The Third “W” in BW-3 Comes From a Swabian Halloween Bread

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If you’re a Gen Xer like me, you probably spent way too many college weekends or game days eating at a BW-3,  or B-dubs, as we affectionately called it.      This is where most Americans were introduced to the ingenious and now ubiquitous Buffalo wings.   The delicacy was invented in 1964, at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York, by Teresa Bellissimo.

It was invented out of necessity with Cincinnati-made Frank’s Tea and Spice Company’s Frank’s RedHot Sauce, founded by German-Jewish immigrants.

But if you’re also like me, you had no idea where the third “W”  in BW-3 comes.     Wild Wings takes care of the first two, but where’s the third W?    To learn that we have to go back to its founding.

In 1982, three buddies Jim Disbrow, Scott Lowery, and Bernard Spencer, from Buffalo were living in Columbus, Ohio, and decided to open a restaurant to supply their favorite tailgate food – Buffalo wings – which was not yet available in the Buckeye State.     Not being marketing geniuses, they first named their restaurant Buffalo Wild Wings & Weck.  And, because THAT name is so memorable, they shortened it to BW-3.    It was a good decision because in 35 years there are now over 1200 locations around the U.S.    So there’s the third W, but what the heck, is a weck?

Weck, as it turns out is shorthand for another Buffalo favorite, the beef on weck sandwich.   Weck refers to the bread its served on, another German immigrant invented bread, called Kummelweck or “caraway bun.”     Weck is what the southwest Germans call their bun.  In the north its called Brotchen, in Austria it’s called Semmel.

Legend has it that Wilhelm Wahr, a baker from the Black Forest, near Swabia in Germany, immigrated to Buffalo, New York, and brought his recipe for kummelweck to his bakery on Herman Street, which he operated from 1886-1924.    In 1901, Wahr, as legend goes, convinced Delaware House owner, Jon Gohn, to use his signature kummelweck to serve as the bread in his thinly sliced, rare roast beef sandwiches, with fresh shaved horseradish and dipped in beef jus.      The kicker for pub owner Jon Gohn was the flecks of kosher salt on the bread, which increased his beer sales at lunch time, when he served the beef on weck for free.    Other bartenders caught on and the beef on weck became a staple at Buffalo and West New York bars and breweries.

But kummelweck is not something you will find in Swabia, so where did the recipe come from?   In pagan Europe, people believed the souls of their dead rose from the grave one day a year to visit their familiar old haunts.   It’s the Germanic version of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.    Gifts of food were offered to these souls to ensure good luck in the upcoming year.  After Christianity spread through Europe the Church tried to accommodate these long held pagan customs and created All Saint’s Day in late October to honor the dead.

Though the Catholic Church didn’t like the belief that the actual spirits of the dead wandered from house to house, some people continued to leave food offerings while others dressed up and played the role of the departed to collect these treats, just to be on the safe side.   Thus began the tradition of Halloween.  And the Germans love dressing up in masks and costumes – a la Halloween, Fasching, and Krampuslaufs.   Each region had its own specialty for the occasion and in Swabia it was a long thin loaf – looking sort of like a coffin or corpse –  covered with salt and caraway seeds.   It is known as Schwäbische Seele, which translates from German as “Swabian soul” bread.  Centuries later and thousands of miles away, this Swabian Halloween treat would be shrunk into a weck or bun and cast in an entirely different role by Herr Wahr.

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Swabian soul bread with caraway and sea salt.

An interesting local German immigrant Halloween custom is reminiscent of this soul bread custom in Swabia.  Up into the 1960s in historically German immigrant  neighborhoods of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, kids would say “Kickele, Kickele” instead of Trick-or-treat at Halloween when going door to door.     Originally this was a request for the kickele, a sugary type of fried donut from Germany.

Locally, you can try a beef on weck sandwich at Kelly’s Public House in the first floor of the Radison Hotel in Covington, Kentucky.

