Artisan Marshmallows in Cincinnati

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What childhood memory could be sweeter than the first time you tasted a s’more -the delightfulness of that ooey-gooey, campfire-charred marshmallow, melted chocolate and graham cracker crunch.   Well, that’s the experience Cincinnati’s newest confectioner is trying to recreate.     Meet Maggie Kraus, owner of Quaintrelle Confections.   She’s chosen Main Street in Over-the-Rhine as the location of her new ‘campfire.’      Her location is stacked alongside Allez Bakery and Macaroon Bar, in what’s becoming another artisan food mecca in downtown.

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Maggie Kraus, owner of Quaintrelle Confections.

Maggie is a former archeologist turned confectioner, with a passion for history.    She makes artisan marshmallows, and also serves up combinations for gourmet s’mores at her store.       She is one of only five artisan marshmallow makers in the U.S.

The difference between Maggie’s handcrafted marshmallows and the bagged, commercially made kind, is night and day!     Hers don’t have the gummy bite back, and the artificial polymeric texture.     She uses no high fructose corn syrup or preservatives – only cane sugar.   The result is a creamier, lighter, and more velvety mallow.   When I visited this past weekend, I tasted her peanut butter and bourbon flavors.   They are definitely creamier and delightful.  The flavors don’t overpower and make you forget you’re eating a marshmallow.

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She had just sold out her bulk supply the night before at her grand opening.   And, it takes 10 hours to make a batch of marshmallows, so it would be this week before I could get my gift supply.   She makes a whole line of more flavors including, s’mores, peanut butter and jelly, champagne, snickerdoodle, rocky road, chocolate chip, and classic vanilla.   There will probably be more flavors as she gets going, experiments more, and customers request new flavors – perhaps an eggnog flavor for next year.

Maggie is a product of an incubator kitchen in Newport, Kentucky, and is already off to a great start.   She’s  supplying Maverick Chocolates at Findlay Market for their hot chocolate.   They’ve asked her to make mini versions of her credit card sized mallows.  Maverick’s bean-to-bar chocolate is what she uses in her gourmet s’mores.

I am sold on this unique new adder to Cincinnati’s food scene.

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Ethical Chocolate

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As a kid, I had a pen pal, from Korofidua, Ghana. We exchanged letters for over a year and discussed things important to 9 year olds – what sports and games we liked to play, what foods we liked. We both liked ping-pong, or as he called it, table tennis. But the Atari 2600 hadn’t made it to Ghana in 1983 yet, so he hadn’t heard of Pong, or other early video games. We exchanged small currencies of each of our countries and other small things that could fit in an envelope. We talked about dreams and what we wanted to do when we grew up.

 
Little did I know that at age 9, how important it was for him to do well in school and progress to high school. Being in Ghana, the second largest exporter of cacao in the world, he was in grave danger of being trafficked for child labor. He was lucky enough to have made it to a good school. But there was a resistance going on against the military government at that time. A few months after we started writing, he told me his name was changing because his father died and his mother quickly remarried. I wonder now if his father had been part of the resistance. Being without a father would have made him even more vulnerable.

 
I didn’t know that the Kit Kat bars I loved at the time, were made by Nestle with cacao beans harvested by child slave labor. Luckily my pal Seth made it through and is now managing a hotel in Ghana’s largest city, Accra, and has a lovely wife and cute little daughter. But approximately 1.8 million children in West Africa, in countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast, are not so lucky and are exposed to the worst forms of labor on cacao farms.

 
The American Candy industry is a $25 billion industry – pretty huge if you think about it. The industry is largely dominated by two players – Mars and Hershey – or in other words – Big Chocolate. Together they share 60% of the US market. Their lobbyists have spent decades preventing the story of child labor in their industry from being news, and the companies have only recently paid lip service to the issue.

