Back to the Future with Cincinnati Chili Parlor Design

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The typical open steam table design of a Cincinnati Chili parlor.  (This one the original Price Hill Skyline, opened in 1949)

 

National fast food chains change their interior and exterior designs all the time. Who remembers the hippy-dippy, multi-colored plastic bead curtains Wendy’s used to have in the 70s and 80s ? What the industry calls “scrape-and-rebuilds” can cost an owner nearly half a million dollars to bring a restaurant up to new brand standards. Recent changes in restaurants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s boast new swanky fireplaces and comfy sofas to invite customers to stay, hangout, and spend more money per visit. Can a restaurant design really entice customers to eat more and spend more money? That’s what the corporate restaurant masterminds hope.

But then there are restaurants like our chili parlors whose designs haven’t changed since the 1950s. And despite their age, the Cincinnati Chili industry continues to grow with new chain locations and more revenue per location. The nostalgic open steam tables and round swivel stools bring us back to a lighter time, when a coke and a threeway with friends or family solved all the world’s crazy problems. We see in plain view the grown men who, with a time-tested and gentle flick of the wrist, ladle our chili over our tender spaghetti. We see the coney guys load, lock, and ladle a dozen coneys at a time.

Everyone knows the statements supposedly made by Twain on how behind the times we are in Cincinnati. So, are we as a collective, supposedly conservative city ready for a change in our beloved vintage chili parlors?

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In 1959, the Brothers Kiradjieff (Tom & John) of Empress Chili, announced they were taking their parlors into the drive in era. As the inventors of Cincinnati chili it was only appropriate they be the first to come up with a new design. Working with architects Kral, Zepf, and Kleine, they came up with a super cool futuristic design for drive in, car-service, Empress Chili Parlors. This new design was to be integrated into franchise packages to be implemented all throughout the city. The first was to be built near the Valley Theatre in Roselawn on the then bustling Reading Road.

As cool as the design was, the concept never really took off for Empress. As it turns out, most people enjoyed the time they took in a chili parlor to eat their chili. Cincinnati chili is probably the fastest fast food on the market, and is probably the messiest food to try to eat in the car or while driving. And, the chili parlor happens to be a respite from the outside world, where all class and racial divisions dissolve in a love for Queen City comfort food. Most chili parlors today do have drive-through windows so busy people can take their food home.

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Gold Star’s modern chili parlor prototype design, introduced in March 2018 in Anderson Township.

So, Gold Star thinks Cincinnati chili parlors are ready to take the step into the 21st century with a new modern chili parlor design. The first store to showcase the new prototype design was earlier this year at the Anderson Township store. Gold Star says the new design features “sleek exterior finishes, custom metal, and a fresh, new interior look.” But the design also closes off the now open steam table. Art deco swivel stools are replaced by individual tall stools, and there are long communal high tables instead of many smaller tables. It’s all very clean, straight lines, with modern light fixtures, but no nostalgia. So does taking out the nostalgia take something away from Cincinnati chili? Does it make it too much like every other fast food chain in the U.S., and take away what makes our chili parlors so unique?

The design is perhaps inspired by the ultra-modern restaurant designs of Chili Haus, the Middle East version of Gold Star Chili that’s run by the son of one of the original founders. The restaurants in Jordan and UAE for example, focus on burgers as well as Cincinnati chili items, and have counter walk up service, rather than tableside. The designs have no indication of elements of a Cincinnati chili parlor, which Middle Easterners would have no reference to anyway.

We will see if Cincinnati is ready for such a novel change of its historic chili parlor design and if these new stores gain more money per ticket than the nostalgic parlors.

The Mile High Pie and Its Journey from NYC to NOLA to Cincinnati

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Recently I posed a question to my facebook friends to compile a list of iconic Cincinnati desserts.     I received great response.  Many of the desserts were on the list I had already compiled.  But I was seeking confirmation on them.   From one response, I was reminded of a pie that was famous at a restaurant known for its desserts, appropriately named the Grande Finale.   The dessert was called the Mile High Pie.    It was a decadently high tower of chocolate mousse, whipped cream, and topped with cherry cordial, in a pecan crust.    It was recently renamed the Cherry Cordial Pie, and is still on the menu.

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Grand Finale’s Cherry Cordial pie, formerly known as the Mile High Pie.

