Cherry Bounce: A Fave Drink of President Washington and Cincinnati Germans

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Yesterday was President’s Day, originally instituted to celebrate our first president George Washington. By now we all know that George Washington did not chop down the cherry tree. But we do know that he liked cherries because his favorite boozy drink was something called Cherry Bounce. The recipe was found in Martha Washington’s papers and Georgie wrote in his diary that he carried a large supply of it with him on a trek out over the Alleghanies in 1784.

Like our first President, I am a fan of anything cherry. This weekend I tasted my first cherry thing-a-ling from Schmidt Bakery in Batesville. It’s a ‘bite sized’ cherry fritter. I also like a good cherry infused black forest cake. I am a fan of anything flavored with kirsch, the German cherry liqueur. I enjoy a good bourbon infused cherry from Bourbon Barrel Foods in Lexington as a topper to ice cream. As a teenager, we used to go up to the Traverse City Cherry Festival, which had everything cherry. And, although I haven’t had one in years, there’s nothing better than a good Hostess cherry hand pie. One of my grandmother’s specialties was a sour cherry pie she made from sour cherries grown in their backyard.

Although it sounds more like a 50s dance craze, Cherry Bounce was a sour cherry and sugar infused brandy drink with spices that was super popular in Colonial America – sort of like our pre-Revolutionary Cosmo. George and Martha apparently made their own and served it to guests at Mount Vernon. Their version contained nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves.

Cherry Bounce was also very popular here in Cincinnati from before the Civil War to about the 1870s. And most of our local Catawba winemakers made it from their Catawba Brandy and local sour cherries. A Southern German variety of sour cherries called Weischel, was recommend by Carl Reemelin, a West Side winemaker in his 1868 book, “Winemaking.” In Southern Germany and Austria they even mix this sour cherry with hard cider, which sounds delicious, and in Bavaria they mix Cherry Brandy with wheat beer.

Another fruity liqueur mixed drink that is popular in Germany, but imported from France is kir, which is blackcurrent liqueur mixed with a still white acidic wine like a German Hockenheimer. The Germans of Cincinnati would have been able to use still Catawba hock wine to make a kir.

Brandy was a byproduct of winemaking, because it used the second pressing and the skins and stems not used in winemaking. So, using it in a popular drink made a great side business to the local wine industry. Many of the local winemakers in Cincinnati made it – George Bogen, the Longworth Wine House, and others. It would have been served at the local German coffeehouses, which were really wine bars, like William Tell’s owned by one time vintner and Swiss Immigrant via Vevay, Indiana, Friedrick Deserens.

Longworth grew cherry trees on his Tusculum vineyards and they must have been good. One contract Longworth made with a German immigrant vinedresser said that he could have all of the cherries from the cherry trees below the press house, west of the part of his vineyard where he grew Elsinboro grapes. I wonder if the tenant made Cherry Bounce or Cherry Wine.

 

 

 

 

Indian Food and Punk Rock Came Together in Cincinnati

Of the international cuisines in Cincinnati that now seem to be universal, Indian is the newest arrival. It came at a time when Flock of Seagulls hair and Doc Martin shoes were in vogue and the music that came through Bogarts in Clifton was labeled ‘alternative.’ Now that music, like Indian food is everywhere, even to be found entertaining people in elevators. And like every restaurant scene, one restaurant begat another restaurant, which created the now over 125 Indian restaurants in Greater Cincinnati. Of those, only 2 feature southern Indian cuisine, according to the owner of Shaan in Hyde Park Plaza, which celebrates 11 years in business. The rest feature the cuisine of Northern India, centered around the city of Delhi, where the invading Moguls from Afghanistan made their capital from 1556-1784 and put their stamp on the cuisine.

My intro to Indian culture and cuisine came in college at UC. I would attend my first Indian wedding shortly thereafter of my friend Lisa, whose father had been one of our engineering professors. I got a kick out of her husband, Matt, being force fed all night with little sweet cakes by Lisa’s female relatives. I guess it’s the Indian version of stuffing the cake in the face of your spouse.

