Cracker Jack and Its Burlesque Beginnings

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It’s the tasty concession foods that enhance the memories at baseball stadiums around the country. One of these most beloved baseball treats, Cracker Jack, has a past similar common with Cincinnati Chili.   Both became popular through their connection to Burlesque theatre.   Cincinnati Chili started in the Empress Burlesque Theatre, where audiences could see the “Hindu Belles” or the “Empress Runaway Girls”, and headliners like Carrie Finnell and Hinda Wasau.   Cracker Jack was boosted into popularity by a song written for the 1909 Ziegfield Follies, one of the most famous American burlesque shows.     By 1914 Cracker Jack was also the title of a burlesque show that had over 40 performers.

Cracker Jack was invented by German immigrant Fredrick Rueckheim in 1893, when he combined peanuts, popcorn and molasses. Urban legend has it that he and his brother exhibited this new confection at the Chicago World’s Fair, with the uninspiring name of “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.”   However, there’s no evidence that they had an exhibit at the fair, and perhaps the brothers just had a cart outside the fair grounds.

What was innovative about Rueckheim’s creation, was that he discovered a way to keep the molasses coated popcorn from sticking together with the addition of a bit of oil in the rotating coating machine.   Most caramel corn at the time, because of the stickiness, was served in balls or in fritters because of this phenom.   That included the local Doscher Brother’s candy version, Pop’s Corn Fritters, which was served at the Redland Field concession nearly two decades before Cracker Jack was introduced in 1893.

Legend has it that in 1896 a customer tried the Rueckheim product and proclaimed, “This is a real cracker jack!”   At the time, cracker jack was a slang term meaning something excellent.    Rueckheim quickly trademarked Cracker Jack that same year under F. W. Rueckheim & Brother of Chicago.

By 1899 a triple proof package of waxed sealant was invented by partial owner Henry Eckstein to retain product freshness.   This new package allowed the company to mass produce what was formerly sold in large tubs and not very travel-friendly.

In 1908, Jack Norworth, vaudeville entertainer and songwriter wrote the lyrics to the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame for a vaudeville show.   The song was sung by his wife, Nora Bayes, in the Ziegield Follies of 1909.   The couple didn’t stay married very long, they divorced by 1912, but the song leaped into popularity.   If it weren’t for the popularity of the song, Cracker Jack might have settled into a small regional confectionery product, and not been the national icon that it became.

The song’s original theme was set around Katie Casey, an empowered woman who wanted to root, cheer and eat Cracker Jack in the grandstands with the crowd and enjoy a baseball game.   But in suffragette America, the idea of a woman being a knowledgeable and enthusiastic baseball fan , rather than staying at home tending to her womanly duties, was a bit of a curveball to the norm.     By the time the song made it into baseball as an anthem, the first two verses of Casey’s feminist message of empowerment had been removed and long forgotten.

And, by 1949, when just the chorus of Take me Out to the Ballgame was made the baseball national anthem, Cracker Jack was already a nationally known product.

The original 1908 song:

Katie Casey was baseball mad,
Had the fever and had it bad.
Just to root for the home town crew,
Ev’ry sou
Katie blew.
On a Saturday her young beau
Called to see if she’d like to go
To see a show
But Miss Kate said “No,
I’ll tell you what you can do:”
 
[Chorus]
Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.
Katie Casey saw all the games,
Knew the players by their first names.
Told the umpire he was wrong,
All along,
Good and strong.
When the score was just two to two,
Katie Casey knew what to do,
Just to cheer up the boys she knew,
She made the gang sing this song:

 

Haku Chuala – The Nepali Threeway, in Northside

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Haku Chuala, the Nepali Threeway, at Bridges in Northside.

 

One of the great things about being from a city of immigrants is experiencing the added layers to the city’s fabric that new immigrants bring.   I finally had the opportunity to taste what new Nepali immigrants, Ashak Chipalu and his parents, bring to the table at their new restaurant, Bridges in Northside.   It’s in the old Melt space on Hamilton Avenue.     Oddly enough, Chipalu says that Northside reminds him of the Thamel neighborhood in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city.

 

The layman’s explanation to Nepali cuisine, is that it’s like Indian food, but spicier.   The cuisine itself is called Newa, or Samei Baji, which has developed over centuries among the Newars of Kathmandu.   It consists of over 200 dishes and is the most recognizable cuisine in Nepal.   It’s an integral part of the culture and dishes are designed around specific celebrations.   This is the first Nepali restaurant in Cincinnati, and I think it’ll definitely take off for those who like south Asian and spicier foods.

