The Dutch and Their Love of Black Licorice

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It was returning from a college backpacking trip through Europe when I was first introduced to Dutch Black Licorice. I’m not talking about the bland American Twizzler kind, but the salty, sour, acidy kind they make in Holland. It was on a cheap ferry called the Queen Beatrice from Hoek van Holland back to England to catch my flight back to the States. The channel was very choppy that morning and it felt like the captain was driving straight into every wave like a California surfer. I was about to puke up the breakfast beer and stroopwafel I had eaten at the dock. I must have looked green, and destitute, hanging over the outside rail of the boat, because four young girls from Frisia, the northwesternmost part of Germany next to Holland, came up to me and asked if I was ok. After revealing I was quite queasy, they force-fed me their black licorice and told me everything would be all right.

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The four Frisian girls who saved my life – note the blonde on the right with a pocketful and mouthful of stomach-settling Dutch black licorice.

I bit into the hard black licorice and a super acidy, salty ammonium chloride liquid came seeping out. A new world opened up just then. Although it was unexpected and different, I immediately fell in love – both with the licorice, and the Dutch. Being close to the sea, it must be a common remedy for seasickness to the Dutch. My stomach was relieved and I spent the next hour in great conversation with and learning about Frisian history and their pop culture. They gave me the rest of their black licorice and left me on my way back to Gatwick Airport.

Black licorice has long been known for its nausea and cold relieving, and anti-inflammatory properties. Napoleon took it for his nervous stomach and give it to his troops to prevent their thirst in battle. Licorice root has even been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.

I shared the black licorice back home, but when it was gone, I found it difficult to find in the “Nati. It’s funny because Cincinnati had an early love of black licorice. Mueller’s Licorice, one of America’s only four producers of black licorice, lasted nearly 90 years in production, which ended at their plant in Norwood. In America, black licorice was used as a flavor in tobacco products, to enhance the crave. Mueller promoted candy cigarettes and cigars to children to shape them as future smokers.

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So, for several years my black licorice supply chain was dry. That was until I began working with Debby, a native Amsterdamer. When I saw she had a supply of Dutch black licorice on her desk, we immediately connected, and now I get a fresh supply of authentic Dutch black licorice annually from her around the time of my birthday.
There is nothing more Dutch than black licorice. It should be listed as their national food. It’s certainly their contribution to international confectionery. I would put it higher in national importance than tulips, wooden shoes and stroopwafels. The Dutch make over 150 kinds of black licorice alone, not counting the other things they do with black licorice, like enrobing them in chocolate and other sweet coatings. The Good and Plenty candy has its roots in this Dutch black licorice mastery. They also are commonly flavored with mint, menthol, bay leaf, honey and a variety of other herbals.

The average Dutch person eats 4 pounds per year of drop, what they call black licorice, and most don’t leave home on vacation without a good supply of it. There are four main types of drop – soft and sweet, soft and salty, hard and sweet and hard and salty, and they come in a limitless variety of shapes and sizes. The production of black licorice is an over $200 million dollar industry in the Netherlands. The Dutch buy more black licorice than they do toothpaste.

But why do the Dutch so magnanimously love black licorice? It’s a polarizing flavor to most nations – you either love it or you hate it, but the Dutch almost unanimously love it. Anise and black licorice flavors are very popular in Northwest Germany and Scandinavia too, with Jaegermesiter liquor made in Wolfenbuttel, Saxony, and the variety of anise flavored Christmas cookies made in that area.

But the flavor is also popular as ouzo liquor in Greece. That’s because licorice root is not grown anywhere in Holland, but in the southern Mediterranean, imported as a hardened root extract from Greece, as well as Italy, Spain, and some parts of China and Southern Russia. It is wrapped in bay leaves for transport and mixed with gum Arabic for consistency. In cheap licorice, modified potato and/or corn starch is substituted for gum Arabic. But that produces an inferior candy that dissolves too quickly in the mouth.

No one knows exactly when licorice first reached the Netherlands, but some say the earliest importers were Dutch sailors returning from Mediterranean trading voyages where it was grown. The first mention of licorice in Dutch literature is in Jacob Van Maerlant’s 13th-Century poem, “The Flower of Nature.” Licorice has been commonly used in Holland ever since. The British claim they were the first to use licorice in confectionery, starting in the 18th century, but the Dutch have been doing it much longer. One of the oldest licorice shops is Amsterdam’s Hooy’s founded in 1743, Klene Suikerwerkfabrieken, also in Amsterdam, claim that at 110 years old, they are the world’s oldest continually operating black licorice confectioner.

The Dutch love for the flavor might be linked with their virtual monopoly of the Eastern spice trade in the 1600s. They imported nutmeg and cloves from their colonies in the East Indies to Europe. This spice trade monopoly is what made Amsterdam the richest nation in the world, and gave rise to the term Middle Class. It’s also what funded the great period of art that made the Dutch Masters like Rembrandt. So, they might have had an early palate affliction to exotic new flavors.