 
If you’ve eaten an M & M or Snicker or any of these Big Chocolate products, you’ve contributed to trafficked child slave labor on cacao plantations on the Ivory Coast of Africa. You’ve also contributed to the destruction of rainforests, and questionable government practices like grease payments going to government officials and not to the welfare of the people working.

 
In the 2010 documentary “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” it was reported that 140 kids in 2007, and 156 in 2008 and 2009, were rescued from trafficking in Ivory Coast’s cacao industry. Some of these children were as young as 9, and were trafficked from neighboring countries of Mali and Niger. A statistic was also given in the documentary that a child can be bought in Africa for cacao slavery for 230 euros for indefinite labor. These children are submitted to dangerous working conditions, using sharp machetes to remove cacao pods, lifting heavy loads, and beatings when their productivity is not judged good enough.

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The cacao farms get the least profit from the industry –which drives their use of trafficked child labor. An intermediary buys from a cacao farm in the Ivory Coast for 1 Euro a kilo. They sell to a national exporter like Saf-Cacao in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, the world’s third largest exporter, for 2 and a half Euros after washing and packing the beans. The beans are then sold on a stock exchange to Big Chocolate companies, and 1 kilo of beans become 40 chocolate bars for them. Saf-Cacao makes a profit of 135 Million Euros per year selling cacao beans.

 
Reporting on the abuses of the cacao industry is dangerous for journalists. In 2004, French Canadian journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer was kidnapped while working on a story about bribery and money laundering of cocoa money in the Ivory Coast, and has not been seen since. In 2001, two American senators authored a bill to create a system of grading and labelling chocolates to eradicate use of child slave labor. Big Chocolate companies lobbied against this, and the bill was shut down. However, this became what is now known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, whose goal in 2004 was to eradicate the use of child labor in cacao by 2008. It was extended to 2010 and the goal still not met. The accord has no legal recourse and is just lip service by the big chocolate companies like Hershey, Nestle, ADM, Cargill and Barre-Carebaugh who signed it.

 
Every time you take a bite into a Mounds or Almond Joy, you’re essentially eating ‘blood chocolate,’ just like a blood diamond. Even if you’ve had the higher end brands like Toblerone or Godiva or Haagen Daaz or Breyer’s Ice Cream chocolate flavors, you’ve eaten blood chocolate You’d think something so innocent and delightful as chocolate could not be such an industry, but it is. Hershey as part of their Hershey Learn to Grow Program built a school – that’s one school – in the Ivory Coast of Africa that touched less than 150 kids. With the profits they make on chocolate they source from the Ivory Coast, Hershey could open hundreds, maybe thousands of schools. But they act blithely unaware and continue their practices of sourcing from cacao plantations that use child labor. So the program, in effect, only quells their conscience or is used as a diverter to what’s really going on behind the scenes.

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The ethically sourced bean-to-bar chocolates of Maverick in Over-the-Rhine.
So how do you avoid eating blood chocolate and find sustainable makers? Locally, we have one bean to bar chocolate maker in Over-the-Rhine – Paul Picton, owner of Maverick Chocolates – who visits the plantations and ethically sources from farms only in Latin America, not West Africa, who do not employ child labor. Maverick uses the Direct Trade model, purchasing beans so farmers and co-ops receive $500 per metric ton over market price. Maverick sources beans from Belize, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Peru.

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Other local chocolatiers like Velveteen, Fawn, and Latour Chocolates also ethically source the chocolate they use to make their confections. There are several labels for ethical chocolates. There is slave free, fair trade, and organic labels. Organic doesn’t always guarantee ethical or slave free. But at least there are ways to identify and attempt to track the problem. And even since the 2010 documentary, the problem has still not been solved. The worldwide industry now commits to eliminating child slavery in cacao production by 2020. I hope that they are motivated and able to make that work. We think slavery is a thing of the past, but in the case of chocolate, it’s really staring us in the face every day, at every grocery or gas station counter. And, it’s important we understand the issue and where our chocolate is coming from. I can’t eat another product of Hershey or Mars now, knowing what’s behind it.