 

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The Best German Cookbook in Cincinnati 2017

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There’s nothing more precious than the collection of the recipes of our ancestors.  There are several recipes I wish I had, but never thought to write down as a kid – my Grandfather’s North German Eierliquor (eggnog) recipe, for example.  At long last, one such compilation of recipes is available thanks to the wonderful ladies of the Cincinnati Donauschwaben Verein.  I had the lovely opportunity to cook with a group of them at Findlay Kitchen’s Stir event back in the Spring.   I picked up my cookbook last night at the fabulous Donauschwaben Oktoberfest at their clubhouse ‘Conditorei‘  or Sweet Shop, in Colerain Township.  Appropriately, in discussion over apfelstrudel ,  I found out my oldest friend is actually a Donauschwaben by ancestry, via Romania.

Interlaced in the cookbook are both the German names for the recipes, as well as history behind the Donauschwabs and their customs.   The Donauschwabens were a group of German pioneers who settled the area of modern day  Hungary, Romania, and Serbia, after Princess Marie Theresa of Austria and others defeated the Ottoman Turks.     These Donauschwabs travelled to the area by barge on the Danube or Donau River, originating from areas like Alsace-Lorraine and Luxemburg.    Here in what is called the Banat, or Panonian Lowlands of Eastern Europe.     They kept their German customs alive, especially their food, and post-WWII Communism in Eastern Europe sent many of them, all Catholics, back to Germany and many to the United States.

The Donauschwabens were known for their yummy pastries – many filled with apricot, cherry, or poppy seed.   Their cakes were made with ground nut flours of hazelnuts and walnuts, giving them a richer, deeper flavor.

One interesting note in the book is that on St Nick’s Day it was a special treat for children to receive oranges in their shoes, because there were no orange trees in their area.    It reminded me of my visit to my father’s family’s ancestral hometown in Northern Germany.   When my cousins invited us into their house, they didn’t serve us wine, beer, or brandy, they served us orange juice because it was rare and expensive.    We received oranges as kids in our St. Nick’s Day stockings too, but since they were readily available, I didn’t understand the origin of the tradition.

One of the recipes in the book is for Palatschinken, an Eastern European crepe, that will be served in a few weeks at the Donauschwaben’s Kirchweih or Church Dedication ceremony, where traditionally a young woman and a rosemary bush were auctioned off to the highest bidder.   The tradition sounds on the outset a bit barbaric, but it was really more tongue-in-cheek.  Usually a betrothed was picked as the Kirchweih Frau and her father, cousins, or brothers upped the bidding so her fiancé would have to fork out more money to save face.     The Palatschinken crepe is filled with sweet jams or can be savory with creamed mushrooms or meat fillings.

There are a variety of savory goulash recipes in the book that look amazing, and many vegetable dishes like cauliflower with paprika sauce (blumenkohl mit paprika sosse) and a creamy & vinegary celery root slaw (Zeller salat), both of  which are on my bucket list.   Unfortunately, one recipe you won’t find is for the insanely delicious Donauschwaben sausage, smoked and non smoked, that they serve at the clubhouse and which I had the pleasure of eating last night at the Oktoberfest celebration.    I unsuccessfully tried to get the sausage spice blend from several Oma’s at the food booths, but all were sworn to secrecy.    They would not even tell me who the butcher was who grinds the meat and makes the sausages for them.     I guess some bit of mystery is good.   The sausage is dense, not too much fat, and has a wonderful mild herby flavor and is not too spicy.   They do make a spicier version in their annual sausage sales that typically sell out very quickly.

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I’ll just have to be happy with buying the wonderful Donauschwaben sausages without knowing their secrets.   But now I have a whole cookbook of wonderful historic meals to cook my way through this winter.

 

 

Pemmican, The Original Craft Jerky

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As we approach Columbus Day, many cities and municipalities are voting and deciding to change the name of the holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day or Native American Day.  I do think its a bit ridiculous to celebrate a man who never knew he wasn’t in India, enslaved the people he met, and never set foot in North America.

If we in the former Louisiana Purchase Midwest were to celebrate the first non Natives to discover our area – it would be the French Jesuit missionaries from Quebec, Canada, like Fr. Jacques Marquette.    Fr. Marquette explored the area of the Ohio and Miami Valleys by canoe and actually ate with and lived with the Indians.   He documented over 30 Shawnee villages in Cincinnati’s Little Miami Valley from today’s Mariemont, Newtown, and Columbia Tusculum.    There were even ancient burial mounds of the Shawnee’s ancestors on early maps of downtown Cincinnati that were leveled for development – a la the naming of Mound Street.