Debby, my chief drop supplier, comes from a confectionery family. Her father ran a bakery for decades in Amsterdam and was famous for an anise/black licorice flavored cookie he invented called the Moppen, which means ‘a chunk of something.’ That cookie is still being produced by bakeries in Amsterdam. So when I asked Debby why the Dutch are such masters of black licorice and where their affliction for it came, she replied, “Because its good shit.” That’s really all we need to know.

Gajar Halwa – The Fall Indian Dessert Hidden in Cincinnati

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I will admit it, I’ve become a bit of a halwa snob. or maybe a connoisseur. I may be the first to use the word halwa-lier like a wine sommelier. But I have probably tasted more versions of it than most any other Americans. And, up until a year ago I had no idea what it was. Then I ventured into a little Indian Restaurant in Lebanon, Ohio, and the two of us became very intimate.

So what the heck is it? It’s an amazing Indian dessert with a carrot puree base.  There was something about its neon orange traffic cone color that drew me in and on my plate at the lunch buffet. At first taste I was introduced to a great mildly sweet carrot flavor, with bursts of tangy sweet from golden raisins . Now when I say carrot puree, I know you’re thinking- baby food. But its not completely smooth and homogenized like baby food. There’s some texture and crunch with grated carrots as well as pureed, and other ingredients like turmeric that give it a different flair.    Oh yeah, and there’s also a lot of ghee or clarified butter, which makes everything taste richer.   I was so taken by this new dish I demanded an explanation from the only waitress who spoke English. She said there are thousands of ways to make halwa in India, but this was her mother’s recipe that she grew up eating. Some integrate milk or cream into the puree and some are super sweet.

In India halwa can be made with other ‘fruits’ like pumpkin, pineapple, mung lentils, apples, papaya, sweet potato, beetroot, banana, and with variety of flours – wheat, water chestnut flour, seminola, pinhead oats – hmmm a goetta fusion may be in order – and even cream of wheat. Spices used vary as well – from cardamom and turmeric to saffron.    I focus on the carrot halwa – called gajar halwa in India – which seems to be the most prevalent available in Cincinnati Indian buffets.

So I embarked on a search for gajar halwa at all Indian restaurants I went to. If they didn’t have in on their menu, I asked why and then yelled at them for not having it, all of which resulted in good laughter, especially coming from a pale Germanic gringo like me.

I wonder if it is canned for the lazy home market, or if it would even do well canned.  There are several Indian markets in Sharonville where I plan to search for it.

And maybe I’m biased and regionalistic, but I think the best I’ve had is in my neighborhood of Oakley at Baba India on Madison road. Their halwa is buttery and delicious, and has roasted slivered almonds on top, but no golden raisins like the one in Lebanon. I have a suspicion theirs is a Punjabi recipe, because the elderly cooks who refill the dishes at the buffet all wear tightly wound head scarves. It’s always on their lunch buffet, but it’s not very well taken. I think its that a lot of people don’t know what it is, because all that the tags says on the buffet is halwa . It should say “Halwa, a genius buttery North Indian dessert made of carrot puree and other secret magical ingredients that will delight your taste buds and not make you fat. And I’m ok with its obscurity because it just means there’s more for me.

You might call it the healthier Indian version of pumpkin pie, without the crust, and less gelationous.    In fact, halwa would be good as a pumpkin pie filling.

Friday, I tried a Pakistani version, that I heard a Pakastani woman at the table next to me call just ‘sweet.’   I think this is what they call moong dal halwa in northern India.  It’s quite different than the Indian version – it’s more of like a tapioca-gelatin, but has a similar flavor, although not as carroty.

I’ve not tried to make it myself yet, because I haven’t been able to get a recipe from Baba yet. Until then, I’ll leave it up to the experts. But, I love it so much that I am thinking about going fusion with it. I will be trying it as a halwa strudel – using Baba’s and wrapping it in dough – what may be the first Indian-Germanic fusion since the post war invention of currywurst in Berlin. I kinda feel a little like Frau Herta Heweur.

 

The Austrian Snack Behemoth Founded by an American GI After World War II

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For my birthday this year my sister fed my foodie nature by buying me a membership to a mail order club called Universal Yums.  Every month a small box with snacks and their history from a country are delivered. This is a food etymologist’s dream! This month’s country for me was Austria.    Two snacks included in this box sparked my interest – Kelly’s Paprika Flavored Potato Chips and Kelly’s Peanut Butter flavored Snips.    There’s also an over-the-top amazing Franz Kastner citroen gingerbread cookie that reminds me of the kind my Grandparents made.

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If you travel through Austria and stop at a local convenience store, you’ll run into a large variety of snacks from Kelly, who is Austria’s largest snack manufacturer.     They’ll look very American – many potato chip varieties including BBQ, flavored popcorns, and corn chips.  The peanut butter flavored puffed Cheeto-like snacks even have the American flag on the bag and they have been added to my Great Puffed Snack Roundup.

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So why all this Americanism in a Germanic country’s favorite snack?   Well that’s because the Kelly Company, was founded in 1955 by a former American Army Captain, Howard Morse Kelly.     Kelly was from Springville, Utah, but fell in love with beautiful Vienna and wanted to stay there rather than return back home after the war.    By 1955, Kelly was loving the country but missing all things American – BBQ, popcorn, and potato chips.  All of these things were American food products that American soldiers later introduced and popularized in Europe after the War.

