CMH Gourmand – Eating in Columbus & Ohio

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Back to Lisska for Breakfast with Nick & Ginger & the Gang!

Posted by cmh gourmand on September 7, 2017

Just over two years ago I made my first trip to -> Lisska Bar & Grill on the east side. I recently received this comment on my blog from Ginger:

Our family comes every Thursday morning for breakfast and enjoys the BEST BREAKFAST IN TOWN! Our late parents enjoyed Lisska’s when they were “courting” in the 30s! It is an AWESOME “gathering place” – join us any Thursday morning for a great time about 9:30 a.m.

So how could I refuse an offer like that? As long time readers know, breakfast is not my bag as it is my fourth favorite meal, so I decided to have a consultant join me -> Breakfast with Nick. We checked our schedules for a Thursday that could work and then I contacted Ginger to let her know when we would be joining her.

This “breakfast club” of sorts started almost five years ago when one of Ginger’s brothers passed away. At that time, the three surviving siblings decided they need to ensure they spent regular time together so it was decided every Thursday they would have breakfast somewhere in the city. Lisska was there second Thursday stop and they have not found reason to change-up the venue since they rediscovered the place.

There are ten consistent regulars in this group with an ever-changing and eternally growing cast of special guests joining together at Lisska. On my visit, there were at least twenty affiliated members observing the passing of another in their cohort over the summer. Over time, certain traditions have developed in this cadre. They always say a prayer together before they start a meal. They rarely miss a Thursday unless an out of town visit family or a holiday gets in the way of one or more of the group, although Thanksgiving is no barrier to breakfast for this collective of breakfasters. Special bonus sessions recognize important life events such as birthdays and St. Patrick’s Day. Over time, Ginger’s go to breakfast was named in her honor. I’d call it a “Jack Benny Special” but at Lisska, it is known as The Ginger: half orders of Polish Sausage, toast (no butter), hash browns and one egg over easy (see below – as you can see, my camera has not had it’s coffee yet).

As I was introduced to countless breakfast guests I was quickly indoctrinated into this tribe. I learned what HEC, BEC and SEC stood for on the menu: Ham, Egg & Cheese, Bacon, Egg & Cheese and Sausage Egg & Cheese. When I learned that the Polish sausage came from Kowalski’s in Detroit, my order was simple, one SEC on wheat.

While I waited for my order, munching on a sample of homemade coffee cake (exceptionally good), I learned the stories of most of the members of this group while Ginger and I connected on her many stories of growing up in Clintonville in the 1940’s and 1950’s as well as her careers in the insurance industry, law offices, an employee benefit company and countless community causes over the years. She connected the dots on how these people intertwined with each other and how many of them are connected to others I have come to know over time. Listening to the background chatter amongst this group I do not think one Columbus area Catholic school or church missed at least one mention as updates were made on the multitude of charities and community organizations this group invests their time and hearts into.

As I indicated before, breakfast is not my thing. I would be hard pressed not to find a dessert I would not love, a price that did not seem like a steal or a story that ran on too long sitting on a stool here. My meal was fabulous but that was a side-line/dish to the company I was keeping. Sometimes a eatery creates a community among regulars or on occasion a community decides to make a place their own. Either of these phenomenons are rare occurences in this era. You can’t create the “glue” that creates a community like this on social media, in a corporate establishment or a new restaurant, even if independent, that has a business plan, extensive branding and lacks a less than a decade of grease on the grill. It takes a long time for a place to create a character for itself or to find a soul in its bricks and mortar and even then, you need to right mix of people on both sides of the counter to make the whole greater than the sum parts on the menu. This is an old school breakfast club that we could stand to have much more of today, even if other meals are involved.

I started writing about food because I was interested in the history and stories of the people behind the counter and because by talking about food and not myself, it was easier for me to connect with people. So this was a great opportunity to reconnect with writing with connecting with a new community. And I got to hang out with Nick for a while, something I have not done in almost a year. Thanks for the opportunity Ginger and thanks for creating a community space (by fate not intention) Lisska.


