The Last Thanksgiving Possum at the White House

The Billy Possum stuffed toy

We can thank the Cincinnati palate for bringing probably the nation’s weirdest historical food to the White House Thanksgiving table.    This happened during the presidency of our larger-than-life local boy William Howard Taft.     The headlines in the 1909 Washington Post read, “Taft Eats Turkey, Pie, and Possum.”

The article below the headline read:  “President Taft and family had a genuine Thanksgiving dinner today.  In addition to the mammoth turkey which had been sent to the White House by Horace Vose of Westerly, Rhode Island, and the 50-pound mince pie sent by the bakers of Newark, New Jersey, there was a 26-pound possum, said to be the largest and plumpest  ever trapped in the Georgia woods, on the table in the White House dining room.”

Yuck – a 26 pound possum – the largest and plumpest ever trapped??  I shake in horror to think how a 26 pound possum could be prepared and presented to be appetizing at any table.    Was there a separate possum gravy – hopefully one that covered up the taste of greasy gamey rodent?   Was it served with a side of mint jelly?    Was the head and long mangly teeth left on?  It may not have been the first possum, but it was the last recorded time of possum making it to the White House table.    

Both Washington and Jefferson were interested in the possum as pets, and wrote about them in their journals.   President Benjamin Harrison had two pet possums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection at the White House, secured him by his Secretary of Agriculture, “Uncle” Jeremiah Rusk, which he gifted to his grandchildren.  Lucky them!

Although it seems weird to us today, what we consider wild game meats were very popular in Victorian America.    High class restaurants, like our famous St. Nicholas Hotel downtown, served a variety of game meats including real turtle soup, canvasback duck, and a variety of fowl and animal critters.

The nation learned early on of Taft’s love of possum.  The  President-Elect Taft was the guest of 650 on January 15, 1909, in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce Banquet. The menu was composed mainly of famous Southern Delicacies, like Brunswick Stew, and Persimmon Beer. But, at Taft’s request, a dish of “possum and taters” – baked possum on a bed of sweet potatoes, was added to the menu. Taft said of the meal, “Well I certainly like possum… I ate very heartily of it last night, and it did not disturb in the slightest my digestion or my sleep.”     

The stuffed possum made by the thousands in 1909 by the Georgia Billy Possum Company.

Taft was presented that night with a stuffed possum, with the hopes that it would replace the Teddy Bear, the mascot of his predecessor President Theodore Roosevelt.   Toy makers, who had created Teddy’s Bear in 1902, thought that when this presidential transition occurred, their stuffed bear would lose popularity and stop selling.   The Georgia Billy Possum Company formed, churning out thousands of the stuffed rodents. The company’s slogan was “Good-bye, Teddy Bear. Hello, Billy Possum.” Anti-teddy bear ads were all over the place. The market flooded with Billy Possum postcards, pins, and posters. Marketers introduced Jimmie Possum—Billy’s running mate—named after Vice President James Sherman. Supporters could join a group called the “Possum Club.” Composer J. B. Cohen and lyricist G. A. Scofield even wrote a ragtime tune called “Possum: The Latest Craze,” whose last verse goes:

Ole Teddy Bar’s a dead one now Sence Bill Possum’s come to town. An’it taint no use to make excuse Or raise a fuus an’frown.  Jes get in touch wit’de President Eat possum when you dine. Den ask a Job of de Government An’ you’ll cert’ly be in line.

Companies tried to push the sales of the stuffed possum. Unfortunately, sales died quickly, and it was all a massive flop. Billy Possum didn’t even last a year—the craze died by Christmas. The possum failed and the teddy bear endured.    So, thankfully none of us grew up spooning a creepy stuffed possum instead of a cute cuddly bear.

A 1909 postcard lampooning the presidential transition from Teddy Bear to Billy Possum.

In addition to the possum, William Howard Taft was also a fan of turtle soup, and ate it regularly at home, and requested it at public dinners.    He even chose his White House Chef on his ability to make turtle soup.  This was not the mock turtle soup we Cincinnatians eat today put out by local Worthmore Soups, it was the actual terrapin meat turtle soup. Today, with many turtle species on the endangered list, these real turtle soups are not available, but they were extremely popular in Taft’s time.

