The Local Grange Hall – Remnants of Cincinnati Area’s Farm Past


The former Sycamore Grange Hall on Kenwood Avenue in Blue Ash.


There’s an old building on Kenwood Avenue in Blue Ash, clad in aluminum siding, that hides a rich but long forgotten history of farmers  in Hamilton County and Southwest Ohio.     It blends into what is now a bustling business district and  sits next to the wildly popular Blue Ash Chili Parlor.      The Historic Hunt House Museum in Blue Ash has a note of it on an old map in their collection.



An early 20th century overhead image of the Hunt Farm in Blue Ash, the community that belonged to the Sycamore Grange.

But when it was built, the Sycamore Grange # 2307, was surrounded by farms, like that of the Hunt farm around the corner, built in 1861 by John Craig Hunt.   John’s  son , William and wife were members of the Grange.

Sycamore #2307 was part of the national Grange Movement, started in 1867 by Oliver Kelley, a member of the Department of Agriculture, as the Patrons of Husbandry.  It was a secret society fashioned after the Masonic organization, but allowed women, and also promoted their right to vote.    It’s mission was to develop the higher and better life of the rural farm communities in America.    The isolation and lack of social and educational  advantages made self interest and protection of farmers through the Grange a big point in the organization’s early recruitment.

The local Grange was a place to come for both men and women, and their children to socialize, discuss farm techniques, compare livestock and crops, have bake-offs,  dances, farm dinners, quilting bees, and host literary readings and dramas.     Members would pool their money together to buy communal plows and shared farm equipment.   Granges also operated their own stores, which charged fairer prices than other retailers.   They built community grain silos,  avoiding the high costs charged by the railroads.  It was one of the few totally secular community societies in America.

At first membership was limited only to farmers, but was then opened to others.   The organization suffered a decline in the 1880s, as people became turned off by it being used as a political vehicle.    The Grange experienced a brief rise in the turn of the last century, but it then quickly declined again.    Ohio’s Grange organization actually accomplished something good, lobbying the state to enact a law regulating the  rising railroad freight charges at 5 cents a mile for a ton of freight.

Cincinnati even hosted the Ohio Grange Convention in 1921 at the Hotel Sinton.   At the time there were two Hamilton County Granges –  Sycamore # 2307 (Blue Ash), and Crosby # 2194 (Harrison); four in Butler County – Fairfield # 2341 (now the Pomona Grange Butler County # 017), Hanover #2309, Collinsville # 2264, and Monroe #2160, now reformulated as Monroe # 2018; and two in Warren County – Mason #1680 and Lebanon #1462.       Collinsville Grange is still very active, and  the oldest continually operating Grange in Southwest Ohio, hosting a Butler County Bake-o-Rama at the Butler County fair.

The State of Kentucky has no actibe Grange organizations, but one farm community, Carthage, Kentucky, in Campbell County had a Grange organization, whose building is still standing.

There is one Grange Hall in the Cincinnati area still standing as such- the Mason Grange Hall # 1680 in downtown historic Mason.    As there are no longer any active Grange organizations in Hamilton County, it doesn’t function as a society, but is used as sort of a community center, housing events like Empty Bowls, a local charity event.     The Mason Grange was started as Mason Grange # 49, Patrons of Husbandry, on May 10 1873, by S. H. Ellis, who was then the Master of the Ohio State Grange, and who had founded the first grange in the area in Springboro, Ohio, on October 1, 1872.     Red Lion Grange # 8 followed shortly in 1873, in Red Lion, Ohio, south of Springboro, with John Gustin as Master, and local Poland China hog breeder of the Maple Lane Herd, William N. Robison, as secretary.     Other granges popped up in the same year in hamlets of Utica and Ridgeville, Ohio, a few miles northwest of Red Lion, in Warren County.

To the east of Cincinnati, in Crosby Township was the Crosby Grange # 2194, which had its beginnings as the Sand Hill Grange in Harrison, on the property of Hammand and Emiline Roudebush at Kilby Road.


Probably the best surviving legacy of the Grange in our state are the Ohio Grange Cookbooks that have been published in small runs since the 1930s.   They’ve become very much collector’s items for foodies, and house priceless historic Ohio farm recipes and farm remedies.   The 1938 Ohio Grange Cookbook has a recipe for wallpaper remover (vinegar, engine oil, flour, salt and ammonia).    It also instructs how to measure the temperature of these new fangled gas stoves, by seeing how long it takes to brown flour on a pie pan.