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So Kelly teamed up with a young and dynamic Austrian business Partner, Herbert Rast, and founded the First American Popcorn Company.   At the time, Austrians did not eat popcorn at the movie theatres.   So, it took some convincing.   They began selling their popcorn to Vienna area movie theatres, charging the equivalent of 10 cents American, which was 2.5 shillings.  Austrians latched onto the movie popcorn experience and the company quickly grew, realizing they needed potato chips in their product lineup too.     The company was incorporated in 1965 as Kelly GmbH. They acquired a chip production plant in Hollabrunn in 1976.    Kelly had made potato chips so popular in Austria that by 1964, according to an article in the New York Times, Austrians were using them to bread their schnitzel.

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Howard Kelly and wife, left, and Herbert Rast, far right.

Kelly passed away in 1977, but Herbert Rast ran the company until 1994 when Dr. Wolfgang Hotschel took over the helm.   Rast oversaw larger expansion as they acquired competitor Feldbacher, who makes the popular pretzel sticks called solettis.    The company continues to expand their product line, recently introducing the BBQ flavor, supposedly from the original recipe of Frau Kelly.

Today Kelly uses potatoes only grown in Austria, but the high quality corn is still shipped in from the U.S.

The Little Bakery in NCH that Supplies All the Cincy Goetta Makers

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In the small neighborhood of North College Hill is one of Cincinnati’s oldest family bakeries, successful amidst a world of retail bakers and Walmarts.   Founded in 1933 by Carl and Anna Litschgi, they’ve been known for their German pastries and wonderful breads for nearly that entire time.    The cute little baker on the big sign and the art deco frontage blazon to passersby on Galbraith Road.    But now they have a reach far outside the neighborhood as they’ve become the baker to all the Cincinnati Goetta makers – that is, the family meat markets all over town.

My family has quite the connection to the Litschgi family.     My grandparents built their between wars 2 bedroom cottage on Betts Avenue around the corner, only a few years in the late 20s before the bakery opened.    Grandma would walk the few blocks to get her weekly bread and Sunday pastries from the bakery.   Carl Litschgi’s parents Frank and Frances were Baden immigrants and Frank worked as a gilter at the Nurre Frame Factory downtown with my great grandfather Theo and his brother Otto.   Living on Colerain Avenue, the Litschgi’s and the Woellerts commuted from Northside on the CH & D to their factory jobs.     My great grandparents lived on Beekman Street, near the Litschgi’s so their kids went to Garfield Elementary together, and even worked in their early teens at the shoe factories in Northside together.     As Northsiders moved up the hill to NCH, so did the Litschgi’s and my family, becoming members of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church.    Carl somehow found baking and utilized his iconic talent.

So, it’s no small wonder that the NCH Bakery has been a staple of my family for many decades.    I am a fan of their wonderfully hand rolled cinnamon bread, which they have been making for nearly 50 years.   It’s epic paired with goetta and a sunny side egg for Sunday morning breakfast, or just heated with a cup of steaming black coffee.    Their over a dozen varieties of fresh rye and Vienna breads sell out early on a busy Saturday morning if you don’t get there early enough.

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NCH’s carousel of spectacular breads – legendary cinnamon bread at the top.

One of the ways NCH Bakery has been able to keep up with the competitive times, is being THE supplier of baked goods to the local meat markets.   They even buy pinhead oats in bulk for their breads and baked goods, so they can offer a good price to the meat markets for their goetta.     Keeping down our cost of local goetta, and being able to get their cinnamon bread in a variety of places all over town is a godsend.

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They reach as far as Butcher Bill’s in Mason, where I saw a pecan ring and some pastries at their counter.   Their largest buyer of pinhead oats, though is Stehlin’s Meat Market on Colerain Avenue, who carries their breads and pastries, and private labels their pinhead oats for the home goetta makers.  You can also see their baked goods at Eckerlin’s in Findlay Market, Langen Meats in Delhi , Humbert’s Meats, Hammann’s Meats in Pleasant Run, and Wassler’s Meats on Harrison Avenue. among many others.

Carl and Anna sold the business to their daughter Charlene and husband Gary Weitzel, who operated it for nearly 50 years until selling in 2018 to Matthew and Terry Patrick.

A little known fact is that from 1952-1957 the Litschgis leased the bakery to Matt and Ivan Perkins, who went on the found Perkins Pancake House in Silverton in 1958, that grew to become a 350 store half a billion dollar national chain.

I wish Matthew and Terry the best in their new ownership, and in keeping local goetta prices down with their bulk pinhead oats!

The New Orleans Candy Company that Invented the Cheesy Corn Puff Snack in the Depression

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This Spring a friend of mine started the Great Puffed Snack Roundup, which has turned into nearly a half year extravaganza of puffed cheesy snack tastings. The brand that started this snack roundup was the new Simply Cheetos White Cheddar Jalapeno Puff. Our little dedicated group has tasted other brands and flavors, like local Grippos Barbecue Cheese Nibs. The consensus seems to be that the old Eagle Brand Cheese Balls were the best – great crunch, strong cheesy flavor and fried. The whole roundup has opened debates like what form – the ball, the curl, or the irregular Cheeto shape – is the best vehicle for a puffed corn snack.