This January, following in the footsteps of Frau Herte Heuwer, who invented the currywurst and its delicious sauce in postwar Berlin, I created what I think to be the first Cincinnati German-Indian fusion dish – halwa strudel – in my Ault Woods kitchen. Halwa is a delicious Indian carrot dessert that I fell in love with and makes a superb strudel filling. The best German-Indian fusion in Cincinnati was when Mahabir Singh turned the North College Hill landmark Budna Bar & Grill into Swad Indian cuisine! I can’t imagine taking my Germanic Grandmother, who lived the majority of her life in NCH out for chicken biryani. The funny thing though, is that she knew what Mulligatawny soup is. Next up in my fusion pipeline is Schnitzel Vindaloo. Where’s my bronze plaque of invention like Frau Heuwer’s?

The first Indian restaurant in Cincinnati came to downtown in 1980 in the form of Khyber Restaurant. It was out of a group in Chicago and owned by three Patels, the manager being Virendra Patel. It was on Race Street near the central business district and catered to people working downtown. Two chefs were imported from Chicago, one to make the curries and one to cook dishes using the novelty tandoori clay oven. It lasted for about 10 years.

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It was named after the Khyber Pass, an ancient passage through a mountainous region into the Indian subcontinent from Pakistan to Afghanistan. No other pass in the world has such strategic importance or so many historic associations. Aryan, Persian, Greek, Tartar, Mogul and Afghani invaders have come through this passage. When the British came to colonize India in 1839, it became the key point for controlling the Afghan border.

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In 1985 Nareen Patel, a former manager at Khyber opened the second Indian restaurant in Cincinnati in the Montgomery Marketplace, which he named Tandoor India, after the oven that cooks the delicious Naan breads that I love and which most Indians use as a utensil to scoop up their delicious curries. As a youth he played soccer, field hockey, volleyball and badminton, fueling his appetite for Indian food. His father was a tea importer and regularly cooked for 50-100 people, so restauranteuring was in his DNA. After studying in London, England, Nareen came to Cincinnati to spice up our food scene. Nareen’s restaurant is still in operation and the oldest continually operating Indian Restaurant in Cincinnati.

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Next up was Mayura restaurant in Clifton about the same time as Tandoor India, which started the explosion of Indian restaurants around the University of Cincinnati. It was founded by Swamy Naidu Sunkara. He would open up another restaurant downtown on Race Street. After about 20 years in Indian food he would buy the Cactus Pear in Clifton down the street from his first Mayura on Jefferson Avenue and focus on Tex-Mex cuisine and the delicious roasted tomatilla salsa, which I would eat off of shoe leather. I wonder what happened to the photo of Swamy and Dolly Parton that he proudly displayed in the Clifton Mayura restaurant

The Clifton scene got its next best Indian restaurant in 1994, with Jessi (Jagdhev) Singh’s opening of Ambar India, which means jewel in Hindi. Jessi came from the Punjab region of India and would beget the sikh owned restaurants in Cincinnati. He would go on to form an Indian restaurant empire in Cincinnati with the opening of Akash in 1997 in downtown, and my neighborhood go-to – Baba India in Oakley in 2004 – who I think makes the best halwa from the Ohio River to I-70 in Dayton – and I’m a halwa snob.

The Clifton Indian scene became very competitive. Amol India opened across the parking lot on Ludlow Avenue from Ambar in 1996, supposedly by feuding cousins of Jessi’s. And Jessi would import chefs from India, get them set up, and the other restaurants would steel them away with more money. Just how competitive the Indian restaurant was shown In 2009 when Jessi Singh was shot in the head after closing Ambar by a supposed hitman hired by a competitor. He and his restaurants survived.

Sunjet Singh opened Anaud India in Evendale in 1995, Amar India in Centerville, and Raj India in Mason.

Dusmesh India, at the foot of Ludlow near Cincinnati State, was opened by Majabir Singh, who also opened Swami in North College Hill. And because Indian proved to be successful on the West Side, Majabir’s nephew Josh Singh opened Maya West in Price Hill recently.

When I saw all the Singh last names of the owners, I naturally thought they were all related. But, as it turns out, Singh is a sikh religious name that believers take after their sort of baptism into the religion. Some keep their caste or true last name and use it as a middle name, and some discard it altogether.