Pete Chocolate Drink – Charlie Hustle’s Shortest Lived Venture

chocolate soda.jpg

Love him or leave him, Pete Rose is a permanent stitch in the crazy quilt of Cincinnati.    All joking and allegations aside, he has been part of the marketing of  the Queen City to the outside world, from his Big Red Machine days, to his post playing days, coaching and betting – and even recently with his new “sliding into home” statue at the entrance to Great American Ballpark, brilliantly sculpted by artist Tom Tsuchiya of Touchdown Jesus II fame.

During his heyday in Cincinnati, Pete had his own restaurant, but also, little known, is that for less than a year, Pete Rose had his own chocolate flavored beverage.   I’ve never been a fan of chocolate sodas like Yoo-Hoo or Choc-ola; or those scoop and mix chocolate drinks like Nestle or  Ovaltine.  To me chocolate as a drink, was meant for a milkshake, malt, or ice cream soda, not a thirst quenching drink to go with lunch or dinner.

The first widely distributed, bottled American chocolate drink, Cho-ola, was conceived by Harry Normington, Sr., who founded Choc-Ola Bottlers in neighboring Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1944.   The drink became popular in the 1950s and through its peak in the 1970s, as other competitors like Yoo-Hoo, entered the market to take their piece of the chocolate flavored drink market.   There was even a locally made and bottled chocolate drink in Cincinnati called Chocolate Royal.  In 1977, Harry sold the company to Moxie Industries of Atlanta, Georgia, and the drink began being bottled by Consolidated Chocolate, a contract manufacturer.   .



As it turns out, Pete was a big fan of Choc-ola chocolate drink and in 1978 he contacted the company to partner with them.  As one of the biggest sports names of the time, Charlie Hustle, was an endorsement dream.   So Moxie created a new chocolate drink , which came in cans, they called it Pete, and put his image sliding into home on it.  The company figured with his notoriety the drink would become an instant success.   But, as this chocolate drink naysayer will say, it was pretty disgusting.    Even though it was billed as, “the drink that will give you hustle,”   the can also, said “shake well before drinking.”    That meant that like other chocolate drinks, there could be a gritty, non-homogenized glump of chocolate goo that likely would  be part of that lovely experience.


Despite the largest chocolate drink maker behind it, and a seemingly awesome sports figure as endorser, there was one major problem with Pete Chocolate Flavored Beverage.     That problem was that Pete failed to recognize some of the fine print in his contract.   Rose’s contract stated that he could not make any unauthorized advertising reference to the Cincinnati Reds, including the cap and uniform in which he was pictured wearing on the can.   That was a super-big oopsey for Pete, and actually surprising that Moxie didn’t dive into that contract to investigate, given how big of a figure he was.   So, the Pete Chocolate Beverage was shelved almost as soon as it was released,  less than a year after in 1979, and quickly forgotten.

So the short lived, disgusting Pete Chocolate Favored Beverage is now an ebay collectors item.      Not surprisingly, you can still easily find unopened cans of it for purchase to add to your Cincinnati oddities mancave or she-shed display.

Stadionwurst or Stadium Sausage in Germany – FC’s Die Innenstadt Take Heed!




One of the things Germans know a lot about are wursts or sausages.   Each town or city in Germany has its local special sausage – from Berlin’s currywurst, to Bavaria’s weisswurst (the ancestor of our Cincinnati brat).    The pre Civil War immigrants from the Germanic kingdoms gave Cincinnati our unique metts and brats.   And as we plan to kick off Oktoberfest season in Cincinnati this weekend, and dress our brats and metts with thousands of pounds of sauerkraut, it’s important to check-in on the state of sausages in Germany.

Like our baseball or football games, and now increasingly, our soccer games,  the best place in Germany to get a good sausage is at a fussball stadion or soccer stadium.    And, each team has its own stadionwurst or stadium sausage.     The town where my family came from in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern,  Penzlin, has its own stadionwurst, supplied by the local bar Zur Postelrei, to be washed down with the local Lubzer Pils also made in Mecklenburg.



Germans take their stadium sausages very seriously.   There’s even a German website that rates and discusses the stadionwursts of each soccer stadium, from the taste, size, girth, and how they’re grilled and served.    The site even has a guide book translated , “On the Search for the Perfect Stadium Sausage.”   Most German stadium sausages are served with a crusty brotchen or German bun, with the sausage extending out both sides, and some sort or regional spicy mustard.


