FORTUNE magazine called Cincinnati the best run big city in the United States. LIFE magazine said “Cincinnati has one of the best police forces in the country”. TIME Magazine, on the other hand, once labeled Cincinnati “dowdy”!! Dowdy? Cincinnati? I knew there was a good reason why I don’t subscribe to TIME.
To Indians, Cincinnati was a calamity; to slaves, it was a promised land and to the REDS Baseball Team, it’s a place to play ball. To children on skates, it’s a seven-hilled impossibility, while to Proctor Gamble it was a place to make soap. To beer-makers it represented memories of “over the Rhine”. Which Cincinnati you know depends on your point of view…” from “Vas You Ever in Zinzinnati” by Dick Perry, published by Doubleday in 1966.
You may have heard of my hometown, Cincinnati—which I have written about several times on this blog. I was born and raised in Cincinnati; as were both of my parents. My paternal grandparents were German and Hungarian and came through Ellis Island by way of Rumania. From there they went to Cincinnati. Quite possibly, they had friends or other connections which led them to Cincinnati, which already had a huge German population by the time they got there.
My mother’s parents were definitely German as well but we know so little about their roots. My father’s parents immigrated to the United States when they were in their early twenties and we all grew up strongly influenced by our surroundings. North Fairmount was heavily populated by German Americans and Italians. South Fairmount was more heavily populated with Italians. My grandparents bought a house on Baltimore Street when their daughter, my Aunt Annie, was a toddler. (The story was that they bought this house “in the country” because my Uncle Hans was asthmatic. I guess North Fairmount was country to them, back then.) The three storied big brick house was large enough to raise their children in, and when those children got married, they lived in separate apartments in the same house—until they could afford to buy a house on their own. My parents lived in the house on Baltimore until I was five years old. That meant they lived in my grandmother’s house for nine years. Some of those years were a part of the great depression and some were a part of World War II.
I have no real memories of living in the house on Baltimore Street although when I reflect on scattered early memories, I think some of those must have occurred when we were still living in my grandmother’s house.
Down the street from my grandmother’s house was St. Leo’s church and school. My father, his younger brother and their younger sister all went to St. Leo’s—not only that, but all three had Sister Tarcisius in the first grade—as did my older sister, older brother and me—along with two of our cousins. Sister Tarcisius taught first grade at St Leo’s for over fifty years before celebrating her Golden Jubilee as a nun and retiring to the convent in Oldenburg, Indiana. There was a continuity to our lives back then—often when I became girlfriends with someone in my class and went to her home, a parent was sure to say “Oh, yes! Schmidts! I went to school with your father”. (Many years later, my youngest brother Scott would buy and remodel the house that had belonged to his first wife’s grandmother. When I first saw the house, I realized it had once belonged to my classmate Joan—whose younger sister, Val, became the grandmother from whom Scott bought the house.
Our neighborhood was all of North Fairmount and extended into South Fairmount in one direction and English Woods in another. Now, if you drive through these neighborhoods they are almost all downtrodden and ramshackle—a far cry from the neat and tidy brick houses that lined all the streets with geraniums in the front windows that were a part of our lives. I think we could have approached any house in an emergency for blocks around—not that anything serious ever happened. It wasn’t anything any of us ever thought about—we rode bicycles and skates and/or walked from one place to another without ever stopping to consider our safety or security.
There was a state of stability and absence of disruption throughout our lives, throughout the lives of our parents (despite the great depression and WW2) that can’t be found in Southern California where I have spent most of my adult life but I think still exists in most of Cincinnati, where girlfriends of mine who grew up in North College Hill married and bought houses near their parents’ homes, to raise their children in close proximity to their parents.
We took good cooking for granted, I’m ashamed to admit. I don’t think any of us ever stopped to think twice about my grandma’s exquisite Palascinta (Hungarian pancakes—like crepes); grandma’s strudels with dough made from scratch—we each had a favorite filling – mine was spicy pumpkin—but any of them, apple, cherry, or cheese, were to die for—or homemade noodles drying on the backs of kitchen chairs—or the German wurst sausages, delicious with a chunk of fresh-baked salt bread.