Posted in breakfast, culinary misadventure | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

All That and…..a Bag of Chips! (Putting Sandwich Week in the Bag)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 13, 2017

Well, that wraps up Sandwich week. As I was doing my sandwich sleuthing a few trends started to surface. One involved what some view as the lowly potato chip. Not so low in my book, in fact, I started to see them as a last hold out of a dying localized food culture. I noticed bags of chips in many varieties at any of the diners and dives I was eating these regional sandwiches at. More often than not the branding was unfamiliar to me. However as I started reading the labels and sleuthing their origins I noticed that these under the radar chips were often made not so far away from the epicenter of these regional sandwiches, if you drove 25 miles in an opposite direction you were just as likely to get a puzzled look asking about a Horseshoe Sandwich as you were about _________ Potato Chips. These two food trends travel back several generations before the ubiquitousness of food programing, the Internet and the homogenization of local and regional food cultures creating an affinity for boring and bland national brands. Every small town had a dairy, a brewery, a bread factory and a potato chip maker. That started to change in the 1980’s with the blitzkrieg like growth of Frito-Lay but even today we see embedded, splinter cells of regional potato chip lines, especially in my home state of Ohio. I grew up with Buckeye Potato chips, which has since crumbled away, but there are still many regional potato chip brands within Ohio and many loyal fans that swear by their chip from the old block. Here are a few examples:

Ballreich’s Potato Chips – Tiffin
Conns Potato Chips – Zanesville
Jones Potato Chip Company – Mansfield
Mike-Sell’s – Dayton
Shearer’s – Canton

Grippos – Cincinnati

Gold N Crisp – Massillion

Why so many potato chip factories in Ohio (2nd in the country for production). Part of that answer is due to our waistlines but the rest is history. Potato chips have been pleasing our palates for the past 150 years.

America’s love affair with this tantalizing treat began in the summer of 1853 when a patron of Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake in New York sent his fried potatoes back complaining they were too thick. Cook George Crum sliced up more potatoes paper-thin and fried them to a crisp. They became a hit with the patrons and became known as “ Saratoga Chips.”

The recipe soon spread to other restaurants along the East Coast, but in 1895, William Tappendon of Cleveland, began making chips in his kitchen and delivering them to neighborhood stores. He later converted a barn to manufacture the snack and is credited as the first potato chip retailer in the country.

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Pittsburgh: Sammich City (Sandwich Week)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 12, 2017

Many cities have an iconic food. Philadelphia has cheese steaks, New York is slow big it claims pizza, hot dogs and Reubens. Miami has Cuban Sandwiches and so on. An iconic sandwich may not come to most people’s minds when Pittsburgh rolls off the tongue but for me I think of the city with countless Sammichs to serve. There are a handful of cities, that when you say the name instant imagery comes to mind. One of this is Pittsburg: Steel, Carnegie, Heinz, Three Rivers, The Steelers, The Pirates, more Steel, etc. Today that image is, incorrectly, the rust belt. But this city of seemingly endless neighborhoods, hills and one ways streets always guarantees that you may need shift your belt a notch before you leave. There are countless sandwich shops throughout the city.

The good people of the Iron City are known for an interesting interpretation of English with Pittsburgese phrases such as Yinz, Yinzer, Sees Ya and on occasion Sammich. In the Urban Dictionary, a Sammich is defined as a term for an exceptionally good sandwich and in this arena, Pittsburg delivers da goods.

The original Primanti Brothers is looked in the Strip District. During the Depression, the diner was open to 3AM or later to serve late night workers, truckers and drinkers alike. Servicing this clientele meant having to create filling food that could be consumed quickly. So listen up Yinz, legend has it that a trucker came in concerned that his delivery of potatoes had frozen during the journey and might not be good anymore. He brought a few into the diner, so the cook fried some up to see if they were still edible. The spuds smelled great so other eaters asked for the potatoes to add to their sandwiches and a tradition was born. The archetypical Primanti Brothers Sandwich will have a grilled meat, an Italian dressing-based cole slaw (no mayo just oil and vinegar), two tomato slices and a mound of French fries between two pieces of thick Italian bread. See the photo at the beginning of this post as a visual aid.

