Crispy Fish Skin – 2021’s New Cracklin’ Snack

Saveur Magazine just listed them as one of the Top 100 Food Trends of 2020.   They’re the # 1 Snack in Singapore.    Paul Newman Brands make them as American dog treats.   They’re umami bombastic, keto approved, and quickly becoming the new pork cracklin’ replacement of 2021.   They’re crispy fish skin crisps.   They’re to Malaysians what gas stop Taquis are to Latin Americans – delicious and addicting.     Is it so weird that a throwaway part has become a beloved snack?   Not really.  What about pickled pigs feet, or fried chicken livers.   Last year we saw the super keto muscle community embrace crispy chicken skin as the new keto  ‘bread crumbs’.

On my first flight many years ago on Air Nippon I was happy to get a large snack bag during the flight of what looked like a Japanese version of chex mix.   I remember tasting the first few bites thinking hmm these are good – crunchy a bit more umanmi flavor and then – crunch – I got a super salty-super fishy bite of an unexpected something.  Even though I couldn’t read the kanji characters on the bag, closer examination of the photo on the outside of the bag revealed sure enough, small little dried whole fish with the beady eyes looking back at me.  I was duped. Why would anyone think to throw little dried fishy-ass minnows in an otherwise delightfully crunchy snack?    Well, that’s the Asian palate for you.   Enter chYum foods, a San Francisco based snack company on a mission to spread the goodness of fried fish skins to the snack-loving American consumer.  I think they have a long marketing hill to climb to convert what’s now considered a dog snack to a convenience store craving, but let’s see how it plays out.

The most popular Singaporan brand  – Golden Duck –  uses the skin of the Dory fish for their crispy fish skin snacks.   No, it’s not the Ellen-voiced character in Disney’s Finding Nemo.   It’s the super fishy fish popular in Europe and the South Pacific.   Golden Duck has two flavors – salted egg yolk sauce and spicy Szechuan hot pot.

chYum based their product on the Golden Duck salted egg yolk sauce flavor.  It reminded them of a favorite Korean side dish, Myulchi bokkeum, and there’s a very common Filipino side dish  that also has salted duck egg, diced tomatoes, onions and vinegar (it’s kind of a salsa) that pairs with fried fish or other fried dishes.

chYum Co-Founders Kimberly Adolfo, Clarence Cheuk and Sam Liu have spent over a year researching and developing a select blend of seasonings and spices to create the best gourmet version of the salted egg fish chip snack. And for the U.S. market, that also means being MSG and gluten-free to cater to the healthy crowd. 

Something chYum like to point out is that even though they’re not a “healthy snack,” there are benefits to eating fish skins. They are nutrient and collagen packed, high in protein, and a great source of omega-3s. So in a sense the snack could be considered “healthi-ER”.

Cod and salmon skin are commonly used.  But other fish skins have been used for the snack and as adders to other Asian dishes.  In the region of Shunde, Guangdong, grass carp skin is an essential ingredient in a salad with sliced carrot, cucumber, turnip, ginger and coriander. It is dressed with a sauce of Chinese white liquor, Chinese mustard, soy sauce, oyster sauce, black vinegar, sesame and hot oil. This local specialty is famous for the skin’s crunchiness and complete absence of fishy taste.

chYum also recommend adding the crisps to chicken noodle soup for an umami burst.    A trip to CAM Asian market this week was unsuccessful in finding the Singaporan fish crisps – but I did see that dried squid and prawn snacks are super popular in Japan and readily available.   A trip to the Asian sections of Jungle Jim’s is in order this weekend.

Smilin’ Fritz, the Front to Cincinnati’s Only German Pizza Chain

A Germantown Pizza Hoagie with a side of crinkle fries was my Friday fall dinner during high school in the late ‘80s.    We’d walk the block along Vine street from school to restaurant in St. Bernard and  kill time eating and playing pool  before marching down Vine Street to Roger Bacon Stadium to play the fight song and perform a very entertaining half time show.    I don’t remember much about the pizza, but I never thought it was odd that we were actually eating what was branded “German” pizza.    As a Cincinnatian of deep Germanic heritage, it just made sense.    But, if they were really going to go all German with pizza, the founders really should have called it flammkuchen – after all – it was a rye flour-based  dough.     Today one can get the area’s best thin crusted rye sourdough flammkuchen at Tuba Baking in Covington, Kentucky.

Germantown Pizza started as VIPizza in 1970 by Don and Bill Scheuler, two brothers of Germanic heritage from Price Hill who owned Schueler’s Restaurant Inc., which included Smorgasboards, catering, VIPizza and Fun Foods, in Cincinnati.     Their first Germantown Pizza was the St. Bernard location I frequented in high school, which opened in 1973.    By 1975 they had already franchised 11 locations.  But in 1976 they amped up their franchising, with a new look, a new logo, and a mission to have 30 franchise locations by the end of the year in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington, and southwest Ohio.

Their campaign included the slogan, “The Pizza with the Crazy Name, People are Crazy about.”   And their franchise campaign started, “Funny Name for a Zinzinnati Pizza?  Not really.   You don’t have to be Italian or German to own one of the fastest growing pizza chains in Greater Cincinnati.”

In addition to St. Bernard, there was a location on West Galbraith Road in North College Hill across from the Budna, owned by Kathy and Emerson Woods.   Harold Thomas and his daughter Cindy owned the large 52 seat location in Blue Ash on Cooper Road.    Bob and Bea Metz owned the Mt. Washington pizzeria.  The owner of the Northside location at 4144 Hamilton Avenue, John Falcone, also ran the Northside Boxing club across the street – Like Buddy LaRosa, who funded the Findlay Street and Emmanuel Community Center Boxing Clubs.    Most of the early Cincinnati locations were designed to look like German beer stubes, with stucco walls, rough brick and dark wood cross beams.   They had Reuben sandwiches and Fritz Salads, along with standard pizza fare, hoagies, chicken, shrimp, and fish and chips.     The pizza sauce was brown and sweet – more similar to Pasquale’s sauce than LaRosa’s sauce, and if you ordered onions, they would be circle cut and a bit crunchy.

