When you say "Cincinnati" most people think of its German heritage, paddlewheelers churning up the Mighty Ohio, a boom town which has seen better days and a very unique chili. But, when I think about the Queen City, I remember the town I grew up in.
The city of just over 300,000 lies on the north shore of the Ohio river. Being a river city, it has its fair share of bridges, seven within the city and a couple more to hold I-275 travelers. Coming down off the "cut in the hill" you see the skyline, before making your way north, on the Brent Spence Bridge. Named for a Kentucky congressman, the bridge opened in 1963 and carries eight lines of traffic along the I-71 and I-75 highways. This bottleneck has earned the bridge the moniker, Car Strangled Spanner.
Next up, the Great American ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds, the first professional baseball team (1869). Growing up, everyone in town knew who Johnny Bench was -- #5, catcher, hero to many as part of the Big Red Machine, which won back-to-back World Series in the 1970s. [For Reds tickets: http://cincinnati.reds.mlb.com/ticketing]
Near the ballpark, is a sandy stone building, the Freedom Center, a museum dedicated to the underground railroad. Opened in 2004, this building hosts educational displays, memorials to honor heroes, and gut-wrenching images of slavery. It is a must-see if in the area. [For more information: www.freedomcenter.org]
Then look for the 15-story white building. That’s the Ingalls Building, built in 1903, and the world’s first reinforced concrete skyscraper. To the right of I-75, just after downtown, is Over-The-Rhine, the center of German immigration, with one of the largest collections of Italianate buildings in the U.S. All 943 buildings have been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The hill overlooking downtown and river boasts the city’s cultural gems: the Cincinnati Art Museum, Eden Park with Krohn Conservatory, the Playhouse in the Park, along with dozens of cafes, upscale restaurants and lounges. [For more information on Mt. Adams: www.mtadamstoday.com]
In 1830, there were only 64 Germans in Cincinnati (5% of the population). Within a decade, 30% of the city was German and, by 1900, 60% of Cincinnatians were of German heritage. The German immigrants came to Cincinnati, because it was a hub for the industries in which they had been employed back in their homeland: canal building, steamboat production and pork processing. Cincinnati had so many slaughterhouses that the city became known as Porkopolis, and that is the reason for the many statues of flying pigs throughout the area.
The newly arrived Germans set up their own schools, German language newspapers and community -Over-The-Rhine. Along with their culture and traditions, the Germans brought their cuisine, in particular, beer.
The first brewery opened in the city in 1811 and was the Embree Company, located at 75 Water Street. From there, beer production exploded. By 1890, more than one million barrels were produced annually and only half of the barrels were exported. The average per capita consumption of beer, across the nation, was 16 gallons per person. In Cincinnati it was 40 gallons for every man, woman and child. When Carrie Nation entered the city with her hatchet in 1901, she stated, "My goodness, child, if I had undertaken to break all the windows of all the saloons on your Vine Street I would have dropped from exhaustion before I had gone a block." There were 136 taverns on Vine Street alone.
But World War I was brewing. Due to the growing anti-German movement, German language newspapers closed, pretzels were removed from the counters of taverns, "liberty slaw" was served in restaurants instead of sauerkraut, and last names and street names were Anglosized.
Prohibition became law on January 20th, 1920. Breweries closed, or produced soft drinks, root beer and ice during this time. And after Prohibition ended, only 126 local breweries opened (and closed) over the next forty years. The main breweries remain Oldenberg, Miller, Barrelhouse, Queen City and Hudepohl Schoenling.
To accompany all of this beer, Glier’s manufactures goetta (a.k.a. Cincinnati Cavier). And how to describe this mostly-breakfast food? It’s ground beef, steel cut oats, with spices such as bay leaf, rosemary, salt, pepper and thyme. Over a million pounds of Cincinnati Cavier are produced annually and 99% is consumed within the region.