But one of the things you will NOT see on a German stadionwurst, is the dressing of sauerkraut like we do here in America.    Sauerkraut is a side salad, not a condiment, and usually one left for the old folks in need of digestive assistance.   Like my friend Jeanne says to  out-of-towners when they have sauerkraut for the first time, “You should watch yourself, that stuff will clean you out!”    For Germans, the brotchen or bun is more about a holding vehicle for the sausage, and the mustard.     You can hold the stadium sausage in one hand in the stands and still stand up and cheer rowdily as you devour it.   With sauerkraut – pickled cabbage would be flying everywhere!

So maybe our FC Cincy folks at Nippert should consider branding and creating our own local Stadionwurst.    I think Avril-Bleh on Court Street could make a fabulous version for our hometown fussball verein!




This Newport Chili Parlor Has Quite a Legacy


I love that there are still a few indie chili parlors left in Greater Cincinnati.   And, as endangered species, I feel that it’s our duty as Cincinnati chili lovers to make sure they stay around as long as possible.   Sure, it’s hard with over 200 chili parlor location split nearly evenly between big chains Skyline and Gold Star.    But the indie chili parlor has a special significance.   Neither of the two original Empress Chili locations (the founding chili parlor) are still standing – nor are either the original Skyline chili in Price Hill or the original Gold Star Chili (although the location is still a Gold Star, just demolished and rebuilit)

One chili parlor,  Gourmet Chili, on Monmouth Street in Newport, Kentucky, remains the second oldest continually operating chili parlor location in all of Greater Cincinnati.    A man named Steve Stavropoulos bought the chili parlor in 1986 from the Sarakatsannis family of Crystal Chili.    Steve had immigrated from Laconia, Greece, and his mother Maria Georgntonis Stavropolous, already had nephews, Peter and George Georgton, who operated the Clifton Ludlow Avenue Skyline since 1966, as one of the first franchised locations.    With this connection to Skyline, Gourmet’s chili tastes a bit like Skyline, but also has a spicier taste, and I think, is one of the best Cincinnati chilis in the area.     Steve’s son, George now runs the chili parlor, which still has a loyal local following.


Crystal Chili had been at the same location since 1946, owned by the Thomas Sarakatsannis family, cousins to the Nick Sarakatsannis family of Dixie Chili.  With the Crystal chili parlor being only a few blocks south of the original Dixie Chili location, you can imagine the family strife this caused.


So to continue the legacy, Thomas Sarakatsannis, had bought the location in 1946 from Petro Manoff, a Macedonian immigrant, who had operated the Strand Chili Parlor since 1931.    The location had been chosen because of its proximity to the Strand Theatre on Monmouth, and its after show foot traffic.   Petro had been an original partner in Dixie Chili with Nick Sarakatsannis when they founded the small parlor in 1929, both of whom had worked for Tom and John Kiredjieff at Empress Chili to learn the trade and the chili recipe.    Petro saw the chili parlor through the heyday of Newport’s “Sin City” era of gambling and mobster activity.

A 1940  entry on Strand Chili Parlor and pic of owners Petro & Sophia Manoff in Macedonian, in the Macedonian Political Organization’s magazine.

Petro’s son, Thomas, moved to Cincinnati’s West Side, running first Tip Top Hamburger shop, and then Hamburger Heaven on Beechmont Avenue in Mt. Washington, which he sold to his brother-in-law Joe Marsh, who then in 1965 sold to the  Daoud Brothers of Jordan, who changed the name to Gold Star Chili, after a cigarette brand their family sold back in Jordan.    After selling to Marsh, Thomas moved his family to California, where they opened Manoff’s Rancho Burger, introducing Cincinnati style chili to Californians.

But the legacy doesnt stop there.   Petro’s Daughters, Mary Manoff Elcoff, and Flora Manoff Haggis, operated chili parlors with their husbands.  Mary and her husband operated the West End Chili parlor, and several others, including Mary Lou Grill.


So to go to Gourmet Chili in Newport, is to taste the entire 95 year Cincinnati Chili legacy from its founding at Empress.