The cheese snacks segment of the Puffed and Extruded category of Salted Snacks took in $2.5 billion in 2018, an increase of 9.6 percent. Frito-Lay’s Cheetos brand is king here, up 6.2 percent to $1.8 billion. Simply Cheetos – the brand of the White Cheddar Jalapeno puff – grew 51.4 percent to $91.2 million—a strong example of the power of the trendy clean label product.

A recent trip to New Orleans had me tasting the local brand of cheese puffs called Elmer’s Chee Wees. Their mascot is a cute drunken mouse leaning against a French Quarter lamppost – a mascot that Cheetos knocked off from 1971 to 1976, before introducing Chester Cheetah in 1984. Although they come in a variety of flavors – original, spicy, BBQ – I chose the green onion version. I shared these with one of the six tasters in this snack roundup group and Chee Wees passed the test of good flavor, not too salty, good texture, and no weird mouthfeel or coating. They’re baked, not fried, like Cheetos and other brands.

With Elmer’s Chee Wees I had no idea the legacy I was biting into. It was Elmer’s Candy Company, the oldest family-owned candy company in America, who invented the cheesy corn puff snack back in 1933. The five Elmer brothers, Augustus, Leonard, Oskar, Alphonse and Morel visited the Chicago Exposition of 1933 and found a livestock feed machine made by the Flakall Corporation of Beloit, Wisconsin, in which they saw huge potential for puffed snack goodness.

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When we think of New Orleans candy, the praline is the first confection that comes to mind. But the Elmer Candy Company is known for their Heavenly Hash (1923) and Gold Brick (1936) Chocolate Eggs which New Orleanians have found for decades in their Easter baskets. The HH Egg is a chocolate covered marshmallow egg with two roasted pecans inside, while the GB Egg is a milk chocolate covered bar with chopped roasted pecans on top.

The Elmer Candy Company started in 1855 by German immigrant pastry chef, Christoph Heinrich Miller. His son-in-law Augustus Elmer Sr. took over the company and renamed it after himself. Augustus was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, to an immigrant father from the Swiss Canton of Glarius near Baden Wuertemburg, Germany. His five sons joined the business and soon the Depression hit, sending them in a struggle to diversify their products to keep the business afloat.

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The original 1932 patent drawing on the feed machine that would become the first puffed snack machine.

As with most great inventions, the puffing aspect of the machine the Elmers saw was discovered in a happy accident. Originally designed as a corn flaker for livestock feed, when wet corn was added to the machine to clean it, the frictional heat raised the temperature of the moisture, which escapes as water vapor, causing the corn curl to “puff,” similar to the way water vapor pops popcorn. The puffed curls are then baked (or fried as with Cheetos) and flavored. The Elmer Brothers purchased a machine from Flakall at the Agricultural building at the Chicago expo. They brought it back to New Orleans, disassembled and reengineered it to make a better corn curl, and became the first to start producing and selling the American corn curl snack.

The name Chee Wees came a few years later as a result of a local contest Morel Elmer Sr., Sales Manager, initiated. His son, Morel Elmer, Jr., then worked with a bag manufacturer to develop the first bag packaging for snack foods. Known as glassine, the waxy translucent product is similar to the bags Hubig’s pies were sold in. This was decades before Frito-Lay or other snack food companies existed.

The Snack food industry exploded pre World War II. The Frito Corporation joined forces with the Lay Corporations to become Frito-Lay. With that marriage and the investment money from Joan Crawford , the new behemoth started buying up and producing snack food products other than the Frito’s corn chips and Lay’s potato chip. In the 1950s, Frito-Lay began producing a cheese curl just like Elmer’s through permission granted by Elmer Candy Corporation because they held the rights to the process of making the cheese curl. That licensing agreement ended in the 1960s when the Elmer family sold the Elmer Candy Corporation, thus opening up the cheese curl category to other manufacturers, and the rest, his history.

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It didn’t take long for the cheesy corn puff snack to go international, and I’ve added three of those into the roundup – ones from El Salvador, Holland, and Japan. I found Buca Deli’s Gustitos Super Churro Picante from El Salvador at a Guatemalan market on St. Lawrence in Price Hill. This had a good spice, but had a gritty crunch and a bit of a mouth coating. The South American Market for puffed corn snacks seems to be huge, so that could start its own tasting roundup.

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I also found an Asian brand made by Calbee’s in Tokyo (in business since 1949) called Four Seas Grill-A-Corn Spicy at CAM International Market in Sharonville. The brand also comes in Lobster, Eel and BBQ flavors – probably the most interesting flavors I’ve seen in the category. The spicy flavor had some good heat, a good texture and crunch, and good flavor, but are higher carbs than other brands

My friend Debbie recommends the Smith’s Nibbit Sticks from her childhood native Holland, now owned by a UK company. She says they are fluffy and less dense than most puffed cheese snacks.

So the puffed cheesy tastings continue, but its good to know and have tasted the CheeWees that started the $9 billion dollar puffed and extruded snack category.

