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

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

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

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

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

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

Account Me Puppet –Two Local Museums With Food Hocking Puppets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamb Chop and Shari hocking hot dogs at Vent Haven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballreich’s marcelled chips

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

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

In the Summer of ’59 A Madisonville Dairy Bar Took on Frisch’s Hot Fudge Cake

The Frisch’s Hot Fudge Cake

I am one who loves a good food fight.   I relished in the Frisch’s-Busken Pumpkin Pie Wars of the early 2010s.   I loved the Pizza Wars and the Burger Wars of the 80s.   I’m fascinated by the current national fast food chicken sandwich war under way, which Gold Star Chili recently entered.    These wars have been going on since fast food really took off in the 1950s.   And for a marketeer like myself these wars offer case studies on how to articulate your business’ value prop to a laser thin edge.

One short lived food war raged in the Summer of 1959 against the then burger powerhouse of Frisch’s.  By 1959 there were many knockoffs of the Big Boy in Cincinnati.      Everyone was trying to ride the burger coattails of our most successful startup chain.   There was Bailer’s Big Momma, the Grossburger, the Big K from Klawitters in Delhi, the Country Boy from Country Kitchen, the Big Tucker from Tucker’s in OTR, the Big Sandy from Sandy’s, the Big Carter, the Big Tom from Bluejay’s, the Jumbo Burger from Parkmour, The Big Barney from Red Barn, the King Burger from Neff Jenkins in Norwood, and many more.

Bailer’s Big Momma had already even released its Poor Papa, a fish sandwich to gain some of the Friday Catholic meat-abstaining market from Frisch’s who was advertising the crap out of their popular fish log sandwich that summer.  It would be another two years before Rob Gruen, a small franchisee in Monfort Heights for a new burger joint called McDonald’s would successfully release the Filet-O-Fish to take on Frisch’s.

In 1959 Frisch’s added a new gun and a new logo to its burger arsenal, the Brawny Lad, a steakburger.      A new Big Boy donned in Scottish kilt and bobby hat marketed this new burger.    Man, they were taking on the Cincinnati meat and fish markets by storm.      But no one thought to attack them from a different angle – a non-burger angle.

A 1959 Frisch’s Ad for their Fish Sandwich and the New Brawny Lad steakburger

March in a small dairy bar in Madisonville called Kern’s.    They were a small dairy bar on Madisonville in the heart of the business district on Madison Road that offered ice cream sundaes, sandwiches and shakes.     In 1959 Madisonville was planning to celebrate its Sesquicentennial, with a large parade whose route was not far from the dairy bar.     Even though there were two popular drive in Frisch’s near them – one a few miles away on Madison next to the Madison Bowl (now demolished used to be BBQ Review), and of course the OG Mainliner on Wooster, also only miles away – they had an idea as to how they could keep the kids, families and teenagers in Madisonville away from Frisch’s.

They built a Trojan horse they called the Devil’s Delight.   They would not attack from the burger angle, but a sneakier way – through their super-popular ice cream sundae!!   It was a “Come for the Devil’s sundae, stay for the burgers and sandwiches” approach.    You know you want to.  The Devil’s Delight was described as “a special dream of a square of devil’s food cake, a generous portion of vanilla ice cream, Kern’s delicious chocolate sauce, and a mountain (yes a mountain) of whipped cream, topped off with a maraschino cherry.    All in a take home plastic cup.    It was brilliant.    The picture in their ad indeed showed a huge towering whip-topped mountain of fudge that was both taller and more delicious looking than the Frisch’s Hot Fudge Cake.    Oh my God, my mouth is watering.  They offered an evil, nearly half off discount – reducing it from 49 cents to 29 cents – also half off of Frisch’s Hot Fudge Cake price then.    The deal lasted 5 days from June 24 to June 29, during the Sesquicentennial celebration.

Kern’s Dairy Bar in 1959
Kern’s, now King’s Dairy Bar 2021

I don’t have the sales receipts, but I can only imagine how successful this promo was for Kern’s and how it continued the popularity of a new rival to the Hot Fudge Cake.  I couldn’t find any ads showing a price reaction from the local Frisch’s but I imagine they felt it too.     

Today Frisch’s has a seasonal Peppermint Hot Fudge Cake, and a Pumpkin Spice Cake with Caramel instead of hot fudge.   And I also give them kudos in their recent addition of a Mini Hot Fudge cake coming in at 300 calories, half of the 600 in the regular Hot Fudge Cake.

