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.

When George Voinovich Manned the Senate Candy Desk

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At a recent all day design meeting in Chicago with one of the largest U.S. providers of home furnishings, a platter with two bowls – one of gummy worms, and one of trail mix- was wheeled into the conference room in the afternoon.    It was hilarious to see men in their forties with titles like Director and Sr. Systems Engineer stumbling over each other to get to the gummies.    But in some cases a little sugar boost is all that’s needed to get over the hump of a long meeting.

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As the Senate gears up for a long impeachment trial, the Senate Candy desk, manned by Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey is providing such a sugar high.     The Candy Desk (#80 on the Republican side) has been a staple in the Senate since its inception in 1965 by California Senator George Murphy.  After his six year term the tradition continued.    Although it sort of breaks the rule of senators taking gifts – because candy companies send shipments pro bono – it’s overlooked because its available to all senators Democrat or Republican, and whomever is in charge provides candies native to their state.

The Democrats have also been manning a candy desk on their side of the Senate since 1984, but both are supposed to be open to all parties.

When our own George Voinovich manned the candy desk from June 2007 to January 2009, he provided candies from northern Ohio – like Spangler’s Dum Dums, Mars Products, and Harry London Chocolates, which are made in Green, Ohio.    Dum Dums are pretty iconic to northern Ohioans who eat it for ‘dessert’ after having the iconic Barberton Fried Chicken, a Slavic immigrant food with a similar story to Cincinnati Chili.  That tradition is like eating a peppermint patty after having a three-way.      Although Voinovich did provide Northern Ohio candies – he could have given some homage to southwestern Ohio by supplying Doscher French Chews, Aglamesis peppermint patties, or Esther Price Chocolates.

Food is the great mediator, and candy can break down barriers.    Maybe more senators should tap into the candy desk.

 

Thomas Yeatman – the ‘Mean Girl’ Who Took Down Cincinnati’s Wine Industry

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It was the fall of 1864. The Civil War raged on. Nicholas Longworth, Catawba’s biggest cheerleader had gone to the Great Vineyard in the Sky the year before. It was a terrible season for the most popular, but most finicky grape being grown in the Ohio Valley. It had happened before in 1846, and the 1850s– early spring frosts and rainy and humidity-induced summer rot and bug infestations of the phylloxera. Many of the German immigrant vine dressers of the area had been growing grapes for themselves and the big names like Longworth wine house for almost thirty years. Even those who’d grown up in the industry in the Rhine, had to adapt to different grapes and different growing conditions in the Ohio River Valley than they were used to, They were getting tired of the blight and the unpredictability of the Catawba grape. The Isabella, which Longworth also championed was even worse with rot. It was used to make a woman’s sparkling wine, because its flavor was milder than the Catawba. But Cincinnati was right on the cusp of finding that native grape that could stand our funky river valley weather. And it wouldn’t be the Catawba.

Thomas Yeatman, whose father, Griffin, was the namesake of Yeatman’s Cove downtown, one of the oldest and most experienced growers in Cincinnati, had his entire vineyard decimated by the weather. He was super pissed! But as one of the most decorated growers, he was who the smaller growers looked up to, especially with Longworth now gone.

Yeatman had amassed many medals for his Catawba wines. His first was a medal in 1851 for his Catawba wine at the London World’s fair. He then added other wins at the New York World’s Fair, and fairs in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and other cities. Aside from Longworth, he was the most decorated Catawba grower in the Greater Cincinnati region. Imagine having to see and hear about his trophy cabinet when visiting the vineyards.

One would hope that he would take up the mantel of positivity and help our local industry pick up and move forward. But Mr. Yeatman was a mean girl! If he couldn’t have success, then no one in Cincinnati would! Hell, he was up for a national postmaster job anyway. He didn’t really need the income of the grape anymore. And he was ready to let everyone know exactly how he felt.

Without twitter and social media available, he produced a written ‘treatise’ on how sucky Cincinnati weather was for grape growing and read it to the Cincinnati Horticultural Society in the Fall of 1864. He wined on for many pages about how it was so unprofitable as a result of our weird river climate and anyone would be stupid to continue to pursue it. He did a mic drop to a mouth-gaped-open crowd of wealthy horticulturists and abruptly walked out of the grape scene.

What was so tempting about the Catawba was that in good seasons it was super-prolific – it produced an average of 400 gallons per acre – and in most cases soured around 750 gallons per acre of vineyard. But it was a finicky mistress. When the weather was bad, the productivity was bad. Whole vineyards were decimated. There were other hardier grapes being grown locally that made good wines, but they were only half as prolific as the Catawba in its good season. Even Longworth’s last words on his deathbed were to his son-in-law, William Flagg, that he had found a new grape resistant to rot! But no one recorded which one that was.