Franciscan Food in Cincinnati



The Franciscans of the St. John the Baptist Province in Cincinnati have quite the reputation of “bringing it” to the table, when it comes to food. You might even say that they use food as a way to minister. It’s no small wonder that the Patron Saint of Cooks, St. Pasqual Baylon , was a Franciscan. Back in the late 1960s when St. Anthony’s Friary on Colerain Avenue was still a site of instruction for priests, Brother Andre Poisson (French for fish), taught yearlong cooking classes to Franciscan postulates out of the cookbook of Br. Herman Zaccarelli, a Holy Cross brother who became an authority on quantity cooking for religious houses. Every large religious house had a copy of his cookbook, which included recipes like “Meat Loaf for 500 Sisters.”

Br. Tim Sucher, Pastoral Associate at St. Francis Seraph Church in Over-the-Rhine, which runs the Over-the-Rhine soup kitchen, has his ‘office’ at local Tucker’s, a long time diner on Vine Street. Br. Gene Mayer, former Roger Bacon High School athletic director and my Freshman religion teacher, never shows up at a family baptism or celebration at my sister and brother-in-law’s house without a platter of his decadent chocolate chip cookies.

Lately my friend Matt, who will leave this week to start his study to become a Franciscan, has taken me on a tour of underknown Mom and Pop joints in Northern Kentucky. We joke about creating a podcast called, “Foodie and the Franciscan,” exploring these gems of Northern Kentucky.

In 1984 my home parish, Corpus Christi produced a cookbook, called “Recipes from Francis’ Friends”, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of our ‘little church on the hill.’ At the time, there were still many priests living in the hotel-like rectory next to the Church. The church had on staff a full time cook, and I remember as a gradeschooler walking into the huge rectory dining room once and being amazed at how many priests it could seat.   On the other side of the church was an equally sized hotel-like convent with same setup.

Interlaced with many local German recipes like sauerbraten, potato dumplings, kuchen, and even local faves like cottage ham and green beens, were these exotic Cajun and Creole recipes from friends of our pastor, Fr. Basil Westendick, to expand our otherwise Midwestern tastes and minds. That was because in 1967, ten years after his ordination as a Francisan, Fr. Basil was appointed pastor of St. Patrick Church in Port Sulfur, Louisiana, south of New Orleans, where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the freshest seafood in the country can be had here.

Included were Fr. Basil’s favorite recipes from the women of Port Sulfur, like baked redfish, oyster casserole, artichokes Italiano (probably more Siciliano, given the Sicilian immigrants to Southern Louisiana) lima beans and shrimp, shrimp Creole, and bread pudding with rum sauce. Fr. Basil came to our little church in 1978, where he spent the next 7 years running a beautifully progressive country Catholic church that talked about the Theology of Liberation (think of Poland donning Communism in 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall), and other tough topics. He made the mass innovative, inspiring, and made it feel like everyone had a seat at the table. My father worked closely with him on our parish council. It was an exciting time to be raised Catholic – there was a feeling that the steam of Vatican II was driving a positive change in the church.

Fr. Basil spent three more years in his beloved Louisiana, after leaving our parish, as pastor at St. Mary of the Angels in New Orleans, a largely African-American congregation serving the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, which would be hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Fr. Basil returned ‘home’ to Cincinnati, where he passed in 1991 at Franciscan Terrace. His funeral at ‘the little church on the hill’ was like a hero’s sendoff.

The current diocesan pastor of Corpus Christi, Fr. Kyle Schnippel, who is also pastor of St. John Neumann parish, is a foodie and has developed a reputation as quite the baker. He spent three years as a resident at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral downtown, eating the Italian-inspired food of cathedral chef, Itala Giovanna Delli Carpini-Trimpe, who wrote the cookbook, Holy Chow, which included favorite recipes of Cincinnati priests. Fr. Schnippel, who my mother calls mistakenly, “Fr. Schnitzel,” will be travelling to England later in the year to compete on a cooking show. He uses food as part of the discussion on his Just Another Priest Podcasts, which are a great meditative listen.

So don’t underestimate the cooking prowess of anyone in a brown cassock and rope belt with three knots. They may just convert you with their food.

Here’s To the Lady Who Invented Brunch


French Quarter brunchers at Madame Begue’s in New Orleans, 1894.

It’s 1853 and the 1848 Revolution is still fresh in the minds of many of the working class in the Germanic kingdoms.     New Orleans has become, as Cincinnati, a haven for post- revolutionaries, who see America as the land of opportunity, at least in written form in the government.   New Orleans, was, and still is a melting pot of cultures – one of the things that makes their cuisine so exciting and exotic.   The Germans settled in the area east and north of the French Market, around the Ursuline Convent and north, around the area of the now touristy Lafitte’s.