New franchise restaurants would include a beer stube, an outdoor beer garden, and some would even include a line of German foods, along with the standard American pizza fare.    They developed a mascot they named Smilin’ Fritz, although his furrowed dark eyebrows made him look more sinister than ‘gemutlichkeit.’    Fritz had a crewcut and a thick Prussian curly handlebar moustache like Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm, a checkered shirt and tie in a tight red hip vest and apron, and ankle boots.   He carried a pizza in his left hand and a foamy overflowing beer stein in his right – the archetype of a stern and stout Prussian Pizza Proprietor, if there was such a thing.    The Covington location, opened by Ralph Osborne in 1976, had a Fritz’s Favorite Topper pizza with sauerkraut, sausage and provolone cheese.

That same year, their partner and pizza dough specialist, Walter Potter invented Cincinnati’s first German pizza, which they called the “Deutsch Schussel.”   It was a deep dish crust described as a French gourmet puff pastry, which could be filled with a variety of ingredients including German sausage.   Potter’s rye based pizza crust was unique to the commercial pizza industry.    His rye buns for the hoagies were also unique for Cincinnati pizza hoagies.

The Sweet Sicilian Ancestry of Cincinnati’s Beloved Zinover

A cross section of the Zinover, a delicious gooey Corryville concoction.

No other Cincinnati dish defines my coming of age story more than the Zinover.    Zino’s Firehouse in the 1872-built Ladder Company 19 in Corryville was where I went with friends in high school to eat before school homecoming dances.    It was where we went after going to Scentiments Rock City on Short Vine to listen to the latest alternative music record or buy a Smith’s T Shirt, or after a long sweaty night at a 97X radio sponsored dance party at Bogarts.   My first apartment was in one of the run-down old houses on Glendora around the corner from Zino’s.     My second apartment on Jefferson was only a few more blocks away.   And that deep-fried ooey-goeey pepperoni pizza concoction held center stage to all of it.

A group dinner at Zino’s Corryville, ca. 1989.

The Zinover is simple, and was probably the most simple dish on Zino’s international menu.   It’s basically a deep fried calzone filled with mozzarella, provolone, marinara sauce and pepperoni.   Many called it the Italian eggroll because it was deep fried and tubular rather than crescent shaped and baked like the calzone.    It was dippable, sharable, and inexpensive –  three things that fit well into my small high school and college aged wallet.   And it was a delicious treat– dusted in herbed parmesan – a constant delight to my adventures on Short Vine, Clifton and Corryville.

In a July 2014 podcast on American Dreamers, John Humphrey III, son of the owners of Zino’s Firehouse, revealed the origin story of the Zinover.  He said, “Mom and Dad went to Italy for their honeymoon in 1966.   Wherever they were in Italy, they had a breakfast item of deep fried dough with a light, sweet cheese as a pastry and Mom (Joan MacVicar Humphrey) said, ‘Why don’t we do this in Cincy.  We can put marinara, mozz, provolone, in a dough with pepperoni.’”  They experimented with it in 66 or 67 when they returned and it became a standard popular item.    The Zinover became so popular they made mini ones to serve at the Taste of Cincinnati in the 80s and 90s, and it was reincarnated three times since Zino’s closing.

The Grandmother of the Zinover – the Sicilian cassatelle.

That sweet cheese filled pastry that Joan Humphrey had in Italy was the cassatelle or casateddi, a Sicilian sweet dough enriched with white wine or Marsala, filled with a slightly sweetened local sheep’s milk ricotta , sometimes flavored with lemon , sometimes with chocolate drops.   You might think of it as the Sicilian cannoli or the sweet version of ravioli pasta.   It’s deep fried golden brown and sprinkled with powdered sugar and served warm.   Cassatelle originated in the Sicilian province of Trapani, where they are still prepared for the Carnivale season and during the months leading up to Easter when the local sheep’s milk ricotta is at its best.   Apart from the classic, different varieties appear across Sicily, including cassatelle Agira, filled with cocoa and almond filling (kind of like a Nutella), and others filled with pumpkins, figs, or chickpeas.

Zino’s story didn’t start with John and Joan Humphrey.    The origin story of Zino’s is pretty cool.   It starts in Norwood, Ohio, in 1952, two years before the Big Two Pizza Companies – Pasquale’s and LaRosa’s started stretching dough.   It was on the corner of Montgomery and Hopkins where two former GE engineers , Albert Cuzzone and Vinnie Marino sold their pizzas.     They had come from Massacheusetts, both of third generation Sicilian immigrant families – the area of origin of the Grandmother of the Zinover – the cassatelle.      They were familiar with the commercial pizzerias of the East Coast – the successful ones Buddy LaRosa saw upon return from his tour of duty in World War II that motivated him to start Papa Gino’s, which later became the 347-1111 guys.

This new Italian pizza pie was so new that commercial ingredients were hard to come by in Cincinnati.   Owners of Capri Pizza and Buddy LaRosa used to buy provolone cheese from Zino’s because they bought it in long tubes from an Italian wholesaler.    Cuzzone was partial to anchovies on his pizzas.   And they used spicy Circle U Pepperoni from the Black Angus meat market in Swifton Commons.   Cincinnati Enquirer food writer Cliff Radel in 1974 noted it was the spiciest pepperoni used among the top 7 Cincinnati pizza makers he reviewed.

Another Zino’s pizza was opened on Ludlow avenue in Clifton a few doors up from Adrian Durban Florists, next to Connor’s Drug Store.     They closed its doors in 1961.      Cuzzone and Marino then sold to Al and Josie Richards, but Al Cuzzone bought it back with the help of John Humphrey Sr., and his father, who was chairman of the board of Phillip Cary Company.    Al Cuzzone and John Humphrey Sr. had met each other while working for Kroger.

They weren’t fans of a delivery service,  but used Cushman Scooters with pizza ovens in the back which they called Zino’s Pony Express.   They were always having issues with accidents in the scooters, so they turned to modified Ford Mustangs from a young John Nolan Ford.    John Humprhey Sr., the later owner, operated one of the Zino’s Pony Express routes serving employees of the stockyards along Spring Grove Avenue.

