Monday, September 8, 2014
Eating in Ohio
I’m going to give the fake distilleries a break today and write about something completely different. Food. Specifically, Ohio food.
I am a born and bred Buckeye. I haven't lived there full time since 1978 but I get back often, mostly to see family. Although I'm from Mansfield, in North Central Ohio, I've lived in Dayton, Columbus, and Oxford (near Cincinnati). My family's roots are in Cleveland (mom) and the southeastern corner of the state around Coolville (dad).
This is my personal perspective, not the result of objective research, so to other Buckeyes I may put too much emphasis on some things and miss others altogether.
We people of Ohio have named ourselves, and our most popular professional sports organization, after a tree whose nuts are poisonous to humans. Consequently, Ohio's favorite candy resembles that poisonous nut.
Throughout Ohio there are unique dishes, typically with an ethnic origin, that are very popular there and virtually unknown elsewhere. Cincinnati Chili is the best example of this. A meat sauce of Greek origin, it is not hot and contains ingredients such as cinnamon and chocolate. The ground beef isn't browned first so it has an unusual texture. It is served over spaghetti or on hot dogs, typically finished with a huge mound of cheddar cheese. Beans are available on the side.
There are several restaurant chains that specialize in Cincinnati Chili. Empress, the original, is a shadow of its former self but Skyline and Gold Star seem to be thriving, and there are several other, newer chains. It's on the menu at many other restaurants and people make it at home. It is popular within about a 100 mile radius of Cincinnati and nowhere else.
Johnny Marzetti is a dish that originated in a long-gone Columbus restaurant called Marzetti’s. The chef and founder was Teresa Marzetti. The widely-sold salad dressings of the same name also originated there. Johnny Marzetti is a casserole of onions, mushrooms, ground beef, cheddar cheese, tomato sauce, and macaroni. My mom made it, the school cafeteria served it, and some restaurants in the state still do. It was so ubiquitous when I was growing up, I thought it was universal. I just made a batch a couple days ago.
Ohio had huge immigration from Germany, Poland, and Italy. Around me it was mostly Germans and Poles. A lot of people still eat those foods. Bucyrus has an annual bratwurst festival. To me as a kid, stuffed peppers were as common as hamburgers. Lots of those immigrants were Catholic so Friday fish fries were a big deal, just like in Wisconsin, except in Ohio (at least in Northern Ohio), the fish is usually Lake Erie perch. It wasn't available for many years when the pollution was so bad, but it is now. It is my favorite fresh water fish.
Celebrity Chef Michael Symon is arguably the second most famous chef from Cleveland. The most famous is still Chef Boyardee (originally Boiardi). Like Teresa Marzetti in Columbus, he specialized in simple red sauce Italian. She put her salad dressing in jars to take home, he did the same thing with his red sauce.
People from all over Ohio and Indiana drive to Lebanon (near Dayton) to eat at the Golden Lamb, Ohio’s oldest inn (1803). They serve a popular steak salad, fried saurkraut balls are an appetizer, and braised beef short ribs are on the ‘light bites’ menu. Their specialties are Amish fried chicken, free-range roast turkey, and braised Pennsylvania lamb shank.
One of the few times my family ever ate out for Thanksgiving was at the Golden Lamb. My brother and I were both living in the area so my parents and sisters came to us. It was marvelous.
Two foods from my hometown of Mansfield that I still enjoy are Jones Potato Chips and Leaning Tower subs. The Jones family has been making potato chips at the bottom of the Bowman Street Hill since 1945. It's a wavy-style chip, they call it 'marcelled.' Great for dipping, great by themselves. You do not want to be the Frito-Lay salesman in Mansfield.
The Leaning Tower of Pizza has been a Mansfield institution since the fifties. It has always been at the same location, in the basement of a building that is now otherwise empty. It is carry-out only but during my high school years we usually just ate in the parking lot. At first it was considered a beatnik place, then a hippie place, and it is still pretty bohemian. The pizza is good but for me it's the subs, a large Italian loaf filled with salami, bologna, mozzarella, provolone, and pizza sauce. That's the standard model, I usually add pepperoni. They're wrapped in foil and baked in the same oven as the pizza.
Bologna? Yes, bologna. We ate it at home, at school, and even restaurants. Not fried bologna, that's a Southern thing. Just bologna on white bread with American cheese and Stadium Mustard.
To the extent that Buckeyes eat differently from other people, as they do less and less (just like everyplace else), it’s usually hearty farm fare -- heavy on the beef and pork -- or something ethnic. Yes, the German, Polish and Italian influences are still very strong, but currently my favorite restaurant in Columbus is Lavash Café, a terrific Mediterranean place.
And very soon, Cleveland (Chagrin Falls, actually) will have its own honest-to-goodness, craft-made, Ohio straight bourbon whiskey, made in the copper barrel-a-day stills Vendome built for Michter's in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, 40 years ago. In making it, the Herbrucks were assisted by Dick Stoll, the final master distiller at Pennsylvania Michter's, and by members of the Beam family. Tom's Foolery has built its fine reputation on apple brandy, but its whiskeys are approaching maturity. Every drop is as authentically craft as can be.
Sorry, I couldn't resist.