One of those restless Germanic women, Lizzie Kettenring, had a brother Phillip, who had immigrated and was a butcher in New Orleans’ French Market.    She trailed him across the Atlantic, and met and fell in love with one of Phillip’s fellow butchers, a Creole named Louis Dutreil.    In 1863, the couple opened Dutrey’s Coffee House in the French Market, serving mostly butchers and marketgoers.


Elizabeth Kettenring Begue and her second husband, Hippolyte Begue.

I’m all about food writers.    And there’s currently a storm of food-history writers bringing back history with old forgotten recipes, new stories, and well researched food anthropology.    What I’m not cheerleeding for is food writers who take credit for, or who have been given credit, erroneously, for inventing something.     Such is the case with Englishman, Guy Beringer, who wrote an essay, “Brunch:  A Plea” in 1895, inspired by a weekend hangover.    It described a vision of a meal, brunch, in which breakfast, lunch, and alcohol converged to help stop the spinning and sate the nausea.    Fine, great – but his essay didn’t invent the concept nor the execution of said brunch.   And, he’s not a genius, just because he connected it with a cure for a weekend hangover.

What Guy Beringer probably knew was that the Germans had been eating what they called second breakfast, zweites Fruhstuck, for decades before his essay.     And, it was that Bavarian immigrant, Frau Elizabeth Kettenring Dutreil Begue, who had institutionalized it at her coffeehouse during the Civil War in New Orleans.    In 1875, Elizabeth was a widow, and married her bartender, another Creole, named Hippolyte Begue, several years her junior.     She changed the name of the coffeehouse to Begue’s, and continued to serve her one meal – the German second breakfast, which would become the American brunch.


The German butchers were done with their morning work at 11 AM in the French Market, and were hungry to supplement the coffee and bread they had for first breakfast before dawn.   Same was the case for all the New Orleans dock workers, who like the butchers and market vendors, started their day before dawn.  But 11 AM was to early for the heartier afternoon dinner, and way to late to be breakfast.


Madame Begue cooking brunch in her kitchen.

Madame Begue’s brunch menu was rooted in German cooking, but garnered influence from Creole (New Orleanized Continental French cooking ) and Cajun (country Acadian French cooking -think crawfish instead of shrimp)  cuisine.   The brunch lasted three or four hours and was six courses with chicory coffee.    Her meals were anchored around omelets, as any good brunch should be.   But her most famous brunch dish was Liver a la Begue, a simple prep of calf liver.     Other dishes included fare of New Orleans – turtle soup, artichokes, meat with sauces, and vegetables of the Sicilian vendors of the French Market.

The restaurant’s popularity exploded during the 1884 Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, and tourists flocked to the restaurant to experience this unique second breakfast.    In response to the fame, the Southern Pacific Railroad published “Madame Begue’s Creole Cookery,” with some of her most famous recipes.


Liver a la Begue, as served at it’s successor, Tugague’s.

Madame Begue died in 1906 and her restaurant was taken over by her daughter and son- in-law- the Anouilles, who then sold it in 1914 and it became what it is today, Tujague’s, at the corner of Decatur and Madison.    Tujague’s had been a brunch competitor of Begue’s since its inception, their famous dish a boiled beef soup with hot mustard sauce.

So when you brunch over the weekend, make sure you thank the spirit of Madame Begue and not the surly Guy Beringer.


Gingersnaps, The German “Roux”



When you compare German cooking to French cooking, some may say at first glance that French cooking is more sophisticated.     And on one level that may be true.  To be a good French saucier, one has to have a deep level of knowledge about the complex French sauces.   But its’ not as if German food is less flavorful, it’s just less fussy.    With German cooking, as with other things German, it’s all about efficiency.   And one perfect example of that shows up in my family’s German recipes.

Before boullion cubes, the Victorian era cook had to make their own beef stock.    They’d get beef bones, feet, maybe even beef heads from the local butcher,  and boil them to extract the flavor for soups and sauces.    Who has three hours to make your own stock?   My good friend Manolo, from Puerto Rico, makes his own sofrito ahead, which goes in rice and beans, and many other of his family dishes, and puts it in one-use portions in an ice cube tray, which I think is brilliant.  It’s a similar time saving method that still allows for a home cooked meal.