My grandmother made Dobos tortes with up to fourteen layers of sponge cake, spread with bittersweet chocolate frosting; she made dozens and dozens of cookies at Christmas-time—I only remember the diamond shaped cookies dipped in egg white and spread with finely chopped walnuts and sugar although my older sister swore there were many other kinds of cookies.
We went to grandma’s house for lunch most days of the week during the school year—her house was just a short walk up the street from St. Leo’s—and feasted on Hungarian goulash and salt bread, or a bowl of chicken broth which contained something WE called “rivillies” but which, I discovered in one of William Woys Weaver’s books—was a tiny Pennsylvania Dutch dumpling called Rivels or Riwweles which is probably much the same as my grandmother’s Rivellies. We also grew up on Spatzle and homemade noodles, dumplings, sauerkraut, scrapple, and hasenpfeffer. Scrapple is traditionally a mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and wheat flour, which is baked in a loaf pan and then kept refrigerated. You sliced some of it and fried it in a skillet for a breakfast side dish. (I could live without the hasenpfeffer but loved everything else).
Or grandma might make a huge chicken sandwich for you (if you were the only child who happened to be around) with leaves of lettuce fresh from her garden, and mayonnaise spread thick on homemade bread. We often had Palascinta for lunch, with jelly spread over it and then rolled up; we called the crepes “German pancakes” not knowing their true origin was Hungarian. If nothing else, we might have a snack of a slice of rye bread spread with sour cream.
My grandmother taught her cooking skills to her daughter and daughters-in-law. Many years would pass before I realized that my two aunts, Aunt Annie and Aunt Dolly, knew how to make many of Grandma’s desserts and savory dishes. My mother learned how to make bread; my mother made two huge loaves of bread twice a week most of my adolescent years. Aside from the recipes my aunts remembered, most of grandma’s recipes—all learned from watching, none written down—are now lost. A few were written down but most are gone, along with my mother and aunts and grandmother.
For one thing, my grandmother never wrote much in English except for her name; some times she would instruct me to write something down for her. But German was her native language and she and my grandfather had many Immigrant friends in Cincinnati who spoke their language. My grandfather was a tailor of men’s suits and spoke seven languages fluently. The shopkeepers with whom grandma did business all spoke German, too.
My grandparents belonged to a lodge that was downtown near Findlay Market; it was a place where the men played cards and smoked pipes in one room while the women cooked or talked in another room. (Only recently I discovered there were many such lodges). Sometimes there was a wedding in a nearby Catholic church and the reception might be held at this lodge; I remember the dancing and the music. We went to and from the lodge on the streetcars—later buses took over. When we transferred buses at Colerain and Hopple Street, my grandfather would hurry into Camp Washington Chili Parlor to get Coney Islands for us to eat when we got home. (I remember there being a coupon in the Sunday Paper – five or six Coney islands for 25 cents).
Findlay Market was an open market with stalls of fruit-and-vegetables—around the perimeter of the open stalls there were grocery stores—I particularly remember a meat market where grandma sometimes bought a chicken. Grandma was ahead of her time carrying tote bags made out of oil cloth and often taking a grandchild along to help carry the bags. In recent years I visited Findlay Market with one of my nephews; it is over a hundred years old and has been vastly renovated—almost all the stores and shops are now indoors and the meat market always had us drooling over the many kinds of sausages.
I grew up in Cincinnati, learning my way around the city at a very tender age—by the time I was ten years old I was making trips downtown by myself—first to make payments on a coat my mother had in layaway at Lerner’s for which she paid $1.00 a week and I’d have two nickels for bus fare each way. Later, I took my two younger brothers with me downtown to do our Christmas shopping. There were no malls at this time—all the shops and stores were located downtown, near Fountain Square and ladies would go downtown to shop wearing dresses and high heels. Can you imagine?
At an early age—maybe ten or eleven—I began to discover the used book stores (as well as small out-of-the-way dusty antique stores that often had a tray of books outside the door; The kind of books I bought then, for 25 cents each, were often light romance, I think—cookbooks were far from my radar!