Cuzzone and Humphrey bought a restaurant in an old house on Edwards Avenue for their first restaurant concept.   It was in the space that would later become Beluga restaurant, the restaurant that would define my early post college years on the East Side.   Cuzzone sold out in about 1969 in disagreement with John over their menu.   Cuzzone wanted to keep their traditional Italian menu items like mostaccioli, homemade meatballs and spaghetti and pizza, but Humphrey wanted to go more European with their menu items.

Two Edwards Road Zino’s waitresses immortalized in the wall mural at Arthur’s with the spicy Circle U pepperoni pizza

And Humphrey did turn Zino’s into an international restaurant.  In 1969 Humphreys bought the old Corryville firehouse and turned it into the second restaurant in 1970, preserving one of the oldest Cincinnati firehouses.     He hired Baker George Endrees and they made their own bread and pastries, supplying many Cincy restaurants including La Normandie and the Maisonette.    He hired soup Chef Bob Cunningham and assistant Lou Smith, who made a long list of homemade soups like  Jim Cranks Bell County bean with ham hocks, chili bean minestrone, zucchini bisque Hermann, curried eggplant, braised oxtail, mock turtle, Philadelphia pepper pot, Cuban black bean, cheddar cheese with beer, cream of cabbage, and cream of mushroom.   Their most popular soups were their French Onion and Hungarian Chicken soup.   Zino’s also became known for their comfy Hot Brown and their seven layer salad.    In 1982 the Humphreys opened a third Café Zino in Kenwood Plaza, when Kenwood Mall was just a strip mall with no food.

The Zino’s ad that immortalizes the Zinover in cartoon on the edge of the Sicilian table.

Sadly, Zino’s closed in 1995, the year I graduated with my own engineering degree, like its Sicilian founders.    The Zinover is so beloved that it has been reborn three more times.      A recent attempt at filling the old Corryville space as Ladder Company 19 brought back the Zinover for a bit.    Then in 2003, two female friends who had craved the Zinover during their pregnancy opened a Zino’s for a bit in Covington.  Then in 2015, John and Joan Humphrey’s son, John III, started a Go Fund Me attempt to bring the Zinover back via a food truck that never really materialized.    I’d still like to see the Zinover come back to life, but the memories surrounding it of my late teens and early twenties make it one of my most beloved Cincinnati foods.

John Humprhey III showing the step-by-step assembling of a Zinover.

Schug is My New Favorite Condiment of 2021

Schug – my new favorite condiment of 2021.

I am a big dipper.    I simply must have a good dippin sauce.   In my world there are no such things as a plain burger or naked goetta or dry barbecue.   And, no little thimble of a honey mustard packet from McDonald’s or extra-charged packet of Cain’s sauce from Raising Cane’s will do.   ( I spent the New Year diatribing to my boss the evils of how his favorite chicken finger lunch haunt charges 50 cents extra after the first complimentary sauce, which incenses me! )  The packet-to-nugget ratio should always be greater than 1:1.  I was always the one getting the slanty eye from relatives with the size of my dip portion at a holiday party.   Uncle Fuzz famously told me as a kid, “maybe you should leave some for the rest of us!”    A cracker or crudite is just a vehicle for a delicious dip or condiment.   

So, I obsess on a particular condiment for the year.     Or I should be specific – I obsess on a condiment -which I define is a homogenous pureed or strained liquid  – and then one salsa-or-chutney-like topper – a non-homogenous, chunky, fluid sauce.    The easy thing about a condiment is, like Oprah you can carry it around in your fanny pack to be added to any food at any place you go to eat.      It’s harder to cart around a chunky salsa – and there’s the shelf stability issue with chunky toppers.

Anyway, for 2020 my obsessive condiments for the year were Pickapeppa (Hot Mango/Pepper) and Tiger Hot Sauces.      My obsessive salsa for the year was the unlimited family of Eastern European Eggplant salsas like Adjvar and The Pickled Pig’s Bakla Jan – which I couldn’t get enough of last year.      While both of these will stay in my arsenal, I’ve found my new obsessive Hot Condiment of 2021 and it’s fab – Schug!

I had been passing the few jars of Schug for nearly 6 months after noticing it in the Kosher aisle at Remke Markets.  I had never heard of it, and always laughed when passing it, being reminded of the character of Sug’ in The Color Purple.    So, in December, I decided to take a leap and purchased a jar of Schug.     It was alluringly bright red – my favorite color for a condiment – and it wasn’t homogenous, it was more of a paste, but not fluid enough to be considered a salsa.       It’s also very healthy as it’s low carb, no sugar, and low-fat, non-oily.

So I mixed it with sugar-free ketchup and used as a dippin’ sauce for some baked sweet potato ‘fries’.     Wow – the result was a spicy Nirvana.      It has quite a hot kick that’s not initially intimidating but does sneak up on ya, being mostly hot pepper puree, with the spicy seeds included.     It’s significantly less oily than another fave of mine – Chinese hot chili oil, and not at all fishy like yet another fave of mine- Sriracha.   I couldn’t get enough.   I’ve since used it on spiral cut butternut squash ‘French fries”, tofu chicken strips, and yes, even steamed broccoli. It compliments almost anything you can imagine. Oh maybe a schug sauce pizza is in my future!

I remembered my Army Ranger childhood friend, Mike, talking about this super hot sauce he ate in Yemen while on a tour of duty and sure enough it was Schug.   But his experience was with green schug.    The fiery condiment originated in Yemen , named after the pestle used to grind the peppers to make it.    It was carried to Israel by Yemeni immigrants and now is served like ketchup alongside a plate of hummus, tahini and hard boiled eggs at every Israeli hummus café.     It’s usually made fresh, and in small quantities, because, like I found – a little goes a LONG way!    That’s how it made it to the Kosher aisle of my Remke market is it’s integration into Israeli food.    It’s spread throughout the Middle East, and I’d bet it can be found on table at one of the many Chili Houses (owned by the Daoud family of Gold Star) dotted throughout the countries of the  former Ottoman empire .  It’s the saucy cousin of the Turkish baharat spice blend, the backbone of Cincinnati Chili – and would taste very good underneath the cheddar layer of a Threeway.