The early 50s architectural gem of Kern’s Dairy Bar amazingly still stands on Madison Avenue.   Its last incarnation was as King’s Ice Cream stand, but it hasn’t operated in the last several years.    But the structure still stands as a testament to how the little David can stand up to the Big Goliath with a little ingenuity.   Hmmm the Big Goliath sounds like a good name for a double decker!!

Perry’s Pioneer Pea Hull Beer of Madisonville

Bad Tom Smith Brewery in the 1927 Fifth Third Bank Building on the northeast corner of Madison and Whetsel in historic Madisonville.

Today, the prominent corner of Madisonville at Madison Road and Whetsel hosts only one historic building.  It’s a former bank of the art deco era, now housing the Bad Tom Smith Brewery.       Thankfully Madisonville is getting the financial support it has long needed and the other two corners are getting multi million dollar investment in housing and business.   That has sadly meant the demolition of a majority of its historic buildings along Madison road. It’s very appropriate the historic building on the corner now houses a brewery, given its pioneer ties to brewing and distilling.

The first structure on the northeast corner of the intersection was a log structure built in 1809, which opened as William Perry’s Tavern, a road stop during the early pioneer days of Cincinnati’s East Side.    Perry was from Kentucky and served to weary travelers, potash rum, corn whiskey and something called green pea hull beer.    Early accounts of the pea hull beer were that it could “really knock your eye out.”   Something tells me so would the potash rum and corn whiskey.    It sounds a lot like Bad Tom Smith’s mantra #badassinaglass.    It was all home made, and Perry was said to be his own best customer.    He lived in Madisonville for many years,  even holding several Columbia township offices, as many tavern owners did at the time.    But the prevalence and quality of alcohol in Kentucky called him back and he eventually left Madisonville for his old Kentucky home.

Shortly after his departure in 1830 a new structure, a two story frame tavern and hotel, was erected called the Goggin House at the prominent intersection.   It became the area stagecoach stop.    In the 1880s, that was replaced by a new structure for Maphet’s Grocery, owned by Timothy and Lon Maphet. It served as Frank Ferris Cafe for a bit, which served bonded whiskey, and it then housed Bainum’s Drug Store in the 1910s.    That was then then replaced by the brick structure that housed the Fifth Third Bank in 1927.    The bank vacated in 1982 and the building has not been consistently utilized until it was recently renovated for the Bad Tom Smith Brewery.

The northeast corner of Madison and Whetsel in about the 1890s as the Frank Ferris Cafe.

Lucky for us home brewers and weird food afficionados a basic recipe for Perry’s Pea Hull Beer survives and was printed during the 1959 Sesquicentennial Celebration of Madisonville in the Eastern Hills Journal.    It goes something like this:

“Pour six gallons of water on a bushel of green pea shells and boil the whole until the shells are insipid to the taste.  Pour off the water, which will be very sweet into a clean tub or keg and add a pint of yeast and two ounces of ground ginger.   Fermentation will soon take place and the beer will be fit for use.   Beer prepared in this manner is very clear, has an amber color, is pungent to the taste and has a fine head when poured into a tumbler.   One bushel of pea shells makes several dozen bottles of beer.   If not put in a cool place and corks secured by wire the bottles would burst with a loud explosion.   This beer so distilled (it was actually not distilled but fermented.   Chalk that up to lack of chemistry knowledge in one room schooling) made a spirit (again not a spirit, but a beer, but this was before taxably different categories of spirit , beer and wine) of the taste and color of whiskey, Perry’s account related.  He added, “In trying this any reader is on his own.”    Well that’s not an encouraging statement from the author!

This Madisonville concoction wouldn’t meet the regulations of the Germanic Reinheitsgebot purity laws, and probably wouldn’t appeal to the Germanic immigrants of the area, but beggars can’t be choosers I guess.    And Madisonville, having a plethora of mills placed strategically on the nearby Little Miami River, was more of corn whiskey country than beer country, like downtown Cincinnati was.   In fact, the area of Madisonville along Wooster Pike where the Frisch’s Mainliner is, was called Whiskey Hollow.

I am a homebrewer and although curious how a pea hull based beer with ginger would taste, I’m not sure I want to invest in an entire bushel.   I may just have to scale the recipe down a bit.    But I’d be happy to taste a pea hull beer made by Bad Tom or even at the National Exemplar.

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!!