The Food Wars: Chili and Ice Cream:
Cincinnati has 140 chili restaurants, and the population eats more than two million pounds per year. This isn’t Texas chili. Or any chili that you’ve had outside of Cincinnati. Rather, it is ground beef with a mixture of spices (including cinnamon and chocolate), served over spaghetti noodles, topped with shredded cheddar cheese, with Oyster crackers are served on the side. Ask the waitress for a three-way (spaghetti noodles, chili, shredded cheddar), four-way (add either red beans or onions) or five-way (add both red beans and onions).
And if you don’t get into a fist fight over defending your favorite chili parlor, you will over the Graeter’s versus Aglamesis Brothers standoff. Graeter’s ice cream was founded in 1870 by Louis C. Graeter and is still run by his grandchildren. At the same time, Thomas Aglamesis was leaving Sparta, Greece for a stab at the American dream. He opened his ice cream parlor in 1908 and the business is still run by the third generation of his family. Both ice creams are considered "French Pot" as they add egg yolk. They are equally dense in texture, and you can decide for yourself which is better.
Eating in the Queen City on a Jester’s Wallet:
1. Camp Washington Chili: 3005 Colerain Ave. While others are arguing over Skyline versus Gold Star, we head over to the best chili parlor in town. For over 60 years they have been ladling out the meatiest, heartiest chili. Though usually swamped at lunch (for good reason) they maintain order and professionalism, with a touch of warmth. Though they do serve breakfast and double decker sandwiches. We opt for their cheese Coneys with everything (hot dog in a bun, topped with mustard, onions, chili and shredded cheddar). Steamed to deliciousness!
2. Dewey’s Pizza: Multiple locations. Not as "Cincinnati" as they used to be, since they’ve now expanded all the way to St. Louis. We prefer the location in Clifton Heights by U.C., which is shiny and contemporary. What draws us back over and over (well, every visit to the area) are two things: the Candied Walnut and Grape Salad (I think they put crack on the walnuts) and their thin crust Green Lantern pizza (tomato sauce, light mozzarella, with garlic, mushrooms, glops of goat cheese, artichokes and pesto). They have other unique varieties of pizza, but we have never strayed from our favorite.
3. Myra’s Dionysus: 121 Calhoun Street, near U.C. If we only have time to visit one restaurant in Cincinnati, it’s Myra’s. Myra herself is an institution. After traveling the world she brought her favorite flavors back to her hometown, opening in 1977, and sustaining U.C. students (including myself) ever since. Get ready for a wait - well worth it - in the historic house-turned- tiny restaurant. (There is a patio open in summer). She always offers at least seven soups — and pray that her famous Thai Pumpkin is available. It was here that I first tried hummus, Imam Bialdi, Spanakoepita, Falafel and more. They also offer a deli, numerous teas and a varied list of desserts - the flan is excellent. My heart will truly break if Myra’s ever closes.
4. Ollie’s Trolley: 1607 Central Ave. (513) 381-6100. This is the best Southern and Soul restaurant in the city. Period. They offer amazing ribs and BBQ chicken, but what I am addicted to is their burgers. I have no idea what’s in their special sauce, but I cannot get enough of it — or their seasoned fries. Never skip the Ollie fries. They are open at somewhat random hours so, when Ollie’s is closed, I head to Zip’s (see below).
5. Sitwell’s Coffeehouse: 324 Ludlow Ave., in Clifton Heights, near U.C. Anyone who has been a college student at U.C. has been to Sitwell’s. Here, students mingle with professors, intellectuals, aging hippies, tree huggers and those waiting for the movie to begin at nearby arthouse theatre, Esquire. Between discussions on Nietzsche, you can also hear poetry readings and Jazz quartets, while lounging on their worn couches or sitting at mismatched tables and chairs. Oh, and the coffee is budget-priced and very smooth.
6. Zip’s: 1036 Delta Ave. on Mt. Lookout Square. 1) You won’t believe the burgers. 2) You won’t believe the prices. 3) There’s a cute little toy train which runs along the ceiling. Since 1926 Zip’s has won every award Cincinnati can throw at it. And, they were well earned. Just get a burger, however you want it. I still dream of them at night.