We shopped primarily at the five and ten cent stores – there were three or four of these—one was a Newberry’s and another was a Kresge’s, but the chief attraction was the Woolworth store that had a lunch counter where we—my two younger brothers and I—could buy a grilled cheese and coke to share—and sometimes have enough for a bag of caramel corn which I have been addicted to all my life. We somehow managed to buy Christmas presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings—which amazes to me this very day. It must have been like the loaves and fishes—because somehow, doling out pennies for purchases, we always managed to get something for everybody. I was equally addicted to “downtown” – to me, downtown has been and always will be “downtown Cincinnati” During the holidays my brothers and I visited all the major department stores to stand in line to see Santa Claus but primarily to get a free candy cane. The store window displays alone were worth a trip downtown.
One of my favorite stores – not a 5&10 cent store – was Shillito’s—Cincinnati’s first department store which opened in 1832. One of the exits, close to my bus stop,was in the book section, where Nancy Drew books were on display. One year my brother Jim gave me five new Nancy Drew books for Christmas. I was hooked on Nancy Drew. I think the books were about a dollar each—and just GETTING a dollar and hanging onto it long enough to go downtown to buy the next book was a task unto itself. Eventually I discovered that the Nancy Drew books at used book stores were generally a lot cheaper—and I fell in love with the old illustrations in these books.
Another beloved place when I was a child – not only to me but to my siblings as well – was the Windmill Restaurant. It was a cafeteria style restaurant, unfamiliar to all of us—where you could pick and choose whatever you wanted to eat. It was a special treat to do downtown to the Windmill Restaurant with Grandma and be able to eat anything you wanted. (a foreign concept to children of the 1940s, I assure you.)
Restaurant food with my parents sometimes had strings attached. I remember once being in a restaurant with my parents; we all ordered hamburgers – but I stipulated no mustard on mine. The hamburger arrived with – guess what? Mustard. I refused to eat it and my parents refused to send it back. That hamburger traveled home with us in the glove compartment and I don’t remember eating anything else on the way home.(many, many years later I began eating mustard—it’s almost a “must” on a corned beef sandwich but I remember, nevertheless, a battle of wits between me and my parents.
The Windmill Restaurant and Grandma are irrevocably tied together. I never went there without her.
There were other downtown attractions; during the holidays, Lytle Park had a “live” nativity scene that was a “must” if you were downtown. Lytle Park, as I remember it, no longer exists*. When the Freeway, Interstate I-71, was built in the mid 1960s. significant changes were made to the area. A tunnel was built under the park; the original Lytle Park had to be dismantled/demolished. After I-71 construction, the park was reconstructed, and “One Lytle Place” (a luxury nigh-rise apartment building) was constructed.
Another favorite event during my childhood was the circus. The only circus I know anything about was one that came to town, to the downtown area. This was the Shrine Circus and our Uncle George gave us free tickets to go. I went there with my two younger brothers. We didn’t have any money for caramel corn or soft drinks, but it was enough just being there.
We went to the Policemen’s Picnic once a year and it was not uncommon for families to pack up a supper and go to one of the parks located in Cincinnati’s many forest areas—there was Winton Woods and Mt. Airy Forest, just to name two.
Cincinnati has a fine zoo and sometimes you might go with Grandma to the zoo, just to walk around. There are many other fine places to visit in Cincinnati, such as the museums. What I have described to you, however, are the places I was familiar with as a child
Cincinnati has, for many decades, been a city of great activity and prosperity. By 1830 it was the 6th largest city in the United States. In a book titled “CINCINNATI, A PICTORIAL HISTORY” by Marilyn Green and Michael Bennett, the authors tell us that “increasing numbers of steamboats were built here, and the huge pork-packing industry gave the city the name of “Porkupolis”, one result of this highly successful business being the common sight of herds of pigs being driven through the streets a long time ago. Many of today’s great businesses were founded, such as Procter & Gamble; showboats docked at public landings and theatres opened their doors to increasingly elegant crowds who were entertained by everything from Shakespeare to grand opera…”
It was during this period (1820-1865) that many illustrious visitors and residents arrived at the Queen City. Harriet Beecher Stowe came with her amazing father, the head of Lane Seminary; Lafayette came and was nearly killed with hospitality; Charles Dickens praised Cincinnati warmly, and Horace Greeley compared it favorably with California. Jenny Lind produced the hysterical enthusiasm that marked her American tour and Stephen Foster worked and composed in the city. A runaway boy who would become famous as Mark Twain boarded a steamboat for New Orleans from the Cincinnati public landing. Thomas Edison was here, and it was he who received the telegraphed news of Lincoln’s assassination. I was bemused to think that Mark Twain boarding a steamboat at the public landing. I remember the public landing and boarding a steamboat to ride up the river to Coney Island (Cincinnati’s version of the famed amusement park).
