The Kennedys, Polish Nobility, Reality TV and the Dinner that Originated “Putting on the Ritz”

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The Restaurant de la Conversation or Conversation Haus, where Ritz hosted the dinner that gave him world renown, a colloquial phrase, and a musical.

In college on a crazy whirlwind backpacking trip of Europe, I made a stopover in the historic resort town of Baden-Baden near Alsace-Lorrain and in the Black Forest.   Baden is the German word for bath, and man did I need one !   It was a quick stopover and lookabout after a long train ride from Amsterdam on the way to Freiburg.    This had been the resort area where the rich and famous – among them the court of the Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm (after whom my grandfather was named) –  came to take their cures (a mineral bath)  and party their newly hydrated asses off.     Unfortunately, I didn’t get to partake that time, but did get an interesting offer of some hallucinogens from Uri, the German Hippie who was looking for stupid American kids to sell to.   I declined.   I had just come from Amsterdam.

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Me and Uri the German Hippie, Baden Baden.

A little over 100 years before my stopover – the Summer of 1888 – a dapper, well dressed Swiss hotelier was hosting a dinner in Baden-Baden for Polish Prince Ferdinand Radziwill, who was part of the German Parliament – the Reichstag – and the Berlin court of Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm.      The hotelier’s name was Cesar Ritz  (1850-1918).     Many of his guests had arrived from the same train station I had – although they certainly smelled and were dressed better than me.   Prince Radziwill told Ritz he wanted to host a dinner for his Berlin friends that would be remembered.     Ritz was to host it at his newly opened Restaurant de la Conversation, in Baden-Baden, and his chef, a talented Georges-August Escoffier (1846-1935) , was to pull off the elaborate menu.

Escoffier was in the process and would revolutionize cheffing.   He shortened menus and invented the hierarchy in the back of the house and chefs with specific duties that we know today- chef, sous chef, pastry, fish, sauce and meat chefs.   He also started the tradition of naming dishes after famous celebrities, like the dish Peach Melba, named after an actress of the day.

 

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Cesar Ritz, 1897.          Georges-August Escoffier

At the time Prince Radziwill’s family had about 300 years to amass great wealth and a ton of castles around what was the former Holy Roman Empire.   It had been in 1518 that his line had been granted the rare title of Prince from the Holy Roman Emperor.      They had a castle in Gdansk, in what is now northern Poland, where they had ruled and only about 25 miles from where my maternal Grandmother’s family were just leaving a small village called Stary Targ, to emigrate to America, for a better life.

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Prince Ferdinand Radziwill.

Challenge accepted and this was the type of challenge Ritz loved – creating a spectacle.   This would not only be a dinner but the event of the season.   And Ritz would market the crap out of it, making sure all of Europe’s aristocrats and America’s wealthy travelling robber barons knew of it.     Ritz was born into a family of 12 siblings to poor peasants in Switzerland.  He was sent off to a Jesuit monastery and found work early as an apprentice sommelier.   He worked his way up and through some of the most opulent hotels in Europe.

Ritz came up with a theme to bring the outside in.  He covered the entire floor of the restaurant with grass and had the walls covered with hundreds of roses.  Potted trees were dispersed amongst the tables.   He brought in a stone fountain and filled it with exotic goldfish.    Ritz even rented a giant fern to be the centerpiece, surrounded it with tables and covered them in more flowers.     A wonderful orchestra serenaded the guests through their lavish multicourse menu.

The scene of the dinner was magical, transporting guests into sort of a Midsummer Night’s Dream.   And despite all the difficulties in pulling it all together, it was a phenomenal success.   It was so successful that one guest, the owner of the Savoy Hotel and Savoy Theatre in London, a Mr. Richard D’Oyly Carte, asked Ritz and his chef Escoffier to come work for him at his hotel.   D’Oyly Carte had made his money in the 1870s and 1880s by staging Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas in London like Pirates of Penzance and the Mikado.    After a visit, Ritz and Escoffier took up his offer and made the Savoy the most modern, over-the-top, luxury hotel in the world from 1889-1897.

Ritz would go on to open the famous Ritz hotel in Paris in 1898, which would increase his brand and his fame and coin the slang term of the Jazz era, “putting on the Ritz.”   The phrase would also inspire a song written by Irving Berlin in 1927 that was introduced in 1930 in a musical of the same title, and later made famous in Fred Astaire’s dance to it in Blue Skies.

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The Hotel Ritz, Paris, founded in 1898 by Cesar Ritz and August Escoffier.

The Royal Radziwill family, like my maternal Grandmothers’ family would move to the U.S.    Prince Ferdy’s grandson, Prince Stanislaw “Stash” Radziwill married Caroline Lee Bouvier, the sister of First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis.    Ferdy’s great grandson, Anthony Radziwill married Carol DiFalco, who was an accomplished journalist, author, and 8 year cast member of the Bravo Reality Series The Real Housewives of New York City.    Apparently Radziwill men liked women named Carol.   And we have Prince Ferdy Radziwill to thank for all of this culture.

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Caroline Lee Bouvier Radziwill and Carol DiFalco Radziwill.

 

The High Hill Texas Butcher Who Makes Corona Sausage and a Goetta Cousin

Keeping our spirits up during this pandemic is as important as being safe and staying home.   One Texas meat processor, Willie Joe’s in High Hill Texas is doing just that for its customers.    On March 12, they announced that on Friday March 13, Corona sausage would be available – a ‘vaccine’ for the crisis.  They said they didn’t take insurance cards, but might consider negotiation for toilet paper rolls.   They went on to say there was no danger of overdose, and consuming a large amount may be your prescription.