Meanwhile, Yeatman’s vineyards were so old that all the good soil had been washed off the steep hillside off of River Road. And he had gotten so cocky with his successes, he hadn’t been keeping up the maintenance on the soil and the vines – he neither manured the ground nor trimmed, staked and cultivated the vines. Every vingeur knows that !

So a committee was formed of the Cincinnati Horticultural Society to refute Yeatman’s bitchy epitaph and publish it. They visited Indian Hill where a small community of grape growers for 15 years had been growing a variety known as the Ives grape, cultivated by an Indian Hill tailor named Henry Ives. The story goes he chomped on grapes while working and spit the seeds out the window. He noticed a vine that popped up in his spit radius, cultivated it and it fruited. He gave plantings to his neighbors like Colonel Isaac Waring and others, and they had great success with propagating it and making wine. The Ives grape is still used today as a native wine grape.

The committee inquired to the Bogens who were growing Norton and other hardy grapes in Hartwell, and Mottier who was growing the Delaware. Both Norton and Delaware were more rot resistant than the Catawba, only not quite as prolific, but still profitable. Mottier and Bogen shared their financials, which were promising and published them in the report.

A visit to Cincinnati vineyards that same year came from winemakers from Herman Missouri, a German settlement that had sort of taken the mantle from Cincinnati as the largest wine producing area of the U.S. Like the Committee to Refute Yeatman, they visited Indian Hill, the Bogens, and Mottier and kind of laughed at us for not wholesale converting from the finicky Catawba to the Ives or Norton, based on what had happened in the bad seasons. They said we had good growers right under our nose, and for whatever reason, were still banking on the frail Catawba.

The response to Yeatman’s hate speech was published in a variety of horticultural mags across the country, but Cincinnati never recovered. The Bogens would eventually give up winemaking and go into dairy. The Werks would follow other growers north to Lake Eire’s microclimate with the Concord Grape. Mottier would leave and go to Eire, Pennsylvania and grow hardier grapes there. The symbolic end to our wine making era happened when Longworth’s largest vineyard, Bald Hill in Tusculum was divided up and sold for residential housing in 1870 by his son Joseph, who had no interest in the wine industry. The Longworth Wine House, then operated by Longworth’s grandson, William Pope Anderson was leased to a variety of tenants and then converted into a cottonseed oil factory.

The bitchy negative energy Yeatman put out there had his postmaster position voted down by Congress, and he was blacklisted from attending the Horticultural Society meetings. He was done with Catawba and was happy in taking everyone down with him.

But had he and the handful of large growers banded together and moved into phase 2 of our winemaking era, abandoning the Catawba, and moved to growing the Norton, Ives, or Delaware and pooling resources, Cincinnati might have developed into a viable winemaking market like Missouri and Lake Eire. With Longworth and other Cincy Horticultural Society members, we had developed over 30 years of trialing, grafting, and developing grapes fit for our wonky weather and for making good wines. We had the science, the experience, and the acreage to go on.

But the small immigrant growers were aging and the next generation was more interested in city life and factory jobs. The newer immigrant waves coming to Cincinnati also were more interested in the trades than horticulture. Vineyard work was hard, grueling work, and required constant care and local knowledge. And Cincinnati was becoming more of a lager and whiskey city anyway.

So Thomas Yeatman and his bitchy ‘treatise’ single handedly took down what Longworth had spent a fortune on building in one bad fall weather season.

Trautmann Station – The Catawba Ghost Town on River Road

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On the very industrial stretch of River Road between Anderson Ferry Road and the Cargill Plant is another Catawba Ghost town once known as South Bend or Trautmann Station.      The huge tanks and warehouses of Cargill and Morton hide what was once a bucolic scene of terraced hillside vineyards.   According to the Delhi Historical Society, there is only one remnant of its past, the Schumann Family Cemetery, which I was unable to find.   This is on the land where winegrower Charles A. Schumann (1795-1858) had 123 acres of vineyards and grew Catawba, Cape, and Isabella grapes on his southeast facing hillsides below what is now Mount St. Joseph.   He had come to Cincinnati in the 1830s and set up farming operations along the steep Ohio river hillsides like many others,

The bottoms below the hills had been the site of Ft. Miami, the western blockade guarding Cincinnati from Indian attack, like the eastern Ft. Washington.   It had been prone to flooding and the original settlement washed away, but the steep southeast facing hillsides made great topography for vineyards, and the Germanic immigrants took advantage of this.

