The Middletown-Style Cincinnati Chili Parlor Known for its Raisin Pie

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One of the things about the Greek community in Southwest Ohio is their strong influence in the food culture of the area.   The Macedonian-Greeks founded the Cincinnati Chili industry.   The Spartan-Greeks dominated the Ice Cream and Candy business – ala Papas Opera Creams and Aglamesis Ice Cream.

Middletown too had a large Greek population, with its steel mills that provided good stable jobs to newly arrived Balkan immigrants. The Revelos Brothers of Elite Confectionery in Middletown taught many Cincinnati Greek candy families the craft.

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There was one Middletown restaurant, called the Liberty Restaurant or Liberty Chili Parlor that served Cincinnati style Greek chili until recently.     The restaurant was founded in 1925 by newly arrived Crete immigrants Gus Anthony Valen (1898-1976) (originally Valenike) and his bride Irene Tekakis.     They had so much demand at their restaurant from the steel mill and factories in Middletown, they would butcher their own animals in the basement and use every bit to serve their customers.

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Later in the game, they would develop their own Greek style chili, and serve it Cincinnati style in 3 ways, 4 ways and cheese coneys.    Even though there was connection between Cincy and Middletown’s Greeks, and Empress was founded several years earlier in 1922, it’s not known how the Cincinnati chili recipe and whose recipe made it to the Liberty.

But one other thing the Liberty Chili parlor was known for was their raisin pie, probably a recipe carried over in the head of Irene Tekakis Valen.   And it may have been served ala mode alongside a scoop of Elite Ice Cream, made locally by the Greek Revelos brothers.

Gus Valen and his wife were founding members of the Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Middletown, for whom Gus was a President.  Like the St. Nicholas/Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, they hold an annual Panegyri Festival.  He also served as president of the local AHEPA chapter, and sold war bonds during World War II, as many patriotic Greeks did.     There were three Liberty Chili Parlors at the time in Southwest Ohio – one in Middletown, one in Northside, and one across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky.   The Greeks wanted to show how committed they were to their newly adopted country.

Gus’s daughter Despina married James Sakelos of Cincinnati, whose family ran the Sakelos Confectionery, one of the many Greek family owned candy shops in the city.

A few years ago a Middletown native posted the below recipe for Raisin Pie, that has been verified as the raisin pie recipe of Liberty Chili from a relative of the Valens:

Granny’s Old-Fashioned Raisin Pie

INGREDIENTS
2 1/2 cups raisins
1 ½ cup of water and ½ cup of dark rum as per granny
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon  apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon butter
1 double unbaked pie crust for 9 inch pie pan

DIRECTIONS:
Combine raisins and water and boil for 5 minutes.
( I poured the boiling water and rum mixture over the raisins in a covered dish and let the raisins soak up this wonderful boozie mixture for several hours then reheated and continued to next step)
Blend sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon and salt.
Add to raisin liquid and cook, stirring until clear.
Remove from heat.
Stir in vinegar and butter. Cool slightly. Turn into pastry-lined pan.
Cover with top pastry cut several vents in top. vcm: brush with egg wash
Bake at 425 F about 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.
Makes 1 pie (8 servings).

Vivian Combs Moon

 

 

 

Vyssinatha – The Drink of Panegyri and Summer

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In Greece, giving a guest spoon sweets is said to be a sign of high hospitality.  They are called that because they are literally the size of a spoon.   In the summer Greek sour cherries are in season, and there are spoon sweets made with these sour cherries, which are muskier and darker than cherries to be had in the States.

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Not to waste anything, the Greeks take the syrup from this sour cherry spoon sweet, dilute it with ice cold soda water or tap water and make it into a refreshing drink.    And, it’s everywhere in Greece during the summer, to quench the thirst from spending a day on the beach in your small speedo.      It also happens to be a thirst quencher at the scorching hot Panegyri, which is where I saw it on Friday.

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The Panegyri in Cincinnati is a food lover’s dream.     You can have a variety of authentic Greek food made by the members of St. Nick’s / Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church either ala carte or in dinner form.     Gather your friends and family under one of the tents, have great food, and listen to live Greek music and dancing and enjoy one of the best festivals in Greater Cincinnati.    This year it’s sponsored by not one, but three chili parlors – Camp Washington, Price Hill, and Skyline.     Sebastians, one of the best Greek restaurants in Cincinnati – named after Donald Sebastiano “Buddy” LaRosa – an Italian, who helped the owner get started – is also a sponsor.