 

I went spicy with my choice – I did a rice bowl with yellow lentils, and haku chuala, the spicy smoked chicken, with cilantro and white onion on top.     I also had as a side, a cold spicy salad of carrots, green peas, chickpeas, and onions.     Each dish comes with a mild or spicy dipping sauce or chutney to add the layers of flavors.

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Some of the wall art at Bridges, featuring the Lakhey Dancers of Nepal.

As I looked down at my haku chuala rice bowl I thought, “This is totally a Nepali Threeway!”     Like a Cincinnati chili threeway, you have the starch, in this case the rice; then a savory meat stew, the spiced smoked chicken; and finally the ‘cooling layer’, which in this case is served by white onions and cilantro, and in the standard threeway, by the shredded cheese.    Like the tobasco sauce Cincinnatians dump on their threeways for more heat, you can add the spicy chutney to your rice bowl at Bridges, to get that tickle on your tongue.

 

I had a great conversation with Ashak’s super-friendly father in the back deck, as he did some landscaping, about their journey to the brick and mortar restaurant.

 

In all Bridges offers great value, variety, and great quality of food in a great location, atmosphere – the back deck is awesome place to enjoy this unique cuisine.   And, for now, as they work to obtain a liquor license, you can carry in your own alcohol.   I’m sold on this new entrée to Cincinnati’s immigrant food

The Serviceberries Taste Like Serviceberries!

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College Hill Serviceberry Pie, care of S. Proctor.

I  sounded like Veruca Salt from Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory a while ago when a Florida-transplanted foodie friend told me about a local berry called the serviceberry.   I said, “ I’ve lived here all my life and never seen or heard of such a berry – You must have had them confused with a mulberry.”  He emphatically rebutted there was indeed such a unicorn.

In the movie, Willy Wonka introduces the kids to lickable wallpaper and he proclaims his enthusiasm for his invention: “The strawberries taste like strawberries. The snozzberries taste like snozzberries!”   This is to Veruca’s snarky reply “Snozzberry, who’s ever heard of a snozzberry?”

I shared Veruca’s sentiment about serviceberries until I saw another friend who posted a photo of a serviceberry pie he made from this year’s back yard bumper crop. He happens to have three local serviceberry trees that have produced fruit for the first time this year.   They look like a cranberry colored blueberry, and for some reason they are never sold in local groceries or farmers markets.

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College Hill serviceberries.

The tree is sometimes called the Juneberry because its berries become ripe in late Spring, around June.   The Downy Serviceberry is native to Ohio and prefers partial shade to partial sun, growing best on the edge of forests. As a member of the Rose Family, its floral cousins are Chokeberries, Hawthorns, Crabapples, Plums, Cherries, Pears, and Roses, as well as other Serviceberry species and hybrids.

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The Native Americans used serviceberries in a sort of “meat candy” they made – called pemmican – flavored by serviceberries in combination with minced dried meat and fat, that held them through the winter.

I’m committed now to bringing their groove back and integrating them into some hyper local products. I reserved a crop from said serviceberry farmer friend and I plan this weekend to make some service berry barbecue sauce, and serviceberry Jezebel sauce.   They can also be made into ice cream, dried like raisins, and baked into pies and pastries.   For the avid zymurgist, the berries can be fermented into mead, wine, or as a juice mixer with vodka and soda.

Jezebel – The Naughty Southern Sauce that’s Crept North of the Mason-Dixon

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My sister,  Jenn, is well known for her over-the-top themed birthday parties.   Last night she rocked out yet another one – creating a Willy Wonka Wonderland for her sweet daughter’s third birthday.    This one was SO insanely well done, that one of her nephews said – in an affectionate way – “Aunt Jenn, you’re officially crazy!”   What’s great about my sister’s  parties is that she makes them fun for the kids with super-creative party favors , decorations, cookies, and games.   But, she also has great food for the adults.

She always has a pre-dinner gnosh that everyone can peck at before the main event.    And, one of the now standards at the spread is a plate of cream cheese with a spicy pepper jelly spooned over, surrounded by cocktail crackers.     This isn’t anything we grew up eating – the gnoshes of our home years might have included the obligatory hanky panky dip, or a Skyline chili dip.   But Jenn is mixing it up, contemporizing our family food lexicons- and this time, with the spicy jelly-over-cream cheese, is borrowing from an old Southern Sauce, known as the Jezebel sauce.   I learned about this Southern staple  from the  Food Network Star competition on the Food Network.

