The Sticky Lunar New Year’s Cake that Wards off Nian, the Chinese Krampus

As I walked into Francis International Market in Northside yesterday, I heard a flurry of Vietnamese being spoken as people were gathering stuff to make their Lunar New Year meals.     An older couple in front of me had five slabs of pork belly and a huge array of other things I couldn’t distinguish.   I was way out of my league.  Francis Market is a hidden gem in an old Italianate row house on the hill ascending Colerain Avenue.  If you’re looking for produce or foodstuffs from China, Vietnam, the Phillipines, or Africa, you’re in heaven.   I asked a lady at the counter if they had mung cakes for New Year and she pointed me to a stack, that she said she had just made.     They were square, wrapped in a banana leaf and had a red Chinese New Year greeting card in the center.    A man said to me in English – “not moon cake, Mung cake,” which sounded almost the same to me.   I told him thanks for distinguishing for me.  Moon cake was for another celebration later in the year.    This would be the first time I would taste one of these sticky rice cakes made across Asia in various ways, with various meanings, to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  

A Vietnamese Bahn Chung sticky rice cake from Francis International Market in Northside.
The above Bahn Chung unwrapped

February is one of those months that has ample food celebrations.   It’s also sort of the dead of winter, and unless you’re into sking, skating, sledding, or snow-man-making, there’s not a whole let else to do. There’s Groundhog Day at the very beginning, Valentine’s Day, Mardi Gras, Bockfest, President’s Day, and finally Lunar New Year.    Score – what a lineup of holidays to eat over!   There are all sorts of cakes associated to celebrate.    There are groundhog cookies, like the super-sweet ones made by Bonbonnerie; paczkis, berliners, and Fastnacht donuts to celebrate Mardi Gras.    There are cherry thing-a-lings from Batesville’s Schmidt’s bakery to celebrate President’s Day.   There are Bavarian and Swabian pretzels to go with a bock beer for Bockfest.    And, finally there are all sorts of sweet rice treats – maybe not cakes in our Western frame of mind – that are symbolically eaten for Lunar New Year across Asia. This new year is the Year of the Ox, by the Chinese lunar Zodiac, which thankfully means there will be no major disasters and that hard work will pay off.

This year, I decided to explore one class of these cakes, bean filled sticky rice cakes.    In China they’re called Nian Gao – meaning tall, or expensive new year.   They’re meant to symbolize progress, advancement, and growth – all things I want to happen this year.     In ancient legend, the Nian was a dragon-like beast who would either come out of the sea or from the mountains to terrorize and eat people and livestock around the Lunar New Year.   This is a very similar story of the Germanic Krampus and Perchten – evil spirits who come to terrorize the Alpen people around the Solar New Year.   People would pack up and hide in the caves and mountains when Nian came to their villages.   But one year an old man stayed, put up red shades, wore a red robe, and lit bamboo, which sparked and crackled and made loud noises, which scared off the evil beast.    These became the traditions of wearing and decorating houses in red during the New Year.    A tradition of putting these sweet rice cakes out and giving them to family and friends also caught on in China.

In Vietnam, their version of this sweet rice cake is called Bahn Chung.  They are made of a square of sweet sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf filled with mung bean paste and pork.   It is super sticky, mildly earthy flavored and a huge carb load – great if you’re a sumo wrestler wanting to bulk up for the Spring championships, or about to run a marathon.     The story behind this Vietnamese cake is less violent than the Chinese one.   According to Vietnamese legend, Emperor Hung Vuong VI, had many sons.   One year he decided to abdicate his throne to the son who brought him the most unusual food.   All his sons went back to their houses and prepared elegant dishes.   But his youngest son, Tiet-Lieu, who was a simple farmer went home and saw that his rice was ready for harvest, made a simple sticky rice cake filled with bean paste and pork.       The Emperor said Tiet-Lieu’s cake was the purest and most meaningful food because it was the basic food stuff of the people and he gave him the throne.     Today, these Bahn Chung cakes are placed at each home’s altar of ancestors during the Lunar New Year, which I love.    So, if you want to be king (or queen) for the year, you might wanna eat a piece of this sticky cake, and then walk 10,000 steps or run a marathon.

Account Me Puppet –Two Local Museums With Food Hocking Puppets

The Larry Smith Puppet Collection at the Broadcasting Museum at the Voice of America Museum.

Puppets have been trying to sell us food products in advertisements since the dawn of television.  Does anyone remember the Little Caesar Puppet Band from the 1990s singing “Pizza, Pizza” to the tune of Mooly Mooly, or when Miss Piggy tried to sell us Pizza Hut Pizza or the Cheetos Cheetah furry puppet who tried to sell us Cheetos Checkers?  What about the time when the Muppets’ Swedish Chef got a job as a Subway Sandwich artist? 