And just like everything else, although there are standards, every family or commercial producer has its own variations.    The main ingredients tend to be hand-ground hot peppers, garlic, and coriander, with roasted cumin and cardamom, good olive oil and lemon juice added.

Apparently Sabra – the same company that makes the popular hummus brand – also makes both a red and green Schug, which I am going to seek out and try.     Time for a red and green schug roundup at Jungle Jim’s this weekend.

Ohio Regional Foods 2020 and This Food Etymologist’s New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year, Foodies, from the Food Etymologist!

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it –  this year was super-challenging for all in the food industry.    COVID-19 affected everything about how our food was made, transported and sold to us.   This administration’s farm policies negatively affected the profits of most farm-based industries in Ohio (despite the fact that many of the farm counties are the ones who made our state go Trump – which makes zero sense to me!) Many of us went back to our roots and cooked more than we have in our lives.   And many more of us packed on the COVID 20,  with our stay at home sedentary lockdowns this year.   I was reminded of how small my 1923-designed kitchen is and how much ‘island envy’ I have of my siblings and friends.   If I ever want my own cooking show, I’ll have to find a larger kitchen.

Being present with and talking on an intimate level with restaurant owners this year gave me an even greater respect for their entrepreneurialism, creativity, passion and grit to survive.  As a member of the club of over 34 million insulin resistant Americans, I explored baking and cooking with low glycemic affect sweeteners like erythritol, monk fruit,  and nut flours.    I found low carb collagen marshmallows, cauliflower wraps (yuck) and Jicama wraps from Trader Joe’s (super-yum).   I found sugar free chocolate and spiraled kohlrabi “French fries.”   I have been successfully practicing veganism since November, and am now on a vegan shake 10 day cleanse.

From a research standpoint, I found out some very interesting things.    Cincinnati Chili was called Mexican chili until it was coined Cincinnati Chili in the 1960s.    And, Empress might not have invented the threeway.    I found out how Atari ruined American pitted fruits.   I found out how Indian food made it to Cincinnati.   I learned how to make Catawba Grape Catsup, Italian Tri-Color cookies, quince jam, paw-paw bread, and zucchini vegan lasagna.    I explored savory fusion streudels with mushrooms, the Indian halwa carrot dessert,  and smoked artichokes.   I took a deep dive into Jewish cuisine, including the knish, the blintz, corned beef, and kosher wine, thanks to the fabulous Kosher section at my Remke Marketplace.

But some of the more interesting things I found out in research this year were  the plight of local farmers and the challenges regulations have put on them.   I found the challenges of vineyardists in Ohio and the plight of native grape growing.    I found out from an eggnog roundup the plight of Ohio dairy farmers.

So this  year, while still tracing regional American foods and their roots, I am also going to be focusing on the plight of Ohio Farms and what we as voting and activist citizens can do to help improve the quality of our foods by helping local responsible farmers.   I will also be (maybe offshooting) on the topic of low glycemic, low fat, low carb healthy eating and veganism.   

My food family trees have finally been getting noticed, culminating in a project with UC that I hope to expand this year.    I am super excited to have started writing with this year’s newest food magazine the Midwesterner – started by Jed Portman right here in Cincinnati.   I also started a video blog called Stammtisch about local Germanic food businesses as an online content builder for the German Heritage Museum, and plan to start being more present in video form this year.  I’ll of course use low lighting and fuzzy lensing to lesson the blow to the viewer.

Despite the challenges from this year in the food industry – it gave us a great pause how to move forward and lessons to learn from.   We MUST support our local farmers, restauranteurs, and small food entrepreneurs.   We MUST take a more active role in learning where our food comes from and how we can guarantee the survival of healthy foodways and logistics.    We MUST eat healthier and more responsibly and get out to enjoy the outdoors.    

So here’s to a happier, healthier, tastier, more loving, hug-filled, handshaken, kiss-on-the-lips 2021 – Cheers, Prost, Skal, Salud!! 

Beware of the Greek Krampus – Kallikantzaros – Before St. Basil Brings Your Gifts

The Greek Kallikantzaros, an evil Krampus-like hobgoblin who roams Greece, Turkey, Serbia, and Bulgaria during the twelve days of Christmas to terrorize children and adults alike.

The Christmas celebration of our Chili Pioneers was and still is very different from the Germanic European traditions that make up the American Christmas. For one, there is no Santa Claus. Even though St. Nicholas of Myrna, the same saint who spawned our Santa Claus, is the Patron Saint of Greece, he does not bring the gifts. It is St. Basil of Caessarea who brings Greek children their gifts on his feast day, which is January 1. Like St. Nick, St. Basil is the patron of children, and gave gifts to the poor – namely embedding coins in sweet cakes which are still given at New Year’s Day, called Vasilopita.

St. Basil, the Greek Santa Claus – brings gifts on January 1.
Vasilopita, St. Basil’s Cake, with a coin embedded.

Before then – during the 12 days of Christmas between Christmas Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany, Greeks are terrorized by little hobgoblins called Kallikantzeros. These little imps live underground and surface to play all sorts of evil tricks on Greeks. They are described as hairy beasts with long tails, horse legs, devil heads, and sharp teeth and claws. Since they are blind (they live underground) they come out at night and can come through the chimney or any other hole in your house. They will jump on your back if you go out at night and scratch, whip and torment you, especially if you are sneaking out to cheat on your spouse or partner. Typical ways to avoid them during the 12 days is to keep a yule log burning in your fireplace, put out a colander on your doorstep, or burn an old shoe in the fireplace.

An 1872 painting of Greek boy carolers.
Greek boy carolers carrying the Karavaki
Greek Christmas cookies given to carolers and enjoyed by families.

Another way of warding off these hairy Greek Krampuses is to go caroling. Typically this is done by young boys in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, and Epiphany. Greek boys carry triangles to play while singing, and carry a lit wooden boat, called the Karavaki. Before King Otto of Bavaria brought the Germanic Christmas tree tradition to Greece in 1833, a lit and decorated Karavaki in the house was the Greek Christmas symbol. Today, both the boat and the tree are decorated alongside each other. Greeks reward the boy carolers by placing Greek Christmas treats – kourabiedes, melamakorona, or baklava – in the boat they carry.