One of my goto new ‘Indian’ restaurants is called Bridges Nepali on Hamilton Avenue in Northside. Nepal is actually a small nation on the northeast border of India, next to Tibet. Bridges is kind of a chipotle concept where you choose your starch, your protein and your toppings in a bowl. They also make a fabulous spicy vegetable side which they call ‘mixed salad’ for us gringos and awesome dumplings and samosas. Hakku Chuala, a spiced chicken, is my standard protein choice at Bridges.

Whatever your fave local Indian dish or restaurant, we can thank the original three Patels who brought Khyber to Cincinnati, along with the punk rock invasion.

Vine to Table – Catawba Catsup and other Grape Recipes from a Cincy Vinedressing family

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Ever heard of Catawba Catsup for your burger?   Or ever heard of Concord Grape Pie?   These are all leftovers from Cincinnati’s Catawba Craze, which  lasted from the 1830s to the 1860s. This was the era when numerous German immigrants grew catawba grapes that fed into Nicholas Longworth’s wine industry. Some made their own wine, rather than selling the grape juice to Longworth.

One German immigrant wine enclave that was not part of Longworth’s German tenant system, was the community called South Bend or Trautman along what is now River Road. The largest wine grower there was Charles Schumann. Charles was born in Bayreuth, Germany, into the Lutheran faith, but was a member of the Freemasons in Germany, and was what was considered a Freethinker. He came to Cincinnati in 1841 with his wife and oldest son Emil and bought land on the Ohio River. His vineyards stretched close to 100 acres on the hills below Mt St Joseph and the Sisters of Charity. Other growers were the Trautman family, after whom the community would be named after the Schumanns left for Saginaw, Michigan in the 1870s.  Still others were Max Wocher, to whom the Schumanns sold land, and one of his workers Ignatz Benz, and Michael Germann. Oddly enough, Michael Germann’s mothers maiden name was Hopfenstock, which means hop vine in English, the ingredient used to preserve and flavor beer!

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Charles Schumann Jr., son of Charles Schumann.  He helped tend the family vineyards and his wife made the family Catawba recipes.  Note the grapevines on the fake wall Charles is leaning upon.

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Schumann was the first Cincinnati wine grower to write a book, which he did in 1845 on methods of vine dressing.   It was groundbreaking and referred to many decades by other winemakers in Cincinnati and beyond.

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While Schumann and his neighbors all grew Catawba, Schumann experimented with making unfermented ‘wine’ – sort of a catawba version of the California wine called Angelica, made by the Franciscan missionaries and considered the first American wine. The angelica is still made today, with the Mission grape, a European grape brought to the area by the Spanish Franciscan missionaries and used for altar wine, as it still is today. Some don’t consider Angelia a wine because it is fortified with Brandy and usually unfermented, creating a super sweet wine that is largely considered a dessert wine. An unfounded legend in the Bens family is that Angelica wine is named for his wife Angelica Jonas Bens, but this is probably unlikely. These growers would have sold their altar wine into the Catholic community through a downtown dealer, Fred Stretter, an immigrant from Oefflingen, Baden Wuertemmburg, who was approved by Archbishop Purcell as the only dealer of church wines to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, and provided an income for winemakers throughout prohibition. Stretter was kind of the George Remus of Catawba altar wine in Cincinnati. His wine distribution system started in 1852 continued through his descendants until after Prohibition. Because he supplied native catawba wines to the Archdiocese, to this day the California and other altar wine suppliers had to make catawba wines for the Cincinnati and southwest ohio market.

Louise Schumann as a girl (left) with brother, and later in life.

Several grape recipes were passed down many generations in the Schumann family and survive in a family history in the collection of the Delhi Historical Society. Most of the recipes survived through the recipe book of Louise Schumann, the youngest spinster daughter of Charles Schumann. The recipes would have been made first by Charles wife Mathilde and also by Louise for relatives who came to the original two story frame homestead, which was torn down in 1907.

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The original Schumann homestead on River Road, torn down in 1907, where many of the Catawba recipes were made and devoured.