 

Toast Hawaii – The German Equivalent to American Grilled Cheese

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Germany’s Toast Hawaii, a well understood comfort food.

I am falling in love with the German series on Netflix called “Dark.”  It’s Germany’s equivalent of the series Stranger Things, that my entire family binged upon a couple of years ago.   It’s set in a town called Winden, near Freiburg in the Black Forest where a nuclear power plant was installed in 1953, and where strange things have been happening ever since.   There are two characters in the show who have a variation of my last name, Woeller.   One is a one-eye police detective who no one listens to, the other,  his transsexual prostitute sister.   What I particularly like about the series is their integration of regional food into the plot.    In Germany the candy bar Twix was called Raider until about 1991.    Part of the plot is Raider wrappers appearing in the forest where children are going missing, some of whom went missing in 1986, when Raider was very popular.

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An episode in season 2, the adoptive mother of a child from 2019, who is transported back to 1986, makes him Toast Hawaii, on a day when he is very sad and missing his family.      She says her father used to make it for her when she was growing up, and used two cherries in the center.

What I didn’t know is that Toast Hawaii is to Germans what the grilled cheese is to Americans.   Everyone understands it in Germany, and is one of the comfort foods of your childhood.   You can even order this little snack at every imbisse or fast food place, even if it doesn’t appear on the menu.    Like they do in Dark, you can amp it up by adding a maraschino cherry or two to the middle of the pineapple.

The dish is basically pineapple and cheese slices cooked open-faced, on toast, dressed up to personal preferences.    At restaurants it can be seen paired with lettuce and a bottle of Worchestershire sauce.  And instead of butter, some use mayonnaise, Thousand Island or Ranch dressing.  All of these ingredients are common in most German homes, so it is an easy to prepare food that seems classy.   And while it has absolutely nothing to do with German cuisine, it’s firmly rooted in its culture and can be found everywhere.   It fits into the family of butterbrot or buttered sandwiches, which replace cooked meals for breakfast and lunch.    When a butterbrot is cut into small pieces for children, they’re called häppchen or stückchen.

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German TV celebrity chef Carl Clemens Hahn, who popularized Toast Hawaii.

The history of this delicious comfort food is that it was popularized by German TV cook Clemens Wilmenrod (real name Carl Clemens Hahn) in the 1950s. The grandfather to Toast Hawaii was the Grilled Spamwich, a recipe published in a Spam cookbook by Hormel in 1939 and brought to West Germany by American G.I.s. Spam was not available in Germany’s grocery stores so Wilmenrod replaced it with a slice of cooked ham and Toast Hawaii was born.   So Toast Hawaii also fits  into the post World War II reconstruction era, like the currywurst sausage of Berlin.

Ingredients
Steps
Comments
Ingredients
1 slice white bread (or wheat sandwich bread)
1 tbsp. butter
1-2 slices ham (deli)
1 slice pineapple (canned or fresh, drained)
Optional: 1 pinch dried marjoram
2 slices cheese (To cover bread, gruyère or emmentaler are good choices)
Steps to Make It
Lightly butter both sides of the bread and place on cookie sheet.

Layer ham, then pineapple.

Sprinkle with marjoram, if using, and top with cheese.

Bake at 350°F for 12 minutes. Serve hot. The Germans eat this with a knife and fork.​

Tip
This recipe serves as many as you want. Count on one or two open-faced sandwiches per person.

Recipe Variation
Try this with mayonnaise instead of butter (top side only), or Thousand Island or Ranch dressing. Serve with a fried egg for breakfast, or a salad for lunch or dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

St. Anthony’s Bread in Camp Washington

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Today the Sacred Heart  Catholic Church in Camp Washington held their St. Anthony Bread Sale in honor of St. Anthony’s Feast Day on June 13.     This parish, made up of Italian Catholics, also hosts the biannual Ravioli Dinner – so they are always stepping up to the plate with great food celebrations.   A variety of breads were made by parishioners and sold at the entrance to church after the 9 AM and 11 AM masses for the benefit of the poor in Camp Washington and in Over-the-Rhine.    I guarantee there was no better selection of healthy and delicious hand made breads to be had anywhere else in Greater Cincinnati.