 

 

The Magic Behind Cincy’s Bread Baron

 

This past weekend I had the opportunity to meet the Bread Baron of Cincinnati, Ken Klosterman. Little did I know that a trip to Georgetown, Ohio, about 50 minutes east of Cincinnati along the Ohio River would connect me to Cincinnati’s bread making history. Ken’s four generation family-owned business has an interesting story, not widely known in Cincinnati. Operating out of a small, discreet, pink- bricked art deco building in St. Bernard, off of the Norwood Lateral, they have grown under Ken’s leadership, into a commercial bread powerhouse, and one of the largest family owned bakeries in the country. The growth has been largely fueled by the hamburger bun. The bakery is known for many firsts – including making the first square loaf of bread and the first hamburger bun in Cincinnati.

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Ken’s Grandfather, Benjamin Klosterman arrived in Cincinnati in the 1880s from the State of Brandenburg, Germany, and started the French Baking Company, with his brother Frank Klosterman, The business passed to Bernard, Ken’s father. Ken’s aunt Blanche and Uncle Frank operated a retail bakery and tearoom from the 1920s to the 1970s at the old Dixie Terminal in downtown Cincinnati.

 
Today, Klosterman own baking plants in Morristown, Indiana, and Springfield, Ohio. In 1996 Klosterman joined two other bakeries to build a facility in Dickson, Tennessee, to supply hamburger buns exclusively to McDonald’s. Ken has since built facilities in Puerto Rico, in 1998, and Springboro, Ohio, in 2006. They are this year looking at building another baking facility in Hebron, Kentucky.
Klosterman dropped out of home delivery service in 1970 and went exclusively wholesale. They supply buns to national fast food chains like McDonald’s and Arby’s, local chains like Frisch’s for their rye fish buns, Gold Star’s coney buns, and small one-locations like, Zip’s in Mt. Lookout. In the 1970s they supplied buns to local upscale restaurants like the Maisonette and the Beverly Hills Supper Club. Today, the company offers 400 different bread products.
But that’s not the most interesting part of the story. Ken had no intention to go into the bakery business of his father. It was his father’s heart attack that made him get a leave from the service in 1959, to run with the business while he recovered. But Ken’s passion was not baking – it was magic.

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Ken and Judy Klosterman performing their magic act in Cincinnati in the 1950s.
Ken and his wife, Judy, performed a magic act around Greater Cincinnati in the 1950s at hospitals. One of his signature tricks was an act called the Chef’s Nightmare, where Ken stirred an ‘empty pot’ on top of a stove, and then takes his hand off the stirring spoon, which keeps stirring by itself. After acting stunned he returns to the pot and conjures up his daughter Karen, who now along with her brother, Chip, run the baking empire.
After becoming involved in the business, Ken retired he and his wife’s act, but he kept up his love for magic by amassing one of the world’s most extensive collections of antique magic items and over 5000 books on magic.

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Ken Klosterman’s  Chef’s Nightmare trick, demonstrated by magician Steve Faris.

His collection, called the “Salon de Magie” was mostly housed in an underground vault below his Loveland, Ohio, home. Now, Ken has extended the collection into his 1852 Georgian Revival mansion, which sits majestically on a hill overlooking the White Oak Creek valley, in Georgetown, Ohio, which is where I met him. After a seven year extensive renovation, Whitehall, as this house is named, now houses his extensive collection of German magic items. His collection is regularly visited by David Copperfield, Pen and Teller, and other world famous magicians.

 

Ken’s 1852 Whitehall mansion in Georgetown, Ohio, overlooking the White Oak Creek Valley.
Fittingly to his baking profession, Ken recently bought and restored the 1843 Thompson buckwheat mill, down the hill from his Whitehall mansion. In its time, before closing in 1907, the mill was one of the most productive mills in the country. This now houses even more of his magic collection, as well as being a great restoration of one of Ohio’s historic industries. The mill once employed General Grant’s father Jesse. And, U.S. Grant as a teenager worked as a teamster, transporting corn to the mill.