So of all the weird 1960s and 70s Jell-O salads that make it to the Thanksgiving table, know that none other Thanksgiving table was as weird as the White House in November 25, 1909, thanks to President Taft.

My Family’s Beaumont Inn Corn Pudding

There’s a side dish that has made its appearance at our Thanksgiving table since the mid 1980s – a corn pudding from the Beaumont Inn – a 101 year old inn in Bardstown, Kentucky.     It’s not a pudding in the sense of a chocolate Jell-O pudding.   And it’s not like a bready, saucy English pudding.   It’s somewhere between a custard and an eggy pudding.    The structure has some give and jiggle to it like a pudding but also has some firmness like a custard. It  has a sufficient quantity of white Silver Queen corn that gives it a nice sweetness, but doesn’t make it too sweet to be dessert.  And when it’s done perfectly it has a crunchy top. It still has enough savory to be seated at the table as a primary side, not a dessert.   As a result of this use of corn, we don’t have cornbread, like many other families do.   In cornbread’s place, we have strawberry bread – a delicious, moist Germanic brown fruit bread, that although is really a dessert, is also seated at our table as a side.   Maybe call it a palate preparer for the feast to come.

My family’s thanksgiving table, like many others,  is a fusion of dishes.    It’s antebellum south meets Germanic Midwest meets mid century convenience.    That’s kind of the brilliance of the American Thanksgiving – everyone brings a dish from their history.   We have oyster dressing and turkeyneck dressing.     We have both cranberry salad and CANberries, the sliceable tart jello-in-a-can from Ocean Spray.      We have strawberry bread and mashed potatoes and candied yams and some sort of green legume – which has been lately Italian green bean casserole.   Glazed carrots were never invited – nor any other root veggies like parsnips.    We’ve done baked, deep fried, smoked and rotisseried turkey.   And as our maternal grandmother taught us as kids how sweet and tender the turkey neck is, it’s a traditional fight between my siblings as to who gets to eat the neck after it’s been boiled with aromatics to make the gravy.  When it comes to dessert, the pumpkin pie is extremely important to my dad, who is an experienced connoisseur.   You might even call him a pie sommelier.    When Grandma was still alive mincemeat pie made an appearance, because it was her fave, but she was usually the only one indulging as it was too rich for the rest of us.

Beaumont Inn Corn Pudding first came into our lives on a family vacation to Bardstown, Kentucky, to hear the American songbook at the Stephen Foster Outdoor Drama.    The Beaumont Inn in nearby Harrodsburg, is surrounded by rolling bluegrass hills, horse farms, and antebellum mansions like My Old Kentucky Home Museum.   The area is also dotted with bourbon distilleries, which we toured.    The Inn is also near the Pleasant Hill Shaker Community  – another interesting historical experience.    We had dinner at the Inn one night and my mom fell in love with their corn pudding.    It came back with us across the Ohio River and landed on our Thanksgiving table.

The Beaumont Inn is owned today by the fourth generation of the Dedman family.   It started life as a girls’ college in 1845.   When it closed, the then dean of students Annie Bell Goddard bought it with her husband Glave and turned it into the Beaumont Inn, catering mostly to travelling teachers and tobacco salesmen.

The historic Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, Kentucky

The corned pudding recipe itself was formulated by one of the staff of black female cooks, some of whom were former Bluegrass slaves or daughters of.   That’s a common dynamic with legacy recipes in the south, especially those associated with old inns and hotels, whose cooking and even wait staff were African American.    Those enslaved females and their daughters who cooked for large homes in the south found jobs post Civil War in the hospitality industry.   The fact of our family’s beloved Thanksgiving side dish being developed by former slaves doesn’t go unnoticed in this year of Black Lives Matters protests.   

This army of now unknown black women at the Beaumont were also known for dishes like their bourbon bread pudding, Kentucky hot brown, mock oyster casserole (eggplant and chopped freshwater clams), burgoo, and  General Robert E. Lee’s Orange Lemon cake.