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The Corona is a smoked sausage mixed with Corona beer, lime and jalapeno pepper.   And, it’s probably made from the locally raised Brahman or Santa Angeli cattle . It’s packed in twos and has been flying off the shelves and selling out – no surprise.   I interviewed the owner, Paddy Magliolo, two years ago by phone when I visited Texas hill country in search of a goetta cousin made by the German-Czechs in that area called jitrnice.

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Paddy makes the beloved High Hill Sausage for the annual St. Mary’s Catholic Church Labor Day German Picnic every year.    He is literally across the street from the church so  it’s super convenient for him.    When asked about his jitrnice, he says he says he spices his with salt, pepper, and garlic, uses rice only as the grain, and pork trim and pork organs only – but he wouldn’t specify what organs.    Jitrnice looks and tastes remarkably like goetta.

Jitrnice is made within about a 25 mile radius of Schulenburg, Texas, at the intersection of I-77 and I-10.    It’s a grain sausage cousin of goetta that came from the Moravian-Bohemian provinces of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, what is now Austria and the Czech Republic.    There’s another great supplier called Maeker’s in Shiner, Texas.   You can pick up your jitrnice and have a few free beers and tour the German founded Spoetzel Brewery, which makes Shiner Bock, and many other wonderful flavors of beer.   My favorite is their Prickly Pear Cactus Blossom Lager.

They have a great Texas Czech Cultural Center in La Grange, Texas, about 10 miles north of Schulenburg, that’s kind of like a Germanic version of our Sharon Woods Heritage Village.    I interviewed Brian Prause of 122 year old Prause’s meats in downtown La Grange, who has stopped making jitrnice, because it takes so long and demand is dropping as the generations progress.   He also says the USDA no longer allows processors to use pork lung, which is apparently a key ingredient in authentic Moravian-Bohemian jitrnice.

The area was settled in the 1850s by Germanic Catholic farmers from the Germanic province of Moravia in what is now Austria.  They’re often called Bohunks (ie bohemian hillbillies) or Czexans (as many came from the area that is now the  Czech Republic).  In addition to their wonderful Germanic sausages they’re also famous for bringing the kolachi to Texas.  My fave kolachi is the pineapple one made by Original Kountry Bakery in Schulenburg, but there are so many other flavors to try.

High Hill is no longer its own town as it was back then, with a saloon, a variety of stores and businesses.   It’s now the outskirts of Schulenburg, Texas, which is not huge itself, but has a fabulous historic downtown with a wonderful dance hall that has great live music and awesome Czexan food.   St. Mary’s, one of the famous Painted Churches of Hill Country, is still the center of the small community of High Hill.    The Czexans of hill country had Sokul halls for physical exercise, like the Goetta Country Germans of Cincinnati founded Turnhalls.    They became dance halls, concert venues, and gathering places for Czexans to preserve their Germanic culture and language.

A branch of my Woellert family settled there, belonged to and are interred at St. Mary’s – one Ludmilla Woellert Billemek even has a window in the church dedicated to her.   One of those Woellerts was even a butcher, and probably made his own version of jtronice, which unfortunately is not in the church cookbook, which of course I bought when visiting.

Unfortunately they’re not shipping, or I would be having some Corona sausage and jitrnice for breakfast with my eggs this week.   But, I do applaud their sense of humor and gumption!

Remus’s Death Valley Farm Was Originally a Catawba Vineyard

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The Death Valley Farm in Westwood where George Remus operated his bourbon bootlegging.

The best story of Prohibition is that the nation’s bourbon distribution network was centered right here in Cincinnati’s West Side. As far as bootlegging goes, we hear more about Al Capone’s Chicago empire, or the loose network of rum runners in Florida. But it was an isolated three generation family farm bounded by Queen City and LeFeuille in Westwood that became known as Death Valley that controlled the best bonded hooch in America. George Remus bought nearly every shuttered distillery at the beginning of Prohibition and milked their leftover inventory. It all was bottled and redistributed here. Remus inspired the character of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. And he made an appearance in the epic HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

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George Remus, West Side Bootlegger.

But what’s even more interesting is that this 100 acre farm started out as one of Cincinnati’s earliest catawba vineyards. So bootlegging is tied to the history of native winemaking. Gilbert Dater (1818-1904) who was born in Germany and came to Cincinnati in 1830 with his father, Adam Dater (1782-1848), bought the farm. It would become the site of several shootouts and the mission control of Bourbon King George Remus’ bootlegging operation that made him over $40 million dollars in just three years, that in today’s dollars would approach billions.

Gilbert’s father Adam, had originally settled in Lick Run, another Germanic settled area on the West Side of downtown that was known for its creek valley suitable for wine growing. The Death Valley farm was at 2656 Queen City Avenue at Le Feuille and consisted of a two story frame house and several old barns, which date back to Gilbert Dater’s time. During Prohibition, it was owned by George Dater, the grandson of Gilbert Dater, who had originally bought the farm. Gilbert had married Louisa Fein, the daughter of another Westwood vineyardist, George Fein, who owned a popular wine garden off of Harrison Avenue in the 1850s, where German clubs like the Turners and the Mannechors or Men’s Choruses came on the weekends to play. So with all that German frivoility in Westwood, no one seemed to bat an eye when Remus moved in. But then most of the liquor didn’t stay in Westwood, it went to rich homes in Indian Hill.

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Gilbert Dater grew grapes and made wine with his neighbor Michael Werk, an immigrant from Alsace Lorrain in Germany, who made his fortune in soap and candles, much like Procter and Gamble, the latter who also lived in Westwood. Werk was a second career or hobbyist winemaker, but he ended up being almost as large or larger than Longworth. He was also one of the few who weathered the catawba crash of the 1860s with the use of other, more rot resistant grapes, and eventually transferred growing Concord grapes to Lake Eire. Werk and Dater made still wines and a variety of sparkling wines under the brand names Golden Eagle and Red Cross.