Fr. Marquette documented what was on the menu at these Shawnee villages in our city.    He talked about their corn and vegetables, and their meats.     Before refrigeration these Shawnee and other Indian tribes had to come up with a way to preserve this meat to last in hotter weather months.    The way they preserved their large game was making it into a jerky that was called Pemmican, derived from the Cree-Chippewa word ‘pimmi’, which means fat or grease.   There was probably a Shawnee specific word for this prepared meat jerky, and certainly a local recipe, but as Fr. Marquette was more interested in conversion of the Indians than their food etymology, we do not have that deep a  history.

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Today we have this explosion of ‘craft’ jerkies that boast numerous flavors.  I don’t think the Shawnee had Sweet Sriracha or Honey Bourbon flavored pemmican.    Some of these makers to their credit do give invention shout-out  to the Native Americans.     It’s about high time that we gave our Native Americans credit for the food that we now think of as American.  It was they who introduced us to corn, tomatoes, the clam bake, chili, Boston baked beans, pumpkins, avacados, lobster, and many other dishes.      Heck, we couldn’t tailgate without the majority of these Native American foods.   Had the Indians not had cooking classes for the weary Europeans, there would be no guacamole or tortilla chips, no game-day chili, and no tomato sauce for our pizzas.    And for you fans of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, there would be none of that either.

This Pemmican, was made from meat dried in the sun and then ground with fat, and mixed with local berries – cranberries and Saskatoon berries in the north, and wild blueberries, cherries, chokeberries, and currants.   In a sense, this prepared meat was like a verion of Indian Goetta, minus the grain addition.  Our Losantaville Shawnees might have used local blackberries or service berries as their additives.     The Indians carried this with them as energy bars on their hunting and scouting expeditions.   Even the French fur traders that they interacted with adapted the use of pemmican on their long trips, even using it as a form of currency.

So, it’s about time we thank Tecumseh and Blue Jacket and their families for sharing their kitchen with our ancestors.

 

Van Gogh loved Balkenbrij, A Food Ancestor of Goetta

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Since my trip to New Orleans two years ago, I have been following in the footsteps of the only Dutch ancestry line in my family.    My fourth great grandparents Rainier and Grada Reinsen (great Dutch names, huh?!)  arrived in New Orleans 1846  from Rotterdam, Holland, with their family of seven children, one of whom was my third great grandmother, Hendricka-Johanna.   She would meet her future husband, a Prussian tailor, Caspar Krebs, on their ship, the Scotia, and marry him at he St. Mary’s Ursuline Chapel on Chartres Street a year later.    They would  baptize two children there before heading up the Mississippi to Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, just in time for the Know Nothing anti-immigrant riots of the early 1850s.

What was different about this Dutch line from most of the Dutch, and the reason they immigrated, was that they were Dutch Catholics – two strikes against them for the Know Nothings.     The Dutch Republic had been persecuting the Catholics and forced them into the most southern rural province, called Limburg.      Most of us have heard of the stinky, but super-delicious Limburger Cheese, one of the province’s proud products.   The province of Limburg is an intersection of German, Dutch, and Flemish language and food, so I had to research more about their culinary traditions, to see if any of these traditions made it into my family’s foodways.

So I went to the website of the province to find out about their food.   What I found was a very interesting ancestor of goetta called balkenbrij.     The site says there is nothing more ‘Limburgische’ than balkenbrij.    It’s literal translation from the Dutch means ‘belly porridge,’  because, like goetta, it was originally made from everything left over in the belly of the pig at slaughtering time for the poor rural farmers of the region.     It’s prepared with the pluck – heart, liver, lungs and kidneys –  along with other leftover meat from the pig, and sometimes blood, cooked, ground and cooked again, with bacon, and some sort of grain – which varies from buckwheat to rye.