Doritos Flavor Shots are a Take on Mexico City’s Japanese Peanuts

There’s a great new snack invading select UDF markets in Cincinnati.   I predict that no border wall will prevent their immigration into our American Snack Lexicon.    It’s called the Doritos Flavor Shot, and it’s based on a Japanese snack created in and still popular in Mexico City. They are deep fried, spicy wheat flour-coated Spanish peanuts and I am hooked. They’re sort of like a spicy, savory version of the French Burnt Peanut candy, but savory-spicy instead of crunchy sweet. They come for now in two flavors – Nacho Cheese and Flaming Hot Nacho Cheese – and were released by Frito Lay in early March of 2019. They’re a take on Japanese Peanuts, cacahuate japones in Spanish, created by a Japanese immigrant named Yoshigei Nakatami in Mexico City at the end of World War II in about 1945.

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Generally I’m not a fan of adulterating a nut, but there’s something about the two different levels of crunch – the super crunchy, spicy outer coating and the softer crunch of the peanut.      The original versions crated by Nakatami-san in Mexico City were originally a cripsy, soy flavored wheat coating, not a super spicy nacho cheese coating.  While I’ve only found the Doritos version at select UDF markets where there are a lot of Hispanic immigrants who buy their breakfast or lunch.     Oddly enough, they are available at the Hyde Park UDF, but not the Mt. Lookout UDF.    And the original cacahuates japones, from Mexico, can be found at the many Hispanic markets on the West Side, like Tienda Y Carcinera GauataMex LLC next to St. Lawrence Bakery in Price Hill.    They carry a brand called Manzelazo, which as a similar Geisha Girl logo similar to the original package of Nakatami-san’s company.

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Nakatami-san arrived in  Mexico City in 1932 from Osaka, Japan.   He was under contract with Hejiro Katao , a wealthy businessman who owned a department store, La Nuevo Japon.    He and other Osakan immigrants lived in the Merced neighborhood.   It was here where he fell in love with a Mexican girl, Emma Avila, and married her in 1935.

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Nakatani-san and his wife Emma.

When the War broke out, Kato’s business was closed because of anti-Japanese sentiment and Nakatami-san was unemployed.   So to support his family, he turned to confectionery, a trade he had learned as an apprentice in his home village of Sumoto in the Hyogo Prefecture.   He and his wife Emma began making traditional Mexican candies known as “muégano” in a small room in their neighborhood. The Muegano are fried-dough balls, stuck together with piloncillo syrup.  The candies sold so well that the couple started making another fried wheat candy called “oranda.”     The oranda was a Japanese confection imported from the Netherlands, called Oranda Senbei in Japan.   It was sort of like a small, mildly sweet rice waffle -cracker, that was popular with fishermen in Nagasaki.     It was kind of like a Japanese take on the Dutch Stroopwafel that Delta used to serve as an in flight snack.

Both candies were a wild success with people in their neighborhood.  Encouraged by this, Yoshigei Nakatani attempted to make a snack with peanuts, rice flour and soy sauce that reminded him of his childhood.   Unable to find rice flour in Mexico, he instead used wheat flour.     This candy became popular with Mexicans in the proximity of the Merced Market and they had to get local blacksmiths to make machines for them to keep up with production.    It was customers who started calling them Japanese Peanuts, and the name stuck.

The business gradually grew until the couple decided to rent another space in the Merced neighborhood, exclusively for snack production. The entire family took part in the business: Carlos, the oldest sibling, helped with dough prep; Alicia, the second-oldest, ran the house, cooking meals, washing clothes and babysitting; Graciela and Elvia, the youngest daughters, were the peanut baggers.  Nakatani-san and Emma took charge of selling their confections on nearby streets.

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In the 1950s, Yoshigei Nakatani named the family business Nipon, after his native Japan.  They were able to afford branded cellophane bags printed with the company’s name.   Nakatani-sans daughter Elvia, designed the geisha logo to identify the product.

By 1972, the company left La Merced, where it had been founded, and moved to a modern factgory, enabling introduction of a new line of salted and enchilada-flavored peanuts. The company also expanded its customer base throughout Mexico City.

In the 1980s Mexico endured a severe economic crisis affecting its industries.   Productos Nipon faced unfair competition from new companies, some with multinational funding, that entered the market for Japanese peanuts. However, the company now led by his children Armando and Graciela, was able to navigate the waters by introducing new products like chamoy candies.  In 2017 the brand was acquired by food conglomerate La Costeña, which led to the founding of a new family business known as Dulces Komiru.

Now, over 80 years later, Doritos is trying to reap the popularity of the snack in Mexico, with the growing Hispanic immigrant market in the States, as well as younger spice-seeking Gringos.    I look forward to seeing more flavors of the product from Doritos.

 

 

 

The Bushwacker: The Boozy Milkshake of the Gulf Coast named after a Dog

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If you go to the Gulf Coast, and you like to drink, you will be introduced to the local cocktail called the Buschwacker.   Each bar has a version and it’s popular from Pensicola to the end of Gulf Shores Alabama in Fort Morgan.    It’s even made it north to Mobile, Alabama, where it stands tall next to Mobile’s other creamy boozy cocktail popular during their Mardi Gras – the Chrissy.    I was first introduced to the cocktail at the Tin Top Restaurant in Bon Secour, Alabama, by my drinking buddy, Todd.   I also  tasted another version at the Shrimp Basket, and then Lulu’s in Gulf Shores.