 

But another restaurant- the New Sovereign in Price Hill, west of downtown, also had a Mile High Pie in the 1980s.     The Primavista Restaurant now occupies the former space.    It was described as a tower of spumoni ice cream surrounded by a scorched meringue on a chocolate chip cookie crust.

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Chef Louis Evans of the Caribbean Room who while not its inventor, served its Mile High Pie for decades.

The New Sovereign version of the Mile High Pie is based on the pie invented in the 1950s at a New Orleans restaurant called the Caribbean Room, which was in the Pontchatrain Hotel on St. Charles Street, along the streetcar line, on the edge of the Garden District.    Their pie is four layers of vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and peppermint ice creams, surrounded in scorched meringue and topped with a decadent chocolate sauce.     It’s creation was self-credited to African-American creole chef, Louis Evans, who was chef at the Caribbean Room, and who just passed away two months ago.   But it was probably his mentor, the first African-American chef,  Nathaniel Burton, who invented the dish in the 1950s, after the restaurant had been opened in 1946 inside the hotel.  Both Burton and Evans have their own cookbooks, filled with creole recipes they made famous at the restaurant.   But Burton, who mentored many New Orleans chefs like our Chef Jean Robert de Cavalle did to many chefs who now own their own restaurants, is described as being “to the skillet what Louis Armstrong was to the trumpet.”     Burton’s Creole Feast  is coming out in revised edition next month, and I can’t wait to read it.   Both chefs were widely acclaimed at a time in the Jim Crow South when it was unusual for the color line to be crossed.

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The Pontchartrain Hotel in the 1940s.

The Pontchartrain Hotel was built and developed in 1927 by Lyle Aschaffenburg, from a prominent New Orleans hotelier family.  Its Caribbean Room restaurant opened in 1948 and quickly became a hangout for New Orleans elite,  Hollywood movie stars and international performers.   The 12-story building was initially designed as a residential hotel, but would change in the late 1930s to a conventional guest hotel.   Of its 100 rooms, a dozen or so were always under annual lease, mostly to well-heeled New Orleanians in their later years.    Among them were Edith Stern, heiress of the now bankrupt Sears department store fortune, and Frankie Besthoff, of the Katz & Besthoff drugstores family who popularized the nectar flavor soda (that New Orleans claimed they invented!)    Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote at the hotel in a room he rented.     Being on the streetcar line, perhaps A Streetcar Named Desire was written or inspired during his stay there.

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The inside of the Caribbean Room in its heyday.

After passing from Lyle to his son Albert and his grandson Honore, the hotel and restaurant closed.   The hotel and Caribbean Room were redeveloped and reopened in 2016 by a Chicago firm.    Longterm guests who knew the Mile High Pie scoffed when it was served not in a towering slice, but perfectly stacked mini rounds of ice cream.     The Caribbean Room closed early this year and reopened as the Jack Rose restaurant, which decided to continue the legacy and still serves the Mile High Pie as it was meant to be served – in a towering slice.

But this pie’s legacy continues back in time.   The New Orleans Mile High Pie was based on the original American dessert, the Baked Alaska.   That iconic dessert was invented in 1867 by New York City’s Delmonico French Chef Ranhofer to commemorate the purchase by Seward of Alaska.     It was a scorched meringue outside housing an ice cream interior.    Ranhofer is also famous for popularizing the avocado, then known as the ‘alligator pear’ in American cooking.   Avacado toast predates the recent hipster revival of it by over a century.

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Chef Ranhofer of Delmonico’s in NYC, inventor of Baked Alaska.

Chef Burton’s NOLA creation of the Mile High Pie spawned many different versions of itself throughout the country.   Bone’s Restaurant in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood serves a Mountain High Pie – which replaces the peppermint ice cream with Rum Raisin and chocolate chip, but drizzles with both chocolate and mint sauce.    I hope there’s a restaurant in the south that serves a version with a bourbon ice cream or sauce.   The Blue Springs Restaurant in Illinois serves the traditional version.     There are also Mile High Peanut Butter pie with a Nutter Butter cookie crust,  a Mile High Turtle Sunday Pie, and a Mile High Mud Pie, which is more like Grand Finale’s version of the pie, with chocolate mousse rather than ice cream.      The New Sovereign’s pie might have come to Cincinnati through a New Orleans trained chef, but I haven’t been able to verify.

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Bones’ version of the Mile High Pie, called the Mountain High Pie.