An iconic food of Pittsburgh is chipped chip ham. Loved and sought out with a vigor that many outside the city do not understand, Chipped Chopped Ham is a thinly sliced processed ham lunch meat that is often served as is, or lightly heated with some BBQ sauce mixed in. This style was made popular by another local icon, Isaly’s a largely forgotten Ohio purveyor of dairy and meats that was famous for the lunch counters before the 1960’s. Islay’s served….chipped chop ham throughout their chain of stores. This style of lunch meat has become so synonymous with the city that many residents of Ohio, West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania often refer to this as Pittsburgh ham. You will still find sandwiches featuring chipped chop ham throughout the Pittsburgh.

Fat Heads is well-known for their craft beers but their Pittsburgh Brew Pub is exceptionally renown for their intimidating sandwiches. My favorite, that is think is most reflective of the culinary loves of the city is the Southside Slopes Headwich. This monolithic sandwich consists of Kielbasa, Pierogies, American cheese, Grilled onions, Horsey sauce and two big, thick toothpicks with olives that vainly attempt to hold this together. It is served with fresh, homemade potato chips served with a wing sauce. The menu suggested washing ti down Wayne style with an Iron City Beer. Today, that may have changed to Fat Head Hop JuJu. (CMH Gourmand Note: I was surprised to see my old review of Fat Heads is still on ->

Last and not least, because there are many, many more sammiches in the Iron City, let us discuss the Devonshire Sandwich. This was created by Frank Blaidi in 1934 (or 1935 sources vary) when he cooked at the Stratford Club (one block away from Devonshire Street). The components of this open-faced sandwich are: toasted bread, bacon, tomatoes and cheese sauce.

I sampled modern-day versions at Dunnings Grill and Union Grill. My notes on Dunnings have disappeared. My notes on Union Grill have not. My memories of that sandwich have note disappeared either. I dragged a friend from Columbus for a day trip to Pittsburgh to eat sandwiches & hot dogs and this was the last stop of a very high calorie consumption day. The sandwich was so good, we did not have a problem pounding it down. What me here was the option yo split the sandwich in half for an extra two bucks. When it was served, we thought that made a mistake and gave both of us full sandwiches, we were the ones mistaken. It was the best and largest 1/2 sandwich of my lifetime. The sandwich used toast points as the base, and combined two generous strips of bacon, a whole Tomato slice, a lot of cheese sauce (some had carmelized and gotten crunchy), parsley flakes and a substantial dusting of Parmesan cheese. Great sandwich, great service and a great place.

The Devonshire and the Hot Brown are two famous open-faced sandwiches but how do they differ? Not by much, below I have the typical recipe ingredients of each for you to compare. They only way to really sort this out would be to make each several times.

Devonshire vs. Hot Brown


Cream Sauce:
• 3/4 stick butter, melted
• 1 cup flour
• 1/4 pound Cheddar cheese, grated
• 1 pint chicken broth
• 1 pint hot milk
• 1 teaspoon salt

For each sandwich:
• 1 slice good toast, crusts trimmed off
• 3 slices crisp bacon
• 5 thin slices cooked turkey breast
• Cream Sauce, recipe above
• Melted butter
• Parmesan cheese and paprika

Hot Brown

4 oz. Butter
Flour to make a Roux (about 6 tablespoons)
3 – 3 1⁄2 cups Milk
1 Beaten Egg
6 tablespoons Grated Parmesan Cheese
1 oz. Whipped Cream (optional)
Salt and Pepper to Taste

Slices of Roast Turkey
8-12 Slices of Toast (may be trimmed)
Extra Parmesan for Topping
8-12 Strips of Fried Bacon

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Beef on Weck – Western New York (Sandwich Week)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 11, 2017

Beef on Weck is a popular sandwich in western New York including Buffalo and Rochester where Weck is considered an institution. The only major foray out of the state was during the origins of Buffalo Wild Wings which was initially called BW-3 when it started in Columbus (Ohio). The three W’s were wild wings & weck. Since most people did not know what Weck was and because it is a labor intensive sandwich to make, well… the third W quickly disappeared from the line up.

A bit of background before we go into the meat of this matteer. Weck is occasionally known as wick. It consists of thinly sliced roast beef on a kummelweck roll. The top of the bun is soaked in the au from the roast beef and sprinkled with coarse kosher slat and caraway seeds. A hearty helping of horseradish os par for the course as well.