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The delicious assortment of breads for sale included baguettes, a variety of sourdough, Sicilian, Swedish braided bread, French batard, Boston bread, and Korean sausage bread.      There were also delicious looking muffins, cookies, and banana bread.    I bought a multigrain peasant bread and an amazing pumpernickel, made, according to the baker, with coffee, unsweetened cocoa,  and a bit of molasses.

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St. Anthony is a Franciscan saint, the patron of the poor and of lost causes.   Many pray to him when they’ve lost something or in desparate need of help.   It’s tradition at his feast to have bread blessed by the priest and to be given a small loaf of round bread to remind us of our duty to feed the poor.   Supposedly the tradition of offering St. Anthony Bread for the poor was started in 1890 by a French woman named Louise Bouffilier, owner of a small linen shop, who was the recipient of a miracle after praying to St. Anthony, and then devoted the rest of her life to feeding the poor.

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Cincinnati is also home to the St. Anthony Shrine on Colerain Avenue, which has a large devotional mass on his feast day, and hosts a nine week novena, or series of prayer of the rosary, leading up to his day.     The shrine used to be the site of the college to educate Franciscan priests in the St. John the Baptist Province of Greater Cincinnati.   It was required coursework as part of their postulancy to learn how to cook for a large group of priests and brothers, and why the Franciscans of Cincinnati have a great reputation of being great cooks.     Now the national Franciscan provinces have combined and postulants and those learning to become priests rotate their education from D.C, to San Diego, to Chicago and elsewhere.  This year an estimated 300 Chaldean-Catholics, many Iraqi immigrants, came down in buses from Detroit, Michigan, for this feast day to celebrate at the shrine.

 

East Hyde Park Restaurant Archeology

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Over-the-Rhine has done a phenomenal job of garnering national recognition for the Cincinnati food scene.   But I have to fist pump with some neighborhood pride for my little enclave in quiet East Hyde Park.   Long before the OTR restaurant bubble,  there was a about a two block section of Erie that became a playground for hyper-fusion international cuisine in Cincinnati.      In fact, this little section of Hyde Park East has housed a quiet neighborhood foodie scene since World War II.

When I moved into the area, almost two decades ago, there were still bungalows to be had for bargains from some of the original owners, or their families. I bought mine from a retired unmarried teacher, the daughter of the man who built it in 1922.  I spent the next several years renovating, but preserving its original craftsman character. My small enclave were the working class homes of Hyde Park, a contrast to the monstrous Victorian mansions on Observatory just up the hill. The old streetcar line which these Business Barons took to their offices downtown, ended near the corner of Delta and Eire.  The miniscule cottages on Tarpis, where the funky Mushroom House stands, were built as worker cottages for the single streetcar operators. The old car barn was located behind what is now Coffee Emporium .

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The first block to take on this fusion cuisine is a series of connected 1920s era one story, neighborhood shops at Erie and Amberson, that includes Haps Irish Pub, an old school barbershop and a family pharmacy.      One of the first Thai restaurants on the East Side, Bangkok Bistro, which took over a vacated Snappy Tomato Pizza joint in the complex in 1994, introduced Pad Thai and Choo Chee to many gringos in Cincinnati.   They paved the way for Lemongrass on Madison, Ruthai’s on Linwood, and Wild Ginger on Edwards.

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Chef Yaj of Cumin.

Then, in the early 2000s, Chef “Yaj” Udyaya and  Tunisian native Alex Mchaikl, renovated the old Taco Casa in the same complex, creating a very small boutique Indian restaurant called Cumin.   I thought I had died and gone to heaven.     They brought bold flavors and interesting new dishes that none of us could pronounce.    Cumin expanded into a larger spot next door, then it became Ash in 2013, and now Café Mediterranean, owned by Fahri Ozdil.   The small original Cumin space became an Israeli restaurant, then M, a wood fired pizza place, and now it’s Forno Osterio + Bar, the brainchild of Tuscan chef Christian Pietoso, of Via Vitae and Nicola’s.   Forno has  a wild boar with chocolate sauce – cinghiale in cocciolato – that’s as authentic as the same dish I had in Montelpuciano, Italy, at the Café Polizano.