Jim Henson powered two manic puppets named Wilkins and Wontkins in the earliest puppet-mercials on TV.    From 1957 to 1961, in a rushed 8 second segment, the two puppets tried to sell Wilkins Instant Coffee, a brand out of Washington D.C.     The commercials starred a cheery Wilkins, who sounded a lot like Kermit the Frog, and liked the coffee, and a grumpy Wontkins who hated it.     Wilkins would do serious harm to Wontkins for not drinking the coffee – sort of in an Itchy and Scratchy way.    He was shot at, dropped from a hot air balloon and an airplane, steamrolled, and hit over the head with a never ending array of blunt  implements.  These puppet-mercials were so successful, the puppets went on to hock 14 other brands like Krami Dairy, Faygo Soft Drinks, and Community Coffee.

Jim Henson’s 1950s Wilkins Coffee Puppets Wilkins (green) and Wontkins (red).

My favorite puppet commercial of all time is a recent one made by Johnsonville Brat entitled “Jeff and his Forest Friends.”    It features a hunter, Jeff, explaining Johnsonville Breakfast sausage to a racoon, squirrel, porcupine, turkey and wolf.     The laughing turkey gets me EVERY time.

Johnsonville’s “Jeff and His Forest Friends” Puppet-mercial.

Two local Greater Cincinnati museums house sets of these food hocking puppets – the Broadcasting Museum in Mason, on the site of the Voice of America Museum houses the Larry Smith Puppets.   And the Vent Haven Museum of Ventriloquism in Ft. Wright Kentucky, houses at least four sets of food hocking ventriloquist dummies.

The Vent Haven Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to ventriloquism and one of the areas’s best kept secrets.   Its collection includes over 900 ventriloquist dummies as well as photographs, posters, letters and books related to the art.    It is  the collection of  William Shakespeare Berger on whose property the museum sits.  Their oldest ventriloquist dummy entertained Union troops during the Civil War and their newest is from the recent winner of America’s Got Talent.

Charlie McCarthy Coke ad (left), the Charlie McCarthy dummy at Vent Haven (center) and another Coke ad at Vent Haven (right)

The oldest food hocking dummy they have is Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist dummy of Edger Bergen.     The Edgar Bergman show was a ventriloquist radio show debuted in 1937 on the Chase and Sanborn Hour.    In 1949 the show, now called the Charlie McCarthy Show, adopted Coca-Cola as their sponsor and Bergen and McCarthy promoted it on the radio and in print ads until 1952.    The first ever Coca-Cola radio commercial was heard during the Charlie McCarthy Show.   

The instructional record that taught me as a first grader how to become a ventriloquist

As a young ventriloquist in gradeschool, I used the Lessons in Ventroliquism record of Edger Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and his other dummy, Mortimer Snerd, to learn how to project my voice without moving my lips with my own dummy from Sears.   My Dad took me to the Vent Haven Ventriloquist Convention held at the Old Drawbridge Inn in Kentucky, that would attract professional ventriloquists from all over the world. It was my version of Comic-con. My dummy and I  may have promoted Mama’s Cookies to Sr. Carlene’s Third Grade class at St. Barts.

The Farfel the Dog and Danny O’Day dummies at Vent Haven (right).

Vent Haven has the two dummies who promoted Nestle Quik starting in 1955 on the Jackie Gleason Show with the ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson – Farfel the Dog and Danny O’Day.   Farfel would always bring the ads home, answering his companion’s “N-E-S-T-L-E-S/Nestlé’s makes the very best” with a drawn out “Chawwwc’-lit.”   The Nestle ads concluded in 1965, but Farfel was not forgotten. In 1992 Farfel made a comeback promoting Nestle candy for the holiday season. In the commercial he sings the classic Nestle theme, joined by five dog puppets who we can assume are his never-before-seen family, all wearing similar ugly Christmas sweaters.

Lamb Chop and Shari hocking hot dogs at Vent Haven.

The museum also has an original Lamb Chop puppet, powered by ventriloquist Shari Lewis, who promoted, Playtime Frank’s Hot Dogs, a competitive brand to Kahn’s in the 1970s.

There’s also a Freshie character used by several ventriloquists including Glenn Haywood for the Holsum Bread Company.

The Broadcasting Museum at Voice of America Park in Mason, Ohio, is lucky to have the entire collection of Larry Smith Puppets.    Larry Smith was a puppeteer from Dayton, Ohio, who got his start in 1957 on the Uncle Al Show and puppeted and produced children’s shows until retiring in 2000.   IN the 1960s he moved to WXIX to produce the Larry Smith’s Cartoon Club, featuring a host of puppets headlined by Hattie the Witch and Snarfie the Dog, who all hocked some great food products in commercials.

In the last 1970s the puppet team marketed for Little Debbie Snack Cakes in commercials.  Hattie the Witch and Snarfie the Dog, promoted the Swiss Roll;  Rootie the Rooster and Teaser the Mouse promoted my fave –  the Oatmeal Cream Pie and;  Miss Abigail Chicken and Mr Wizard  promoted the vanilla snack cakes; Big Red the Rock Eater and Nasty Old Thing promoted Nutty Bars;  and  Mean Old Cat and Spooky the Ghost promoted Jelly Cream Rolls and Banana Twin Cake.    Mean Old Cat said he liked Apple Delights in the commercial even though the box in front of him was the Banana Twin Cake.    