The kummelweck roll (sometimes spelled “kimmelweck” or “kümmelweck”) gets it’s name from Kümmel a German word for caraway and weck or wecken which is a “roll” common in south-western Germany. The weck of New York is a bot different that what you would find in Germany or Austria, it tends to be softer. The origins of this sandwich are as hazy of the au ju that makes it an exceptional sandwich. We know it started in Buffalo. It may have been invented by a German baker named William Wahr. Legend has it, which is easy to believe, that a local bar owner felt the salty sandwich would encourage more bar business. Having consumed a few of these sandwiches myself, I can say, they pair exceptionally well with a cold lager.

The best Beef on Weck I ever had was not at a restaurant by made by my friend Cliff Sawicki. A native of the Buffalo area, he made enough beef on wecks to feed 20 people for move in day at my first house back in 2002. I’m certain I ate enough to account for 10 of 20 person servings in the 3 hours it took to complete the move. As an expert on the region and the sandwich, I asked Cliff to chime on on his favorite haunts and he did indeed deliver as you can read below.

Brunner’s Tavern
3989 Main Street
Amherst, NY
(716) 836-9718

This has been an Amherst tradition for a couple generations now. They serve a decent fish fry on Fridays and the kitchen is open for lunch and early dinner during the week. My favorite time to go is Saturday afternoon, the kitchen is closed, but the grill behind the bar is open. There are two things to get: the Steak Sandwich or the Roast Beef on Weck. Order the Steak Sandwich and the barkeep will throw a big chuck of beef on the grill, cook it to your liking, and then throw on some cheese, peppers and onions. For good measure, the sandwich is cut in half and served with wedge ridged potato chips and a pickle. MMM! Order the Roast Beef on Weck and watch the barkeep carve off slices from a fresh slab brought in just before opening. For good measure, some juice is ladled on the roll, the sandwich is cut in half, served with wedge ridged potato chips, pickle, and a jar of real horseradish on the side. If you want the Roast Beef get there early, they sometimes run out as soon as 12:30PM (although I understand they have been bringing in a second slab recently). Brunner’s is next to Ziggy’s.

Jolly Jug
797 Niagara Falls Blvd.
Buffalo, NY
(716) 836-9552

I would give directions, but if you can read this, you are not drunk enough to believe the time warp, and thus won’t want to go. This is really a bar that also happens to serve a decent Roast Beef on Weck and Chili until 4:00AM. This was probably a hopping little neighborhood bar forty years ago, until the great super glue incident happened. Now, six or seven sixty-year old men have their elbows permanently affixed to the bar. All of these men are drinking Genesee Cream Ale. I have never heard of any performer listed in the juke box.

I usually drag a couple unknowing friends down to the Jug around 3:30AM, go to the bar, order six Old Viennas, three Beefs, and three bowls of Chili. I then get some quarters, play the juke box and rack up a pool game. The barkeep is traditionally friendly, I expect because he actually gets to speak to someone who is alive. Everybody seems to enjoy the experience as it unfolds, but nobody has ever gone back with me. Oh, well, (they can go pound on the windows at Ziggy’s).

My guess is theremay only be 1000 people that know about this place, 500 people that have been inside, 250 people that would admit they have been inside, and 100
people who have thought to eat there….I only knew because an alcoholic
took me there.

In no particular order…

Schwabl’s – Really good, I’ve only had the Beef on weck…I’d like to try
some of the other stuff on the menu…old restaurant…old school. (CMH Gourmand Note; Schwabl’s is often noted to have the quintessential Beef on Weck).

Bar Bill – The rave in the very small village of East Aurora…it’s a 30-40
minute drive from the mainland, a very good sandwich, but if you need a fix
there are equally good sandwiches with a shorter drive…the only reason I
had ever been there was because my grandparents lived out there.

Swiston’s – Been there a few times…. consistency isn’t always there. Their best efforts top the charts, but I’ve had an occasional average sandwichthere…one recent complaint someone told me about was too much fat on thesandwich…I’m torn about that comment.

Anderson’s – Original location on Sheridan Drive has expanded into I believe locations in WNY. Still a decent quality sandwich, but would only be myfirst choice if I was going to top it off with some of Anderson’s frozen

Anacone Inn – I haven’t been here in some 15 years, the neighborhood hasgone way downhill, I’d like to give this one a shot again, but I would want to bring a posse along. BTW, they had a really good sandwich.