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Now in his mid eighties, Ken is retired from running the bakery business, and loves to share his magic collection with other enthusiasts. He even pays homage in his kitchen with a bread box from the competing bakery that his family put out of business, the Langdon Bakery. But it may be the magic behind the man that made his wild ideas turn into such a successful business marching strong into the fourth generation.

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Cincinnati’s Holiday Craft Beers 2017

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It’s that time of year again for all our wonderful craft breweries to release their holiday beers. The brews vary widely by style and flavor, amongst the breweries, but the majority of these seasonal brews are called “Winter Warmers.”

 
The American Craft Brewer’s Association states the Winter Warmer category starts with a foundation of either the spiced Wassail style or the Strong English Ale. The only difference, between the two is in the spicing. The Wassail style features cloves, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, or other cooking spices, while the English ale features hops as the main ‘spice.’ It’s hard to nail these down much more than this. Sometimes they include added sugars like maple syrup, plums, figs, raisins or even cranberries. All are meant to be strong in malt and are good with the hearty roasted meats eaten in the Winter.

 
The oldest local Christmas brew is crafted by Moerlein. They call it the Christkindlmarkt, named after the German outdoor holiday markets in towns like Nurenburg and Munich. It is very chocolate malty and has hints of brown sugar. They are also releasing the ’77 Winter Warmer, brewed for the 40th anniversary of the Blizzard of 1977, which many of us still remember.

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Over-the-Rhine’s Taft Ale House has Santa’s Bribe, which is described as a Christmas cookie Winter Warmer ale with flavors of cinnamon, ginger, and vanilla. A few years ago over the holidays, they did a Cherry Sour that was amazing and I thought felt very much in the holiday spirit. Thankfully I had an inside connection for a growler, because it was so limited they only made it available in the tap room.


Braxton Brewery in Covington, has released their Snow Shovel, a Winter Warmer, that they say is malt-forward, with ginger, cinnamon, and honey. They are bringing back Claus, a peppermint candy cane milk stout, which was a collaboration with Doscher Candy, named after their founder.

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Rhinegeist has released their Dad, a Hoppy Holiday Ale, with what sounds like a lot going on. It’s described as medium body, with malty notes of toffee, chocolate, coffee, nuts and molasses; very hopped; with spices of ginger and nutmeg.

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Listerman Brewery across from Xavier, has not yet released a holiday beer, but today, December 4, they released the first Cincinnati priestly beer collaboration – Fr. Kyle’s Cinnamon Roll Oatmeal Stout, in honor of Fr. Kyle Schnippel, pastor of Corpus Christi and St. John Neuman Catholic Churches, who will be competing this Thursday on NBC’s Great American Baking Show.

 
50 West has their Christmas Cookie ale, described as an oatmeal cookie left out for Santa.
Madtree in Oakley has their Thunder Snow, which is described as a spiced Scottish Ale with ginger, nutmeg, vanilla and hints of cinnamon with bready malts.

 

 

 

 

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Probably the weirdest holiday ale and the most extensive list of holiday brews – they have 12, like the Days of Christmas – is from sour brewer Urban Artifact in Northside. Their weirdest is called Christmas Pickle Gose, which is a gose style sour with dill, cucumber, and spruce tips. They might be onto something. I just saw pickle flavored candy canes advertised for Christmas. And, I like that it speaks to the German Christmas tradition of the pickle Christmas tree ornament. Their other holiday brews are Tannenbaum, a bourbon barrel aged stock ale with spruce tips; Nitro Kicksled, a winter spiced stout; Spicecake, a spiced stout with orange, chocolate, star anise and cinnamon; Yule Log, an amber ale aged with cedar; Coffee Kodiak, a tart brown ale with coffee; Praline, a dark ale with cinnamon and pecans; Madeira, a dry Irish stout with chocolate; Tinderbox, a spiced stout with habaneros; Cherry cordial, a chocolate cherry gose (YUM!!); Christmas Pudding, an amber ale with holiday spice, and Orange Dream, a Berliner pale ale with orange and vanilla. They’ve really outdone themselves!