The German Hausfrau has had a similar shortcut to thicken their sauces and soups since the antebellum period in immigrant America.    This particular shortcut is dropping in stale gingersnaps into a sauce, particularly a sweet and sour one, to act as a roux.   In French cooking, a roux is the thickener.  It involves browning flour with butter or another fat to a dark golden color.  The darker the roux, the less thickening power it has.    Creole cooking in the South and particularly Louisiana, uses file, a mixture of ground leaves and spices taken from Native American cooking,  to thicken their standard gumbos.     But the Germans skip all that flour browning and watching by just adding gingersnaps.   The cookies also bring a bit of cloves, ginger, and sweetness to create a tangy sauce.

In my family’s recipes this shows up in the sweet and sour sauce that is served with my great grandmother’s sauerbraten.   Great Grandma Muchorowski might have even used local Over-the-Rhine company, Streitman Biscuits’, gingersnaps in her Sunday Sauerbraten.   Other recipes that pair vinegar and sweetness also incorporate the gingersnap thickening method.  I’ve found old recipes for sweet and sour beef tongue sauce that use this.     Also, very old local German recipes for mock turtle soup incorporate the little cookie as a thickening agent.    A recipe for sweet and sour cabbage soup does similarly.      Lubchow’s in New York City, the longest running German restaurant in the Big Apple, used gingersnaps to thicken their sauerbraten.     Even noted Louisiana Cajun chef, Paul Prudhomme, served a roast pork with gingersnap gravy at his restaurant, K-Paul’s.

Not only is this a time saver, it’s also frugality.     It would take a lot of cornstarch to do the same thickening that a few gingersnaps do very quickly.  Leave it to that pfennig pinching Hausfrau to come up with this.   Before commercial gingersnaps from Nabisco, they might use stale lebkucken or gingerbread around for the holidays or over the Winter, which is when these sweet and sour hearty meat recipes are served.   Other older German recipes call for schwartzbrot or black bread crumbles as thickening agent in sauerbraten.      The gingersnap method was so widely used that Good Housekeeping listed 15 gingersnaps as equal to one cup of roux flour.

And the origin of this German roux goes back even further to a  dish from Flanders (the northern European area encompasing France, Belgium and Holland called Carbonnade a la Flamande.    It’s the Germanic answer to the French Boeuf Bourguignon.   Southern German cooking in Swabia and Bavaria use a thickened browne Bruhe or brown broth that’s served over Jaeger schnitzel.

So the next time you have that delicious sauerbraten, thank that nameless Germanic immigrant housewife who invented the GTM – gingersnap thickening method.


A Mt. Healthy Chili Parlor Hiding in Plain Sight for Over Fifty Years



Sometimes you’re turned onto off-the-beaten-path restaurants by friends in the know.    Then there are the rare times when those restaurants find you.   That was the case this afternoon, as my cousin Ken and I were selling our high quality junk at the 127 Garage sale on Hamilton Avenue in Mt. Healthy.

There was a mom and pop restaurant right across the street from our gypsy selling encampment called A & A.  Ken was the first to venture in to see what they had for lunch.  A discreet sign on the front of the building proclaims “Homemade Chili and Special Breakfast.”     As a chili historian I was intrigued.    I must have passed this place a million times as a kid and teenager,  but I had never been inside.   Ken  came back with their menu and said he ordered their pork chop plate and that Orpha, who has been serving there for 30 years, was willing to deliver our orders across the street.    I got the turkey sandwich on rye with a side of house coleslaw.   It was one of the best and generously meated sandwiches I’ve had in a long time.   Ken got two huge pork chops, cole slaw and a heap of hash browns that could have fed an army.

Stepping inside the restaurant is like stepping back in time to the 1960s.     It’s a simple mom and pop jewel that is a welcome oasis from the chains that surround it.   And long before McDonald’s offered breakfast all day, Rallis was doing it – with a side of goetta.   Today, the traffic from the yard sale pickers has given him a lot of business.   About six high backed booths stand in front of a horseshoe shaped counter with swivel stools in the back.    Ms. Orpha Dunnock shouts orders through the pass-through window to the grill, which Rallis mans most days from 7 AM to 2 PM.     If you eat at the counter, Rallis will tell you stories of his native Greece, and all the other chili pioneers, like the Kiradjieffs of Empress Chili that he palled around with back in the day.



89 year old Angelo Rallis, takes a break from the grill at A & A in Mt. Healthy.

