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.


Tiny Iota said...

Hi Chuck, this post made me hungry! As far as fried bologna goes, I grew up eating it in eastern Ontario because my grandfather adored it. He fried it up in butter and I can still remember that morning ambiance. After breakfast he would let me dip in finger in his glass of Schenley Golden Wedding, distilled in nearby Valleyfield. I can't eat dairy anymore but thank the Lord I can still drink whiskey. So maybe the fried bologna thing skipped the mid-west and came straight up here. I certainly have childhood memories of it and even in Canada we're not considered the South!

Stephen Grim said...

What a treat to read this Chuck. Though I live in Seattle now, I lived in Ashland, OH for 8 years until graduation from high school and then Cincinnati for 22 years including time in college. Just about everything you mentioned I've tried, enjoyed, and hold dear. Jones Potato chips, Amish style food, buckeyes (the candy), Skyline, Gold Star, The Golden Lamb - I love it all. (You left out Graeter's Ice Cream though). Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I still have family in both places and get back every year. It's also a good excuse while there to drop down into bourbon country.


Anonymous said...

Bourbon + Bologna on white bread with American cheese & Stadium Mustard = HOG HEAVEN. Thanks Chuck.

Tom said...

I love Ohio food, especially Jones' Potato Chips. Each morning, Lianne still packs lunches for our four high-school-age kids. Shamefully, we have been serving them a big-brand-name bag of chips from I don't know where (in addition to fruit and other healthy choices, of course). Well, I just placed an order on the Jones' Potato Chip site for 60 bags of chips, so my little darlings can enjoy some hand-made-craft-potato-chips for a few months! Tom Herbruck

donald sink said...

I believe you mentioned that someone had bought the old Michter's hardware for a new distillery in northern Ohio in your book "The Best Bourbon You'll Never Taste" (I've read all of your books, so I may be getting the title crossed with another one), but I didn't know who or what distillery. Now I know. Thanks.

Sam Komlenic said...

Donald, those stills in Chagrin Falls never made Michter's whiskey per se, but were used to make some commemorative runs as well as "Quarter Whiskey," white dog that was drunk as table whiskey at around 25 proof in the old days, but that needed to be at least 80 proof in the modern age to be called whiskey.

Their massive column still (60 inches across, 56 feet high), that made all the production Michter's was scrapped out just a couple of years ago. I'm kind of surprised that it wasn't purchased by someone and moved to another distillery, much like the S-W stills that are being reinstalled in Diageo's new bourbon plant.

Tom said...

Hi Sam. Yes, most of the whiskey that came off the pot stills in the jug house was sold as "quarter whiskey" (and some to tourists wearing raccoon hats). However, what Dick told me is that they distilled a lot more whiskey in the jug house (on these little pot stills) than they could sell as white dog, and the excess whiskey went over to the rack house and was mixed with the whiskey from the big stills. The reason they produced more than they needed for gift shop sales, which certainly cost more to produce on the little pot stills than the big stills, was because they wanted tourists to see the fermenters full and the stills running. So, while a only tiny percentage of the regular Michter's whiskey came off these pot stills, a considerable portion of the whiskey produced by the pot stills actually went on to become whiskey that was sold as Michter's. Tom

Phil T said...

Good read Colonel. The Dayton, Cincinnati area also has a great potato chip history with Mikesell's, Husman's, and Grippo's. Graeter's ice cream is also legendary. Cincinnati chili is always a staple in my house. Agree with your liking of Lake Erie perch, just toss in some walleye also, and you have the best fish fry possible.

Chuck Cowdery said...

There were several things, like Graeter's, that I know about but haven't actually experienced very much myself. Also, the piece was already pretty long. I'm glad people are posting their favorites as comments.

donald sink said...

What I remember most about growing up in Greenville is the incredible Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches at Martindale's Restaurant downtown on Broadway. Loved those way more than a hamburger or cheeseburger. I also ate a lot of 'balony sandwiches' for lunch. I lived in Greenville from '43 to '57 (age 1/2 to 14).

Thanks for the history on the stills. There are some fairly large, unused column stills at the Barton Distillery (now Ridgemont Reserve 1792 - did I get that right?) that look kind of old and rusty, but could be put back into service if needed, but those are no where near 60" in diameter. That kinda bogles my mind.

Chuck Cowdery said...

60" in diameter is a very large beer still. I'm surprised the one at Pennco/Michter's was that big. I would have thought 48" max. Maybe Sam can tell us where he got that number.

The Barton Distillery is now called Barton 1792.

I love pork tenderloin sandwiches too. That's an Indiana thing more than Ohio, but Greenville is close to the border.

donald sink said...

Barton 1792 - I knew it was something like that - I was close. My grandfather worked as a projectionist at the Grand Theater in Union City. I remember seeing 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' there.

How did this trip down memory lane get started? Oh yeah, Chuck did it! Keep it up, man!

t ball said...

I have nothing to do with Ohio, but I still loved reading this post. I grew up in western New York and I still miss the wonderful mix of German, Italian, and Polish food that dominated my childhood. I took Roast Beef on Weck for granted and now I can't have it...

Chuck Cowdery said...

This started, Donald, because a food journalist I know asked for food story ideas from various states that seemed to her under-covered, and Ohio was one of them. I started to write it as a note to her and it became this.

Myself, I am constantly on the lookout for sauerbraten, t ball, the real thing and not just roast beef with a brown, vinegary gravy.

cconhhi said...

I always loved Izzy's in Cincinnati.

Sam Komlenic said...

I measured it with a tape measure on my last visit while the distillery was still intact, about four years ago. It looked bigger than I expected, too, hence my going the distance.

The plates were 30 inches apart.

It was not made by Vendome, but by a company I'd not heard of before. I have a picture somewhere.

Pennsylvania had some weird stills over the years, including the only pair of (substantial) pot stills installed in an American distillery built after Prohibition, at Dillinger in Ruff's Dale, Westmoreland County.

This really is an enjoyable post, Chuck. Nice to hear from new folks with their own favorites.

P.S. Back home in Pittsburgh bologna is known simply as "Jumbo," an abbreviation of the term "jumbo bologna," as opposed to smaller, ring-type bologna.

Alex said...

I also love the Hungarian community and food in Cleveland, including some at the Westside Market.

Anonymous said...

Fried bologna is an Ohio thing too. Check out the G&R Tavern if you ever find yourself in the Waldo area.