau,  the French artist who sketched and documented the pedigrees in 1876 was an interesting character.       He had traveled through Butler and Warren counties sketching cattle, hogs, and dogs for farmers, getting a meal or a slice of pie, sometimes even a night’s lodging for his work.    He was the one that came up with the idea of publishing a breed book on the Poland China hog.   And it was the pedigree recording of Lady Pugh at the Hankinson farm that the monument celebrated.

After the book was published, its sales were terrible, and so Freigau skipped town, leaving the debt to his publisher, M. J. Lawernce.    Lawrence quickly devised an ad campaign through his newspaper, the Ohio Farmer and drummed up enough interest in the book to make his money back, and to fund a second edition.    Five years later Carl Freigau came back and was made secretary of the Ohio Poland China Record Association, all abandonment forgiven.

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Carl Freigau, itinerant Ohio livestock artist and illustrator and writer of the first Poland China pedigree book.

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Pearl, one of William Hankinson’s pedigree pigs, sketched by Carl Freigau.

The real work in the breeding of the Poland China breed hog should be given credit to  the Shakers of Butler county, in Union Village.   It was their sires of this new breed of hog, that were bought by breeders in neighboring Blue Ball.   A Shaker named John Wallace was sent to Pennsylvania in 1816 to bring back swine for breeding, returning with two big China sows, which they bred with the local Russian hogs.

The Poland China family tree traces back to the Granddame hog of them all, the Old Harkrader Sow, owned by John Harkrader.     She was the mother of Lady Pugh 516, born in 1865, and her sire being Young Bob (who’s father was Bob Harkrader).   Lady Pugh was the first pedigreed Poland China Hog.   She was bred by J.B. Pugh of Franklin, Ohio, in 1864, and sold in 1868 to William C. Hankinson of Blue Ball, on whose farm the monument was erected, staying with him until she died in 1876, after 11 years of breeding.
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John Harkrader, owner of the Granddame sow of the Poland China Breed.
John Harkrader, owner of the Grand Dame, and known as “Little John” because of his shortness, was a great believer in pastures for his hogs, always doing so in small droves.    He exhibited the best of his hogs, known as the Pleasant Hill Herd at state and county fairs.    In 1852, he marketed four hundred head of hogs in Cincinnati that averaged about four hundred pounds each at an age of about 18 months.   Breeding stock was sold in the range of $80 to $100, then considered extremely high.

John Harkrader bought his foundation sow from a Springboro, Ohio farmer named John Bloss and his father John Sr., who had been raising hogs they bought from Monroe farmers since 1852.     John Sr. had come from Elkton Virginia in 1834, with his sister Sarah.   She married Phillip Olinger, the proprietor of the Red Lion Inn, in another hog breeding hamlet in Butler County (Red Lion) – less than a mile east of Blue Ball on State Route 122, at the “Five Points” intersection.  Bloss owned the dams of four generations prior to the Old Harkader sow.   Back then they weren’t known as Poland China Hogs, but as “Dick’s Creek Hog, “Clear Creek Hog”, “Warren County Hog”, “Butler County Hog”, or “Magie Hog,” after Oxford, Ohio, breeder David M. Magie, who contested that he was the first to breed the hog.    Bloss would only have white hogs, and since the other farmers bred black Poland China hogs, Bloss got out of the business and is somewhat lost to history, even though it was his hogs that were the basis of the breed.   Harkrader sold the Old Harkrader sow in 1862 to J. B. Pugh.

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The two Foundation Hogs or Granddaddy Hogs of the Poland China Breed are Zack and Irwin’s Sweepstakes.  All Poland China hogs trace their paternal lineage to one of these two sires.    Zack 310, bred in 1867 by William Gallaspie in Red Lion Ohio, and sired by a hog raised by Harvey Gallagher on his farm in Red Lion, Ohio, southeast of Monroe, weighed in at a whopping 940 pounds.  Irwin’s Sweepstakes, bred in 1867 by John Irwin, of  Darrtown, Ohio, was even bigger, at 1086 pounds, and was killed by a kick from a horse in 1876.

Originally the name proposed to this new breed was the Miami Valley hog, which would follow in the English tradition of naming the place of origin.     But by 1870s, when the name debate came up, the hog had already spread outside of the Miami Valley to the Cornbelt states and other parts of Ohio, so a more neutral name was agreed upon.