In Hawaii, there’s a version that recently got the Food Network Magazine Award for best frozen dessert of the Hawaiian Islands.   It’s served at the TS Restaurant chain, but originated at the company’s first restaurant, Kimo’s in Old Lahaina Town in Maui.     The Hula Pie starts with a crumb crust made of Oreos. Then an entire quart of macadamia nut ice cream is piled on to form a huge mound. Finally, the whole thing is drenched in fudge sauce and topped with whipped cream and more macadamia nuts.

My litmus test for a dish becoming iconic is its presence in a national chain.   And the Mile High Pie, has passed that test.   The Red Robin Chain has a Mile High Mud Pie on its menu at all locations.

With Graeter’s and Aglamesis ice creams in town, our chefs would surely be able to come up with some very interesting variations of the Mile High Pie we could call our own.

The Spagoney – The Weirdest of Cincinnati Cheese Coneys

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This is Cincinnati Chili Birthday Week – starting October 22, when in 1922, Macedonian immigrant brothers Ivan (John) and Athanas (Tom) Kiradjieff opened their small chili parlor inside the Empress Burlesque theatre on Vine Street.

At nearly 100 years old, it’s finally happened. The spaghetti has migrated from the threeway to the coney. It’s happening at the last remaining Empress Chili Parlor, in Alexandria Kentucky.

There are a lot of different varieties of the cheese coney at the many independent chili parlors. There are of course phoney coneys and chili buns, which are the dogless varieties.  Should it really be called a coney without a dog?
But Alexandria, Kentucky, Empress location has offered what they call a Spagoney for several years now. It’s a dogless coney with spaghetti. – so its comprised of spaghetti, chili mustard, onions, and cheese – basically a four way on a bun. I’m not sure who the target audience is for this variety. Maybe someone on-the-go who wants a fourway, but doesn’t have the time to sit down and eat like a human. But it still sounds like it could be messy. Call it the Walking Fourway.     I was not able to find a photo of the elusive coney species online.

If you think that’s weird, a few years ago the same Empress location offered a Taco Coney, which was a cheese coney with lettuce, chips, sour cream and jalapenos.  I’m ok with the sour cream and jalapenos, but was really do the lettuce and chips add to a coney?

Ok that might be weird, but its not as weird as what Dixie Chili tried two years ago at Lent.   During the forty days and forty nights of  Lent, they offered a Tuna coney –with Tuna Salad, and cheese. To my knowledge this was the first and last seafood coney offering at a Cincinnati Chili parlor.   Believe me, Cincinnati Catholics will break the Lenten fast to have a real cheese coney.

Dixie Chili also has the gator – a coney with a pickle spear nestled inside the bun for a sour, dilly punch.

Skyline recently brought a bit of Louisiana into their coney with the addition of the andoule coney, which used Queen City’s delicious spicy andoule sausage for the dog.
Gold Star did the German fusion thing with their Oktoberfest coney for a few years. That included a brat, sauerkraut, spicy Dusseldorf mustard, chili and cheese. No chili parlor has yet offered a Braunschweiger Cheese Coney.

While we have German fusion coneys in Cincinnati – James Coney island in Houston has fused Tex-Mex with Greek in their Tamale cheese coney – a tamale wrapped hot dog smothered in chili, cheese and onions wrapped in a corn husk.

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Then there’s the Gliers goetta link cheese coney that you’ll see at Goettafest and maybe Oktoberfest downtown.

What’s next in the evolution of our beloved Cincinnati cheese coney – maybe a Vietnamese bahn mi coney with pate instead of a dog, and pickled veg covered in cheese? I wouldn’t be against a fusion of the Chicago dog and the cheese coney – maybe putting a layer of spicy giardinera underneath the cheese. Actually that sounds pretty delicious.

What about a Halloween cheese coney using a mini blood sausage like our local Johnny-in-the bag sausage?   Who knows.   The only barrier is the imagination of our chili-slingers.

 

Please, Mr. Aglamesis, Bring Back the Charlie Chaplin!

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There’s a little known chocolate candy that Aglamesis used to make called the Charlie Chaplin. It has a cool history that‘s from the era when Aglamesis moved into their beautiful Oakley location on the square. The candy is a decadent chocolate candy with marshmallow, coconut, and cashews covered in dark chocolate.

The Charlie Chaplin was invented in Buffalo by their many confectioners for an event during World War I. Like Cincinnati, the Confectioners of Buffalo banded together in their local chapter of the National Confectioners’ Association. They devised events where they could sell their candy and promote their businesses. One of those events was inviting Charlie Chaplin to Buffalo for the 1917 premeir of his movie, the Adventurer.