 
Municipal Brewworks in Hamilton just announced they will have an extremely limited release of Elf Juice Peppermint Porter in time for the holiday flea market Fleaz Navidad next weekend.

 
Wiedemann has their Praegerbrau, a strong barley malt Pilsner with Saaz and American hops, as well as their East Row Winter Lager.

 
Even though they’re not in Cincinnati, I have to give a shout out to one of my local faves – Warped Wing Brewery, in Dayton, which has Esther’s L’il Secret – a Winter Warmer style collaboration with them and Esther Price Chocolates.

 
So far no holiday styles have been announced by Nine Giant in Pleasant Ridge, Westside Brewery in Western Hills, Bad Tom or Streetside in Columbia Tusculum, 13 Below in Saylor Park, or Darkness Brewery in Bellevue, Kentucky. Rivertown Brewery in Lockland is closed, but their Monroe taproom is still open, and no holiday beers announced on their website. Brink Brewery in College Hill has not mentioned a holiday brew yet, but I am bucket listing a tasting of their barrel aged sours and other craft brews.
Fibonacci in Mt. Healthy has not announced a holiday brew yet, but they do have a Chocolate Mint Stout, described as tasting like a York Peppermint Patty, and a Pumpkin Porter flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, maple and bacon.

 
So it’s high time to get out there and do your holiday brew tasting and choose your Christmas six-pack. Oddly enough no one, to my knowledge has done an eggnog stout or even eggnog flavored ale. I also think the peppermint flavor is under-utilized in the holiday brews. In this homebrewer’s humble opinion a good holiday beer would be a German Rauchbier (smoked beer) with light notes of either coriander, ginger and maybe clove. I think that would have went well with the smoked turkey we had for Thanksgiving.

Cincinnati’s Connection to Little Debbie and Her Snack Cakes

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Snack cake lovers know its Christmastime when Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes start to show up on store shelves after Halloween. The delectable Christmas Tree Cakes now come in three flavors – chocolate, red velvet and the original vanilla. McKee Foods, the creator of Little Debbie Brands, introduced the Christmas Tree cake in 1985, and has developed a super-loyal cult following since then. Over the years, the cake has been modified a bit to look more realistic with scalloped edges, red icing and sprinkles. Fans go nuts over this holiday limited time offering, and Little Debbie is always looking for new ideas to increase holiday sales.
The top three selling Little Debby Brands are the Oatmeal Cream Pie, the Nutty Bar and to my surprise, the Swiss Cake Rolls, which I don’t know if I have ever tasted. The three combined sell over 200 million cartons a year.  The oatmeal and raisin crème pie were the first small snack cake products invented by company founder, O. D. McKee, in 1933, as he was building the company. Originally the company made and distributed large pies and table layer cakes to bread bakeries as a lost leader. The bread bakers would buy the cakes and pies to bring in customers, who would then buy more profitable products made at the bakery. The larger goods were dropped and the company’s success would be based on the smaller snack cakes.
Now the company has a whole line of Christmas holiday treats that include Christmas tree and Santa brownies, a white chocolate-dipped North Pole Nutty Bar; an eggnog-flavored, white-iced version of their Swiss roll; the Cherry Cordial Cake, and Christmas Gingerbread Cookies. What kid doesn’t develop a taste for the polymerically-chewy, industrial icing of a snack cake, that only slightly resembles fondant?