The Jezebel sauce is a sweet and spicy one – similar to the red pepper jelly my sister uses in her appetizer.     The Southern version is usually made of equal parts pineapple, peach, or apricot preserves and apple jelly, and then tricked out with horseradish sauce, dried or prepared mustard, and sometimes black pepper.        It’s typically used as a glaze on ham, chicken or pork, but also very popular as a cracker dipper over cream cheese.    It’s also been served on biscuits over country ham and pimento cheese, at places like the Scratch Biscuit Company in Roanoke.

The origin is a bit dicey, because it’s claimed by Florida, Kansas, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,  one of my favorite yearly fall food meccas.     Its name, after one of the bad girls of the Bible – the headstrong Phoenician Queen Jezebel,  in the Old Testament, who was thrown out of a window and consequently eaten by dogs – might hint at it’s originator.   Jezebel, was as an assertive woman vilified for thousands of years because she wouldn’t let men dominate her and because she seduced King Ahab and then allowed worship of the idol Baal in Israel.    The term ‘jezebel’ became associated with fallen women and false prophets. The popular 1938 American film with the same title was named after the Biblical seductress   So, perhaps the origin story comes from either a judgey Church lady who created the sauce for a Sunday congregational dinner, or a 1930s housewife who’d seen the movie and yearned for more excitement in her life.

Although references to fruit horseradish sauces in the South come as early as 1938, the Jezebel sauce is first referenced in a newspaper article in 1958, by American food writer (for the New York Sun and New York Herald Tribune)   Clementine Paddleford.

Whatever the Southern origin, the Jezebel sauce, or another spicy form of it, has made it north of the Mason-Dixon to our Yankee table care of my cooky-party-planning sister.

The Corned Beef Sandwich that Launched a Congressional Investigation

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The corned beef sandwich, preserved in resin at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana, memorializes the first corned beef sandwich in space, snuck on board by Gemini astronaut, John Young.

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“Try Our Corned Beef.  It  is out of this world,” proclaimed the sign in front of the Ramada Inn in Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1965.     And, indeed, their corned beef was.     Nestled inside the Ramada Inn, was Wolfie’s Sandwich shop, near the NASA Cape Canaveral Pad 19 launched the Gemini space missions in the mid 1960s.   It was partially owned by six of the Gemini astronauts.   The little shop became a hangout for these larger than life men who pioneered our space program before and after their legendary missions.

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The men of the Gemini space missions.

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To come up with the freeze dried space food now used on missions , and long before Dippin Dots became an ubiquitous fair food, a great deal of experimentation was required.      Concern on space missions was that weightlessness would carry crumbs and other by products of food into the control panels and foul the electronics, risking the safety of the missions.    Part of the Gemini missions were to test various types of foods that would be safe in anti-gravity.

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Carl was manager of the Ramada Inn and its sandwich shop.    He and Wally Shirra were talking in Wolfie’s one afternoon about the horrible food they had to eat on their missions – emulsified, reconstituted food in packages.    Carl said if he had known how bad the food was, he would have catered the missions for them from Wolfies.    The discussion ended in them agreeing to sneak on a corned beef sandwich on the next mission piloted by Gus Grissom and John Young.     The two took thick slices of corned beef, wrapped them in cellophane and dropped them from high ladders to see if they would stand the forces of takeoff.   What they didn’t plan for was the affect of weightlessness on the dark rye bread.

Shirra, known as a prankster, bought a Wolfie’s corned beef sandwich and helped Young sneak it in his space suit.    As they leveled off in space, Young pulled out the sandwich and asked Grissom what he wanted on his corned beef.   After one bite, the sandwich disintegrated, and rye crumbs and caraway seeds were floating everywhere.   History would probably never have known of the incident if photos of the crumb-laden control panel hadn’t made it to mission control back home.

The photos of this deli delivery in space fascinated Americans, and caught the eye of Congress.    Several congressmen became upset, thinking that the astronauts were ignoring the space food that they were supposed to evaluate on mission, costing the country millions of dollars.   The House of Representatives appropriations committee convened a meeting to investigate the corned beef scandal.   What came of the investigation was the prevention of any unauthorized deli meats into orbit on future mission.

Corned beef did make it on the menu in time for the first space shuttle flight in April of 1981, a mission commanded by John Young, the original sandwich smuggler.

In his 2012 memoirs, Young said of the scandal, that the corned beef sandwich got more attention than it deserved.    Besides, he noted, the smuggled sandwich didn’t even have mustard or pickle on it!