A & A stands for Alexandra and Angelo Rallis, the couple from Kastoria, Greece, (the land of most of the Cincinnati chili pioneers) who have owned it for nearly 50 years, until Alexandra passed away seven years ago.   Since the late 1950s, the couple had served Cincinnati chili, double decker sandwiches, and diner fare.     They came to Cincinnati in 1955, after Angelo worked for 5 years helping the U.S. administer the Marshall Plan in Greece.   After arriving in Cincinnati, he worked for his uncle, Norman Phillip Bazoff, who owned Park Chili in Northside.   That’s where he learned the secret Cincinnati chili recipe that he serves on his cheese coneys, threeways, and chili cheese fries.

Rallis is 89, and says he wants to retire soon.    At this point, why retire.   But if you want a taste of an endangered, but authentic Greek-owned Cincinnati chili parlor, I’d recommend you hurry fast to A & A’s on Hamilton Avenue in Mt. Healthy.    You wont be disappointed.


Challah Becomes Soul Food in Cincinnati’s West End

Kenyon-Barr-618.jpgBefore Cincinnati razed the entire Kenyon-Barr West End neighborhood in 1956 in the name of Urban Renewal, they took pics of the wonderful buildings and businesses.   These young boys proudly stand behind the photo marker in front of their neighborhood grocery and confectioner,  not knowing that they will be deported from their homes a few months later.

As a nation, we’re just really starting to acknowledge that most Southern food is descended from slave cooking.      Most of the dishes we characterize as southern, were formulated and perfected by bonded cooks in the plantation kitchen.   The integration of okra, an African native plant, into southern dishes like gumbo, is an example.     First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln didn’t know how to make the Lexington Kentucky favorite beaten biscuits, so she consulted her father’s bonded cook,  Aunt Chaney, for instruction.  Jefferson Davis pie, was invented by a Missouri slave woman named Aunt Jule-Ann.  For decades, no credit in southern cookbooks has been given to these bonded cooks.   But to  this food historian’s delight, their day has come.

A new book came out this week by Michael Twitty, the chief food historian or ‘Revolutionary in Residence,’ at Colonial Williamsburg.   Michael has been doing historic slave cooking demonstrations for the last decade at various Southern historic sites like Chippokes, Middletown, and Great Hopes Plantations.   His new book is  called the Cooking Gene, and he traces his own family’s history from enslavement in the South, through Reconstruction and the Great Migration, with their food stories.  I’m only a few chapters in, and its one of the best food history books I’ve read.

One of Twitty’s earliest stories is his first taste of Jewish food:  ” The kitchen was where I ate my first Jewish food, thanks to my mom, (Patricia Anita Townsend).   Challah, golden, sweet challah, cut into pieces for toast with blackberry jam.”     Ok, maybe it’s not so weird for an African American family to eat Jewish challah bread in a large metropolitan city like Washington, D.C., in the 1970s.     But then he continues with his story: ” In Cincinnati, the Jewish baker was your only option on a Sunday, and that’s where she picked it up.   As soon as my aunt Sheila (“Cookie”) got in from Cincinnati, the first thing to do was make fresh coffee, and open the boxes of pastries and bread from their favorite bakeries back home.”   I realized this story was a rare oral history of  Afro-Jewish fusion food in Cincinnati’s West End.         Twitty’s mom would become an expert in challah braiding and made her own, which I’m sure was fabulous.    At the time local challah was probably made in West End Jewish bakeries with local P & G’s Crisco, an acceptable vegetable based product, that would not put a bakery product that used eggs or milk out of kosher, by mixing with a meat based product like good old fashioned lard.

Twitty’s maternal grandparents, Walter Lee Townsend and Clintonia Hazel Todd, had been part of the post World War II Great Migration of blacks from the South to northern cities.   They migrated from Birmingham, Alabama, first to Cleveland, Ohio, and then to Cincinnati’s West End, where his grandfather was a Pullman porter on the railroads and his other family members took jobs at the local factories.

In 1940, around the time the Townsend family arrived in the West End, 64% of Cincinnati’s black population lived in the West End, in sub neighborhoods like Kenyon-Barr, and Little Buck,  comprising 74% of the West End Population.   The other 25% were Jewish and European immigrants.      The oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Alleghenies still exists in Cincinnati’s West End, the first Jewish enclave of Cincinnati.   The Jewish and black population lived side by side  in the West End, creating wonderful collaboration and cross cultural sharing.    Many of the Jewish entrepreneurs in the area gave employment to their black neighbors, who couldn’t find work in Cincinnati’s still segregated Dixie borderland.