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The interesting tidbit is that the formation of the Little Debbie empire is closely tied to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, to which the founding McKee family belonged and to whom the company still donates a huge amount of money. The SDA church is widely known for its views on healthy eating, avoiding meat, eating a vegetarian based diet and other unclean foods mentioned in the Bible. I guess there’s no mention of little snack cakes in the Bible, so they’re good.
This year, on November 9, McKee Foods turned to social media for a little joke at their customers’ expense. Call it crowd-sourced Voice of Customer surveying. They posted a picture of four of their snack cakes – the Nutty Bar, the Christmas Tree Cake, the Oatmeal Cream Pie, and the Honey Bun – with the handle #OneGottaGo.” Customers took this to mean one of these snacks was on the Little Debbie chopping block. The post got immediate reaction from fans, voicing their opinion that if anything HAD to go, it should be the Honey Bun. I do agree amongst the four that the Honey Bun would be the least missed. But faith was restored when the company said it was just curious which one would be the least missed and that there were no plans for a snack cake culling.
And of course there’s a Cincinnati connection to Little Debbie . As it turns out, Little Debbie’s maternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. George W Sisson, lived in Cincinnati, in the 1950s, when their daughter Sharon Sisson married Ellsworth McKee, the son of the founder of McKee Foods and Little Debbie branded snack cakes. The two met as students at Southern Mission College in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Sissons were part of the family that owned the Raquette River Paper Company, which was bought by Mead Paper in 1998. There was a Raquette River Company sales office for the Western United States, headquartered in Cincinnati at the Union Trust Building, which Sharon’s cousin Lewis Hamilton Sisson ran in Cincinnati from the 1920s until his death in 1953. It’s not known whether McKee Foods every used products of the Raquette River Paper Company for any of their packaging.

 

It was the image of Susan Sisson and Ellsworth McKee’s daughter, now Debbie McKee-Fowler, in her straw hat and play clothes, that was used to introduce an innovative new packaging concept in the snack world, called the Family Pack in 1960. A company salesman and O.D. McKee devised the design and had the box printed before Little Debbie’s parents even knew about the scheme. It was a new concept to offer 12 individually wrapped snack cakes in a pretty package for lower than the cost of the cakes sold separately to generate higher volume sales.

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The real Little Debbie – Debbie McKee-Fowler as a three and a half year old girl and today.

After some trial, the Family Pack became so successful that the images of other McKee family members were trialed for branding, but Little Debbie outlasted them all. And now that image of the grandchild of Cincinnati grandparents is as synonymous in America as the images of Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, and in Cincinnati, Dottie Dorsel.

The Competitive Industry of Communion Wafers

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The making of the Communion wafer is something most Catholics never think about. The wafers are everywhere, and just miraculously show up on the altar. And, it’s a mundane and simple process to make them. It involves heating a mixture of pure wheat flour and water – and nothing else – between two metal plates, which imprint a religious symbol on the face. But the market for communion hosts is a very competitive market, now largely supplied by one dominant secular company in Rhode Island.
Even as early as the late 20th century, hosts were still made by priests, nuns, or parishioners for theirs or neighboring churches. The Jubilee Catholic Museum in Columbus, Ohio, has an old steam-heated host making machine from the 1880s, that was used by the Poor Clare’s of St. Joseph’s convent of Portsmouth, Ohio. That operation supplied hosts to the Diocese of Columbus and other Ohio dioceses.