In anticipation of his visit, one of the Buffalo confectioners asked Chaplin before the event what his favorite candy was. He replied that he liked marshmallow, chocolate, and coconut, and that his favorite nuts were cashews. So, the confectioners of Buffalo mashed all four ingredients together to form a chocolate bar, log, or cluster they christened the Charlie Chaplin. This delicacy spread throughout Western New York, where it is still very popular, especially at the holidays. You might even call it the Buckeye Candy of New York.

It even spread to South Bend, Indiana, shortly after becoming popular in Buffalo. Jerome Claeys, of Claeys Candy was said to have whipped up a batch in 1919, two years after its invention in Buffalo. Along with Claeys several other local confectioners like like the Greek-founded Olympia make it. But it took on a different form in South Bend. Instead of the cashew nut, the South Bend Confectioners replaced it with Spanish Peanuts, which were probably more readily available, or cheaper than cashews. They also call it the Chocolate Charlie, instead of the Charlie Chaplin, and it’s only made during the holiday season.

In Buffalo, it can be found at a variety of confectioners, like King Condrell’s, who makes a dark, milk, and even orange chocolate variety. It’s also to be found in logs, loaves, and Baby Charlies.

There’s another interesting candy connection to Charlie Chaplin. In preparation for his 1925 Gold Rush movie, where he famously eats his own shoe, Chaplin approached the American Licorice company. They agreed to make him a black licorice boot, complete with licorice shoe strings that he devoured on camera. It’s too bad he didn’t ask our own Mueller Licorice Company, who certainly would have been happy to oblige his request.

The Aglamesis version of the Charlie Chaplin was hand dipped – like the rest of their delicious candies -in their secret premium chocolate and over housemade marshmallow. The closest thing I’ve seen in their candy counter is their malt crunch marshmallow eggs that come out around Easter. And although not on their online menu of chocolates today, I’m sure with a bit of urging, Mr. Aglamesis would be happy to bring back the Charlie Chaplin.

 

 

The Nectar Soda Standoff: Cincinnati vs. New Orleans

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It’s always hard to pinpoint who invented a dish. The Weil, Schimmel, and Kulakofsky families still fight over which one of their ancestors invented the Reuben sandwich almost 100 years ago. Skyline Chili didn’t invent Cincinnati Chili, which many Cincinnatians think because they have the most parlors – Empress Chili was the first. And, there’s always the case with a business still around who claims they invented it, because the original business is no longer there to defend themselves. That’s the case with our Opera Cream. Papas in Covington, Kentucky, claims their ancestor invented it, but it was clearly invented decades earlier than they even were incorporated, by Robert Putman.

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Aglamesis Nectar Ice Cream Soda.

 
Such is also the case with the Cincinnati Nectar Soda. Many attribute Aglamesis with its invention, but it was invented several decades earlier by John Mullane at his confectionery and soda fountain on Fourth Street by 1892. Graeter’s Ice Cream stores, and all United Dairy Farmers ice cream counters also serve this legacy Cincinnati soda.
Now to be clear the nectar soda that we are talking about is the one flavored with vanilla and bitter almond, with a light pink color. It’s described as tasting like poundcake. There’s also a nectar flavor masquerading as the original, which is a tutti-frutti flavor, with cherry, pineapple, and citrus, and sometimes strawberry. But this is not the original nectar soda.

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John Mullane and an ad for his Original Nectar Soda.
Although the nectar soda is becoming more obscure, it has been a continuously offered and celebrated soda flavor since 1892. In addition to Mullane’s, Dow Drugs, which used to have numerous soda fountains throughout Cincinnati, was a popular place to have one. The Cincinnati Club made their own nectar flavored sherbet. Fannie Hurst, an author raised in Hamilton, Ohio, immortalized the Cincinnati Nectar Soda in her 1931 romance novel Backstreet. The Cincinnati nectar soda was also mentioned in the 1931 Women’s Home Companion.