It’s really more of a boozy milkshake than a cocktail, but it’s great, refreshing and has an interesting history that started in the U.S. Virgin Islands.     It’s similar to a mud slide, but also described as a chocolatey pina colada.  The drink was originally invented in 1975 by bartender Angie Conigliaro, cousin to Tony of the Boston Red Sox and Tom Brokamp, manager of the Ship’s Store, Sapphire Pub at Sapphire Village in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.   The original recipe called for vodka, kahlua, dark crème de cacao, coco lopez (cream of coconut), and a splash of triple sec and milk, spun in a blender and topped with a grating of fresh nutmeg.    It was named after a visiting guest’s dog, Bushwack, an Afghan Hound, whose owners were flight attendants, who always brought their dog with them to the bar.

The drink was brought back stateside by Linda Murphy, owner of the Sandshaker Beach Bar in Pensicola, Florida.   She mixed it up a bit, replacing vodka with dark rum, and swirling the glass with chocolate syrup, and topping it with whipped cream and a cherry. You can also get it with a floater of dark rum on top for a more alcoholic punch.   Sometimes tropical fruit is added.

It’s so popular in Pensicola that there is an annual Bushwacker Festival in August at Quietwater Beach to celebrate the drink and its status.   After the 2010 BP Oil Spill, President Barack Obama was photographed drinking a bushwacker in Orange Beach, Alabama.    I would like to see the Pirate’s Cove on Kellogg serve this up next summer or maybe at Buzzed Bull Creamery in Over-the-Rhine.

Po Boy Fusion Chapter 2: The Vietnamese Kind

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In New Orleans I was tracking down local lore about Hubig Hand Pies which are coming back after a fire seven years ago. So, I found a cozy corner bar along Bourbon street one afternoon, bellied up amidst a group of locals and ordered a Dixie beer. Vacation day drinking is my jam. I started a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, telling them I was a food writer en route to Gulf Shores. Luckily, they were part of the Cult of Hubig Pies and told me great stories about the blueberry, lemon and strawberry flavors and the genius of the crust. They were even at a hot tub party at a condo overlooking the 3 AM fire in 2012.

The conversation turned to who makes the best King Cake in New Orleans. And much to my amazement it wasn’t a Creole bakery in the French Quarter the couple revealed, but a Vietnamese bakery west of downtown in the neighborhood called Versailles. Versailles is a nickname for the neighborhood, after the housing development that housed the area’s first Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The neighborhood is officially called Village de L’est, and has housed the Vietnamese community for over 40 years. They have several temples and a Buddhist center along the desolate stretch of Chef Menteur Highway that gets you there from downtown.

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The couple couldn’t remember the name of the bakery, but after a call to his sister, the man revealed the name of the place was Dong Phuong Bakery. They also said it’s the best place to get a Vietnamese po boy – a hyper regional mashup of the Vietnames banh mi sandwich and the locally created po boy, both, to the amateur a sandwich of meat and veggies on French bread. Now, the lines between two iconic sandwiches – one from the Mekong Delta and the other, the Mississippi Delta, are blurring. Even though both have French influence, aficionados will tell you there is difference between banh mi bread and po boy bread.   Banh mi bread is a bit more dense than po boy bread.     The sauces of the banh mi are more umami than the po boy- with soy based BBQ sauce or deep hoisin sauce.   Sometimes mayo is used, but it has a huge dousing of Maggi sauce to fish it up.

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New Orleans bánh mì, like our local Pho Lang Tang,  is layered with cold cuts and pâté, grilled beef or chicken;  dressed with pickled veggies, sliced jalapeño, cucumber, and cilantro; and finished with a few umami-bomb dashes of Maggi seasoning sauce.   But because more are familiar with the term po-boy, it has been sold under the name “Vietnamese Po Boy.”    And even though New Orleanians are more familiar than most with Vietnamese food, pho has never been similarly relabeled “beef noodle gumbo.”

According to local legend the term po boy was coined during a summer-long streetcar strike in 1929. The enterprising Martin brothers, Bennie and Clovis, former conductors-turned-lunch counter owners, fed the hungry transit picketers with complimentary sandwiches. “We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended,” Bennie recalled years later, “Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, ‘Here comes another poor boy.’ ”

So, of course, given such a strong recommendation from the locals, I made the drive out to Versailles from downtown for a 1 PM lunch. I found the place hopping even at the late hour. There is a sit down restaurant next to the bakery, but a steady flow of customers came through the bakery, everyone leaving with a bag full of multiple items. And it seemed there were more non Vietnamese customers at the bakery.

The bakery is an exotic display of beautiful but foreign looking pastries. There are sweet taro custards, tapioca confections, several different type of moon cakes, and a heated case of savory meat pies. It’s about three months away from the start of Carnival and King Cake Season. So, I got a sweet been paste moon cake, in honor of my birthday new moon that falls after the Fall Solstice, and a spicy pork BBQ meat pie. Both were amazing.