In 1845, Schumann wrote a pamphlet called Culture of the Grape – Thoroughly Explained where he revealed his method of caring for his vineyards and touted the value of the Ohio River Valley for native winemaking.   in 1851 he had his wines reviewed by the American Winemaking Society – his Cape and Isabella wine branded Cincinnati Claret was deemed good wines, resembling a good port,  but his Sweet Catawba was given a pretty bad review.  It might be that reason that his wines found success in the church wine market – not a particularly demanding base.    He also made a still dry Catawba Wine he called Catawba Queen Victoria in 1851.    He was trying to associate his brand with the Hock white wines made popular by Queen Victoria’s visit to Hochenheimer Vineyards in Germany in 1850.      He also disparaged George Bogen Nick Longworth’s Sparkling Catawba wines saying that since they were fermented with the addition of sugar, they were not to be considered pure wines.   Grapes from South Bend / Trautmann could be easily transported via the St. Louis railroad along River Road to the  downtown Longworth Wine Houses, or made locally in small batches.

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He continued to make wine until his death in 1858, but gave some interesting instructions to his family for his burial.  He instructed them to wait three days before burying him, to make sure he was dead.    He was to be buried in his pasture with a fence for protection from the cattle.   He was also to be buried in a tomb above ground, and specified that the undertaker should bury him in one of his white shirts and his summer underdrawers, but nothing else, not even socks.

Another family – that of John Ziegel – grew their own grapes along River Road east of Trautmann station and west of Mt. Echo Road, and had their own Winehouse and wine press.    John was instrumental in 1849 in forming the German Evangelical Martini Church of Storrs Township.   He had five sons, but none continued in the wine business.

The family for which the ghost town was named, Trautmann, also grew grapes on the hillside in a small several acre vineyard.   George Henry Trautmann his wife Margaret Hammerschmidt and young family came to Cincinnati from Germany in 1846 and began growing vegetables and wine.      The train station across from their land in South Bend was renamed Trautmann’s Station in about 1870.    Henry, the oldest of four sons inherited the garden and vineyard at the death of his father in 1873. Although the family focused most of their energy on vegetables and leather tannery, one grandson, Charles, operated a wine distribution business for many decades in downtown Cincinnati.

The North German Klaben, ‘Whispering Stollen’ and My Grandmother’s Poor Man’s Fruitcake

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Bremer Klaben, the Grandmother to My Grandma’s Poor Man’s Fruitcake.

Now that the holidays are over, I just received my true Christmas gift. After about a month of searching for one of my paternal Grandmother’s Christmas Fruitcake recipes, I finally found it in the most unusual place – nestled inside my Mom’s family recipe box. This should be a lesson to all recipe archeologists – look everywhere, including the most unlikely places for that lost recipe! You might ask why all this fuss over fruitcake? Doesn’t fruitcake have the worst reputation of all holiday sweets? Aren’t there a growing number of fruitcake tosses popping up across the country to help people dispose of them? Well, yes, but for this recipe it was as much the family history as the cake itself that I was after.

I had originally thought it was from the Crisco Cookbook or the locally made Rheinstrom candied fruit package, because we found out that a lot of Grandma’s recipes came from the inside of product packages. Both of these particular recipes had come from the Food Editor of the Ladies Home Journal in the 1920s. She became the sort of recipes spokeswoman for a lot of national brands. P& G used her recipes to promote their new Crisco product, as did Rheinstrom to promote their candied fruits during Prohibition, when they couldn’t legally sell their whiskey. Her chocolate cake, for example, was from the Hershey’s cocoa tin and her wonderful lasagna, from the Creamette noodle package. I had also found my paternal grandma’s cole slaw recipe in an unlikely place – my maternal grandma’s recipe box. The recipe had the notation “Mrs. Woellert’s – Very good,” which was highly unlikely for my maternal grandmother to cede cooking prowess. One of my male cousins still makes Grandma’s cole slaw for family functions.

Dad had always called this recipe Poor Man’s Fruitcake, but the Crisco recipe did not have that title. There was a very high end version in the Crisco cookbook that included a lot of candied fruit and then one that was a bit simpler. I had reached out to my cousin Nancy, whose siblings had saved and continue to make some of Grandma’s recipes to see if they had it, but they did not. Then I had heard one of my second cousins had my Aunt Betty’s recipe box. Aunt Betty was Grandma’s only daughter, so I thought if anyone would have some of Grandma’s recipes it would be her. I reached out to that cousin with no success.

Inadvertently Mom had copied the recipe down from my Grandmother, probably early on in my parents’ marriage because my father and all of his siblings really liked her fruitcake. But this was apparently one of Grandma’s signature holiday treats and so when she was making it, Mom never had to. As my grandparents aged and stopped hosting the family holiday parties, the baking of the fruitcake went into hiatus, and no one took up the mantle. This is the natural changing of family traditions and unfortunately how recipes get lost to the ages. Mom had forgot that she had copied the recipe so many years ago, and luckily for us, my nosiness found it nestled and hidden in between other recipes.