The Poland China hog established itself west by 1922 to the Cornbelt of Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota.    Most Butler and Warren County pig farmers had turned to Duroc Jerseys, and Hampshires by the 1930s, and no pedigreed  Poland China hogs even existed in Butler or Warren counties.    Today the most common local heritage breed being raised is the Hampshire.

 

 

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A Cincinnati Candy Box Story

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The Cincinnati Candy Box that travelled 60 miles nearly 100 years ago.

 

I was nearly giddy as I brought my find to the counter cash register.   For a food history geek who finds an obscure relic in an unusual place, like the Piano Factory Antique Mall in Ripley, Ohio, I felt a bit like Indiana Jones.    I was wearing a cool hat, but no sleek leather chinos or leather boots, and no bullwhip at my belt.   I know that in the antiques world, if you want to haggle for a better price, you have to act nonchalant, as if you could leave without it if you’re price isn’t met.    That would be impossible for me with this find.   I’m sure this was the only one of its kind still in existence.

Ripley, Ohio is a town filled to the hilt with Underground Railroad and pre Civil War history.  It’s an easy Saturday afternoon drive along the Ohio River.   This piece was not part of that history, but part of the post World War I changes happening in America.  Every time I go through Ripley on the way to Augusta or Maysville, Kentucky, I have to stop at the Piano Factory, to see what I can find.  Sometimes you lose, but today I won big!

For the last six months I’ve been researching and writing about the Cincinnati candy industry and have uncovered so many great stories and companies.   But I think this story may take the  cake.    It tells the story of a candy box that travelled the 60 or so miles from Cincinnati nearly one hundred years ago to a farm in New Richmond, and what it symbolized to the doting parents who received it.

So I plopped my find on the counter and began telling the woman about this find and the company.    It was a simple hinged wooden box, with an amazingly bright lithograph paper label , emblazoned with the words  New Era Confectionery, New Era Butterscotch.   Even though there was no marking of Cincinnati, I knew from the intertwined B & P logo in the center, it was a box from the Cincinnati Candy company Buhr & Pfaff.   Before the turn of the last century they were one of the largest candy wholesalers in the United States.   I had seen a large New Era candy tin for their Cocoanut (yep that’s how they spelled it back then)  Clusters at the Schmipff Candy Museum in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and the logos were identical, along of course, with the New Era Brand name .

I asked the seventy-something attendant  if she knew anything about the booth owner who was selling it.    She smiled and said, I know a lot about her, it’s me!     So I asked her where she found it and a lovely story unfolded.

She said she’d found it in the pantry at her grandparents’ farmhouse outside of town many years ago and always thought it was beautiful and unique.      I asked if her grandparents went to Cincinnati frequently, to which she said they didn’t.    But she did have an  aunt who moved to the “Big City”  to study art and landed a job working as an artist for the Gibson Greeting Card Company in Cincinnati.

The story was almost too perfect.    In the brave new era after World War I, where women were entering the workforce, a single daughter leaves her farm community to become an artist and brings back New Era Confections.     Come on – really?

Gibson Greeting cards had started in 1895 by four brothers whose printing family had immigrated from Scotland.    The company grew by leaps and bounds after they started producing something new to America – the Christmas Greeting Card.    It was a good company for a single woman to work – whether it was one of the high paying creative jobs, or even creating and setting the lithography plates for the printing press.    Gibson would become known for being one of the most diverse workplaces in Cincinnati – long before women and civil rights movements gained steam.

At the time,  Gibson Greeting Cards was on Fourth and Elm Street, only three or so blocks from the Buhr and Pfaff Company, who was then in five separate buildings on Second and Race Streets in Cincinnati’s ‘Candy Corridor,’ near the river.    It might have been an easy walk on the way to the streetcar stop that would take her home.

The attendant described her aunt as ‘very fancy.’    She remembered whenever she and her German barber husband would visit the family in New Richmond, she always came dressed to the hilt in great hats and in great style.     Imagine the circle of interesting artistic and creative friends she must have had in that flapper and speakeasy era in Cincinnati.   The attendant had many of her aunt’s paintings of various scenes in Cincinnati in her house – the Lincoln Statue in Piatt Park, and Owl’s Nest Park in O’Bryonville, across from which the aunt and her husband lived.