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Werk made his sparkling wines from the Delaware, Concord, Isabella and Norton grapes – all of which stood up to the rot that ravaged Cincinnati’s Catawba vineyards. The Werk wines earned a second degree award at Cincy Industrial Exposition – they also exhibited their Red Cross Sparkling Diana and Ives wines. The Ives seedling is a Cincinnati cultivated grape still used in winemaking today, started by Henry Ives in downtown Cincinnati, and proliferated in the 1860s by Colonel Waring of Indian Hill. M Werk & Sons also got fire degree of merit for still Concord and Ives seedling wines.

The Westwood vineyards of Werk and Dater even grew a locally raised seedling called, Werk’s Diana, which others argued was not a true Diana grape. Edward Taylor, a vineyardist, in 1863 said “Around Cincinnati there is a variety called Diana, generally called Werk’s Diana which I am fully persuaded is not true, and by which by the by, I have been pretty badly bitten and which you were still inclined to think a year ago was the true. The true Diana I think very variable, this season I thought mine almost equal to the Delaware, last season I thought them hardly second rate.” Needless to say, whatever the Werk’s Diana grape’s origin, it didn’t make it into the mainstream winemaking industry or last in vineyards.

Werk moved his vineyards and winery to the shores of Lake Erie where he cultivated the concord variety of grapes and established the Golden Eagle Winery in 1861. The Golden Eagle Winery was situated on Middle Bass Island and, by 1875, was reported to be the largest winery in the United States. In addition to the winery, by 1865, Werk together with his son, Emile, established M. Werk & Son, distributors of wine and spirits in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The LeFeuille Road that the Dater Death Valley farm was on was named after the family of Michael Werk’s wife, Pauline LeFeuille, who he returned to Alsace to marry in 1843. Together they had 10 children, spreading the Werk name throughout Cincinnati and the region. The Werk candle and wine fortunes would fund the creation of two amazing Cincinnati architectural landmarks – the Werk Castle, and the “Elsa” mansion – only the latter now standing. Werk Castle was built by Michael’s spinster daughter Eugenie in 1897, and Elsa was built by his oldest son Casimir, who married out of wine and into the Hernacourt Brewing family.

George Dater, a bachelor owned the Death Valley farm but had hired Johnny Gehrum as a caretaker.  Johnny Gehrum ran the farm during the operations of Remus’ bourbon empire.    Another local, nicknamed Old Mother Hubbard, gave the Prohis all the information they needed about operations to bring Remus down and get him incarcerated in the Atlanta Penitentiary.

 

A Fish Fry Branding Opportunity

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Cincinnati Fish Fry Culture is cancelled for this year. There will be no more Codfather and his Holy Haddock at Queen of Peace in Kentucky, no more De Sales Slammer sandwich at St. Francis De Sales in East Walnut hills. And finally there will be no more Magnificod, at St. Williams in Price Hill. The last one is my favorite – it’s a take on the Magnificat, the latin word for the Canticle of Mary which proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Of the over 200 Lenten fish frys, only three – that’s right only three – brand their sandwiches religiously – the Holy Haddock , Magnificod, and the De Sales Slammer. And, as a marketing person, I think there’s a tremendous branding opportunity they’re all missing.    As secular as our fish fry culture is, it’s at least based on the Christian Lenten Fast.   What does Marketing 101 tell you to do in a flooded market like our fish frys– – DIFFERENTIATE your product. And what’s one of the best and most fun ways to do that – branding! Come on – we are a P & G marketing town!

OMG the possibilities are endless – starting with the type of fish used. What about Golgatha Grouper, named after the place where Jesus was crucified. And to reference the miracles what about Walk-on- Water Whiting (or Whaling Women of Jerusalem Whiting if you want to reference the stations of the cross). How about St. Paul’s Polluck or Passion Play Polluck. There could be Judas Jumbo Shrimp and Simon of Cyrene Salmon. For the macabre there could be Crown-of-Thorns-Cod, or Stigmata Salmon. There could even be, wait for it – Pontius Pila-tilapia. There could be St. Maximilian Kolbe Klam Khowder. Another low hanging fruit win could be a sandwich called the Big Jonah. On the happy side there could be Resurrection Roughy. There could be Salvation Sliders and Crucifixtion Catfish – man the list goes on.

And the branding could be taken to the sides too. What about Sorrowful Mother Mac N Cheese, or Gethsemani Green Beans, or Veronica’s Veil Veggies. Christ the King in Mt. Lookout could use Cardinal Pacelli’s Cole Slaw, after their grade school. Again, the branding opportunities are limitless.

Churches could even brand the name of their frys. A Sea of Galilee Fish Fry would make a lot of sense. Or one called Seven Loaves and Two Fish would be appropriate.

So maybe this fish fry pause could give all the fish fry planners time to give thought to some fun branding for next year. I am available for consultation – by Webex, not in person!

 

 

 

 

Fifteens: The Irish Confection Unknown Outside County Donegal

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When we think of Irish desserts, we may think first of bread pudding, or soda bread with jam.  But, while researching Irish foods on St. Patty’s Day I came into contact (virtually, not socially, of course) with one I’d never seen – it’s called Fifteens and is most commonly found in Ulster, in County Donegal, in Northern Ireland. It opened up a whole new world of confections from Northern Ireland called traybakes.

It looks super delicious and it’s no bake, so sounds easy to make too – and probably why it’s never been shown on the Great British Baking Show on BBC. It might be something fun to make with the kids or grandkids during our hankering down. It falls into the family of rolled log confections like a pecan log or something of that sort. In Ireland it falls into the family of what they call traybakes, which are refrigerated no-bake confections. People from Northern Ireland treat traybakes like the rest of the world treats cake.