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But, New Orleans claims THEY invented the flavor. In 1866, Isaac Lyons, a native of South Carolina, moved to New Orleans and went into the wholesale drug business. He began selling his nectar syrup to K & B Drugstores in the 1880s, who made it into nectar sodas, nectar cream sodas, and nectar ice cream sodas at their fountains. As in Cincinnati, this became a very popular flavor and other drugstores – Schweighardt’s, Bradley’s, Berner’s, and Walgreen’s – bought the syrup from Lyons and served this flavor. By the turn of the 20th century nectar sodas were a signature flavor of New Orleans.
The flavor expanded out into Cajun country to the sugar cane growing parishes along the Mississippi River like St. James. These Cajuns took the nectar syrup and mixed it with sweetened condensed milk to make a drink they call “Ping-Pong,” which is still served at holiday parties.
But, unlike Cincinnati, New Orleans’ nectar soda had a falling out in the 1960s, as drugstore soda fountains disappeared, and it’s only recently had a small resurgence. During that time until recently, the New Orleans nectar flavor moved from the soda fountain to the street snowball stand. Now about the only place you can get it in New Orleans as an ice cream soda is the American Sector café at the new World War II Museum. A few other places you can also get it are the Creole Creamery, and in a snowball at Plum Street Snowballs. There’s even a bakery that makes a nectar flavored King Cake for Mardi Gras season – Gracious Bakery. The flavor is billed as “Mardi Gras in Your Mouth.”

Rewind to Cincinnati’s nectar origin. Mullane’s Confectionery claimed the origin of the nectar soda, which they started serving in 1892, when they opened their deluxe soda fountain on 4th Street, in what was called “Cincinnati’s most fashionable block.” John’s mother, Mary Mullane, sent him to Quebec City Canada for a year from 1875 to 1876 to study the art of confectionery with William McWilliams, a prominent candy maker, who was Chief Confectioner to the Governor General of Canada. Mullane brought back the nectar flavor to his candy shop and made it into a hard drop candy, which he served from then on, along with a later nectar taffy, and then his later nectar ice cream sodas. A candy company called Lofty Pursuits in Tallahassee, Florida, still makes Mullane’s nectar drop candy from the original 1870s die they purchased from a descendant.


And, there is a legacy of nectar sodas in that area of Quebec City today, which leads me to believe that Mullane did learn the nectar flavor formula during his time at McWilliam’s shop. Cott’s and Allan’s made a nectar soda in Quebec. IGA makes a house nectar soda only in Canada, as did the Crush soda company. And Red Champagne, a Montreal soft drink maker, also makes a nectar soda.

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Dr. Charles Fennel, a pharmacist given credit in Cincinnati to inventing the nectar syrup.
However, an 1899 book of memoirs of Daniel Drake, an early Cincinnati physician, gives credit of the invention of nectar syrup to a pharmacist named C. Augustus Smith, who had a pharmacy on Fourth and Race Street in the 1860s downtown. But, a 1947 Enquirer article, the widow of Adolph Fennel II, credits her husband, who experimented with bitter almond and cream, and her father-in-law, Charles Fennel, who had a pharmacy at 8th and Race Streets with inventing it ‘ very early’. Charles’ father, Adolph Fennel Sr., a German immigrant who had a pharmacy in the 1850s and 1860s at 8th and Vine Streets, was also a prominent pharmacist who helped start the UC College of Pharmacy, and was the local chemist for the U.S. Food and Dairy Association, a predecessor to the FDA.
However, neither of these two Cincinnati pharmacists ever had a business that sold nectar syrup on a commercial scale. And, Mullane made their own syrup. In research for my Cincinnati Candy book, I obtained a copy of the original Mullane Nectar soda from descendants of John Mullane, which includes the ratio of bitter almond to vanilla flavoring.

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Earlier references to the syrup appear in an 1858 newspaper of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which says William Bogel had “a delicious nectar syrup, which surpasses anything in the syrup line we have ever tasted.” And, a July 1857 Sandusky Ohio Register paper promoted Soda with Nectar Syrup by Adams & Fay’s Drugstores. But neither article described how the nectar syrup was flavored, which could have been the tutti frutti variety not the vanilla-bitter almond.

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The Cincinnati nectar flavor travelled. One confectioner took it to Richmond, Indiana, and opened up Finney’s Confections. And, William Wright, a one-time worker at Graeter’s Ice Cream Parlor at Peeble’s Corner in Walnut Hills, opened a chain of ice cream parlors in Los Angeles in the 1940s. He took the nectar flavor he learned at Graeter’s with him. He tried to hide where he had stolen it from by calling it New Orleans Nectar. Marilyn Monroe was a fan of Wil Wright’s hot fudge sundaes.
In 1999 a woman names Susan Dunham decided to revive Nectar Soda on a commercial basis, and became president of the Nectar Soda Company in Mandeville, Louisiana, after having tracked down the recipe from some of Lyons’ ancestors. Sydney J. Besthoff of K & B drug stores was delighted with the news but, sadly, Dunham died October 24, 2012, at age 58, and the company died with her.