Then, here’s where it’s different than our goetta.   Because of the high content of organ meat, a special local spice blend is used, called rommelkruid, which consists of ground licorice, sugar, anise, clove, cinnamon, white pepper, ginger, and sandalwood – think of German gingerbread spices.    Goetta typically only used allspice to counter the minerally organ flavor when it used those cuts in its early days.

The website says Balkenbrij in Limburg “is a delicacy that should not be absent from any Christmas breakfast, and to make it without blood is unthinkable.”     Ok, so that made it into our family – no Christmas breakfast at home is without goetta.    Balkenbrij was so popular in the old days, that during Lenten fasting, a meatless variety was made with pork stock.    After being poured in loaf pans and gelled, the delicacy is cut in 1 cm thick slices and pan fried, ususally in ox fat, the staple fat of the region, until ‘brown and crispy.’

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Limburger balkenbrij, made with pig’s blood.

Balkenbrij is also eaten in variation in the two provinces that border Limburg.  Gelderland, to the east doesn’t use blood.  But they do sweeten it up with the use of raisins, currants, or other local sweet berries.     Their sweeter variety is served with sugar, or a sweet syrup called treacle, over pancakes.       The more savory Limburg version is served, like goetta, as a meat substitute, and with a good rye bread.

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Gelderland balkenbrij, made without blood, and with raisins and currants.

The rural farm province of Brabant to the east, makes a much simpler version, probably because of the expense of the spices.       In Germany, across the border from Limburg, pearl barley instead of buckwheat or rye, is used in their variant of balkenbrij, which is called Moppkenbrot.

Brabant is where the famous Dutch impressionist Van Gogh was raised and started his career.   Although the majority of his famous paintings are in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, he spent the 1880s sketching the rural farmers – the balkenbrij eaters – of Brabant.     His first masterpiece, the Potato Eaters, shows a family of Brabant farmers sitting to a modest dinner.    That painting should really be named the Balkenbrij Eaters!  A local Van Gogh tour in Brabant has a day of regional cooking of the days of Van Gogh, with regional chefs, and it features balkenbrij.    So, Van Gogh subsisted on this wonderful grain sausage as he built his illustrious career.

93435_v_GoghVan Gogh’s first masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, painted in balkenbrij country of  the Dutch Brabant province.

Today, according to the website, there are only 50 butchers in Gelderland that make balkenbrij, and 20 or so in Limburg and Brabant combined.   A 1995 campaign in the Netherlands, called “Tafelen in Nederland,”  (Dining in the Netherlands) tried to revive regional home cuisine, like balkenbrij, with the younger generations, serving elevated dishes like “wild boar and balkenbrij in puff pastry.”    But sadly, interest in balkenbrij in the Netherlands is decreasing, because like goetta, it is a long, laborious, many hours process to make.

And, balkenbrij made it to America in the large areas of Dutch immigrants in and around Holland, and Zeeland, Michigan, where it’s eaten in an Americanized form on a small scale.

So now whenever I hear anyone look down on goetta as poor man’s food -that it uses all the cheap organs and bad parts –  I can point to one of it’s ancestors, balkenbrij, and how it fueled the career that launched million dollar paintings.

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Mace vs. Nutmeg – Muskatblute vs. Muskatnuss

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Before I get started – I’ll admit straight out that I am on Team Mace. In this season of PSLs (pumpkin spice lattes)  it’s important to understand the difference between two spices, which are actually part of the same ‘nut’, that grows in Indonesia on the evergreen tree named the Myristica frangrans.     Nutmeg or mace are part of pumpkin pie spices, gingerbread cookies, and of course, its one of the Sweet Apostoulos (Sweet Apostles) of Cincinnati chili spices.

Mace and nutmeg, in my opinion, are like two sisters.   One is the more devious of the two (mace) – perhaps the spicy redhead.     The other is the more classic or conservative sister (nutmeg).

My grandpa always swore by using mace in the pumpkin pies he made at his bakery, rather than nutmeg, citing that mace was spicier.    Mace is the outside, reddish lacy covering of the nutmeg, which is the seed kernel.     Both are considered two separate spices – and chefs have wavered back and forth between as to which is spicier than the other.