But mostly, when I think about Cincinnati, I think about good food and recipes and cookbooks. I think good cooking must be pretty much taken for granted in my hometown and I was nonplussed when I began removing Cincinnati and greater Cincinnati cookbooks from my shelves, to discover just how many cookbooks I have that are devoted to just this one city.
You may recall (I’ve mentioned it a time or two) that the very first community cookbook in my collection was purchased by my father from a co-worker at Formica, in 1961. Its full title is “50th Anniversary Cookbook Women’s Guild Matthew’s United Church of Christ” I think my father paid a dollar each for several copies – one for me, one for my sister Becky and one for my mother. It’s always been one of my favorite cookbooks—if nothing else it amuses me to think that daddy had NO IDEA what he was starting when he bought that book for me. Until then, I had never seen any community (or church or club) cookbooks; I had no idea they even existed. A few years later I began to make a serious effort to find other Cincinnati cookbooks. When I began making trips back home with my children in the summertime, my young brother and I began making trips to Acre of Books, in downtown Cincinnati. I rarely made it beyond the cookbook section. One of the oldest cookbooks in my collection is a ring-bound book, sans covers, titled “TESTED RECIPES – CALVARY CHURCH, CLIFTON, OHIO.” (Clifton is a suburb of Cincinnati) It’s missing a publishing date, also, and clippings fal out of it whenever I pick the book up—oh, but I love this old cookbook with or without the covers. The former owner inserted pages of her own handwritten recipes or recipes clipped from newspapers and pasted inside.
Perhaps preceding this is a book in my collection titled “KEY TO THE CUPBOARD” compiled by the Daughters of Veterans (as in the Civil War, 1861-1865) Like so many other old cookbooks, this one is undated; judging by the ads, I would guess it to be published in the early teens—sometime before World War I There is a full page ad titled Mrs. Abraham Lincoln Tent No. 14, and below that DAUGHTERS OF VETERANS 1861-1865, followed underneath by MEETINGS HELD AT MEMORIAL HALL. At the bottom of the page is written “Our Object To Aid and Assist the needy Veterans; to care for their Widows, and their Orphans, and to perpetuate the memory of the heroic dead, and at the bottom CINCINNATI, OHIO. Amongst the ads is one for Rookwood Pottery. I found a recipe inside for Amber Soup, which was an interesting surprise—only recently I found a reference to Amber Soup while working on What’s Cooking in the White House Kitchen. I also found some recipes for “peach mangoes” and “Sweet Cucumber Mangoes”. You may recall that I have written about “mangoes” before—it was a Cincinnati term for green bell peppers for many years—the transition from a pickled fruit to being called “mangoes” seems to have stayed strictly in the greater Cincinnati region. (See “Stuff Mangoes or a Rose by Any Other Name”)
I began collecting cookbooks in 1965; it wasn’t until the early 1970s that I was able to travel home to Cincinnati with my children, to spend from a few weeks to a few months of the summer with my parents, during which time I began to seriously search for Cincinnati cookbooks. One summer we had so much “stuff” to take home that I packed it all in boxes and we took the Greyhound Bus back to California – there was no weight restriction on our boxes, mostly filled with books; it gave a Redcap pause at the downtown Los Angeles Bus Depot when my husband met us there and we enlisted the Redcap to haul all the boxes to our station wagon.
“What you got in here?” he queried. “Feels like FORT KNOX!”
“Not quite, “ I replied, “Just BOOKS!”