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An 1880s Communion Host machine from Portsmouth, Ohio.
Then came the council of Vatican II, which changed, among many things, the nature of the communion host. Before Vatican II, the hosts were much thinner than they are today, and meant to dissolve on the tongue, as that was how they were received at Communion. Vatican II, changed that and allowed parishioners to receive the host in their hands. It also allowed hosts to be thicker and taste more like bread. How to do this with just two ingredients is a miracle unto itself.
Growing up in the 1970s, my church in Cincinnati had parish bakers who made actual loaves of bread that were used at communion. I remember them being very inconsistent, depending on the baker. Some were chewy and very sweet, while others were somewhat bitter and not so tasty. The inconsistency in batches was probably one of the drivers for that practice being stopped.
Hosts fall into the same category in Europe as the anise-spiced springerle Christmas cookie – baked goods with images printed on them. In Germany, those baked goods are  called bildergebaeck. Springerle is thought to have originated in the monasteries of southeastern Catholic Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Biblical images were very popular on springerle, so, this famous Christmas cookie is probably a secular offshoot of communion bread. Before the Nicene Council of 325, communion was celebrated with a full meal. The council limited the Communion celebration to bread and wine.
A similar Christmas tradition in the Catholic regions of Poland, Lithuania, and Slovakia, to springerle, involves a special communion-like thin host, called oplatek printed with a Christmas image, being passed around and broken at the family dinner on Christmas Eve.
One family owned company, Cavanaugh, in Greenville, Rhode Island, now supplies 80% of the hosts to U.S. Catholic Churches. In 1943, a local Jesuit priest in Greenville asked local Catholic inventor John Cavanaugh Sr., to invent a more-automated host making machine to help the nuns at this laborious job. Cavanaugh created ovens and mixers for the nuns; then three years later, John Jr. and his brother Paul started making bread themselves. There are still orders of nuns and parish bakers making hosts for churches in the U.S., but their numbers have decreased significantly in the last several decades. The equipment is very manual and the work taxing for aging nuns, clergy and parishioners.
Cavanaugh’s hosts range from simple printed image of the cross to elaborate images of a lamb. And, some say the Cavanaugh hosts break cleanly and have a nice bread flavor, not the pasty flavor of some of the religious-made hosts.
For Cavanaugh it seems to be a recession-proof business. Even during the U.S. economic downturn, their business was one of the only to increase. Apparently as the economy takes a nosedive, more people go to church.
Hosts for the Protestant denomination churches are made in a different area than those destined for Catholic churches, as the Protestant hosts include other ingredients like oil. And Cavanaugh has a similar market share to the U.S. in Australia, Canada and Britain. Where is the growth market for the communion host industry? It seems, West Africa.
The Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri, are the largest religious producers of communion hosts in the U.S. and can make up to 8 million wafers a month. But they can’t compete with Cavanaugh’s production capacity of up to 25 million wafers a week. The Benedictine Sisters became the first community to product a low-gluten altar bread that was approved by U.S. bishops in 2003, of which they sell 15,000 a week.
The only requirements for communion wafers is that they be unleavened, made purely of wheat (with no preservatives), recently made, so there is no danger of decomposition, and must have at least some gluten in them. The Vatican recently released a letter that hosts that are completely gluten free are “invalid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.” If someone has celiac disease and can’t have any gluten, the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops says that may receive a wine only communion. It is also important that they hosts be crumb free. You don’t want pieces of the transubstantiated Christ going everywhere. And, although it’s not a requirement that the manufacture must be human hands-free, Cavanaugh markets their products as hands free, saying it contributes to the spiritual nature and sanctity of the host. This plays to the pre-Vatican II conservative ideas of older clergy who were used to administering communion to mouth.
There is one local producer of communion hosts left. They are the cloistered Passionist Nuns in Erlanger, Kentucky on Donaldson Drive, who have been making hosts since 1951. The nuns who make the hosts change out of their black habits into light blue ones at 8:30 AM each morning and spend about six hours a day  making hosts.

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Sr. Mary Angela, a Passionist Nun from Erlanger, Kentucky, cuts the hosts with a foot operated drill from a larger 14″  host.
Their process starts with mixing the flour and water. One scoop of batter is ladled onto what looks like a waffle machine or pizzelle maker, which imprints the symbol of the chi-ro, an ancient symbol of Christ. The large host is cooked, the edges trimmed and is placed on a rack in the humidifier to cool and then be remoisturized over night. After being remoisturized – to avoid cracking during the final cutting –  they are stacked 72 sheets high and then taken to a host cutting machine. The machine is foot operated and can cut 4500 hosts from one stack.   The nuns will cut six stacks in a morning.   The hosts are bagged and then ready for shipment.   A day’s production for these Passionist nuns is about 27,000 hosts.