Finally, the end all to rid everyone of the Kallikantzeros is for the Greek local priest to bless the house with holy water, using a sprig of fresh basil, in January. Good riddance until next year!

Christmas in Cumminsville 1883 – The Turners and their Mighty Weihnachtsbaum

My Great Grandparents Theodore and Karolina Woellert, who were recently married and attended the 1883 Cumminsville Turner Christmas Party (grandpa and his brother Harry in center were not born yet)

I inherited the Christmas gene from my Grandfather, who in turn inherited it from his parents. I tend to be over-the-top in my decorations, some of which I inherited from Grandpa. They lived in Cumminsville and were members of the Germanic community, members of the Cumminsville Turnverein and the Apple Street German Evangelical Church. One of the coolest records of Christmas I have of them is two accounts of the 1883 Cumminsville Turner Christmas Party that my great grandparents, my great great uncle and aunt, and my great great grandparents attended. The first account is from the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the other is a translation from the German account by the Cincinnati Frei Presse. It gives me insight into why Grandpa loved Christmas. My father also recalls wonderful childhood Christmas parties at the Bund, a German club in North College Hill thrown by the Topnotchers Club, a club my grandpa belonged to. They had greasy Gordon’s potato chips, boxed hard candy, a visit from Santa and got to watch the March of the Wooden Toy Soldiers with Laurel and Hardy.

Great great grandparents, Theodore and Frieda Woellert, attendees of the 1883 Cumminsville Turner Christmas Party.

The Germans were not to be outdone with the magnificence of their Christmas tree or Weihnachtsbaum. The Enquirer said about it:

Perhaps the largest Christmas tree in the ward (25th) was the one erected at Turner Hall by the engergetic members of the ever popular Cumminsville Turn Verein. The tree reached to the ceiling, and in the way of fruit bore a great number of useful and valuable presents, amounting to over $200. The presents were donated by the friends of the association and were raffled off at ten cents a chance. Kegs of beer (most probably Bruckmann beer, as the founder was president of the Turnverein), boot jacks, bottles of wine and a large variety of gifts were hung upon and piled around the tree. Miss Annie Smith won a keg of beer and donated it to the society to be raffled again; winning it a second time she imagined that it was destined to be hers, and retained it. The imported Irish nightingale, donated by Mr. Fred Spaeth, of Poplar Grove, was quite a curiosity. A great deal of amusement was caused in the distribution, as for instance when a sedate German citizen or demure fraulein would be solemnly presented with a darky baby carved in china. The attendance was larger than for seven years previous, and was a notably quiet and orderly gathering, and ending with a grand ball. The net proceeds were $139. The Cumminsville Turnverein wish to give special credit to Misses Anna and Bertha Smith for their untiring industry in aiding to make the affair a success.

The German account offered more insight into the gifts and the raffle:

The elegant club hall of the (Cumminsville Turn) verein was decorated with flags, wreaths, Turner emblems, garlands, etc., yesterday for the celebration of Christmas Day. The Turners had come in full with their families and faces, especially those of the children shone with joy and wonderment. A mighty tree was emblazoned in the most colorful decorations and numerous gifts, such as albums (for Victorian scrapbooking), needles, wagons, harmonicas, knapsacks, dolls of every size, children’s toys of all sorts, picture and story books, cradles and more. When they gathered for the raffle, the interest waned and if a lot drew a hit, the jubilation would come to an end, mainly when, as luck would have it, an object fell to an owner, who, like a cradle for one bachelor, knew nothing of what to do with it. After the lottery, there was a frenzy of dancing, in which young and old participated, which did not come to an end until Aurora warned them to go home (ie. the sun came up).

Man how I would like to have seen images or photos of this party, but no sketches of the Christmas tree are included in either article. But one can certainly imagine the fun and merriment of that 1883 Turner Christmas Party.

American Christmas is Largely Scandinavian in 2020

What we should be leaving out for Santa this year – Scandinavian rice pudding

While many of our Christmas customs, like St. Nicholas, and the Christmas tree, are Germanic in origin, at least the American Commercial Christmas in 2020 is largely Scandinavian.   I don’t know if you noticed, but this year its all about the gnomes.    Gnome decorations are everywhere.   Of course IKEA has an assortment of gnome decorations, but they always have.   American retailers like Target have gnome tree ornaments and decorations.   I was so happy to get out all my gnome and Scandinavian straw ornaments this year to decorate my tree in high Scandinavian style.   I even have several Joulpukki or Christmas Goats in my tree. 

A closeup of my Scandinavian Christmas tree – straw ornamanets, gnomes, Juletomte, and Joulpoukki

Gnomes are actually the nisse or tomte of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.   They also spill over into northern Netherlands, where the art of Rien Portvliet of the 1970s immortalized their image into the hearts and minds of youngsters like me.  Scandinavian legends tell of a house gnome who guards over and protects a farmhouse.   On Christmas eve Scandinavians serve a spiced rice porridge called risengrød in Denmark and risgrynsgröt in Sweden,  but also lay one as an offering to the benevolent but temperamental household spirit.   Scandinavian children are not afraid of bumps in the night because they know it’s just their household gnome making the rounds and doing his chores.

A Jultomte or Christmas Elf and Joulpoukki or Yule Goat outside a Swedish house.

While many attribute Palatinate Germanic immigrant Thomas Nast as the creator of our modern image of Santa (based on a composite of Germanic post Reformation gift bringers like Knecht Ruprecht and Pelsnickel) it’s actually a Scandinavian, Haddon Sundblom, who created our modern Santa.    The image of a jolly, rotund, long bearded man in a red suit and floppy red hat updated the old image of Nast with a particularly Tomte looking red hat.    The floppy red cap is reminiscent of the hats the Sami people wear in Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland’s Lapland, above the Artic Circle, where Santa is purported to live.