The perfection of this corn pudding recipe was a labor of love.    My mom and my grandmother together perfected it over nearly thirty years at our Thanksgiving.   It requires a delicate cook in a ban marie or water bath.    It was always the last dish to come out of the oven, and I recall mom and grandma checking it periodically and discussing how much longer to let it cook.      We’ve made it at my brother and his family’s, where his daughter, the fourth generation of our family, has helped to make it. My sister has taken on the mantle and has even made the corn pudding for her Friendsgiving to much approval.   When it passes to her daughter, it will have been touched twice by four generations of women in our family.

Unfortunately we will not be experiencing Beaumont Inn’s corn pudding this year, as we’ve made the tough decision to cancel our Thanksgiving celebrations due to the risk of Covid-19.    But its significance and its symbol of the diverse melting pot of America will live on into the future.

The Alligator of North College Hill

The Apricot Alligator from North College Hill Bakery.

You don’t need to travel to New Orleans to have an Alligator.    You only need to travel as far as North College Hill Bakery.   It’s a nearly 100 year old German family bakery that makes traditional  pastries you can’t get anywhere else.  One of those treats is a blast-from-the-past coffee cake called the Alligator, that’s like an enormous buttery Danish folded over and braided on itself.

College Hill Bakery has been making this delicious confection for a long time, as many other neighborhood bakeries used to in Greater Cincinnati.     They may be the only one left making it.   The name alligator comes from the braided top of the long filled pastry that resembles the skin of an alligator’s back.    They use their rich and buttery yeast dough, similar to what they use for their tea rings.

It’s braided like a bobka, but filled unlike a bobka.    The dough is more buttery Danish than brioche. While its twisted, its also not a schnecken, as its not caramelized with sugar on the outside.   It’s also not quite a strudel, the other Germanic long filled pastry, more chewy than crispy. 

North College Hill makes them filled with strawberry, Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread,  and my fave  apricot.     The Nutella Alligator is sprinkled with powdered sugar, while the other two are iced.

While it’s hard to pinpoint its origin or when and with whom it first came to Cincinnati, the Alligator is also a popular pastry in Jewish bakeries around Los Angeles.  Thee common Alligator pastry form in Los Angeles is filled with almond paste, iced and has toasted pecans on the outside.  While the LA Alligator is twisted like a bobka it is, like the Cincinnati Alligator, more dense, rich and chewy than a brioche or challah dough.    It’s the transition from braided bread to braided pastry.

And why braid anything pastry other than for looks?   Well it’s done for good reason    Braiding provides more surface area for the magical Maillard reaction to occur, which gives the golden brown and delicious outside surface.

It’s definitely something to consider with your day-after Thanksgiving breakfast, AND it is GWG – goes well with goetta.

QEII Loves Our Chili Parlour Dessert

All I hear about now is how good the Queen’s Gambit is.   The fourth season of the Queen is now out on Netflix.    It’s all about the Queen.     I had heard how finicky her Royal HIghness was with her food.    So after seeing a scene in the Queen where it showed some unbranded toffees in her desk drawer, I thought I’d investigate to see what her fave confection is.     It turns out, she’s not a toffeeholic, but rather a royal chocoholic.   But she’s not just any chocoholic.   

Her Majesty loves chocolate containing higher than 60% cacao according to her former royal chef, Darren McGrady.   She doesn’t fancy milk chocolate or white chocolate.    So no Cadbury or Toblerone bar will do.   She’s not chewing on a Savoy Truffle.   Even the Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate bar at 45% cacao is outside the Queenly range.      The Defender of the Faith loves chocolate as bitter as it comes.   And her favorite confection is a peppermint patty – aka the Cincinnati Chili dessert – made by English confectioner Bendick’s called the Bittermint.     By they way, the other rectangular mint served as dessert in Cincinnati chili parlors, the Andes mint, is correctly called in the UK, a ‘mint crisp’, (because it snaps rather than produces a chewy bite) which Bendick’s supplied from 2002 to 2011 in their Mingles brand assorted mint chocolate boxes.