Nutmeg is one of the secret spices in my favorite soda, Coca-Cola.  Another interesting fact is that it contains hallucinogens, which are usually not enacted with the small amounts we include in recipes for Christmas cookies or the cream sauces for fish or spinach.   The flavor of mace is described as more subtle but spicier –  a combination of cinnamon and pepper.

Nutmeg used to be sold in its whole nut form sans outer mace covering.    The nuts were kept in elaborate boxes with elaborate graters.      Grated nutmeg is always spicier and more flavorful than already ground nutmeg you buy in the spice aisle.    The Dutch were some of the earliest importers of the spice.   The lead character in the new movie Tulip Fever, set in 17th century Amsterdam, was a nutmeg importer.     There’s a scene in the movie where he inspects a shipment of nutmeg from Indonesia, to find that they shippers have weighted the nutmegs down with shells.    The Dutch love their nutmeg, which is one of the spices in their beloved sweet spread, spekulaas, which is like a liquid gingerbread they use as Americans use peanut butter.

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Recently I started translating a recipe in old German sutterlin script for Nuremburger Lebkuchen or Gingerbread.     The recipe called for 1/2 Lot (about 15 grams) of muskatnusse, along with cinnamon and cloves.        Modern German recipes just call for muskat – which is the generic, blander already ground.   Muskatnusse is ground nutmeg, but muskatblute is mace.   Modern German bakers consider fresh ground nutmeg spicier than mace.    But then I don’t think Germans, who think paprika is ‘scharf’, are experts on spice!   Nutmeg is definitely cheaper than mace, so maybe their camp is a justification of the frugal.

So as you make your pumpkin pies and gingerbread cookies this holiday season, consider the spicier sister, Mace, in your recipes.

Prettles, Yet Another Goetta Cousin from Northwest Ohio German Immigrants

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A pan of Henry County, Ohio, prettles, a first cousin to our Cincinnati Goetta.

Yesterday, I received two comments on my Kansas Pruttles blog, by folks from Henry County, Ohio.     That’s the county in the area of Toledo, Ohio.      They both spoke of this Germanic dish both of their families made in the area around Napoleon, Ohio, growing up in the 1950s, called prettles.  It consists of pork, spices, and pinhead or regular oats – a close first cousin of our goetta.    Now we can connect  the “Interstate 75 Goetta Cousin Trail”  from Cincinnati’s Goetta, to Minster’s Grits in middle Ohio, and to Henry County’s Prettles, in northwest Ohio.

Prettles is prepared a bit differently than our goetta, even though the ingredients are the same.  Instead of putting it in a crock pot or large pot, the meat and oats are cooked separately and then mixed together, before baking on a sheet pan.   Sometimes, they’re made into patties and frozen.    Goetta is typically poured into bread pans and cooled, frozen, and cut into slabs to be fried.    Prettles is fried, but its in more loose form and eaten on toast.  Sometimes, like our goetta, it’s dressed with a sweet syrup like molasses or sorghum or ketchup.

The cool thing about Henry County is that we can tie prettles to a very specific region in the Germanic kingdoms.    Most of the Germanic immigrants in Henry County, Ohio, came from an area called Visselhovede or Walsrode, a small farming community in the northern German lowlands,  generally between Bremen and Hamburg.

My father’s family come from upper Mecklenburg, next door to this area.    An old German electrician at my first plant job out of college called me ‘Klaudeitsch’, when I told him of my family’s origin.   When I asked him what it meant he said. “See how big your feet are?  That’s so you don’t sink into the marshland.  And see how tall you are?  That’s so if you do, you can still yell as you are sinking to be rescued!”

Similar to the low lying farm country of Westphalia and Hanover where our goetta originated, the German patronymic farming system left the younger relatives without any land, as bauer  or farmhands who worked for their oldest brother, had to ask to get married and were basically serfs.   This predicament sent many of them packing to America.

These lowland Germanic immigrants of Henry County, spoke low German, and were mostly Lutherans.     They  turned what was then called Ohio’s great black swamp into fertile farmgrounds,  into a mirror of their fatherland.

The Henry County Historical Society interviewed several old retired farmers born in the 1930s for an oral history project and they all mentioned that their families made prettles (along with blood sausage and schwartenmagen or ‘head cheese’) at the time of hog butchering.