To diversify their income, many German wine growers also grew other fruit. So it is no surprise that a recipe for Meatless Mincemeat survives in the Schumann recipe book. It calls for one pound of (catawba) raisins, 1 pound currants, ½ pound lemon peel, 1 pound sugar, 4 pounds apples, and spiced with nutmeg cinnamon. The recipe says to chop the fruit fine, mix with a half pound of butter and , put in jars, and it will keep a year without cooking. One can imagine the Schumann’s taking this out periodically to make large pies, hand pies, and to top their pfannkuckan (pancakes) or biscuits.

Another recipe is just a “cake” made with shortening, sugar, eggs milk, flour 1 cup grape or blackberry juice, cinnamon, nutmeg and baking powder.

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This feeds into the popularity of grape confections others made in Cincinnati’s West Side at the time and later. There was a long standing and popular Concord grape pie made by Habig’s restaurant in Westwood. Our local pie maker Simon Hubig (who would move to New Orleans and become famous there) made an Ives Seedling Grape Pie here in Cincinnati, when his bakery was in Price Hill.

One recipe that survived through Charles’ great grandson Arthur Schumann is Catawba Catsup – which is spiced with cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and black pepper. The recipe says to boil the grapes until soft, then strain through a food mill, add sugar and vinegar and boil a second time until thick, and then add the spices and boil again for fifteen minutes. Arthur says It is good, “highly spiced and great on hamburgers.” With a couple of mods, this Catawba Catsup could probably be made into a great Catawba BBQ sauce to enter into Our Lady of Victory’s Holy Smokes competition.

 

 

 

Our Lady of Victory Should be Called Our Lady of the Catawba Grapes

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One of the oldest German Catholic parishes in Cincinnati is Our Lady of Victory in Delhi, on the West Side. The parish was officially founded in 1842 by a group of Germanic immigrants, mostly from the Rhine area who had been meeting together as early as the mid 1830s. They were tired of carting themselves down the bumpy Western Hills into the basin of downtown Cincinnati to go to the closest Church on Sundays. They also wanted to hear the homily in their native tongue and have a bit more control of their parish like they did in Germany. The land for the second church was donated by John Gertison, a vintner and immigrant from a wine village near Freiburg called Merdigen. His family had owned a vineyard there, but he sold his share to come to the U.S. for a better life.

Inside the original Our Lady of Victory church built on land donated by winemaker John Gertison and painted in the 1930s by Gerhard Lammers, a German immigrant from goetta country.   The Church was demolished in the 1970s.

The original Germans of Delhi called her “Maria zum Siege”, but she really should be called the Maria of the Catawba Grapes. This is because of the number of German immigrant wine growers in Delhi who were founding and early members of the parish. The carved wooden statue at the church shows Mary holding a young Christ child standing over the globe blessing the world. They might want to add some grape bunches on her or the Christ Child’s outstretched hands or perhaps a silver wine chalice, which some of her parishioners won from the Longworth Wine House for their wine and grapes.

Although local history gushes about Longworth’s vineyards in Mt. Adams and Tusculum, it is the West Side – Delhi, Warswaw, Cheviot, Riverside, Sedamsville and even Price Hill – that produced the most vintners, grapes, wine and awards during Cincinnati’s Catawba Craze of the 1830s-1860s.    And, it was Longworth’s Bold Face Creek vineyard in Delhi that started his experiments with wine growing, using the Cape grape from the Swiss settlement at Vevay Indiana.  In the case of Cincinnati native wines, the West Side WAS the best side.

Our Lady of Victory was christened as an image by Pope Pius V after the Catholic naval forces won a victory over the Ottoman Muslim Turks at Lepato on October 7, 1571. Knowing that the Christian forces were at a distinct disadvantage, St. Pope Pius V called for all of Europe to pray the Rosary for victory. The victory was decisive and prevented the Islamic invasion of Europe, and for many evidenced the Hand of God working through Our Lady.

Unfortunately Maria zum Siege didn’t win the battle over rot, mildew and pests that caused the decimation of Cincinnati’s Catawba vineyards in the 1860s, but she did offer a good start for many of the Germanic immigrants who used their farms to grow veggies like cabbage for their kraut,  and flowers after grapes were not viable.

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Der Deutscher Gartner Unterstutzungs Verein – the German Gardener’s Beneficial Society – like an early insurance company for former grape growers – at the German Heritage Museum.