 

De and Huong Tran opened the bakery in 1981.  It was the neighborhood’s first Vietnamese bakery. Huong, the daughter of a famous Saigon baker, built the business crafting moon cakes, flaky pastries filled with mung bean, sweet red bean, durian, or lotus seed paste and traditionally eaten around the Autumnal Equinox in September. De, a South Vietnamese Air Force veteran and aspiring engineer, spent nearly a decade tinkering with a bánh mì recipe. He studied baking books, and compared to New Orleans po’ boy loaves, emerging from the ovens of German immigrant-owned bakeries like Binder, Reising, Bacher, Klotzbach, and Leidenheimer.    He forced his children to eat bun after unacceptable bánh mì bun, perfecting the more dense loaf he serves up his Vietnamese po boys on today.

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Dong Phuong’s Vietnamese Po Boy station is in the back corner of the bakery.    The station is filled with Vietnamese meats, and local po boy faves, with the standard pickled Vietnamese toppings.

Vietnamese po boy shops are serving hybrids – typical po-boy toppings like fried shrimp, fried shrimp, or pulled pork, with typical banh mi toppings like pickled daikon or carrots and sliced jalapenos. But you can also mix Chinese sausage, pork liver pate, or Vietnamese meatballs with less umami toppings like mayonnaise or remoulade.     The Vietnamese po boy shops have made it out of Versailles and into the Treme-7th Ward neighborhoods.    I love the fusion of this New Orleans icon.

 

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Po Boy Fusion Chapter 1: Louisiana Red Hot Links

I just returned from my fifth annual Fall trip to New Orleans – one of recharge and inspiration trip for me. One of the highlights this year was booking a tour of the Degas House. Much like my trip, Degas came to New Orleans in 1872, during his mid-life crisis to visit his maternal uncle and three favorite female cousins. The house is now a restored museum and bed and breakfast. This destination is important because it’s here in New Orleans that Degas transitioned his painting style from realism to the new impressionism for which we all love him. He painted two paintings while in New Orleans of his uncle’s cotton brokerage firm in downtown New Orleans. He painted one masterpiece in realism, and then started an impressionist version that he said in a letter back home he liked much better. The realist version was sold to a museum, the only one of his paintings in his life that did. It’s a shame that the larger art world doesn’t make such a big deal that his transition started in America, in New Orleans.

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What I thought was going to be a lesson in impressionism turned out to be a lesson in a family of southern hot sausages that trace their way back to Chaurice -a Cajun sausage akin to Spanish chorizo, that then morphed into the Louisiana Red Hot Link, with the addition of even hotter African spices. The red hot link made it as far north as Chicago during the Great Migration of African Americans, integrating into the BBQ culture there. And it stopped along the route in Cincinnati.

I remember seeing these red hot links in inner city Kroger groceries growing up and when I lived there in college. I was always strangely fascinated with them because of their bright unnatural red color, from Red Dye # 3, not the paprika or pimento that spiced the original chaurice from which it came. I knew that we’d never buy them because they were for the African American community, and not something our Germanic-American family would ever try. These red hot links are made commercially today by brands like Polks, Carolina Pride and Louisiana.

I had arrived to the Degas House early and was admiring its architecture when the head cook opened the kitchen door asked if she could help me. I said I was on the 10:30 tour of the house and just arrived early. She invited me in for a cup of Community Brand chicory coffee, which was out of this world. New Orleanians sure do know how to make some great coffee.

An African American couple from Kansas city – Tim and his wife – were sitting at the dining room table eating breakfast and we struck up conversation. They asked what brought me here and I said I was a food writer chasing a story about Hubig Hand Pies.  What I learned on the tour was that we were eating in the exact setting of Degas’ painting, “On the Back Steps” that he painted of his cousins’ young children facing the rear of the house.

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Tim’s wife’s eye’s lit up at the subject of food and then said, “If you want true regional food of Louisiana you have to head out to Lafayette Parish and Eunice, about two hours northwest from New Orleans.” That’s where she was raised, even though her parents traced their roots back to New Orleans. She said the best sausages, especially the hot links variety, were to be had at Eunice Superette, or Johnson’s Bouchierre. She said they were red and spicy and made the water you boiled them in a deep red. This was true Cajun culture, more authentic than the now Disneyfied Creole cuisine of the French Quarter. If you were to put Louisiana hot sausage on a po boy sandwich you would need to go to Ray’s bakery in Eunice, where the best French bread in the world is made, according to Tim’s wife. And one of the last shops in New Orleans that used Louisiana hot sausage, Gene’s Po Boys on Elysian Avenue and St. Claude, in the southern 7th ward, closed this August, to be developed into condos. Sammy’s up the street is still open, but how long they can stay in business remains to be seen.

Louisiana hot sausage is not the same as andouille sausage, spicy Italian sausage, Cajun sausage, or the commercial red hot links. And, the hot links variety are not to be mistaken for Mexican hot links, which are the same bright red and spicy, but typically seasoned with vinegar and chili peppers. They’re typically all beef, but some butchers mix beef and pork, using a coarsely ground mixture.