She also remembered her grandparents talking about these New Era butterscotch candies that came in this box like they were manna from heaven – as if no other candy maker in the world had ever before made butterscotches.    A great deal of candy stories tell the tales of courtship and romance, but this box told of a parents love for their daughter and their ability to let her go to pursue her passion.

Obviously these simple farm folk were so proud of their independent, intelligent daughter who left the small town by herself for the Big City and landed a good job.    This box was a symbol of their daughter’s success.    You can imagine them bragging to their friends and neighbors, “Look what our daughter brought to us from Cincinnati – here take one – aren’t they delicious?  She lives in Cincinnati, you know – got a bigtime job with Gibson Greeting Cards.”    The care with which they kept this candy box showed how important it was to them.

I love this story.  Every time these parents had a butterscotch,  their daughter was with them from over 60 miles away.    Connecting a simple candy box to such a wonderful story is what makes history come alive, and why I’ll never stop searching for great food history!   And, by the way, the woman gave me a discount anyway.    She loved the story too.

 

The Los Angeles Icon that Stole Graeter’s Ice Cream Recipes

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Wil Wright was one of the many Midwestern dreamers who traveled to California between the World Wars to seek his fortune around Los Angeles.   He was raised Catholic in Cincinnati, graduating from Purcell High School in East Walnut Hills in the late 1920s. Wright followed one of his high school buddies, Tyrone Power Jr., to Los Angeles. Power had come from an acting family that returned to Cincinnati, after his parents divorced.    In high school Power worked as a soda jerk at the Graeter’s soda fountain near Peebles Corner, but dreamed of the silver screen.   Power followed in his father’s footsteps landing star roles as either a swashbuckler or romantic lead in movies from the 1930s to the 1950s like Zorro, Jesse James, and the Razor’s Edge.

 

But Wil’s dream was different than that of his dashing thespian buddy.   In the 1940s Wright started what would become a chain of ice cream parlors in Southern California – the earliest parlors in Hollywood and the Sunset Strip.   One would pop up in Beverly Hills, another in Westwood Village, and more in Pacific Palisades, Newport Beach, Tarzana, and other places in SoCal.

 

The ice cream was super rich – almost 22% butterfat – referred later by many as the original Haagen-Dazs.     For several generations of Southern Californians, and long before its health food craze took off, Wil Wright’s created fond memories.   Many would go to the Santa Monica Boulevard parlor after a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. With each delicious scoop of ice cream came a small, vanilla wafer-sized chewy, almond macaroon.   Each macaroon came in a small rice paper bag with an angel and the slogan, “It’s heavenly!”     According to workers, a French lady baked these for Wright’s and they were shipped from her kitchen to all the locations.

 

Many talked about the delicious Peppermint Stick Ice Cream, or the Coffee flavored.   But when the last parlor closed, most talked about was the Nesselrode Bula, the most expensive flavor.   It was like Mullane’s Nesselrode Sundae in Cincinnati, with candied fruits, candied chestnuts, and brandy and rum.   The flavor was described as a boozy fruitcake.   This became the fave flavor of the Hollywood studio set like Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Hopalong Cassidy, Gary Cooper, and Cincinnati area natives Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day.   Many times chauffeurs would drive up to the Sunset Boulevard store and come in for a few quarts for their famous clients.

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Even Marilyn Monroe was a fan of Wil Wright’s ice cream, but not the Nesselrode Bula. Marilyn fed her voluptuous figure with their hot fudge sundae. Marilyn is quoted saying, “ It’s a good thing, I suppose, that I eat simply during the day, for in recent months I have developed the habit of stopping off at Wil Wright’s ice cream parlor for a hot fudge sundae on my way home from my evening drama classes. I’m sure I couldn’t allow myself this indulgence were it not that my normal diet is comprised almost totally of protein foods.” It looks like Marilyn was an early advocate of the Atkins Diet.

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Marilyn enjoying a Wil Wright’s hot fudge sundae.