A Norwegian Juletomte – or Christmas Gnome – with his red floppy hat from the 1930s, about the same time as Haddon Sundblom created the Coca-Cola / American Santa Claus.
An 1870s Thomas Nast Santa who looks more like Pelsnickel or Knecht Ruprecht than our modern Santa

Sundblum was born in Muskegon, Michigan, to a Swedish speaking family.  His father Karl Wilhelm Sundblom came from the Norrgårds in the village of Sonnboda in FöglöÅland Islands, then part of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, and his mother Karin Andersson was from Sweden.

Haddon Sundblom, the creator of the Coca-Cola and Worldwide modern Santa
The iconic and ubiquitous Sundblom Coca-Cola Santa

Sundblom created the iconic American Santa in an ad campaign for Coca-Cola in 1937, to help them sell their soda in a typically down season.    He created the 1942 Coca-Cola mascot Sprite Boy, based on the Germanic Father Frost, who appeared in ads during the 1940s and 1950s.     While known mostly as the creator of American Santa, Sundblom also was the father of the American pinup girl and creator of the Quaker Oats Man

Even the recent Elf on a Shelf tradition in America is based on the 13 Yule Lads or Elves of Iceland who come one by one in the 13 days leading up to Christmas, each with a particular duty of mischief – like slamming doors, or milking the cow and stealing the milk – while also bringing a gift to the children.   Then on Christmas, the ugly-witch mother of the Yule Lads, Gryla and her Christmas Cat (both a bit like Krampus) come on Christmas day to punish bad children by disembowling them or leaving even more gifts.    If the Icelandic children are of Swedish descent they would have celebrated St. Lucia’s day on December 13, who sings songs with her angelic chorus and brings cookies and cardamom bread.  They may even celebrate the coming of the Yule Goat, Juulpouki, who also brings gifts to good children.    So it seems the children of Iceland win in the Winter Holiday gift game, with over 13 days of giving.

So, while we may not be eating Potatiskorv (Swedish potato sausage) along with smoked salmon, sweet orange limpa bread, or lingonberries and skyrr yogurt, in a Christmas Eve Smorgasboard, our American Commercial Christmas this year should be greeted with “Glad Jul” or Merry Christmas in Scandinavian.

The Pecan Pie Family Tree and The Shipwreck Tart of Norfolk Coastal England

The Shipwreck Tart of Coastal Norfolk England – a spawn of America’s Pecan Pie.

The top three pies served on American tables during the holidays are probably pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies.     In the last decade or so we’ve seen the American pecan pie spawn two children – the bourbon pecan pie and the chocolate pecan pie.     The grandfather of the pecan pie is England’s treacle tart, and it has recently spawned a great grandson, the Shipwreck Tart, now a fave in the middle east coast of England in Norfolk.    The English do recognize that our pecan is the undisputed father of the Shipwreck tart.

Before we dig into this sordid family tree, we must make some things clear about weird UK food terminology.   In the UK a tart is any type of pie – fruit, transparent pie, or cream pie – baked into a shortcrust.     In America a tart is typically a small, hand-sized fruit pie without a top, or even a small hand pie.      A tart can also be referred to as a pudding in the UK, as a general term for any confectionery that has some sort of pastry or bread in it.   The treacle tart falls into the family tree of what is known in the US as a transparent pie – or one that only uses sugar and no cream or milk, so as to make a transparent rather than an opaque pie. 

Treacle is a thick syrup that is a byproduct of the sugar refining process.   Golden syrup, the commercial form of treacle was invented in the 1880s in England.   There is light treacle or golden syrup, which is an amber color, and black or dark treacle, which is a black color.   Golden syrup or light treacle is a form of inverted sugar syrup made in the process of refining sugar cane or sugar beet juice into sugar, or by treatment of a sugar solution with acid.   In the US golden treacle is analogous to Karo syrup and black treacle is analogous to Black strap molasses.     Black strap molasses is made from what is left over after the extreme caramelization from the repeated boiling of sugar cane at high temperatures.  It’s kind of like a slightly burnt caramel, without the cream added, and has a slightly bitter taste.   The term blackstrap is from the Dutch word ‘stroop’ (think stroopwaffel) which means syrup and the very dark (almost black) color.    

The Pennsylvania Dutch invented another American cousin of the treacle tart – the Shoofly Pie, which is made from blackstrap molasses.

The American Shoofly Pie, invented in 1876 in Philadelphia.

The Shipwreck Tart is a nut laden,  golden treacle pie made with chestnuts, hazelnuts, and walnuts, brown sugar and boozed up with Somerset Cider Brandy.   It sounds rich as heck and looks like an otherworldly experience.   Unlike in the US, where our nut pies are not typically served with cream, Norfolk’s Shipwreck tart is served with a dollop of their fave clotted cream.    Clotted cream, for those of you uninitiated, like me, is made from full cream cow’s milk that is indirectly steamed or heated and then allowed to cool.  Clots or clouts of cream rise to the top and form a crust.    It originated in the counties of Cornwall and Devon in southwest England.   It’s a very high fat cream lending a flavor of nutty cooked milk.   Devonshire clotted cream is less yellow than Cornish Clotted cream because there is less carotene in the grazing grass the cows use.    It’s use became popular because clotted cream stays longer than regular cream and won’t sour.

Shipwreck Somerset Brandy, used to booze up the Norfolk Shipwreck Tart.

The nut treacle tart – the UK cousin to our pecan pie – came about as a way to use up all those mixed nuts people had on hand for Christmas celebrations – the rowdy ones that the Puritans of America prohibited. Today they wear weird paper crowns and erupt noisemakers they call crackers for Christmas revelry.   It was something typically served on Boxing Day or on St. Stephens Day.

Brits on Christmas Day wearing their funky paper hats and erupting noisemakers they call ‘crackers.’

The Shipwreck Tart was invented by English celebrity chef Mark Hix in London at his fine restaurant.   It was inspired by Julian Temperley’s 10 year old Shipwreck Somerset cider brandy, which is aged in oak barrels washed up on Branscome Beach in Devon, from the shipwrecked Napoli.    Hix’s  head chef, Stuart Tattersall became the chef at Gunton Arms, an upscale pub on a deer preserve -described as a Rock and Roll Hunting Lodge  – in Cromer in North Norfolk, where he serves it alongside his local farm-to-table fare.    It is also popular at the other pubs and restaurants in coastal Norfolk at the holiday.   You can go seal watching at Horsey-next-the-Sea in November and then relax with a good meal and a slice of Shipwreck tart at nearly any of the pubs in the area.