It gets its name because it requires fifteen of each of its key ingredients – crushed biscuits or ‘digestives’ (what we’d call shortbread cookies in the U.S.), candied or maraschino cherries, and chopped marshmallows. The ingredients are mixed together with condensed milk, rolled into a log and then rolled in dried sweet coconut flakes and then refrigerated and sliced.

There are maybe hundreds of different traybakes in Northern Ireland, but saying Fifteens is your favourite (I’m using UK proper spelling!) is like saying your fave music is the Beatles, or that your fave architectural style is Gothic Revival, because obviously it is. Something called Malteaser Squares are usually a close second with the Northern Irish. It’s a no-bake square using golden syrup, condensed milk, biscuits and melted chocolate.

Typically an Irish no-bake traybake uses crushed biscuits (like Rich Tea Biscuits or Dean’s Biscuits) as the ‘bake’, and then either condensed milk, golden syrup, peanut butter, or melted chocolate as the binder. There’s also a honey crunch, and a butterscotch traybake. There is a close cousin to the Fifteens called a date roll that is also logged and rolled in dried coconut flakes.  Scanning the bakeries and confectioneries in Northern Ireland that make traybakes, there’s one called the Cornflake Cake, that obviously they stole from America, because we -i.e Mr. John Harvey Kellogg– invented the corn flake cereal as a competitor to the Grape Nut cereal created by C. W. Post in 1897. Oddly enough, there is no Grape Nuts traybake in Ireland.

Ginger is also a popular flavored traybake, as is lemon, in the baked versions. Think of the baked versions of the Irish traybakes as the grandfather of the gooey butter coffeecakes popular in St. Louis in America – a crunchy bottom with a soggy top. For more Irish traybake recipes than you could make in a year go to http://www.traybakesandmore.com.

Making some Fifteens might be a good way to get rid of your stock of Girl Scout shortbread cookies. And, you could probably mix up the treat with addition of nuts, like macadamia, cashews or pecans; dried berries – blueberries or dried pineapple or even mango chunks. It’s commonly served with a good cup of tea, but outside of Northern Ireland, you’d never find it on a traditional English tea service table. They are so popular that you’ll even find them at Starbucks in Northern Ireland.

The history of the Fifteen is nebulous. In the English government, there are terms like the payment of fifteens, and the body of fifteens elected officials in the government. But it’s my theory that the name comes from the fact that Fifteens is a nickname for rugby play – because there are a combined 15 players on the field – maybe the Fifteens was some sort of early rugby power bar.

If someone decides to make some Fifteens, please drop a batch off on my porch and ring twice!

 

St. Gertrude: The Other Saint’s Holiday on March 17

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While those of Hibernian Heritage will be eating soda bread and maybe corned beef and cabbage today, or even a Skyline Chili Green Way, those of Pennsylvania German descent will be eating a bread called Datsch, in honor of their saint, St. Gertrude.

St. Gertrude of Nivelles, Belgium, (626-659) is the patroness of gardens, cats and travelers, and protectoress against rodents and mental illness. Man, that’s a huge mantel to carry for a saint, especially one whose time in this world was a short 33 years. Maybe I should pray to her to keep the mice from chewing apart my car filter. She was an abbess that led a humble life of prayer and fasting, ministering to orphans, widows, pilgrims and refugees – many of them Irish monks escaping Viking invasions. Although she was never formally canonized, two miracles are associated with her – a vision of a flaming sphere in the chapel of her abbey during her lifetime, and the saving of two sailors caught in a storm, who were doing some business for the saint’s abbey.

Even though the Pennsylvania Dutch were Protestant – actually breaking apart from Lutherans in a general movement known as the Anabaptists, their folk culture is largely informed by centuries of Catholic tradition. But it’s likely that St. Gertrude was adapted onto an older Norse pagan goddess of fertility like Frigg, at the time of Christian conversion.

The connection to the Anabaptist immigrants from Southwest Germany is likely due to the association of St. Gertrude with cats. The association happened during the black plague of the 15th century which spread from the hotspot of Southwest Germany to the Netherlands and Catalonia and believed to be spread by rodents.

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The executive director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center blessing the garden with crumbs of Datsch bread on St. Gertrude’s Day.

Observance of St. Gertrude’s day involves the baking of a heavy cake-like bread called Datsch. It was a traditional yeast potato bread made with spelt and barley flour, with ingredients described as something black, something green and something white for her cat. You also are supposed to add things to the bread that you want to grow well that season in your garden – things like green onions, black poppy seeds, caraway seeds, flax seeds, and honey. Crumbs of the bread are then sprinkled in the four corners of your garden, starting in the East, while invoking the little people (sounds very Irish leprechauny to me) and help from the Heavens. It all sounds like a sweet focaccia bread to me. I’d save some for a schmeer of cream cheese and a dash of Pickappeppa hot sauce, but that’s just me.

Food writer William Woys Weaver, who wrote the bible about Pennsylvania Scrapple, was the first to document the tradition of St. Gertrude within the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. The Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, blesses their garden every year, citing a traditional blessing in the local dialect.

 

 

 

Nikolaus Hoeffer: The Sauerkraut King of Cincinnati

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Nikolaus Hoeffer, the Sauerkraut King of Cincinnati.

All we’ve heard about the last several years is the benefit of probiotics to our health and digestion. Our guts require a certain balance of bugs to keep things moving smoothly. But probiotics are nothing new. In fact, they’re nearly as old as human cultivation. When we stopped being nomads and hunter gatherers, we found out that if you leave veggies out in the air, they’ll ferment. And while they may smell a bit funky, the end result is super delicious and super healthy. That’s the story with sauerkraut, one of the healthiest of all of the Germanic foods.