The Bendicks Bittermint was invented in 1931 by Lucia Benson, sister-in-law of the co-founder of the company, Oscar Benson.   Along with Benson, Colonel ‘Bertie’ Dickson purchased in 1930 a small confectioner in Kensington, London.  They renamed the company Bendicks using the first syllable of both their surnames.   Lucia came up with a dark chocolate so bitter that it was nearly inedible on its own, and combined it with a mint fondant that was so strongly flavored with mint oil that it was also difficult to eat on its own. When the two parts were combined they produced a unique and very palatable chocolate. The chocolate coating contains 95% cocoa solids. The Queen might as well be eating cacao beans.

Bittermints are said to pair best with an after dinner dark roast coffee or an intense espresso (or espresso martini)

Prince George, the Duke of Kent, uncle of QEII, the first royal to try Bendick’s Bittermints.

Only three years after opening Bendick’s obtained a reputation for high quality and opened a story in the exclusive London hood of Mayfair.    The Duke of Kent, Queen Elizabeth’s Uncle, son of King George V,  was the first royal to visit to try out the famous Bittermint.     This is probably how she became familiar with the high end confection.

In 1962, she awarded Bendick’s and its products the coveted Royal Warrant: “By Appointment to her Majesty the Queen.”     She keeps them around Buckingham and Balmoral as snacks.    So if you’re lucky enough to have a casual audience with the Queen, you might be able to say, “I had a Bendick’s Bittermint in Britain at Balmoral.”

Bendick’s candies were expensive but all were made with the finest quality ingredients. The chocolate coated products were the top sellers and these were all hand dipped, giving a much thicker layer of chocolate than machine made products.    Apparently the availability of female ‘dippers’ was a constraint on the growth of the business. They also produced confectionery products such as nougat and chocolate bars.

The Bendick’s Mint Collection

The Mint Collection – a popular Christmas gift in the UK-comes in two different sized boxes and includes four flavors – the Bittermint; the Mint Crisp with honeycomb, mint oil and 50 per cent cocoa; the Elizabethan Mint with a softer fondant; and the Dark English Mint, a dark chocolate baton infused with fresh peppermint oil. Mint Crisps can also be purchased in standalone boxes.  A yard long box of Bittermint can be purchased annually at the  Royal Windsor Horse Show, of which the horse loving Queen, is a regular attendee.

Since 1988 Bendick’s have been owned by a Berlin based company called August Storck KG, and are manufactured in Halle, Westphalia, not far from Hanover, appropriately where the Windsor royal line – or rather the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha line – originated.

Today they can be purchased in England at retail stores like Tesco, Sainsbury, and Booth’s.  I will be discovering Bendick’s Bittermints courtesy of Walmart and may be sending them as Christmas gifts this year.

An Old German Root Veggie Term for Pocketwatch

In the 1880s and 90s there was a great local paper called the Northside Transcript.    Although it was written in English, the writer, A. E. Wethery, an American of English Protestant ancestry, liked to lampoon the antics of the German American immigrants of Cumminsville and Northside.    One character who showed up regularly was Friedrich Dankert, the Expressman for the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railroad, a passenger railway that allowed many to commute from the suburbs to factories in downtown Cincinnati.     Friedrich was an immigrant from Penzlin in the northeastern most Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin in Germany, and had come in chain migration with nine other families from the same village to Cumminsville, including my great great grandparents.

In one entry, Wethery unknowingly documents a comical translation of the old German word for pocketwatch, Steckrube:

A good story is told on Fred Dankert, the big fat, jolly expressman of Cumminsville.   Fred carries a watch, which he delights to call his turnip.    The other morning “Kid” Miller and Charley Bittner managed to get it out of his pocket, and in its stead put a real turnip.    Fred knew that his watch had been taken, but said nothing about it until he was ready to take his departure.  Then he said: “Boys, you had better give me my turnip before I go home.”   “Why, it’s in your pocket,” said Miller.  “I’ll bet you the drinks for the house that it isn’t.” replied Dankert.   “I’ll go you,” said Bittner, and then he added: “Now look for yourself.”   Fred did look and then he found the little vegetable as green and hard as when it came out of the ground.    The round just cost him $1.35.