Sebastian Rentz one of the most successful German vintners of Delhi, was a member. He built a large 17 room frame house on what is now Rentz Place in 1847. His farm abutted the mass acreage of Longworth’s Bold Face Creek Vineyards which now encompasses Embschoff Woods. Longworth started his experiments there with the Cape grape from the Swiss immigrants at Vevay, Indiana, before he found the mighty Catawba. Longworth also complimented Rentz’ grapes and awarded him the silver cup for his wine in 1846, a year he produced and astounding never since broken record of 1300 gallons for two acres. Rentz was the only German wine grower in Cincinnati who had a grape he cultivated named for him that was used widely – called the Rentz Seedling Grape.

Lawrence Baermann had come from Merdigen also, with his father Johann, and five other siblings, one of whom was my fifth great grannie, Anna Baermann Brosey.    Their farm was at the end of what is now Palisades Drive. Lawrence Baermann’s daughter Louise married Sebastian Rentz’s son Sebastian Jr., and his brother George married John Gertison’s daughter .   There were lots of intermarriages amongst the vine dressing families.    Their family’s winery, Weingut Baermann is still operating over 200 years later in Merdigen – a short bike ride from the city of Freiburg.

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The wine from today’s Baermann Winery in Merdigen that would be closest to the Catawba wines the OLV parishioners would have made.

Protus Heckinger (1806-1880) was another immigrant from wine country who made his way to the hillsides of Delhi around Bald Face Creek. He was born in Amoltern, a wine growing village northwest of Freiburg in the Kaiserstuhl region of Baden Wuertemburg. His parents Joseph and Clara Weinmann Heckinger baptized him in the parish of St. Vitus Catholic Church. He came to Cincinnati early for the wave of Germanic immigrants and married Abigail Lord in June of 1828. Like other poor immigrant farmers, he had a secondary occupation as a shoemaker, which he practiced in downtown on 9th Street in the 1830s until he moved the family to Delhi. By 1842 he was raising grapes on a 2 acre vineyard in Delhi right next to Longworth’s first vineyard. He must have been a skilled vinedresser because he was praised by Nicholas Longworth who said in September of 1842,

“There are some vineyards in the county that produced more abundant crop on the same quality of ground, as Mr. Mottier. Mr. Hackenger had the finest crop I have ever seen.”

In 1846 Hackenger sold 400 gallons of a total of 1000 gallons of juice he produced 1 ¾ acres of vines to Longworth for $500. That left quite an amount of juice to make wine for his family and friends. Hackenger and his wife Abigail Lord had 11 children, baptized at our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, a large army of free vineyard workers. His sons must not have liked the farm life, because by the time of his death in 1880, only a daughter Sarah Jane was living with them on the farm. His sons all had moved away or were working jobs in downtown Cincinnati.

Stephan Tuchfarber (1822-1906) was one of the immigrants sold by the ads Nicholas Longworth placed in German wine country for tenant farmers to work his vineyards. He purchased a lease from Longworth for tract of land two miles west of Sedamsville in Delhi. He cleared the sunny hillside and planted a vineyard. He and his wife Apollonia Rubein were married at the St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, but belonged to and are buried at Our Lady of Victory in Delhi. They honored their sponsor by naming their last son John Nicholas in 1865.

Ignatz Witterstaetter (1781-1849), came to the United States in 1832, with his wife, Mary Elizabeth, and at least two children, Ignatius Jr. and Mary Ann. They came from Achern, Ortenaukreis, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, which is due north of Freiburg, and 10 miles southeast of Baden-Baden. They were living on their Delhi farm by 1837, as they appear as members Our Lady of Victory that year. They lived on 22 acres at the corner of Pedretti and Foley Roads. The elder Ignatz, died in the 1849 his wife, Elizabeth around 1857. Their son Ignaz Jr, born in 1822, married Louise Kupferle and built the first greenhouse in Cincinnati. In 1869 he is listed as wine and fruit grower in Riverside. His Grandson, Richard Witterstetter started the R. C. Witterstetter & Sons Nursery and became known as the Carnation King.

Today the parishioners are more meat smokers than wine makers. In August 2016, the parish hosted the first annual Holy Smokes Barbecue Competition, an event sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Each year they have a comical biblical motto. Last year’s motto was from the beatitudes, “Blessed are those that smoke the meats, for they shall inherit the girth.” Maybe I should enter this year’s competition on August 7 & 8, with a Catawba Wine Sweet BBQ sauce.