Germans are given a lot of flack for the fattiness and heaviness of their foods – like sausages and deep fried schnitzel . But they know a lot about digestion and typically pair their heavy foods with a fermented or pickled side, like sweet gherkins or sauerkraut, whose acid helps break down fatty or meat dense dishes. Dr. Don Heinrich Tolzmann, Executive Director of our local German Heritage Museum, calls sauerkraut, “the original Germanic soul food.”

I took a sauerkraut making course led by Gary Leybman of the Pickled Pig in Walnut Hills last summer and found out how easy it is to make fermented sauerkraut. Using a good cabbage and a good salt with no preservatives, in two weeks, you’ll have the most delicious organic, additive-free sauerkraut you’ve ever tasted. I went off the German simple kraut recipe and added shredded carrot, fennel, red cabbage and jalapeno. And before the days of Louis Pasteur and his method of sterilization (and flavor killing!) this type of sauerkraut was everywhere in Cincinnati. Back then, nearly every produce vendor made their own sauerkraut, which were scooped out of great ceramic crocks or white oak barrels that fermented them. Hmmm I wonder if anyone makes a bourbon barrel fermented sauerkraut these days.

According to the Cincinnati German Pioneer Association, the first commercial producer of sauerkraut in Cincinnati was an immigrant from a village called Rulzheim am Klingbacke in the Palatinate – Nikolaus Hoeffer (1810-1875). His father Georg Franz was a poor linen weaver and subsistence farmer and Nikolaus helped out the family after school and learned how to make one of the staples – sauerkraut. When he immigrated with his family in 1832, they carried with them their prized Tyrol kraut cutter – basically what we would call a mandolin – which cuts the cabbage into thin slices for fermentation. He sold kraut by the barrel to German and the Anglican immigrants of Cincinnati, with whom kraut became a popular side. They also needed some digestive aid with their heavy meals of Welsh rarebit, Scottish haggis, English meat pies and dense Irish Colcannon.

At the turn of the last century, if you were to step into a Findlay Market pickle stall, you’d see a lot more variety in sauerkraut. Scanning advertisements from some of those Findlay market sauerkraut vendors, we see there were other varieties of kraut, including turnip kraut, ‘sour heads’, and red cabbage. Theodore Kunkel opened his pickle and sauerkraut stand at Findlay Market when it opened in 1852. According to family lore, Theo had been caught hunting on the Kaiser’s land and deported. His stand sold a kraut cornucopia of turnip kraut, sauerkraut, and pickled beets, beans, and onions.

Turnip kraut, called sauerruben in Germany, has a different flavor than sauerkraut. It can be made with shredded turnips or rutabagas, or a combination of both. It has a sweet- radish-like or mustardy bite that mellows over time. Many people like it better than the standard sauerkraut.

Sour heads are harder to find these days. Kaiser Foods used to make and package sour heads up into the late 1980s, but no longer make them. They’re a pickled whole head of cabbage that originated from Eastern Europe, in particular, Bosnia. The Bosnians use the whole pickled leaf in their stuffed cabbage, called sarma.

Red Cabbage, called rotkuhl, is even another variety. It’s a sweet and sour version of sauerkraut, using red cabbage and is often seen accompanying sauerbraten or schnitzel and a side of spaetzli, the German macaroni. It’s my favorite and why we don’t use red cabbage to make sauerkraut balls or as a topper on brats is a mystery to me.

So what is Tyroler kraut that Herr Hoeffer brought to Cincinnati with his cutter? It’s pretty simple and probably they grandfather o the one that we are all most familiar. Tyroler kraut uses cider vinegar, white cabbage, natural sea salt and caraway seeds. Most say that Austrian or Tyroler kraut is a bit sweeter than typical American sauerkraut like Vlassic stuff, which I say is pretty bland and unflavorful. I was raised on sweeter krauts – my mom always sliced up an apple to stew with the kraut she used to pair with our pork loin or other mains.

To support his family in Cincinnati Hoeffer grew cabbage and other market vegetables with his younger brother at a rented plot of land on Hamilton and Elm Street from Jeptha D. Garrard. At this time, what we now know of as Over-the-Rhine was called the Northern Liberties and was the ‘country’ from downtown. People who lived in the packed city rented garden lots in this area to grow their own produce. He then moved to be gardener for the wealthy Judge Torrence at his garden on Grandin Road in East Walnut Hills – now the area of Summit Country Day School. Back then you couldn’t pick up an Opera Cream Cake from nearby Bonbonnerie or Buffalo Wings from O’Bryan’s Bar & Grill.

Nikolaus used his sauerkraut money to help build up the Germanic immigrant community in Cincinnati. As a devout Catholic he helped the formation of three of our earliest Germanic parishes – Holy Trinity, Old St. Mary’s and St. John’s in Over-the-Rhine. He also served in public office with the Democratic Party, as City Commissioner in the 1860s, and Democratic Party Chair for many years. He helped build the first German-English school in Cincinnati, also helped the German protestants of Mt. Auburn get land and build their church, helped to found the St. Aloysius Orphan Asylum, and was a member of the German Mutual Insurance Society.

After many years in the truck gardening business, he went into real estate and helped to develop the area around Findlay Market. His office and home were in the block at Race and Elder that is now home to the Our Daily Bread food ministries who should serve sauerkraut with their meals to honor Herr Hoeffer.

The ghost sign for Meyer’s Sauerkraut on the side of the old Bruckmann Brewery in Cumminsville.