How weird that one of those German immigrants calls his pocketwatch a root vegetable, Wethery probably thought.   But what Wethery didn’t know is that the literal translation of the German word for pocketwatch, Steckrübe, is actually turnip.   Many thought the profile of a pocketwatch in a jacket pocket looked like a turnip, so the term stuck in northern Germany.   Rube is still the German word used for turnip.     So Wethery documented a now forgotten humorous language term used in northern Germany.

The turnip plays an important part in several German areas around Bavaria, where children carve turnips and make lanterns they carry in parades on the eve of November 11, at St. Martin’s Day, which also marks the time of Schlachtfest or livestock slaughter when gruetzwurst or grain sausages like goetta are made.

Additionally, in America we stole and use a similar German word for the root vegetable kohlrabi, which literally translates from German to ‘cabbage turnip’.    Kohlrabi happens to be one of the healthiest, and lowest glycemic root vegetables in the produce supply chain

Manoff’s Rancho Burger and the Only Chili Size made with Cincinnati Chili

Los Angeles has an iconic dish called the Chili Size that is a meat-on-meat cousin to our Cincinnati Threeway.  It was invented at Ptomaine Tommy’s in 1913 by owner Tommy DeForest.   It is basically an open-faced hamburger smothered in house chili, cheddar cheese and chopped onions.   It received the term ‘size’ by the size of the ladle used to add the chili.   He had a large ladle for serving bowls of his chili, and a smaller, hamburger size for the hamburger.  

DeForest started with a food cart he called his Ptomaine Tabernacle, which was a self-effacing description of a greasy spoon joint that used inferior meats.  Ptomaine is a type of amino compound formed from the rotting or putrification of meats.

Tommy started his chili parlor in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of LA in 1913 and it operated until 1958.   But his invention, the chili size is now a regional food popular at many diners around LA.   Even Bob’s Big Boy in LA has a chili size on its menu.   

Fast forward to 1950s Beechmont Avenue here in Cincinnati.    Tom Manoff operated a small hamburger joint popular with kids at Mount Washington High school called Hamburger Heaven.     His father Petro, a Macedonian immigrant,  had worked for his fellow countrymen, the Kiradjieff Brothers at the original Empress Chili Parlor on Vine Street and then opened his own chili parlor in Newport, Kentucky, called the Strand Chili Parlor, near the Strand theatre on Monmouth Street.    That site would become Crystal Chili Parlor, and then Gourmet Chili, who still occupy the space.   It is the second oldest continually operating Cincinnati Chili Parlor in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.   Founded in 1931, it only trails Dixie Chili parlor’s founding in 1929 by a few years.

A Cincinnati Chili Size

At Hamburger Heaven, the Manoffs served burgers and Cincinnati style threeways and cheese coneys.    In 1955  Manoff and his wife Dorothy, wanted to move to California for the weather and sold the business to his brother-in-law,  Joseph Marsh .    The Marsh’s soon got the bug to move to California too and sold Hamburger Heaven and the recipe for their chili in 1963 to four immigrant brothers from Jordan with the last name Daoud.    The brothers tweaked the recipe and in 1965 renamed the restaurant Gold Star Chili after the cigarette brand their family sold tobacco to in Jordan, and the rest is Cincinnati Chili history.     

Tom Manoff Sr. and Dorothy Manoff behind the counter at Hamburger Heaven

After operating a restaurant in Sunnyvale, California, for three years, Manoff opened Manoff’s Rancho Burger in Santa Cruz, California, in 1959 where they sold the same Cincinnati Style threeways and cheese coneys they did in Mt. Washington.      The décor was Western with wagon wheels and cowboy pics hanging on the walls. Santa Cruz is a melting pot of dwindling hippies, computer hackers undergraduates and fundamentalist Christians 75 miles south of San Francisco.   So, being in California, the Manoffs had to adapt the local popular chili dish, the Chili Size, into their menu.       They did adapt but not fully.  Instead of the traditional California chili con carne, they served their Chili Size with delicious Cincinnati style chili.   According to Todd Manoff, Tom’s son, “Manoff’s chili size was served lower hamburger bun, ¼ pound ground chuck patty, a scoop of cooked pinto beans, then smothered in Manoff’s Cincinnati chili.   Served open face with a buttered char-grilled top of bun – could have with chopped onions and piled high with grated sharp cheddar cheese.”   There was also a Chili Burger platter same as the Chili Size, but served on special Tepco western traveller plates with a small order of French fries and a small green salad.