A butcher, Herm’s Meats in Napoleon, Ohio, makes two types of prettles by request, and a whole host of German sausages.     They make the typical pork and beef, and then one made only with beef shank and beef heart.   The current owner of Herm’s says that the pork makes a richer broth for the prettles.    Herman Bischoff started the business in 1964, so he could provide the German meats like prettles, that he had in his youth, but were no longer available.

There are two restaurants in Napoleon that serve the local delicacy on their breakfast menus as a ‘choice of meat’ with eggs – Spangler’s and Big G’s – and one truck stop about 5 miles out of town.    But travel 20 miles out in either direction from Napoleon and you won’t find prettles.

While prettles is eaten today in the homes of those of Germanic ancestry in Napoleon, Defiance, and Archibald, Ohio, it’s also eaten in Putnam County, just south of Henry County, and can still be found at Holgate Market in that area.

Hamler, Ohio, in Henry County is famous for late July Summerfest, where 25,000 people ascend to polka dance and eat sausages and prettles.

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Kentucky Country Ham – A Forgotten Food Tradition

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Hanging in all their glory at the Alexandria Country Fair this year were the beautiful  Kentucky Country Hams of the students of the statewide 4H Ham Project.   This year’s winner in Campbell County was Samantha Webster.     Of the 17 participants in the months long program, which is set to revive the dying craft with the next generation, more than half are girls.    Last year’s winner of the Country Ham project was another gal, California, Kentucky native, Deborah Myers, who also won the Kentucky State Fair 4 H Ham Project.    After learning the process hands-on, the students submit their hams at the Kentucky State Fair and then show them at the Alexandria Fair in August.   They are judged on aroma, size and cleanliness, and shape.      The students must also give a presentation on one of two topics  – country ham history or how to market country ham.   The program was started in 1995 by Bill Robertson Jr., of Finchville Farms Country Hams.    The program has grown from 42 students in two counties to now over 700 students statewide.

In Campbell County, the hams are hand rubbed with a cure of salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper.   But every family in Kentucky has its own secret spice blend.   Some may use mustard in the rub, or paprika or even herbs.    The state is split down the center as to smoke or not – West Kentucky hams are (cold) smoked, Eastern Kentucky hams are not.  Most of the commercial producers in Kentucky do smoke their hams with hickory wood.  Only one commercial producer in Kentucky smokes with the addition of sassafras wood.

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So seeing these beautiful hams made me remember how long it had been since I’ve actually had Kentucky Country Ham.   I do remember the beautiful earthy, barny flavor but I don’t even remember where I had it.     The interesting thing is that most country ham is shipped out of the state to high end restaurants in NYC and California, who are using and appreciating it as American born and bred charcuterie.     There are only a few farm to table type restaurants in Greater Cincinnati, like Metrople and Commonwealth Bistro, who are doing anything with country ham.    One of the best ways to experience country ham is uncooked, thin sliced, with a dollop of pimento cheese in a beaten biscuit.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to properly cook country ham.  It’s usually cooked way too  long to the consistency of shoe leather and served as a steak with badly made red eye gravy.    Country ham doesn’t need to be cooked much at all – only a few minutes, especially thinly sliced – only until the fat first becomes transparent.    Country ham also has the bad rap of being way too salty.  Again this comes down to bad preparation – not soaking it enough to remove the salts.   Some producers use saltpeter or nitrite to cut down on the amount of salt needed for the cure.   Salt is essentially competing with bacteria to be the first to get to the bone.     If salt wins, you get a beautifully cured ham.

It also comes to the aging – with a year or more of aging, a country ham doesn’t even need to be cooked – it can be sliced and served as such like prosciutto – that’s when the best of the beautiful flavors or country ham come out – notes of tobacco, hickory, or even sassafras, as seen with those few producers who smoke with a combination of woods .      Each aging barn or smokehouse has its own native bacteria that give different subtleties of flavor.    The aging during the ‘summer sweats’ as they’re called, contribute the most of the flavor.     The younger hams under a year,  are the only ones that should ever be cooked.   They still have a bit of moisture and are not as hard as the longer aged hams.