So I was absolutely thrilled to find Grandma’s recipe for Poor Man’s Fruitcake. I had assumed that maybe it didn’t use as many eggs or expensive spices like nutmeg or even alcohol. But the title came from that fact that it didn’t contain the expensive candied cherries, citron, or apricot of other fruitcakes. It only contained raisins and walnuts. And, it was not sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.

It occurred to me that this poor man’s fruitcake is similar to the North German klaben – the version of stollen from Bremen that has only raisins and nuts, and is not dusted in confectioners’ sugar or wrapped in marzipan. In Germany there are nicknames for Christmas Stollen with raisins – they are either whispering or screaming stollens. Whispering stollens – like the Klaben – are ones that contain so many raisins and they are so close together that they only need to whisper to each other. Then there are the screaming stollens – like the Dresdener stollen – with only a few raisins, because other candied fruits are included, so they must yell to each other to be heard. A recent radio episode of a holiday special Travel with Rick Steves articulated this difference.

Very soon after their marriage in the early 1920s, my paternal grandparents moved in with my widowed Great Grandfather, whose family had immigrated from the area of Northern Germany just to the east of Bremen – the Duchy of Mecklenburg – which was home to the Klaben – Germany’s whispering raisin holiday fruitcake. She was tasked with cooking to my great grandfather’s north German tastes, so maybe this recipe came from his family and was based on the Klaben with which they were familiar in Mecklenburg. Maybe he had asked her to make this family cake for him at Christmas and she obliged. Apparently Great Grandpa raved about Grandma’s other dishes like her barley soup and her goetta to the neighbors in Cumminsville. The Poor Man’s Fruitcake might have been like the German eggnog or eierliquor recipe my grandfather made at Christmas.

So had I discovered a recipe that had come over on the boat with my ancestors? Who changed the name from Klaben to Poor Man’s Fruitcake? Did Great Grandma teach my Grandma to make it before she passed? Like much recipe archealogy, it’s hard to say, but I’d like to think that Grandma’s rediscovered Poor Man’s fruitcake descends from the Bremen Klaben. And now I can make it next year for the family get together. too, which descended from his father and grandfather.

 

A Rare Alsatian Noodle Dish the Catawba Growers in Cincy Liked

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For a food writer there is nothing more golden than a family recipe box. A visit to my parents over the weekend had me going through the family recipe box of my mom’s side of the family. While finding some gems, like the Kahn’s Braunschweiger Bavarian Party Dip recipe, and the Poor Man’s Fruitcake recipe of my paternal grandmother, I found another interesting Germanic recipe from the past.

I found a simple recipe in my maternal grandmother’s handwriting with the title “Fleisch Noodles.” Below the title was written “Fleish is the German word for meat.” I knew that many regions in Germany had their own noodles or dumplings. Like many of my maternal grandmother’s recipes, there was not much detail, more a description of what the dish was. My high school friend Kyle, who now lives in the Swabia region of Germany with his wife, introduced me last year to Maltaschen, their regional dumpling/ravioli-like specialty. I asked my mom about the recipe and she said this was something that one of the girls Jeanette Hatfield, from the bakery used to make – they were meat rolled up in egg noodle dough. She remembered that they were really good.

It turns out this is an Alsatian dish, called Fleischschnaka in their local dialect – meaning meat snail. Call it meat schnecken. It’s a simple seasoned meat stuffing (usually the leftovers of a variety of stewed meats like pork, beef, oxtail, veal, chicken or even duck) with onions, salt, pepper and parsley rolled up in a rich egg dough, cooked and then sliced. The dough of the Alsatian dish has the consistency of spaetzle, chewy and medium density. In Alsace, they are typically made with ground pork, but this recipe called for cooked ground chuck. They are typically served in a light broth, accompanied by a green salad, but some Alsatian chefs have amped them up with things like gingerbread-spiced cranberry sauce. Apparently it’s a comfort food that every Alsatian mother knows how to make.

Fleischschnaka can also be found in neighboring Baden-Wuertemburg, the region next to Alsace-Lorraine, from which many came to work for Nicholas Longworth as tenant vine dressers during the Catawba Craze of the 1840s and 1850s. According to many sites, this is a very rare dish to find outside of Alsace and Baden. This recipe was from the 1950s, when my grandparents employed the woman at the bakery, but with as much regional German food digging that I’ve done, I had never heard of the delicacy. I can imagine Germanic vine dressers of Cincinnati and northern Kentucky eating these ‘meat snails’ accompanied by a glass of sparking Catawba wine after a long day tending the vineyards.