There’s a great sauerkraut ghost sign that speaks to its former prominence in our city. It’s on the side of what was originally the Bruckmann Brewery complex at the foot of the Ludlow Viaduct. Thankfully there are a few local producers of Cincy kraut left who are blazing our local Kraut Revolution – most notably the Pickled Pig and Fabulous Ferments.

So, if you want to taste what original Cincinnati sauerkraut tasted like – do yourself a favor and get some locally handcrafted, small batch kraut made in the basement kraut labs at Pickled Pig in Walnut Hills or at your local organic supermarket – and you’ll never turn back to that pasteurized canned or commercially packaged stuff again.

 

 

Do You Have a Counter?

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The counter at the Pickled Pig.

One of the best places to go on a Saturday or Sunday morning and linger was the counter at Take the Cake in Northside. Not only because they had awesome food, but because you could sit at the counter, have a great cup of coffee and banter with the owner Doug Faulkner as he made your delicious food. You could catch up on the news, talk about cooking technique and local gossip and enjoy the great interaction. It worked if you were flying solo or meeting friends for a gnosh. It was a great outpost for people watching the broad spectrum of Northside natives.   They even lent their counter on some weekends to a then unknown popup pizza place called A Tavola, that’s now one of the most successful anchors in Over-the-Rhine.   Sadly, Take the Cake has been closed now for nearly a decade, and there are few counters that measure up.

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The counter at Take the Cake ca. 2008

In Cincinnati we have hundreds of chain chili parlors that have counters where you can get a threeway and banter with the salty waitresses or macho-Greek coney makers behind the counter. There are the Waffle Houses where you can dig into your scattered, smothered and covered hash browns at any hour of the day.

But what makes a good counter? First, there has to be great food – specials but also standards that you can count on. It has to have a great view of the front of the restaurant for people watching and judging. The folks behind the counter have to be interactive and have a certain degree of saltiness or at least opinion. It has to be a place where you can linger and aren’t rushed off for the next customer. And there has to be continuity. They have to remember you from the last time and maybe even continue the conversation or debate you started.

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Looking into the fray from the counter at Take the Cake ca. 2008.

Last weekend I asked myself that question. Do I have a counter? I haven’t consciously been looking for a new counter, but I realized that I hadn’t really found a replacement. And I realized that was a pretty big hole in my life.

For me there had temporarily been the counter at the Athenian Greek Deli in Sharonville, when I worked near there. But although it has great gyros and food, it’s so small and busy that there’s really no opp to banter with the folks behind the counter. I’ve seen groups of older men at the counter at the Frisch’s Mainliner in Mariemont giving heck to the waitress, who seems to enjoy the banter, or at least the tips generated from her playing the part. But there had been no counter to compare to Take the Cake.

That’s until I stopped by the counter at the Pickled Pig in east Walnut Hills last weekend. I always know I’m in for a great meal. And I thought I’d treat myself to a fantastic lunch en route to some sleuthing on a new writing project. Owner Gary Leybman, is a master of flavor. I’ve had several of their sandwiches, but I think their bakla jan – a smoky eggplant and tomato salsa – is one of the best sides in Cincinnati. It can be a meat topper, a veggie chili, or a condiment. I usually come out with a to-go tub of it for later.

After being greeted by Gary, I was waiting on my cod cake and bakla jan, and in walks none other than local sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, whose studio is just two blocks east at the Essex Studios. I am a huge fan of his work, and for me it was like August Rodin or Clement Barnhorn or Hiram Powers had just walked into the place. I was giddy with fan glee and quickly snapped a picture of him when he and his lunch companion sat at the counter opposite me.

I have been to his studio and seen some of his commissions in progress. Tom is known for his awesome work around town – particularly the Pete Rose sliding into home statue and other famous Reds at the Ballpark. He’s crafted the D’Artnagan statue at Xavier University, the massive Hug-Me-Jesus statue at Solid Rock Church in Monroe, which replaced the Touchdown Jesus that was struck by lighting and burned. He’s now working on a statue of local civil rights pioneer, Marian Spencer, which will stand at the Smale Riverfront Park. Even cooler is that he is also concepting the frieze of local macabre writer Lafcadio Hearn that is planned to be placed at the Main Public Library, where his books and local newspaper articles are stored in the Rare Books Department.

With a mouth full of cod cake, I yelled across the counter to him and asked if he was Tom Tsuchiya, famous local sculptor. He smiled and admitted it was so and then I gushed about his work and how happy I was the Japan America society had chosen him for the Lafcadio Hearn sculpture. We talked about the weirdness that is Lafcadio, Cincinnati chili, and other Cincinnati weird-doms. He dropped me his business card and I walked out feeling like I had just eaten lunch with a rock star. And I remember Gary’s words: “We run a hip, hip place.”

So maybe I do have a counter after all.

 

Fritzy, the King of Baden-Wuertemburg Gives a Grand Hurrah to Cincinnati’s Sparkling Catawba

Before 1848, the largest number of Germanic immigrants to Cincinnati came from the lower kingdoms of Baden-Wuertemburg along the Rhine River in Germanic Wine country. After the revolution of 1848, most Germanic immigrants to Cincinnati came from goetta country in the northwest. The Dreissigers, or 30er’s, as they were called, largely came between the famines of that area in 1817 and 1830, becoming the first Germanic Cincinnatians. Many were poor farmers and the famine devastated their livelihoods. So, many of them came to the U.S. as redemptioners – meaning most of them paid their passage by becoming indentured servants or white slaves to wealthy plantation or business owners.

Some Germans of Cincinnati with means, like the owner of our first sugar refinery, Jacob Guelick, helped out some of these redemptionist families who couldn’t afford their passage. In 1817 he paid for the passage of 23 redemptionist families and brought them to Cincinnati to set them up with jobs in his sugar factory.