The granddaddy of them all – the treacle tart – is a long time favorite of the British.  It is unbelievably sweet and can be found on any British school lunch menu and is very popular with British kids like school lunch pizza is with American kids.  It is the favorite of the character Harry Potter and supposedly of the author Mark Twain.

There are two types of treacle tarts in the UK – the Yorkshire, which is a fruity treacle tart like the mincemeat pie, and the Norfolk treacle tart, which is more like a rich sweet custard, which doesn’t use any breadcrumbs in the pie as a thickener.   No one is really sure about its origin but it is also sometimes called the Walpole House Treacle Tart because of it’s association with Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister. It was supposed to have been invented in Houghton Hall, his home located between King’s Lynn and Fakenham.

My maternal Grandfather’s family came from the Norfolk area of England – a little coastal town called Horsey-next-the-Sea. But sadly, no treacle tart recipes survive from his family. My maternal grandmother tried to revive the mincemeat pie in our family to no avail. But pecan pie is a big fave at the holidays, as are my mother’s bite-sized pecan pie tartlets.

To feel like a Brit you can have the Shipwreck tart along with another Brit pub fave – prawn cocktail served with Marie rose sauce, which is like thousand island without the relish – tomato sauce, mayo, and Worchestershire.    

In Amsterdam 1663 Was Almost the Year Without a Sinterklaas (And Gingerbread)

I am a huge fan of the 1974 Rankin Bass stop motion animated feature “The Year Without a Santa Claus.”   Few know that there actually was almost a year without a Sinterklaas, the Dutch term for Santa or St. Nick.   For as tolerant as Dutch people and the City of Amsterdam are today, there was once a time when they weren’t, or at least the Calvinist governors weren’t.  Up until 2012 one could step into the Grasshopper Café blocks from the main train station and choose from a lazy susan vending machine of any type of cannabis product you can imagine and indulge in the cafe.   There’s even cannabis spiked gingerbread.    But there was a year that Sinterklaas and even gingerbread and other Christmas cookies were banned by the Mayor of Amsterdam, Dr. Nicholaes Tulp.

Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, showing the Guild of Surgeons the arm muscles in a painting by Rembrandt

Dr. Tulp had been a famous physician.    As head of the Guild of Surgeons, he was immortalized in one of artist Rembrant’s paintings, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.”   Having commissioned this painting, it was the work that catapulted Rembrandt’s career and got him artistic stardom with the rich and famous of Amsterdam.    Dr. Tulp instituted an inspection program for the over 66 pharmacies of Amsterdam, many who provided whack cures for the plague which ravaged Amsterdam in 1635.     Dr. Tulp even signed the physicals and approved the first Dutch immigrants to settle New Amsterdam colony in Manhattan.

It was December 4, 1663, two days before the annual Sinterklaas parade, one of the most popular days of the year for the children of Amsterdam.    The Protestant Reformation had been in full swing in Northern Europe, since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the cathedral at Wittenburg in 1517.     Most of Northern Europe had converted to Lutheranism, although the Dutch provinces of the Low Country, now the Netherlands, were Protestant Calvinists.

The Dutch lowland provinces had allied under the Union of Utrecht in 1579,   After successfully throwing the Catholic Hapsburg King Phillip II of Spain out of the Netherlands in 1581, they formed an independent Dutch Republic.   The Republic officially became a Protestant country and the regents, ministers and clericals prohibited public Catholic Celebrations.

Martin Luther did not like saints and instead suggested the Christ Child or Kristkindl as the new Protestant Gift Giver at Christmastime.    Only Christ could bring gifts and grace, not the saints. All reverence to saints was to be abolished.   Dutch cities responded.   The city of Delft in 1607 forbade the sale of gingerbread men, as did other cities like Arnhem.    Dordrecht banned the Sinterklaas festival altogether in 1657.  That same year Dr. Tulp’s (who had just become mayor of Amsterdam in 1654) city administration banned the sale of special gifts and candies and idolatrous dolls.   The ban named all molded cookies -which included spekuloos, the Dutch gingerbread, and moppen, a popular crispy biscuits not as spicy as gingerbread, as did the city of Arnhem.   Gingerbread men, which had actually been invented in the English court of Elizabeth I, had been taken up by people of the occult who used them like voodoo dolls.   They would bake effigies in them that supposedly had special powers to make people fall in love, become pregnant, more virile, or reek havoc on their enemies.

But the Dutch and their children loved the Feast of St. Nicholas, a carryover from Catholic days.   What made Sinterklaas so popular with children is that he gave out gifts and sweet treats to good children.   One of the most popular gifts was gingerbread men.   Also, Dutch children were a special part of the Dutch culture.  

The Dutch were creative.   They transformed Sinterklaas from the legendary Catholic Bishop of Myrna to an old wise man from Spain dressed in red clothes that somewhat still looked like a bishop, but was no longer the saint.     So they continued to hold the Sinterklaas parade, hold street markets and fairs, the nights before the saint’s feast day on December 6.

So, December 4, 1663, Dr. Tulp and his cronies instituted the following ban:

“Since the magistrates (of Amsterdam) have learned that in previous years, notwithstanding the publishing of the Bylaws, on Saint Nicholas Eve various persons have been standing on the Dam and other places in the town with candy, eatables, and other merchandise, so that a large crowd from all over town gathered…. The same magistrates, to prevent all such disorders and to take the superstition and fables of the papacy out of the youths’ heads, have ordered, regulated and opined that on Saint Nicholas Eve no persons whoever they may be, are to be allowed on the Dam or any other places and streets within this town with any kind of candy, eatables, or other merchandise (under the penalty of very severe fines – 3 guilder)”

It’s a huge irony that Dr. Nicholaes Tulp was trying to ban his own saint namesake. Tulp could be the inspiration for an evil character from another Rankin Bass Christmas Special – Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), an evil Germanic mayor who also tried to ban the giving of gifts.