I am a hamvangelist.  But in our Queen City, it can be found mostly in the German form, like the Westphalian ham, or even the cottage ham, which isn’t really ham at all.     With the recent popularity of charcuterie in restaurants, people will pay top dollar for an Italian proscuito or Spanish Iberrico cured ham.    But we forget that we have a centuries old tradition in artfully cured hams right across the river in our Kentucky cured hams.   But why is that?

There’s the fact that it’s a very laborious art.    From the trimming of fat, the hand rubbing of salt and spices, to the hanging, the smoking, and  the constant monitoring and packaging, there’s a lot of steps in the process.    The USDA regulations created in the 1980s have not made this process any easier or less expensive.    Then there are the large producers like Harper’s of Clinton, Kentucky, who semi-automate the process and produce on the order of 200,000 hams a year, where small producers like Scott Hams of Greenville, Kentucky, or Father’s Country Hams of Bremen, Kentucky, produce on the order of 5000 a year.    The large producers have an upper leg on economies of scale and do a lot better job of marketing themselves.    Harper’s former owner, Curtis Harper, took on a persona like Boss Hog of the Dukes of Hazard, calling himself “Boss Ham” and filming commercials with the slogan, “Never Fear, Boss Ham is Here!”

Although Triggs County, where the annual Ham Fest happens, is considered the capital of Kentucky Country Hams, we used to have more northern Kentucky-local producers.   One was Taylor Farms Country Hams, founded in the 1950s by Edwin Wiley Taylor in Harrison County, Cynthiana, Kentucky, just northwest of Lexington.     They lasted until the 1980s, when Edwin’s grandson, Michael Taylor sold and moved to Florida.    But before selling he experimented with a country ham fast food concept called The Olde Smokehouse, which had restaurants in Moorehead, and in the Shakertown Village in Pleasanthill, Kentucky.

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C. Michael Taylor, last owner of Taylor Country Hams in Cynthiana, Kentucky, in the 1980s.

For centuries, even before the birth of the state in 1792, families who came to Kentucky from Virginia had been smoking and salt curing country hams for their families out of necessity.      Before refrigeration, salt curing was the way families were able to preserve meat, especially pork.      Nearly every one of the eight commercial producers left in Kentucky has an origin story like that.   The Newsom family of  Colonel Newsom’s Country Hams in Princeton, Kentucky, even though founded commercially in 1917 by Hosea Newsom, had been curing country hams since they arrived in Western Kentucky in 1823 to claim a Revolutionary War land grant.   The first ancestor there, William Newsom, even willed his country ham recipe to descendants.   Now carried on by Hosea’s granddaughter, Nancy Newsom, one of the few female Kentucky Colonels, it has received international recognition and is the only country ham producer in the states invited to the prestigious World Congress on Ham in 2009 in Spain, where one of her hams now hangs in the Museo del Jamon.

Even into the 1940s, country ham wasn’t something you necessarily would find at the store.    Rural Kentucky families either cured their own, or knew someone in the area who did.    It wasn’t until after World War II that families started commercially producing country hams.      The industry peaked in the 1980s with 35 producers at the founding in 1982 of the Kentucky Country Ham Producers Association.   Now there are only 8 commercial producers left.

In addition to USDA regulations providing larger barriers of entry and continuation to smaller producers, changes in American eating habits have affected the industry.     It used to be that retail grocers would buy the whole ham and slice on site.  Now they want prepackaged already sliced meal sized portions for the ready to eat market.     And, dry smoked bacon has surpassed the sales of country ham for most of the producers.    The good thing is that Millennials eat out much more than their older Generation X and  Baby Boomer elders, so they have experienced and appreciate the country ham they eat at restaurants.      The only problem is marketing to them, which is done by hitting the events like the Fancy Food Show, the Country Ham Expo, and music events like Nashville Eats.

What would be cool is if the Alexandria fair hosted and marketed a local country ham tasting of the 4 H project products – or, if Metrople or Commonwealth hosted a country ham tasting.       The only way you’re going to taste the variety of country hams is at the Ham Festival coming up in October 13 and 14 in Cadiz, Kentucky, in Triggs County.     I will definitely be there!