If you have Germanic ancestors who were in Cincinnati prior to 1830, they were probably from the kingdom of Wuertemburg, probably wine growers, and probably farmed land on the west side in or around Delhi.

Nicholas Longworth took advantage of this opportunity of their desire to get out of wine country by advertising for tenant farmers for his vineyards in the villages along the Rhine. Many families saw this and came to the West Side of Cincinnati around Delhi to become Longworth tenant farmers in his Boldface Creek Vineyards and later independent business owners. There were also conservative sects of Pietists who broke off from the Lutheran faith and were being prosecuted in Wuertemburg who came first to Pennsylvania, forming what would become known as Pennsylvania Dutch anabaptist communities, and then migrated into Ohio and Cincinnati. To become citizens, they would all have to give up allegiance to the King of Baden-Wuertemburg.

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Charles Reemelin was a Germanic immigrant with means from Heilbronn in Baden-Wuertemburg,, who in addition to being the editor of the Volksblatt, owned a farm and a nine acre vineyard of catawba grapes in Dent off of West Fork Road. He had come to Cincinnati in 1830s and saw some of the earliest vineyards in Cincinnati – those of Gottlieb and Johann Myers in Walnut Hills and of Nicholas Longworth and others. Growing up in his father’s vineyards in Heilbronn, he developed a passion for winemaking. He even wrote a vinedresser’s manual that was widely received, and a history of winemaking in Cincinnati article that tells the most accurate account of the rise and fall of our local wine industry, from the perspective of the German vine dressers, not the wealthy English hobbyists like Longworth, as we more commonly hear it.

His family had personal ties to the King of Baden Wuertemburg – Wilhelm I or “Fritz” as his subjects lovingly called him. Reemelin’s grandmother had been a frequent visitor to Wilhelm’s second wife, Queen Catherine’s Court in Ludwigsburg, and his brother-in-law, married to Reemelin’s oldest sister Lina, was Marshall of the King’s Palace. Reemelin himself had even sat in Financial Science classes at the University of Strassbourg with the Crown Prince Karl of Wuertemburg, Wilhelm’s son, who later became the Duke of Oldenburg, and later the last king of Wuertemburg before German reunification in 1871. King Wilhelm’s maternal grandparents were the Duke and Duchess of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel – in the heart of goetta country in Northwest Germany, and also where the liquor Jagermeister is made.   Wilhem’s maternal uncle was none other than King George III, who sparked the American Revolutionary War.

Reemelin travelled back and forth between Cincinnati and Germany numerous times in his life. On one of those trips in 1854, Nicholas Longworth asked him to deliver a case of his sparkling catawba to the king:

“My brother-in-law, being the Marshall of the King’s Palace, was useful to me in aiding me to carry out a commission, given to me by our Cincinnatian Nicholas Longworth, viz : to present to the -King a basket of his sparkling Catawba. I had the wine handed in to the King on his birthday, in September, and learned next day, that the wine had been enjoyed, not only by the gentlemen of the Court, but also by the ladies. I had sent the wine, with a letter of mine, explaining Nicholas Longworth’s object in sending the wine. I soon afterwards obtained a letter of thanks from the King’s secretary, containing respectful greetings to the wine culturists in the United States. This royal letter I handed to Mr. Longworth, on my return to the United States, in October, and it gratified him very much.” – Charles Reemelin

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Queen Pauline and King Wilhelm I of Wuertemburg.

So the case was delivered and the King of Baden Wurertemburg and his court buddies–enjoyed the wine as did the Queen Pauline (Wilhelm’s third wife) and her court of female partiers. Longworth was in the height of his sparkling catawba production and was trying to get an international name for the brand. Reemelin’s tie to the royal family would be a huge marketing win for him if he could get a testimonial. Since German wines were considered the best wines in the world, this testimonial from the Royal of that winemaking area would be a huge boon for sales. England’s party queen, Queen Victoria had just visited the wineries around Hockenheimer Germany in 1851 and put her royal tramp-stamp on them as the best. The term Hock wine was taken from this and applied to Cincinnati still catawba wines to compare them as in the same class as these superior German wines – and to market to the largely Germanic consuming market. The Cincinnati Germans could identify with the Hock wines of their Fatherland and would seek them or their equivalent local version – which was the catawba wine – at the Cincinnati Germany coffeehouses, which were really wine houses.

While Baden Wuertemburg lost a lot of its citizens to Cincinnati and other immigrant areas of the U.S, the king was the most consistent Germanic royal to push for an economic unification of the strong Germanic kingdoms to help rebuild the largely agrarian economy ravaged by the famine. He turned Baden-Wuertemburg into a constitutional state with a common identity and good economic management. Part of that was Wilhelm’s vision for a third Germanic power of a united set of kingdoms of Wuertemburg, Bavaria, Hanover, and Saxony as a counterweight to the Austrian and Prussian Empires. Although this never materialized, its attainment led to a consistent policy during Wilhelm’s reign, which improved the conditions of those in Wuertemburg, a good thing for those immigrants in Cincinnati who left behind relatives in the Fatherland

 

 

 

A Tribute to Le’s Pho & Sandwiches

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The owners of Le’s Pho and Sandwiches: Le Ha, Huyen Bui-Gauck, and Hai Bui.

While I was marching in Civil War era attire on Friday in the Bockfest parade , Le’s Pho and Sandwiches Vietnamese restaurant at Court and Vine closed its doors. It’s a sad moment for me because it had been one of my favorite lunch time haunts for years after a Saturday morning of research at the downtown library. I could say it was Le’s pho and spring rolls or Le Ha specifically that fueled the writing of all six of my books. My standard order there became the shrimp Vietnamese spring rolls and the bun – the cold vermicelli noodle salad with fresh herbs, pickled veggies and fish sauce.