The cottage industry of nun- or parishioner-made communion hosts is on a steep decline and in huge competition to Cavanaugh.   There may never be a return to hand made hosts or the birth of  a ‘craft communion host’ market, but the making of them has a long tradition in the Church.

Jean Shepherd – The Voice of Red Ryder BB Guns and Creamed Herring Dip At the Wigwam

Many in Cincinnati would not recognize the name Jean Shepherd.    But, if you heard his deep baritone voice, most would immediately recognize him as the voice of Ralphy in the 1983 holiday cult classic “A Christmas Story.”      Born in Chicago, and raised in Hammond, Indiana, Shepherd, or “Shep,”   became a radio storytelling icon.    But his career began in Cincinnati, at one of our historic restaurants – Shuller’s Wigwam in College Hill.   “A Christmas Story” is loosely based on his childhood in Indiana.

Shuller’s Wigwam operated at the northeast corner of Galbraith and Hamilton Avenues from 1922 until 2000.    Founded by Russian immigrant Max Shuller, it was an iconic eatery that expanded over the years, becoming sort of a dinner club and party palace.   Unfortunately the building where thousands of Cincinnati families celebrated birthdays and graduations no longer stands.

In 1991, only a few short years after the release of “A Christmas Story,”   we celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday there in one of their party rooms.     The restaurant was known for their expansive free relish tray that included creamed pickled herring dip and delicious rye bread for dipping.    My family brought a tradition from northern Germany of eating pickled herring on New Year’s Eve and during the Christmas season for good luck, so this was a real treat for the older adults when we ate there – not so much with the younger cousins.

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In Cincinnati between 1950 and 1954 Shep did a DJ show from Shuller’s Wigwam on WSAI and a nightly comedy show on WLW called “Rear Bumpers”.    He also worked broadcasting on WCKY-AM and WKRC-AM  and TV (1947-51; 1953-5) during his stint in Cincinnati, where, as he said in a 1982 Cincinnati Enquirer article, he “developed his style.”

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Shep broadcasting from Shuller’s Wigwam in the 1950s.

Although “A Christmas Story,”  was a flop at the theatres in 1983, over many years it became a cult classic.   Now it plays in loop during the Christmas season, and all sizes of the leg lamp are given as gag gifts and put up for decoration over Christmas.    There’s even a Ralphy “Oh Fudge”  candy being sold this year.   Many who grew up in the 1950s can identify with the stories told in Shep’s childhood memories.  My father, for one, can’t go through Christmas without taking it in.    For him it never loses its hilarity.   Ralphy’s family kitchen in the movie could be my Grandmother’s kitchen in North College Hill.      Ralphy’s little brother played in the cabinet below the sink, as my Dad did in his childhood home’s kitchen, with his imaginary friends Chuckie and Norbert.    And, like Ralphy’s dad, there are stories of my Grandfather taxing the 1920s knob and tube wiring at Christmas and throwing the breaker with all his lights.

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Shep’s broadcasting stint in Cincinnati  led to a television version at KYW in Philadelphia. In 1956 Shep moved to the Big Apple on WOR New York where for 21 years listeners all over the Northeast were treated to his nightly dose of genius.

His shows were a mix of comments, silly songs, jokes and other digressions all circling around a central tale.  For 45 minutes you laughed and wondered if he would remember to even finish the story, but he always did.   Shep’s other great radio enterprise was live broadcasts on Saturday night from The Limelight, a nightclub in Greenwich Village.

Shepherd was truly a great ‘radio novelist’ and it all got started here in Cincinnati, at the Wigwam, over creamed pickled herring dip.    Although we don’t have it at our family holiday gatherings anymore, every time I see the dip, I am reminded of Ralphy and his adventures.