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Today, a Nectar Soda Ice Cream is available in supermarkets, produced by the New Orleans Ice Cream Company.
There may be a connection between New Orleans and Cincinnati with the nectar flavor. The area of Quebec City, where Mullane first learned the nectar flavor, was known as a refuge for the Acadians who were expelled from Canada in the 1750s. The area of the Carolinas, where Lyons was from, and Louisiana, were both refuge to these dispelled Acadians, who became known as the Cajuns. So, I have a suspicion that this mixture of bitter almond and vanilla was originally a French Acadian flavor that made its way into the foodways of both New Orleans and Cincinnati.

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So why the weird pink color?    Well, while the blossom of the almond is white, the blossom of the bitter almond is pink.

While we can’t pinpoint when and who first invented nectar flavor, we can debunk New Orleans in saying that the flavor is exclusive to the Crescent City. We do know that trade magazines advertised soda fountain syrups across the country. It appears that both cities started serving it about the same time – sometime in the 1870s and 1880s, when soda fountains became popular, but Mullane’s popularized it in Cincinnati, and Lyons in New Orleans. And, Cincinnati’s has had a continuous supply since the 1870s.

Before There Was “Netflix and Chill,” There was “Make Pralines and Chill”

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New Orleans Chef Ed Moise’s signature Pink Pralines.

Imagine you’re one of the hundred single guys chosen by the French government in the early 1700s to settle the colony of New France in what is now New Orleans, Louisiana.   You arrive and are tasked to build forts and houses in what is really a super-hot-and-humid swamp, with vermin, reptiles and mosquitos, and no women to make your wife.    There are no distilleries or breweries yet, so whiskey and spirits and even beer are hard to come by.   Your Saturday nights are going to be boring for the forseeable future.

So, what did you do?   Before dating apps like Tinder, and Farmers Only.com, you pleaded with the Church.    It was an early form of Christian Mingle.   And that’s exactly what the early colonists of Louisiana did – they went to their Bishop, who, at the time, was the Archbishop of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, who oversaw the mission church of New Orleans.    They pleaded for France to send “virtuous women” capable of becoming wives.

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The first shipment of Ursulines to New Orleans, made after a sketch by one of the first, novice Madeline Houchard.  You can almost see the “Oh crap!” expression on their faces after realizing they’d arrived in an infested swamp that would become New Orleans.

The first shipment of virtuous women were three Ursuline nuns in 1727, who while virtuous, were not capable of making wives to any of the colonists.  But they would be the keepers of said virtuous women, teaching them how to cook, and how to be good, virtuous wives.     The French government had already recognized the dire need for wives of the new colonists.   They had already in 1704  shipped 23 handpicked girls on the ship La Pelican to Dauphin Island in Gulf Shores en route to the French colony of Mobile, Alabama, later sending a shipment of girls to Missouri.

So, the French government handpicked orphans and unvowed girls at convents who, while virtuous, would not have had the opportunity to wed a good husband, and a steady stream of what were called Casket Girls were sent to become wives of the French colonists.   They were called casket girls because they all came with only one small casket shaped box of their belongings.      This fueled later stories about them either being vampires, a la Ann Rice, as after a long hot ship ride across the Atlantic, they were pale and frail.     The New Orleans Ghost Tours perpetuate these legends today.

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The 1752 Ursuline Convent complex today.

Recent geneaologists have traced existing families to these casket girls and there is a great pride in New Orleans and Mobile if your family can do so.   It’s the same prestige of being able to trace your family to a Mayflower passenger.

The first shipment of 28 casket girls arrived in New Orleans in 1728, less than a year after the Urslines had set up shop, building a walled convent, and ministering to the needy and sick of the new colony.    Unlike Mobile and Missouri, New Orleans got a steady stream of these casket girls until 1852.

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The casket girls arriving in New Orleans.