Wright’s was immortalized in Pop Culture in several movies and album covers.  One movie it appeared in was the 1967 teen film, It’s A Bikini World.  The cover of Collections by the Rascals and Brubeck a la Mode by jazz great Dave Brubeck were shot at Wil Wright’s.   A 1966 Playboy centerfold even had some of her personal pictures shot at a Wil Wright’s.

Entrepreneurial vision was not the only thing Wil brought with him from Cincinnati.   In 1963, thirty year Graeter’s employee, Kathy Drake, then the manager of the Walnut Street Graeter’s store, told the Cincinnati Enquirer she knew Wil Wright when he was in Cincinnati.   She said a former Graeter’s employee taught Wright their French-pot method ice cream recipes and the secret formula for their Nectar Soda (which Graeter’s had modeled after the Mullane’s original nectar soda, created by John Mullane after his 1870s training in Acadian Quebec.)   These were the recipes he used to start his California ice cream empire.   He called it the New Orleans Nectar Soda, maybe to defer suspicion that he actually got the recipe in Cincinnati.

 

Maybe it was the health food scene that caused the demise of Wil Wright’s Ice cream parlors in the 1970s.   The Los Angeles Times ran a piece that Wright’s ice cream was much fattier and higher in calories than most of the other ice cream chains in Southern California.   But it was probably the entrée of other competitors with full menus – like Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, which also invaded Cincinnati at that time, and where I had my 8th birthday party over an ice cream cone clown sundae.   The last Wil Wright’s parlor closed in the late 1970s, but Graeter’s (and Aglamesis) is still serving their Cincinnati Nectar Soda.

Comeback Sauce: The Mississippi Remoulade Sauce Invading Westwood

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Good things are happening in Cincinnati’s Westwood neighborhood.   One of them is the opening of a new fresh store, Jubilee Market, on the corner of Harrison and McHenry.   It’s in a former convenience store, closed down because of drug activity – a result of neighbors banding together to improve and remove crime from their neighborhood.     The market project is an offshoot program of Jubilee United Methodist Church, who has in its mission to improve the health of children worldwide.   The market will offer affordable fresh produce from another of their projects, the Jubilee Gardens, which are urban gardens throughout the city.

A café called Streets Urban Grill will also be part of the new Jubilee Market.    The Grill is inspired by flavors from cultures across the nation with a hint of smoke.   They want to “create new memories and bring back old ones as people eat our food.”   Two of the menu items they’ll be offering are the Comeback Dog, and the Comeback Burger.      To me these are perfect names for one of Cincinnati’s oldest neighborhoods in the midst of its own Phoenix-arising.

Now I have never heard of comeback sauce, so of course I had to determine what the heck it is and its origin.   And, not to my surprise, it’s another sauce of the south, invading the North!   We’re lucky in Greater Cincinnati, being right on the border of the South. We have the luxury of access to lots of great southern foods already, and then all the crazy Midwestern and German immigrant foods.   But I did a quick scan and did not find any other restaurants serving this mysterious Comeback Sauce.

As it turns out, Comeback Sauce, originated in the Greek restaurants of Jackson, Mississippi – around 1935, either at the Rotisserie, or the Mayflower Café, as their house salad dressing.    Both were owned by the Dennery family.  Jackson was one of the towns in the south where Greek immigrants found work at cafes in the 1920s.   As they learned English and the market, they began opening their own cafes and diners.    Sounds like our Cincinnati Chili Story.   As each opened their own, they took their own recipe for Comeback Sauce and added their own magic.

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The Comback Sauce was originally developed as a house salad dressing at the Greek restaurants of Jackson, Mississippi.

The name supposedly comes from the fact that it’s so good that “you’ll comeback for more.”   In Mississippi, “it’s not a sauce, it’s a culture!”   No good Mississippi diner or café is without it on the table.

The sauce is a mix of mayonnaise and chili sauce, sometimes with ketchup and Worchestershire.   It’s basically a Mississippi version of the Louisiana remoulade, and can be used on virtually anything!   In Mississippi it’s used as a condiment on burgers and hot dogs, a salad dressing, and a dipping sauce for fried foods like oysters, shrimp, pickles, green tomatoes, fries, and onion rings.

Well, hopefully we’ll see this Southern sauce pop in other locations throughout the city, and I’ll be first in line when it shows up on Kroger’s shelves.