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The standard bun order I will sorely miss from Le’s.

The restaurant was small but quaint, and the food was good and inexpensive. The menu was written by hand on a chalkboard above the counter and made fresh daily. In a sense it was kind of like a chipotle concept – choose your form – pho, banh mi or bun, and then choose your protein. With the pho you get a plate of adders – cilantro, bean sprouts, jalapeno, lime wedges – that you can add to your own liking. The family was great and it was fun to eat there. I got many lessons in pho, banh mi, and Vietnamese pates over the years from super friendly Huyen Bui-Guack, the owners’ daughter. The funny thing is that although largely French influenced, Vietnamese pates (gan ga) are like our Germanic braunschweiger, and their head cheese (gio thu), like our Germanic schwartenmagen or souse.

Before that, Le Han operated Le’s café inside the downtown library from 2004 until they moved to Court Street in 2012. It was there that library geekiness introduced me to my first banh mi sandwich. I didn’t really know what it was or that it was Vietnamese, but I loved the play of the pickled carrot and onions with the meat. Le Ha also made what I thought were the best peanut butter cookies I’d ever tasted. I guess it’s no surprise – given the delicious peanut hoisin dipping sauce she and the Vietnamese make for their spring rolls. Come to think of it, maybe hoisin sauce was the secret ingredient that made her cookies so scrumdiliumptious. While I was on the third floor history & genealogy department researching, if I smelled fresh peanut butter cookies I’d rush down to the café to get one or two before they were gone – and they went fast. I wasn’t the only one that had discovered Le’s peanut butter mastery.

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I was first introduced to Vietnamese food in college, from an engineering classmate and roomie, whose family were also refugees from the Vietnam war, sponsored by a church in Springdale. Lam and his family taught me about the Vietnamese spring roll, a mostly vegetarian roll with fragrant herbs like mint and cilantro, bean sprouts, cold rice noodles, and maybe few cold poached shrimp wrapped in clear rice paper wraps. I learned about the banh bao a dense but spongy steamed bun filled with savory spice meat fillings or sweet red bean paste, and the thin, bright red Vietnamese pork sausage called nem nuong. It’s like the Vietnamese version of Louisiana red hots, but fishier. This was in the early 90s and Vietnamese food hadn’t hit the zenith it has today.    Lam’s family also introduced me to Vietnamese coffee dripped into condensed milk and jack fruit smoothies before it became the vegan ingredient of choice for fake barbecue. But it wasn’t until Le’s that I came to know the banh mi, pho, and bun.

If Chinese cuisine was late in coming to Cincinnati in the 1920s, and Indian was even later in the early 80s, then Vietnamese food was the latest Asian cuisine to make headway in Cincinnati in the early 1990s.

Song Lung has been in Roselawn/Golf Manor for 36 years, making it the longest running Vietnamese restaurant in Greater Cincinnati. And, Pho Lang Tang, in Over-the-Rhine, which moved to a new location on Race this year from the inside of Findlay Market, has probably introduced more Cincinnatians to Vietnamese food. That’s because of their appearance on an episode of Diners Drive-Ins and Dives in 2014.

Le Ha has operated Vietnamese Restaurants in Cincinnati since about 1993, when she opened Dragon Le in Norwood’s Surrey Square Mall. She and her husband Hai Bui had come to Pennsylvania in 1975 as refugees after the Vietnam War. Her husband worked as a coal miner. But the mine closed and a church in Anderson Township sponsored them in Cincinnati.

Food was always Le Ha’s passion. She came from a poor family in Vietnam, and grew up walking the streets watching vendors cook. Her family made and sold candy, like the popular peanut sesame candy, and she always enjoyed cooking. With no formal education, an office job just didn’t interest her. So when the Bui family landed in Cincinnati, she opened Dragon Le’s. When Hai Bui got laid off from his computer programming job with UC Health, he ended up helping in the restaurant.

Dragon Le’s didn’t catch on as well as Le’s Pho and Sandwiches has. Back then, Vietnamese food wasn’t as popular as it is now. Pho soup and banh mi sandwiches were exotic aliens in Norwood in the ’90s.

Before the banh mi earned its hipster status, Vietnamese restaurants in Cincinnati had to bill themselves as serving standard Chinese fare with Vietnamese specialties, or they wouldn’t survive. That’s what Dragon Le did and how Song Lung still bills itself.

After Dragon Le’s closed, the family opened Main Street Wok across from Izzy’s downtown, serving mostly Chinese options. That wasn’t popular either, but they didn’t give up and that’s when they opened Le’s Cafe at the library.

Bui-Guack grew up in her parents’ restaurants. Her mom would come to the back office between customers to check on her. She never wanted to get involved in the restaurant business, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Cincinnati. She wasn’t interested in medical school or research, so she took a job with the family business while she tried to figure out her next move. That lasted eight years. She also has a nine-month old son at home and went back to school to get her real estate license, which gives her more freedom than the restaurant to be there for her son.

Closing the shop is bittersweet for Bui-Guack, who like with me and my ‘lessons’ built friendships with her customers over the years. Bui’s father, who turned 70 in August and suffered his second stroke in October, hasn’t been healthy enough to work in the restaurant full time. Her mother is turning 65 in March, has been on dialysis since 2003 and is not eligible to receive a kidney transplant.

The Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) is renovating the building that houses Le’s. They were willing to work with her family to give them a new space, but with her parents’ health and age, they were ready to retire and she wasn’t interested in running the restaurant alone.

It’s sad that health and timing made the family decide to close the restaurant for good, especially when pho and banh mi are at the height of popularity. But we can all understand. It just makes it difficult to get your banh mi or bun fix in Cincinnati, when nothing could ever compare.