Around the corner at Saybrook and Erie, is another late 1920s cluster of shops that has housed great restaurants since the 1930s.    The end shop at 2672 Eire first housed the Saybrook Tavern, a family restaurant specializing in steaks, and seafood, and known for their kissing fish mural in the dining room.    The owner James Morgenroth, operated a butcher shop next door and then opened the Saybrook Tavern in 1946.    He served as President of the local National Restaurant Association, and would operate the Tavern until 1976.   Morgenroth sold to his manager, David Walsh, who would then sell it to the next owner in 1984, when it would become Pasta al Dente.

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Pasta al Dente was fantastic and always packed – they dished huge portions at great prices.   Serving homemade ravioli and cannelloni and stuffed zucchini, it was great for us recent, poor college graduates who could make three meals out of a trip.

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The inside of Saybrook Tavern, 3672 Eire Avenue.

In 2005, owner Jay Scavo decided to close Pasta al Dente.   The space was then taken over by Merritt Oleksi, a culinarian from Boston, and Charlie Choi, a local Asian restauranteur, and named Sake Bomb.  The two pioneered sushi in suburban Cincinnati.  Choi would go on to open Dancing Wasabi on Edwards, in the old Beluga restaurant space, and then Mr. Sushi downtown.

In 2011, 2672 Erie would become Saigon Café, a Vietnamese and sushi restaurant, under Alex Ng.  I spent many a ‘half price sushi’ night there eating a Hyde Park roll (spicy tuna, cucumber, avocado, and tempura flakes) .

Then, in 2016, Ng closed Saigon, moved it to Clifton and spent the next 18 months renovating the location into Bourbon Smokehouse, which only lasted about six months.   They had some of the best smoked wings in the city in my opinion, but they were never consistent and couldn’t compete against East Side barbeque behemoth Eli’s.    Now Delicio Coal fired pizza is set to open any day – the fifth restaurant,  in the 90 year old space.

Sunshine Fine Foods, at 3501 Erie Avenue, was one of the oldest butcheries and neighborhood markets and now houses 3501 Korean Bistro, with the best Korean wings in the city.    Nearby, there’s also  a phenomenal craft butcher and deli – Dutch’s Larder – in a 70 year old pony keg, at the corner of Marburg and Erie – where Chef Patrick Hague makes the best Basque sausage and meat creations in the East Side.

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Chef Patrick Hague of Dutch’s.

Two residential houses were combined to make Hyde Park Tavern at 3384 Erie Avenue in the early 2000s.   At its latest incarnation – Keystone Bar and Grill –  you can find several types of gourmet Mac N Cheese.   It’s not my thing, but its been popular enough to survive for nearly ten years, mainly, I think, because of their huge outdoor patio.

For a brief period from 2016-2017 there was even a small Chipotle-inspired Indian takeout called Indi-Go, at 3392 Erie, next to Keystone Grill and the dry cleaners, catering to a growing number of Indian immigrants moving into the area.     I enjoyed chatting with the owner Sujata Pai, and tasting her samosas and chutneys, but they didn’t last very long.

So, I’ve been lucky to have a smorgasbord of international cuisines within footsteps of my house and I look forward to what comes next!

 

Delhi’s German American Double Decker Hamburger

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Cincinnati is a city where the mid-century double decker hamburger really took hold.  Maybe we were looking for some variety to our popular convenience foods like the sausage with kraut and mustard or the cheese coney.   But unlike the McDonald’s Brothers of southern California, David Frisch and others introduced the notion of a white tartar sauce dressed double decker burger like the Frisch’s Big Boy, rather than a pink thousand island dressed Big Mac.

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On both sides of the Ohio River there were tartar sauced dressed double decker burgers.  Cincinnati was home to the Big Tucker, Red Barn’s Big Barney, Sixty Second Shop’s Big Sixty, Schilling’s Dixie Boy, Green Derby’s Derby Boy, Neff Jenkins’ King Burger, the Country Boy, Carter’s Big Burger, and even Blue Jay’s Big Tom.