Why There’s Red Pop at Juneteenth Celebrations

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This weekend’s Juneteenth celebration has more meaning of freedom for African Americans than July 4th.     Yes, we became free of the tyranny of the British monarchy on July 4. But we weren’t yet free from our own tyranny of slavery.   Juneteenth, marks the reading on June 19, 1865, of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, and the official ending of slavery in the United States.    It wasn’t the end of the fight – which lasted over another 100 years – but it was definitely the beginning.

 

Local Juneteenth festivities will be at Eden Park.   And, revelers will celebrate with music and several symbolic foods.   In my opinion, the food event not-to-miss at this year’s Juneteenth, will be the 10:30 AM Sweet Potato Pie bakeoff, won in years past by Roper’s Restaurant in Bond Hill.   But please, bakers, don’t forget the cloves!  In addition to barbecue, smothered and fried chicken, and collard greens, the most common thing you’ll see at Juneteenth is the drinking of red drinks.   And millions of African Americans across the country will also be drinking ‘liquid soul’ as they celebrate this holiday, many not knowing the ties back to West Africa.

 

But why are red drinks so popular at Juneteenth celebrations? Historically speaking, and according to leading Soul Food Historian, and James Beard Award Winning writer, Adrian Miller, it all goes back to West Africa, the cradle of slavery.   There, red drinks often mark a special occasion.   Enslaved West Africans brought over the same customary social “punch” with them to the American and Carribean South. There are two such red drinks that hail from West Africa – Hibiscus tea and kola nut tea.

 

Hibiscus is native to West Africa, and its flower petals are used to make a tea called bissap – a hospitality drink that’s still popular in several countries today.   As late as the 1700s, enslaved West Africans cultivated this plant in Jamaica.   Over time, hibiscus tea spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America with enslaved and their descendants, where it is known today as Agua de Jamaica, or Jamaica water.     This is why you can typically find hibiscus tea at taco places like Mazunte in Madisonville.

 

Kola nut tea, was also a red drink and used in West Africa as a sign of hospitality. Sometimes guests got the nuts to chew on and buzz on (they contained a stimulant).   Enslaved West Africans also brought the kola nuts with them across the Atlantic to Caribbean plantations where they were used as supposed energy drinks.    Atlanta pharmacist John Stythe Pemberton used the kola nut in his original ‘medicinal’ Coca-Cola formula, along with coca leaf (from which a small amount of cocaine was present).

 

At early Juneteenth celebrations in the 1870s and 1880s, the red drink of choice was red lemonade, made with either cherries, crushed strawberries, or food coloring.    Then the favored punch transitioned to red soda pop, when carbonated beverages became more readily available.   In the 1920s, powdered drinks became the faves, with the invention of Poly-pop and Kool-Aid.     Then, these red drinks moved out of just the Juneteenth celebrations into African American homes and soul-food restaurants, as a bookend of soul food.   Derogatory slang terms like ‘jungle juice’ and ‘ghetto pop’ became synonymous with any sweetened red drink, some even making it into hip hop and rap songs.

 

The custom of red drinks and foods at Juneteenth is their symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage.   Some have also linked the symbolism to the blood shed throughout the institution of slavery.  And of course, there are regional alliances to certain red pops.     Red Pop is the drink of choice at Texas Juneteenths.   Faygo is the way to go in Detroit.   Nesbitt’s Strawberry soda is another popular red drink.   And, in Cincinnati, it’s probably our own created-here Barq’s Red Pop.

 

It’s important to remember the red pop tie back to West Africa and it’s symbolism for this American celebration of Juneteenth.

 

In Owensboro, Kentucky, Black Barbecue Sauce is Just Called “Dip”

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Barbecued mutton and Owensboro ‘dip.’

 

One of the interesting things about food history is that sometimes, what’s made at homes doesn’t have a fancy product name.   It’s only when food writers try to categorize something for comparison that it needs to be identified uniquely.   Take, for example, what outsiders call Owensboro, Kentucky’s Black Barbecue Sauce.   It’s probably the most obscure regional American barbecue sauce – the virtual unicorn of condiments.