Hachee – Why Cincinnati Germans Bought into the Threeway

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Growing up there was a family dish my mom made during the Fall and Winter months – something we just called beef noodles. It was cubed beef stew cooked tender in a pressure cooker served atop squiggly egg noodles. The egg noodles package always had a smiling cartooney Amish guy on them with a broad brimmed hat and moustache-less beard, as they were a product of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The commercial egg noodle, in my opinion, is the worst Americanization of the spaetzle noodle.

Beef noodles was a no frills but hearty and comforting meal for a cold winter night. The stew had sort of a tangy flavor, bordering on sauerbraten. And the beef, having been pressure cooked super-tender, turned into more of a pulled beef stew. Although we didn’t top it with any sort of cheese (ours was just beef-mac) you certainly could, and then you could call it a German Threeway or a Sauerbraten Threeway.

It’s an interesting partial answer to the question – how did a mostly Germanic city embrace the flavor of a Balkan stew (Cincinnati Chili) and elevate the Threeway as an official dish of the city?

What I didn’t know is that what we called beef noodles is based on the north German or Dutch dish hachee, which has its origins in the French hacher, meaning to chop. Hachee is also a beef stew that has been around since the middle ages, and designed, much like goetta, as a peasant dish to use up old or off cuts of meat. That’s why it has sort of the vinegary sauerbraten flavor, designed to tenderize tough meat. Less expensive vegetables like onions were used in generous amounts. And, it was typically served over mashed potatoes, not American egg noodles.

The Dutch version is still very popular today and can even be found ready made in grocery stores. It’s considered a southern Dutch comfort food and is from the poorer Catholic provinces of Brabant, Limburg and even Gelderland. This version, like their goetta cousin Balkenbrij, features a variety of Dutch spice combinations like cloves, juniper berries, black peppercorns and bay leaves. The Dutch also like to serve it over mashed potatoes with a side of sweet braised red cabbage with apples.

So, the answer to the question of Germanic Cincinnatians embracing the Greek threeway was that they could relate through their comfort food dish, hachee, that many Northern Germanic immigrants from Westphalia, Saxony, and Hanover, brought over with them. And the threeway, with its fine ground meat was easier to eat than hachee, and with a mound of shredded cheddar cheese, who could resist? And the rest, is Cincinnati Chili history.

Chinese Food Early 80s Style

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One of the earliest shared memories I have with my brother and sister is of a Chinese restaurant we went to quite often as a young family. Not even my parents remember the name of the place, but surely it was something like Golden Dragon, Golden Moon, or Golden Sunset. It was hidden in a small strip mall on Colerain Avenue near Northgate just off of Interstate 275.

For my family, eating there was stepping into a fantastical new world. It was nothing like Frisch’s, Scoreburger, or Skyline, or the other small handful of restaurants available to us in early 1980s northwest Cincinnati. It was decorated with oversized Chinese lanterns, jade dragons and cloisonne ceramics that looked like they could have been in any Quing Dynasty palace. The tables were dressed in stiff white linen tablecloths and set with engraved bone chopsticks, which of course we didn’t know how to use. A stern Chinese woman in a high collar jacket took our order and made no small talk. It was reminiscent of the scene from A Christmas Story when they ate their Christmas dinner at the formal Chinese restaurant. And like that movie, it seemed like we were always the only family in the entire restaurant.

The food was presented dramatically in metal cloches and revealed by the servers. This was the early 80s, before the days of the fast food Chinese take out places that are now everywhere. We would order several different dishes and share them amongst the five of us. That’s probably why to this day I will stab into someone’s plate unannounced when dining with friends or coworkers.

We can thank Cantonese immigrant Wong Yie for making Chinese food in Greater Cincinnati a formal affair. He took the seedy Chop Suey house atmosphere from the back alley to the main business district with the opening of his restaurant in 1922. And he validated Chinese food as a legit category for the largely Germanic or at least European Cincinnati public, paving the way for hundreds of local Chinese restaurants.