Smith created a bear puppet called Merry Beary in 1986 that promoted some Kenwood Mall food court vendors like Blue Chip Cookies and Skolnik’s Bagel Bakery.    Smith also created a pirate puppet that along with Hattie and Snarfie, promoted the crispy secret crunch of Long John Silver’s Restaurants in College Hill and Elmwood Place.    Two muppet looking puppets promoted Kern’s Bread in a series of commercials where the dopy sounding puppet was the victim of an exploding cigar, an exploding camera, and a pie in the face.    Hattie, Snarfie, Teaser the Mouse, and the Duck promoted Buster Browns Steakhouse  with Larry Smith’s cameo.   Finally, Larry Smith also appeared in a commercial for Old Fashioned Candy out of Newport, Kentucky, operating the Candy Man puppet.

Puppets continue to market food to adults and kids alike, and several marketing media firms around the country like Puppets on Fire in Alabama, specialize in creating puppet commercials.  

The Ohio Potato Chip Named after my Grandma’s Votes-Forward 1920s Hairdo

Ballreich’s Marcelled Potato Chips and my Grandmother in her marcelled hairdo.

My favorite era is the 1920s.  I love the music, the art, the architecture, the style, the philosophy. I think I may have owned a nightclub in Berlin in the 1920s in a former life.   It was also a good era for one of my fave snack foods – the potato chip – particularly in Ohio.   Grippos, Husmans and Ballreichs were all created in near succession in the first part of the 1920s.

2021 was a good and bad year for local potato chips.    Our 100 year old local brand Husman was retired by new owner Utz, a Pennsylvania brand now invading our snack shelves at a rapid rate.  But there’s also good news for another Ohio chip company, Ballreich’s who’s celebrating their 100th anniversary into 2021 with three new flavors, and going strong, also expanding nationally outside of Ohio.    Their signature wavy, zig-zag chip was named after a popular 1920s hairdo my maternal grandmother wore into the 1930s. – the Marcel.     Local Tom and Chee chain also invented the Grippos BBQ Grilled Cheese, which looks amazing.

Long before there were Lays “Ruffles with Ridges”, there were Ballreich’s Marcelled potato chips – the term applied to chips right here in Ohio – Tiffin, to be exact.    Ballreich’s Potato Chips aren’t just rippled, they’re “marcelled”.   Incidentally, Frito Lay has one of the largest potato chip factories in Ohio.  The term was borrowed from the new short wavy hairdo for the liberated, empowered, now vote-worthy American woman of the 1920s.    Dancer and performer Josephine Baker was a famous wearer of the style.    Even some super-fashionable men marcelled their hair – the early Metrosexuals. 

The Downton Abby ladies with marcelled hair (left), the inventor of the hairdo (center) and a fashionable man sporting it.

The Marcell hairstyle was invented by a French immigrant hairdresser, Marcel Grateau (1852–1936) in the 1870s.  The inventor and stylist emigrated to the United States and changed his name to François Marcel Woelfflé, sometimes reported as François Marcel. He was granted U.S. patents for implements for performing the technique; the first, U.S. patent 806386, entitled “Curling-Iron”, was published in 1905, and the second, entitled “Hair-Waving Iron”, for an electric version, under the name François Marcel, was published in 1918.  The hairstyle became popular for women with new bobbed short haircuts. Women with long hair could also wear it if they tied their hair back at the neckline and pinned it in the back with a fashionable dragonfly or butterfly pin.  One of my favorite pictures of my maternal grandmother is her formal 1930s portrait in her marcelled hairstyle.  I think it’s one of the most elegant and beautiful women’s hairstyles.  It had a brief resurgence recently with movie stars like Kate Hudson and Charlize Theron on the red carpet.   Even the ladies of Downton Abbey marcelled their hair when the series roared into the 1920s.

In 1920, Fred and Ethel Ballreich started to fry potato chips for their friends and neighbors in their dirt floor garage, using a copper kettle heated with wood scraps,  at 186 Ohio Avenue in Tiffin. Their chips were so delicious, everyone craved more. They started by producing four pounds of chips daily from their garage, but the demand became so high that the pair finally decided to start their official business with Fred’s brother, an engineer, who designed equipment that could produce 450 pounds of chips a day. Today, three generations later, the Ballreich’s Snack Food Company produces 2,000 pounds of chips an hour!

Ballreich’s marcelled chips

In addition to regular, BBQ, flat (unmarcelled) and no salt they make – Sweet Thai Chili, Ghost Pepper Jack, Salt & Vinegar, Honey Butter, Sour Cream and Onion, Sweet Mesquite BBQ, Smoked Cheddar and Onion  – they also make flavored popcorn, tortilla chips, cheese curls, cinnamon apple puffs, corn puffs, pretzels, and pork rinds.

For food pairings, the company recommends smashing regular Ballreich’s into a PB & J or on a burger or crushing them over a hot casserole.    I’m sorry Utz, but if I go anywhere outside of Grippo’s it will be Ballreich’s for this spud fan.     And as we roar into the 2020’s maybe its time for a resurgence of Marcelled hair.   Don’t be surprised if you see me at my first public event with marcelled man-hair.