The dishes the Manoff’s served the Chili Burger Platter on at Rancho Burger

Manoff’s Rancho Burger weathered the 1989 earthquake, but closed its doors in 2001, when Tom’s son, Tom Jr. retired.     Gold Star Chili test marketed a chili burger at their Xavier University location in 2017, but it wasn’t open faced like the chili size.   As a standard menu item, they do offer it with a new crunchy twist – you can add Fritos under the bun.   So, there’s no longer a Chili Size served with Cincinnati Chili, but you can buy the original Manoff chili recipe spice blend online and taste what Empress chili used to taste like in its original days.

Red Flavor Means Cherry in the U.S. Unless You’re a Swedish Fish

Just like Purple Flavor means grape in the US, so Red flavor means Cherry.   That’s unless you’re a Swedish Fish, one of the most popular movie theatre candies in the US.      The Swedish company Malaco introduced these chewy delightful members of the starch jelly or wine gummy family in the 1950s.    Don’t call them a gummy candy like the German invention gummiebaeren, as the starch present make them less jiggly and more rigid than gummy candies.   And don’t expect to find wine in them – that’s just a candy industry term.    They quickly became a cult favorite.

The wine gummy candy category was invented by an Englishman named Charles Gordon Maynard in London, England, in 1909, and came in flavors of orange, strawberry, and black currant.

Charles Gordon Maynard, the Englishman who invented the wine gummy

The company wanted to enter the incredibly lucrative US candy market with their starch jellies, and chose a shape that reflects the fish industry prevalent in Scandinavia.     It’s an interesting trend from the 1880 to the 1950s to see how maybe dentistry was playing a role in the flexibility and tachiness of American candy.   We went from hard, chewy taffy and nut brittles from the 1880s to buttercream candy in the 1910s (think candy corn) to starch jellies (Swedish fish) to gummy candies.     We may not have taken any of the sugar or corn syrup out of candy, but we made chipping a tooth less likely.

For Americans, the flavor of Swedish fish is difficult to describe, many saying they taste like fruit punch.    But the flavor is actually lingonberry, a very popular berry in Scandinavia.   You can buy lingonberry jam, lingonberry filled cookies and even lingonberry soda at Swedish based IKEA in their food shop.   The lingonberry packs a punch with its sour, tart and slightly sweet distinct flavor.     Rita’s Custard shop had a limited time Swedish Fish Flavored Custard, and Nabisco in 2016 test marketed a Swedish fish cream filled OREO.

Although the Red flavor is the standard, they also come in orange (orange), lemon lime (yellow), pineapple (green) and a grape (purple) flavor that was discontinued in 2006.    They also come in Tropical Fruit flavors in colors pale yellow, pale orange, magenta and purple and described as pina colada, passionfruit, tropical island and beachy punch.   They also have a product of two flavors in one called Fish Tails – which come in fused flavors of Blue Raspberry- Strawberry, Watermelon-Pineapple, and Raspberry-Mango.

Since they don’t use animal gelatin, they’re considered a vegan food, unless they’re made in one of the plants that polishes them with beeswax instead of the usual plant based carnauba wax.

In Sweden they are called pastellfiskar, which means pale colored fish.   And they have a flavor – Salmiak – that you won’t find in the U.S..  It’s their wildly popular salted, ammoniated black licorice flavor, of which I am a super fan.

A little known fact about Swedish fish is that in the U.S. the underside is stamped Swedish, while in Sweden it’s stamped with Malaco, the company that invented them.