There are also East Texas Hot Links that are a bit different from Louisiana hot sausage, but has the same ancestry. That area is only a few hours away from Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, the heart of Prairie Cajun sausage country. East Texas Hot Links are said to have been introduced by a German butcher, Charlie Hasselback at his butcher shop in Pittsburgh, Texas, in 1897. They’re all beef, coarsely ground and lightly seasoned. Sausages are small and in snappy natural casings and look out, they are fatty, but that’s intentional. The “hot” in “hot link” comes from the spicy sauce or sauce piquant, served on the side with saltines or over white bread. You place the sausage on the cracker, sauce on the sausage and take a bite.

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We talked about Anthony Bordain’s visit to the area of Eunice in one of his last episodes that explored the culture of Cajun Mardi Gras, called the Courir de Gras. While he was the first food journalist to really delve into the Cajun culture, he didn’t dive deep enough to distinguish the difference between Bayou Cajuns, descended from the Acadian French Hugonauts dispelled out of Nova Scotia, Canada, and the Prairie Cajuns, who have mixed French and Germanic ancestry and who built smokehouses, starting the culture of Cajun smoked spicy sausage.   Their foods are a slight bit different.

The foodways theory is that the Germanics saw the Cajun Chaurice and adapted it to their sausage making, and even added hotter spices than typical for German sausage, with the help of African Americans. There is even another even harder-to-find Cajun meat product called Chaudin or Southern Louisiana Ponce, that has been adapted from German saumagen, stomach sausage.   Saumagen is from the Palatinate area in Germany of Trump’s illegal immigrant ancestor, Friedrich Trump.  Chaudin means stomach in French, as does saumagen in German. It has ground meats tied into a pig’s stomach, spiced with garlic and cayenne pepper with white onion, green onion, green pepper, bread crumbs and sweet potato. The German saumagen contains yellow potatoes and doesn’t have cayenne.

The Cajun boudin sausage, also native to the area of Eunice, is a gruetzwurst or grain sausage cousin of goetta, with both red (rouge) blood containing, and white (blanc) versions without blood. Goetta’s blood sausage cousin in Cincinnati is called Johnny-in-the-bag, and is only made by Stehlin Meats.

The Eunice area even has a boudin grilled cheese they call the ‘Naniette’, or godmother in French – the godmother of the grilled cheese – like Cincinnati’s Goetta Grilled Cheese. Maybe we should call ours the Gevattern – German for godparents. Wallace Johnson of Johnson’s Bouchierre in Eunice, believes he was the first to sell boudin commercially at his market in Eunice in 1948.

Nika, the cook who prepared the amazing smelling breakfast for Tim and his wife, chimed in about hot sausages. She declared that the best Louisiana Hot Sausage in New Orleans was at the Circle Market in the 7th ward, but they closed because the owner’s wife had a gambling problem. She said then said Bacchem’s in the 7th ward was good as was Bauschman, a German man who still made the spicy sausage out of his house. A lot of butchers in the 7th ward used to make Louisiana Hot sausage pre-Katrina. But since the devastation of the hurricane, many did not reopen. Nika, who plans to open her own café soon, said natives don’t eat in the French Quarter anymore, as the food isn’t authentic or well prepared as it used to be.

Inside downtown New Orleans, Louisiana hot sausage is more common in the African American community, especially of the seventh ward. Outside of New Orleans, it’s embraced by the entire Cajun population. But who came up with hot sausage? Of course a German from Texas took credit for its invention. But the story is in the spice – neither the Germans nor the French were known for their heavily spiced sausages. It was like all other Cajun and Creole cuisine. The former African slaves who were doing most of the cooking in the gulf, added their hot African spices, and the Cajuns embraced them. African slaves were used to heavily spicing the offcut meats available to them to cover up minerally organ and other off flavors. The boudin, of largely French Cajun ancestry, doesn’t cover up the minerally liver flavor with heavy spices. There are only subtle herby spices in.

They may call me a Yankee in the South, but I think I was born a Prairie Cajun in another life, because I feel such a deep connection to the south. I feel at home in every southern state I travel through, even if I don’t speak the same. I find connection with the food and the culture. For example, I think boudin is the southern version of goetta. If, like Judaism your cultural and spiritual heritage passes through your maternal lines, then indeed I am Southern as both of my grandmothers were born in Kentucky. And of southern cuisine, Cajun cuisine is the most interesting to me because it is a melting pot of culture fusion from Spanish, French, Germanic, African, and Caribbean. boudin.

Tim’s wife said the sausage is integrated into a lot of Cajun cuisine, like etouffee, gumbo, jambalaya, and a sauce piquant, or literally a spicy sauce. Piquant is a style of Cajun cooking they use with meats like rabbit, duck, alligator, chicken, game birds, and seafood. A sauce piquant is tomato based using a combination of whole, stewed, sauce and paste, and, uses a small roux. There are as many versions of this spicy sauce as versions of the Cajun love story of Evangeline and Gabriel. The word piquant means “pricking” in French, like a rose bush thorn. They said the most popular commercial variety of sauce piquant is a brand called Cutie’s.

We went on and on about regional food, but what started as an art education turned into some great insight into the African American culture of southern hot sausage. Sadly, the Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills Kroger, where I would find Louisiana Red Hot Links would be found, have closed. But I am definitely going in search of some hot links to taste.