But the Ursulines’ education was not limited to white French Girls, they also taught Indian orphans and free women of color in their convent school on Chartres Street.    The art of praline making was part of this education.      Knowing that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, the Ursulines integrated the culinary arts into their education.   They adapted the candy of France, named after lady’s man, Plessis Praslin, which used almonds, to the more readily available pecan, and taught all the girls in their care how to make them.   And this became a way for free women of color, and later freed former enslaved women to make a living for themselves off the plantation.   They created an entire new street industry known as Pralinieres.     Black women would make pralines in their own kitchens and put them in a basket that they’d carry on their heads and sell throughout the streets of New Orleans, particularly around Jackson Square and Canal Street .    This made the praline one of the first street foods in the U.S. and increased the its popularity.

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In 1825, the Ursulines moved from their original 1752 convent on Chartres Street when the City Officials said they were going to extend the street through their cloistered convent.    They moved out to the country, now the suburb of the Garden District and kept teaching their praline making to the Casket Girls, freed women of color, and Indians.     The chapel became the church of many of the newly arriving Germanic immigrants, like my third great grandparents Kaspar and Maria Reinzen Krebs.

There are many praline makers in New Orleans, the most recognizable of which is Aunt Sally’s.     In addition to the traditional praline, Aunt Sally’s, like many others makes a variety of flavors including Café au Lait (my fave),  Bananas Foster,  and Double Chocolate.      On a stay in his 1848 Greek Revival home in Algiers two  years ago, Chef Ed Moise made his signature pink pralines for my birthday.     Pralines have spread to neighboring Texas and Savannah, Georgia, and many now think they were introduced in Texas.    The New Orleans praline is richer than either the Texas or Georgia variety, using heavy sweet cream in the caramel.

Although the original Ursulines would probably not endorse all the crazy new praline flavors available in New Orleans today, make no mistake, it was the Ursulines of New Orleans who brought them to the U.S.

Spicy Saltines: The Redneck Snack that Your Holiday Table Shouldn’t Be Without

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Amping up Southern ingredients isn’t all about things like crème fraiche on truffle biscuits.    Take the saltine for example.     Its an anytime food in its plain form, but spice them up and they become an amazing component.   In the last month I’ve seen spicy saltines in two places in the South – in Texas Hill Country, where they’re called Redneck Treats, and in Gulf Shores Alabama, where they’re called Alabama Firecrackers.     Both versions use a spice blend that includes garlic salt, onion salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper, and a Ranch dressing spice packet.  They’re a cousin to the Upper Southern cheese straw, and the Low Country Benne crackers, both of which are dip carriers.

I have to say I’ve always been a fan of the saltine cracker and its flexibility.      And to take them up a notch with some spice – I think, is genius.     I know what you’re saying.  The saltine may not be considered the classiest of crackers, when compared to say, a Ritz, or a Keebler Club Cracker, but they sure have versatility.    I’ve used a saltine to scoop up and sample a bit of goetta-in-the making in my crockpot.

In Texas they go well with any of the great smoky barbecue you can find, or to sop up black eyed peas or smoked greens.    In seafood central Gulf Coast Alabama, they’re sold at virtually every fish market.     People use them to hold an oyster on its way from shell-to-mouth.    And they go well with any seafood or crab dip as well.

My grandmother’s oyster dressing that I make every Thanksgiving uses buttered saltines.   I am going to try the spicy saltines this year for a mixup.      There’s a Southern pie called various names like Lemon Coastal Pie or Atlantic Beach Tart, popular in the Carolinas, that uses a saltine cracker crust and lemon juice with condensed milk as the filling.  Southerners who make this pie recommend throwing out every crust that calls for Graham crackers and replace with saltines.   Using a blend with spicy saltines would probably give a great oomph to the pie.      And what about our Cincinnati oyster crackers (not the dense ones from the Northeast used for chowders)?   They’re basically a version of the saltine.  I’m going to make the spicy version with the oyster crackers for Christmas too.

One of my favorite Holiday sweets is the saltine toffee, which my sister-in-law and another friend make.   I wonder how much more awesome they’d be with spicy saltines. Garden & Gun Magazine just published a Spiced Dark Chocolate Cherry Saltine Toffee recipe in their October edition, recommending you put the salt side down and coat the underside.

I can also see them going well at a holiday table with any loose dip, as the saltine structure weakens when oil is added to ‘glue’ the spices to the spicy cracker concoction.    So, make sure if you do use them, you whip your dip a bit more to make dipping without breakage a possibility.   I’d recopmmend Spicy Saltines with Kentucky beer cheese, Skyline chili dip, pimento cheese, Louisiville Benedictine Spread, or a nice shrimp or crab dip.

So this Holiday season, save some money, go Southern, and make some spicy saltines to go dippin’.