In Cincinnati, we’re just really starting to acknowledge the decimation of Cincinnati’s West End, and it’s affect on the Black Community, as we face the issues of gentrification in another historic neighborhood, Over-the-Rhine, which has recently been a predominantly African-American neighborhood.   By the end of it all, tens of thousands of black and Jewish residents and 700 beautiful historic buildings were eviscerated from the West End.     But this one food story of ‘Soul Food Challah’ speaks to a once beautiful symbiosis that existed in the neighborhood, and that could exist again in our inner city.

Lewisburg Tavern Burgers at Herb and Thelma’s


A vintage shot of the bar at Herb and Thelma’s, which hasn’t changed.

There’s an endangered species of restaurants in our area.   It’s the neighborhood lunch tavern.    Recently, a friend turned me on to a gem of one in the Lewisburg neighborhood of Covington, Kentucky, called Herb and Thelma’s.    They have been known for their burgers since opening in 1939, and are still using the same two lane grill that they used at opening, seasoned over nearly 80 years.

Lewisburg is the hilly neighborhood many have forgotten to the west of I-75 from the Mainstrasse and Pike Street exits.  Historically, it was a neighborhood of slaughterhouses, and the Lewisburg Brewery – now the business of Papas & Sons, who make the local favorite opera cream eggs.    Farmers from deeper in the bluegrass would drive their hogs, sheep, and cattle to Covington, broker a deal with the Lewisburg meatpackers, sell their livestock and spend one night partying in downtown Covington before heading home.

The building that houses Herb and Thelma’s was built before the Civil War as sort of a hall or saloon for the neighborhood.    It sits on a pointed and hilly corner of Pike Street.    There is a basement and subbasement in the well built stone foundation, that owners think has beer tunnels leading to the site of the old Lewisburg Brewery.   Owners recently received a grant and unveiled a mural showing the old Heine’s Social Club, a drinking club with a philanthropic problem, that met at the tavern from the 1940s to the 1980s monthly.    Heine was Henry Boehmker, who started the tavern.  His son and daughter-in-law took over the tavern and it became Herb and Thelma’s.

New owners, Suzanne and Joe Fessler, bought the place from Chip, the grandson of the original founder, two years ago.   But Chip still works Wednesdays, the day I met my friend for lunch.      In his seventies, you can tell he’s in heaven cooking for the lunch crowd, mostly men in their seventies who have been coming to shoot the breeze over a beer and a good hamburger for the last half a century.    There is also a spattering of millennials coming in to start the next generation of neighborhood burger lovers.



Former owner Chip Boehmker, inside Herb and Thelma’s.

When I walked into the tavern, I was greeted by Chip, and told him I was waiting for my buddy.    A cheery man in his seventies waiting for his lunch buddy turned around and asked if I had ever been here before.    Revealing my tavern virginity, he told me how he had been coming here for forty years, and bit of the history of the place and the area.   We talked about the recent hate on Pete Rose, the mayor of Covington, and the outlook of neighboring Ludlow, Kentucky.

Inside the walls are lined with vintage local beer signs and advertisements, and historic photos of the family,  like one of Chip’s parents with a very young Pete Rose, whom they met at a Bob Braun show.     There is a case with an extensive collection of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky beer memorabilia that could rival any museum.

And now the most important part – the food!    Each burger is freshly ground and hand pressed and sandwiched in a fresh buttered bakery bun.      You can get single, double and cheese, with onions and pickles.        The burgers are fresh, juicy, and delicious, cooked to a perfect medium rare, still pink in the center.  Without a fryer, there are no French fries or chicken wings.    But then there are no side salads or cole slaw either.     ‘Appetizers’ include a wide assortment of local and gourmet potato chips in bags at the back of the bar.      As an accompaniment to the burger you can order bean, veggie soup, or chili, which is what they put on their famous cheese coneys.    There is also a grilled fish sandwich, and of course a wide selection of local beers, including Rhinegeist.


By the time we left, every table in the front room was full.     My local friend tells me that Thursdays the place is packed with golfers from nearby Devou park.      I am definitely a fan now and can’t wait to go back to try the famous cheese coneys.


The newly revealed mural on the side of Herb and Thelma’s Tavern.