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Only  Parkmour’s Jumbo Burger and Sandy’s Big Scot followed suit with McDonald’s and used a pink sauce to dress their double decker burger.

 

 

The original Big K hamburger press and a coupon from Klawitter’s.

The Germans of Cincinnati’s West Side neighborhood, Delhi, demanded even more than just a white or pink sauce on their double decker.    They had the Big Klawitter, or the Big K, dressed with spicy schmearkase, which is German for cheese spread.   One layer of the burger housed a schmearkase made of cream cheese or quark, butter, cayenne pepper, and olives.   The lower level housed a schmear of spicy pimento cheese.     It came with tomatoes, lettuce and onions, pickles on the side.    A coupon could get you three Big K’s for 99 cents – what a bargain!   The Big K was the signature double decker burger of Klawitter’s Restaurant on Neeb Road, which opened as a general store in 1895 and was demolished in 1974.      And, like Klawitter’s huttenkuse mit schnitlauch spread (cottage cheese with chives), the cheese was probably supplied or made by the many German immigrant dairy families that inhabited the area.    That’s the benefit of living in an area surrounded by dairy farms.

 

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A frikadellen platter today in Hamburg, Germany, at Oberhafen Kantine.

It’s appropriate that there was a Cincy German double decker burger, as the name itself implies the Hamburger’s German origin.     Hamburg is a port city in Northern Germany with lots of rowdy sailors.    Small patties of ground beef or meat were popular street foods in the party districts of the city, like the Reeperbahn, where the sailors cavorted.     These frikadellen, as they are called, are still popular snacks in Germany today and can be found on street carts throughout northern German cities, usually served with good rye bread.   Oddly enough, Frisch’s one of the earliest providers of the Cincinnati double decker burger, still offers a rye bun for their sandwiches, supplied by another Cincy-German immigrant family business, Klostermann’s Bakery.

The frikadellen crossed the ocean with Germanic Immigrants and morphed into our American hamburger.    Three German immigrants claim to be the inventors of the hamburger in America – the Menches  brothers of Akron, Ohio (1884) ; Louis Lassen of New Haven, Connecticut (1900); and Charlie Nagreen of Seymour, Wisconsin (1885).    Whomever really deserves the credit is somewhat unimportant.   What is important is that German-Americans invented one of our most iconic American foods.

 

Boldface Dairy Bar – New Soft Serve Innovation in Price Hill’s Incline District

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Walk-up Creamy Whip windows are a neighborhood tradition in Cincinnati.     In my summer exploration of Price Hill, I’ve found a brand new one in the Incline District in the same Queen Anne historic building as my new favorite West Side coffee house, BLOC.  And, they’re doing something very innovative, in my opinion, to be able to offer more flavors and variety while reducing costs and increasing efficiency.

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Co-founders Rhett Harkins and Andy Grear were disappointed when the only neighborhood walk-to ice cream shop, UDF, closed last year.    To cater to young families, like their own, they decided to open Boldface Dairy Bar.       Harkins operated BLOC coffee house for eight years, and so decided to open Boldface in the lower level of the historic building at 801 Mt. Hope Avenue.   Their grand opening was April 25.

All other creamy whips make a huge batch of one flavor at a time.   That means when that flavor is out, it’s out.   It also means cleaning in between batches, or needing more than one machine.     Boldface makes a vanilla soft serve base and use something called a Turbomixer to mix in the flavor.    A small beaker sized container holds the base and then flavors, like Bourbon Barrell Aged Stout are infused in and mixed.     That means they can have unlimited flavors.   They had about ten when I stopped by.        So, they’re not limited by batch size, amount of equipment, or customer demand.   It’s truly a small batch, craft whippy dip operation.    I’m excited to see what flavors they come up with this summer.

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They have a wonderful outdoor Whippy Dip Garden next door, where you can sit and enjoy your cones, or you can walk just a block east and sit on a bench at the top of what was once the Price Hill Incline.   From that vantage you can take in the city’s most gorgeous view of the river and downtown skyline.     It’s a great top-off to a night of drama at the Incline Theatre or dinner at the Incline Public House.   And this summer you can also get a selfie with the 1936 Mr. Redlegs, in his “Palm Beach” style uniform.