 

Owensboro, Kentucky, is a town of about 60,000 in western Kentucky on the banks of the Ohio River, in Daviess County.  Originally known as Yellow Banks, it’s named after Abraham Owen, another Kentucky Colonel, who was a legislator and soldier. This condiment – or more accurately, the marinade – is made to go with what Owensboro is most famous for, their slow –roasted barbecued mutton.   Yes, that’s right, not lamb, but gamey-flavored mutton, typically the shoulder.    Mutton is actually more accurately called Ewe, which is the female sheep.

 

The sauce, or ‘dip’ as the locals call it, is designed to cut the gaminess out of mutton.   Made with lots of acid and umami, Ownesboro ‘dip’ is typically a Worchestershire and vinegar based marinade (more liquidy, than a typical thick, viscous barbecue sauce). The dip also has lemon juice (some families use orange juice instead), melted butter, and allspice.   The marinade is mopped over the meat as it’s grilled, and served with the barbecued meat to be dipped. Every Owensboro family closely guards their secret dip recipes.

 

My friend Jerry grew up in Owensboro, and says some of his best memories with his father were manning the mutton grill at their local church’s festival.     He helped with ‘mopping’ the mutton with the black ‘dip’ several times as they grilled.   He also was a burgoo runner, the other local dish Owensboro is famous for, a tomato based stew with several meats.   The meats are typically chicken, mutton, and beef, mixed with tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes, corn, onion and occasionally, peas, lima beans and other local vegetables like okra.

 

The first record of a barbecue in Owensboro is July 4, 1834, although it was probably going on way before then.   Some families have been barbecuing for five generations, the skills and recipes being passed down from father to son.   When local Whigs in 1844 needed to fundraise for their Kentucky presidential candidate, Henry Clay, they held a barbecue.   When Confederate veterans wanted a monument, they held a barbecue.

 

Jerry talks of grills extending the length of an Olympic sized swimming pool at their church festival, his yearly family reunion (including several hundred cousins), and the annual Mutton Glutton, a barbecue festival held every Mother’s Day Weekend, where 20,000 pounds of ewes are grilled for the event.   Barbecued mutton is so popular in Owensboro, that even a single parish festival can attract over 5000 hungry visitors.

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Grillers flipping the mutton spits at the Mutton Glutton in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Moonlite Barbecue is probably the most well-known restaurant serving the famous mutton in Owensboro, but there are many others.   And, you could hit every church festival and family reunion over the summer months and get some outstanding versions too.   As is typical with barbecue, the first recorded ‘professional Owensboro barbecue chef’, Harry S. Green, was a black man, born into slavery in 1855. He began selling his barbecued mutton from his yard at Ninth and Hall Streets, in Owensboro, in 1890.

 

I had the opportunity to break bread with Jerry recently at Commonwealth Bistro in Covington, Kentucky’s Mainstrasse District, where they serve what they call an Owensboro Black Barbecue sauce with their Kennebec potato fries.   I wanted to get a native’s take on it.   So, Jerry quizzed the server on the content, which he revealed was coffee, Coca-cola, and bourbon – no mention of Worchestershire.   It was more viscous than the traditional Owensboro ‘dip’ and, as Jerry said, very far from the real thing.   I guess we can agree that it was a sauce ‘inspired by’ Owensboro dip.

 

So why barbecued mutton?   There are two stories. One goes that the early Welsh settlers in the area raised enormous flocks of sheep. So it was only natural that if a barbecue was in order, it would be mutton that would be loaded into the spits.   Early agricultural records in 1860 seem to corroborate this – there were recorded 11,000 sheep compared to only 6750 beef cattle in Davies County. Burgoo is said to have been brought to Kentucky by the Welsh. An 1887 article in a local newspaper said burgoo was “a barbecue where birds, chickens, squirrels, beef, pork and dog are thrown in a pot.”

 

The other story is that barbecued mutton was an acquired taste because mutton was the meat that early Roman Catholic parishioners donated to be used at their local church festivals. Parish picnics at Catholic churches in Daviess County Kentucky date back to at least 1877, when St. Martin Parish in Rome, Kentucky, announced a barbecue picnic fundraiser.

 

So, if you ever make it to the Mutton Glutton in Owensboro, don’t ask to pass the Black Barbecue Sauce – ask if you can have some dip, and you’ll not seem like such a Yankee.