Well that didn’t sit well with the children of Amsterdam who were used to getting their sweet treats from Sinterklaas.   What – take away our sweets, our beloved benevolent gift giver, our Christmas joy?   No way!  This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or more appropriately, the back of Sinterklaas’ white horse, which he rode through the city and rooftops on.  So, encouraged by their parents, a group of enraged activist 11 year old boys stormed the streets of Amsterdam in protest. The children were encouraged by their parents to riot because authorities would never dream of lifting a finger to harm the most precious possession of the Republic – children.    The results of the youthful riot?   Next year Sinterklaas was back in public on the Amsterdam streets and canals handing out presents and everybody had gingerbread and a good time.   The Dutch government would eventually tolerate private family celebrations of St. Nicholas Day.

The Feast of St. Nichoals (1665) by Dutch artist Jan Steen.

Only two years later the Dutch artist Jan Steen, a masterful visual storyteller, painted The Feast of St. Nicholas, immortalizing a Dutch family celebrating the beloved feast.    It’s not known if this was a political statement against the Calvinist regime, but it documents the popularity of the celebration and even gives us a picture of what one of the 11 year old protesters might have looked like that won back Sinterklaas and gingerbread.    The painting now hangs in the Rijksmuseum, named after Rembrandt, who had painted Dr. Tulp, the evil mayor of Amsterdam.

In the center of picture we see a little girl possessively holding a doll clad in fur and halo holding a red cross-shaped staff, representing St. John the Baptist, and a bucket with an orange, a sugar candy stick with a rooster (a symbol seen on many Amsterdam church steeples that Pope Nicholas had instituted in the 9th century as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus) and a gingerbread boy – all the items Dr. Tulp’s legislation had tried to ban. The girl’s brother, behind her to the right, is super happy with his gift, a kolf club and ball.  A game analogous to modern hockey, kolf was played on frozen canals in the winter and on level land in summer. Players both young and old enjoyed propelling a small wooden ball toward a goal post using sticks that were curved at the end like the one we see here.  In fact, this popular game often appears in seventeenth-century Dutch winter scenes of other artists.

The infant sister holding a Sinterklaas gingerbread.

The older brother to the left is crying. His sister and little brother laugh at him. The older woman in the background, perhaps his Oma, tries to comfort him by giving a coin, because he found his shoe to be empty (the punishment for being naughty) He is an image of how one of the 11 year old protesters of 1663 might have appeared.  A group of other children on the right are singing “Sinterklaasliedjes” under the chimney. One of those older brothers holds his infant sister who holds a large gingerbread in the shape of the “Goedheiligman” (Good-holy-man) or St. Nicholas.   In the lower left of the painting, Steen tantalizes us with an assortment of treats piled high in a woven basket and strewn across the seat of an ornately carved chair.  He shows us apples, nuts, sugared candies, waffles (not the thick kind Jean-Francois of Taste of Belgium makes) and other baked delights of various shapes and sizes. Particularly impressive is the large, richly decorated diamond-shaped loaf that leans against the chair. This sweet white bread, called a duivekater, was traditionally enjoyed at the Feast of St. Nicholas, as well as at Christmas, and on the Dutch New Year.

A modern Dutch baker surrounded by Duivikater

“Duivekaters” were made from sweetened white bread – which was a luxury – and given as a sort of end-of-the-year bonus. The shape goes back to the pre-Christian era. It was a tradition to sacrifice loaves of bread, shaped like human limbs to the Germanic gods, like Odin, who was the center of the Winter Feast and the legendary Winter Hunt. The name was probably derived from “Duivelkater” (Devil-cake). But there is also a link to the feast of Sinterklaas. In this little folk-rhyme:

“Sinterklaasje van over ‘t water,
Sinterklaas from over the water,
breng me toch een duivekater.”
please bring me a duivekater.

Portrait of Duivikater bakers 1658 by Jan Steen.

The same artist, Jan Steen, also documented this sweet holiday bread in his portrait of  Arend Oostwaert and his wife Catharina Keyzerswaer, painted in 1658, after Dr. Tulp had started his administerial banning of Dutch holiday breads.   Steen painted another portrait later, about 1670-75, of another family enjoying St. Nick’s Day, which hangs in the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. An interesting aside in both paintings is that the father is in the background of all the action and seems disengaged. And in both paintings the pretty young maidservant is standing right next to the father, a suggestion of hanky panky that happened in many wealthy Dutch homes.

A later portait by Steen of another family enjoying the Feast of St. Nickolas

I’m sort of thankful to the Dr. Tulp and his Calvinist cronies who discriminated against Dutch Catholics in the province of Brabant and elsewhere in the Netherlands.   That’s the reason my fourth great Grandparents Rainier and Grada Reinzen immigrated to Newport, Kentucky via New Orleans in the 1850s, after Sinterklaas had received his now infamous mischievous helper, Schwarte Piet, or Black Piet, dressed as a Spanish Moor black servant.    It’s this combo Dutch and Germanic ancestry that I grew up with celebrating both St. Nick’s Day with small gifts and treats and Christmas Day with larger Santa-given gifts.

My friend Debby, who was raised in Amsterdam by a baker, sends me her father’s recipe moppen biscuits for Christmas.   While she doesn’t stamp any papist effigies into her cookies, they do make me feel better as I dunk the crunchy biscuits in my coffee over the Christmas holiday.   They are kind of the Dutch biscotti.   It’s very cool to think that I am dipping a once banned Christmas cookie that created a riot of 11 years olds.   It’s a dunkable testament to youthful will and joy.   

Dr. Tulp, the evil mayor of Amsterdam who tried to ban Sinterklaas and gingerbread.

By signing the physicals of the first Dutch immigrants to Manhattan, who took their traditions of Sinterklaas with them to the colonies, Dr. Tulp, in effect, is responsible for spreading the tradition that would become our beloved American Santa Claus. And, in true karma, Dr. Tulp’s legacy is that he has a valve in the sphincter named after him, the Tulp Valve, because any man who would think and institute a ban on children’s Christmas joy is a true you-know-what-hole!