Having just seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the theatre, my weird pre-teen mind was sure one of those cloche-lifts would reveal a dish of chilled monkey brains as in the movie. But ours revealed the standard chow mein, egg foo young (which was me and my brother’s fave), and chop suey of an 80s Cincinnati Cantonese restaurant.
If we were lucky, we’d get the hilarious Pupu platter served on a metal lazy Susan with a variety of Chinese finger foods like egg rolls, skewered beef, and something new called crab Rangoon that we all immediately loved. La Choy, our go-to frozen Chinese appetizer brand did not yet offer the Rangoon. But that was a rare treat and usually only in celebration of someone’s birthday.

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What we didn’t know was that the Pupu platter was not really Chinese, but Hawaiian and first served by Don the Beachcomber in 1934 at his Hollywood, California, Polynesian themed restaurant . It was adapted to American Chinese restaurants in 1969 and quickly became more associated with Chinese food than Polynesian. In the Hawaiian language, the word pu-pu denotes something like relish, appetizer, hors d’oeuvre, or canape. So, in a sense it was like the free relish tray of rye bread and pickled herring we were accustomed to getting at Schuller’s Wigwam in College Hill, but from the opposite end of the world.

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What we also didn’t know was that the Rangoon that we loved was neither Chinese nor Asian at all, but an American dish invented in the 1950s by Victor Bergeron at his Polynesian-style restaurant Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. Victor claimed the appetizer was based on an authentic Burmese recipe of which Rangoon (now Yangon) is the capital city. But cream cheese was not something readily available to the Burmese, so that story is a bit hard to swallow. But no foul there – in Cincinnati we also have a knack for naming food items after something that they’re not. Examples are the cottage ham (not a ham, but pork shoulder) and city chicken (not chicken, but cubed pork).
The place was strange and elegant and something that we all loved equally and shared together for several years. It put us all on the same level – it was as exotic to my parents as it was to us kids and provided an interesting atmosphere to connect as a family. Little did my parents know that their two young sons would both later travel extensively with their careers in Asia and to Polynesia, and become super-adept at using chopsticks, or that their grandchildren would come to love sushi, or that Mandarin would become a language option in Cincinnati high schools. To us the now forgotten named Chinese restaurant was a place to take us outside of our normal routine and just enjoy a fun family meal.

Fiona’s Hippo Birthday Cake

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Fiona turns 3 years old today and the Zoo will throw her a birthday party. Her premature birth from mother Bibi had the whole world rooting for her development. Depending on the weather, it may be an inside birthday party for the girl that has become the world’s most famous hippo. She has her own beer (Listerman’s Team Fiona American IPA) , ice cream (Graeter’s Chunky Chunky Hippo – toffee ice cream with peanuts and chocolate chunks), T-Shirts and a whole lot of merchandise.   Thank God Jeff Ruby hasn’t created a hippo steak in her honor.

Some of these items have raised money for Children’s Hospital and other organizations. There have been songs written for her (to the tune of My Sharona), cookies made of her (Busken made Team Fiona cookies), she performed in our local production of the Nutcracker, and I saw one Christmas nativity that had her in the herd of sheep. She doesn’t have her own peanut butter like Jumbo the elephant did, or a bar named after her like Tillie, the elephant who wintered and is buried in Mariemont, and performed with the Robinson Circus when they came through Northside in the early part of the 1900s. But did either of them have a baby onesie with their image on it? No way.

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So what kind of birthday ‘cake’ do you make for a hippo? What do hippos even eat? Well the zoo is preparing a layered ‘cake’ consisting of bamboo, Timothy hay, squash, beets and berries all frozen together. Timothy hay is similar to alfalfa, the same type of food rabbits and guinea pigs eat. So Fiona’s cake is more like a 70s savory jello salad than a birthday cake. It will be served on a bed of Fiona’s favorite food – romaine lettuce. So she might just push the ‘cake’ aside and chow on the lettuce. She’s definitely a salad girl and a vegan. She’s also gluten free and there will be no eggs in her cake. Fiona also eats a cooked grain mash – we can maybe call it vegan goetta – and she prefers it mushy to al dente. Maybe Cincinnati should take heed and use this as an opportunity to promote a healthy lifestyle like Fiona has – rather than making another cookie or ice cream in her honor.