Over the years (and many trips to Cincinnati) other old Cincinnati community cookbooks gradually found their way onto my bookshelves. There is DEACCONESS HOSPITAL COOKBOOK published sometime in the 1930s,
THE GARDEN CLUB OF CINCINNATI COOK BOOK published a revised edition in 1937 (I never found an earlier edition),
While in 1950 THE WIEDEMANN BOOK OF UNUSUAL RECIPES was compiled by famous chefs of the day,
THE CINCINNATI COOK BOOK RECIPES COLLECTED BY THE CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETY OF THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL was published in 1967 and features drawings of famous Cincinnati landmarks, penned by artist Caroline Williams,
In 1970 the Altrusa Club of Cincinnati published ALTRUSA’S CINCINNATI CELEBRITY COOKBOOKI featuring cartoons of “The Girls” for which cartoon artist Franklin Folger became known,
CINCINNATI CELEBRATES presented by the Junior League of Cincinnati was published 1974,
Also in 1974, Cheviot PTA compiled HAPPINESS IS…CHEVIOT PTA COOKBOOK (one of my favorites—my sister Becky did the illustrations and submitted many of her favorite recipes to this cookbook
ONE POTATO TWO TOMATO, A Cookbook, was published in 1979 by the Catholic Women of Cincinnati,
CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY/The Queen City’s Culinary Heritage, by Mary Anna DuSablon, published in 1983 is, without question, my favorite all-time Cincinnati cookbook—it was, and still is, my favorite reference book when it comes to a Cincinnati Recipe.
There is a hardcover book called TREASURED RECIPES FROM CAMARGO TO INDIAN HILL which was compiled in 1987 by the members of the Indian Hill Historical Society,
RIVERFEAST/Still Celebrating Cincinnati by the Junior League of Cincinnati was published in 1990,
While in 1998 the Junior League of Cincinnati returned with “I’ll COOK WHEN PIGS FLY AND THEY DO IN CINCINNATI, another one of my favorite cookbooks.
When asked what my favorite cookbook is, I have to confess, it’s whatever I am reading at the moment. But one of the most outstanding collections of recipes were compiled by Fern Storer, who—for decades—was a food editor for the Cincinnati Post. Whenever my mother was putting together a box of things to send to me, she’d ask if there was anything in particular that I wanted; “Yes,” I always replied, “send me some of Fern Storer’s columns—and maybe a loaf of Rubel’s Rye Bread!” Later on the family would send me packets of Skyline Chili powder mix.
I wish I could have met Fern Storer. Well, during one of my visits to Cincinnati, my nephew took me to the Ohio Book store downtown in Cincinnati (Acres of Books went out of business some years ago). I bought about $100 worth of books including a copy of RECIPES REMEMBERED by Fern Storer. We packed the box of books up and my nephew mailed them to my home—to save me the trouble of packing them in a suitcase. Well, the box never made it to California. A single book I had read on the flight TO Cincinnati and had a return address label inside surfaced and was sent to me by the Post Office in Bell, California. I agonized over losing that box for months afterwards.
A year or two later I was back in Cincinnati and returned to the Ohio Book Store; I told my tale of woe to the owner of the book store who remarked “You know, we ship orders all the time—we can mail your books to you for the cost of postage. So, when I had found a couple of armloads of cookbooks that day, I gave them to the owner to send to me. They weighed my books to determine the cost of shipping at book rate. My books were waiting for me when I got back home.
I didn’t find another copy of RECIPES REMEMBERED—but one day began searching for it online – and not only did I find a copy – I found one that is autographed!
Thank you, Fern Storer, wherever you are.
I like junior league cookbooks from different states –they are almost always better than most cookbooks—but when it comes to finding a recipe that is “local” the two books I turn to first are Fern Storer’s RECIPES REMEMBERED and Mary Anna DuSablon’s Cincinnati Recipe Treasury. Granted, my home town has a great deal more to offer than cookbooks—but the ones listed are those in my own collection.
Special Thanks to Howard Brinkdoepke for clarifying the names and locations of some of my Cincinnati memories. Howard became a penpal when I wrote Dinner in the Diner including the Twin Trolley Restaurant that used to be in South Fairmount.
–Sandra Lee Smith