Charlie the Butcher – Strangely, this is probably one of the most talked about Beef on Weckers, but I hadn’t tried it until this past summer…I wasnot impressed…Beef was a bit dry and not piled on very high….will probably try one more time just to confirm an unsupervised rookie didn’t make my sandwich.

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The (Louisville) ((Kentucky)) Hot Brown (Sandwich Week)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 10, 2017

The 1920’s was a very different time than today. Hotels were cultural hubs typically not only providing the best food in their home cities but the best entertainment. Such was the case for the storied Brown Hotel in Louisville Kentucky. During the Roaring 20’s the Brown was THE place to be featuring 600 rooms in 16 stories. The hotel offered nightly dance parties for up to 1200 guests that often continued well past the last evening so exhausted revelers often needed a hearty late night snack to recharge while resting up their tired dogs. The hotel’s chef, Fred K. Schmidt, created the Hot Brown in 1926 to fill up these guests so they could go home or go to bed. The sandwich became so popular that it was added to the daytime menu and at one time it was the menu choice of up to 95% of diners. The popularity of the sandwich soon found others spread throughout the city and the state.

A Hot Brown is an open-faced sandwich consisting of the following: a layer of bread, sliced turkey, bacon and then covered in Mornay sauce (a white sauce made with butter, flour, milk shredded or grated Gruyère cheese). By report a bit of Parmesan cheese is sprinkled on. This is baked or broiled until browned and ideally a bit of crisping occurs where the cheese meets the plate. When the sandwich is ready to serve it is topped with tomatoes and pimento.

A spin-off version of the sandwich was also created at the hotel and was called the cold brown. The cold version consists of baked chicken or turkey, hard-boiled egg, lettuce and tomato served open-faced on rye bread then covered with Thousand Island dressing. There are two cousins to this sandwich: The Prosperity sandwich in St. Louis and the Devonshire in Pittsburgh.

If one is only going to have one Hot Brown, then the only choice is to eat it where it was originated, at the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville. It is still a favorite although today, it is not quite 95% of the dinner service tickets like the good old days.

Of significant note and in my opinion, a mandatory pairing, is another Louisville icon, Derby Pie. The pie is a perfect combination of chocolate chips, walnuts and pie dough that is trademarked by Kern’s Kitchen. No one else can legally make or serve Derby Pie without violating the trademark. My pie had the word Derby Pie stamped into the pie crust ring to show it was authentic.

Now, if you decided you are going to have at least two Hot Browns in your life, then there is (was) only one place to go, Lynn’s Paradise Cafe. (Update: sadly the cafe closed in 2013 so I’ve cut out most of my paragraphs on that so as to not be overly cruel). I’ll just say that the photo at the top of this post was one of their Hot Brown’s and it was truly an exceptional sandwich.

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The Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwich of Indiana & Iowa (Sandwich Week)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 9, 2017

BPT Sandwich

The Breaded Pork Tenderloin is big in Indiana and Iowa – big as in size and big as in popular. These sandwiches can sometimes be found in other parts of the Midwest, especially in Illinois, which is sandwiched between these two pork powerhouses, but there is no place that displays the level of devotion to this sandwich greater than Indiana and Iowa. It has been estimated that breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches are served in at least fifty percent of Indiana restaurants. This sandwich is also listed on many menus in Iowa. In Indiana and Iowa, customers will ask for a tenderloin sandwich assuming it is breaded and that it is pork (an assumption that can lead to disappointment when traveling out of pork country). People in both states take pride in their prized sandwich and are politely dismissive of other state’s claims of pork prowess. Where is the true home of the Breaded Pork tenderloin Sandwich? It is really too close to call – this sandwich belongs to both Hawkeyes and Hoosiers.

Many experts place the birthplace of the pork tenderloin sandwich in Huntington, Indiana and credit Nicholas Freinstein as the founding father of this heartland creation. He opened a restaurant, Nick’s Kitchen in 1908 after years of peddling his sandwiches on the street. Legend has it that his brother Jake, having lost function of his hands to frostbite after an unfortunate wintertime carriage accident, used the stumps of his forearms to tenderize the pork. Today, pork tenderloin purveyors have found alternate means to tenderize the meat but it is still as good.

The basic breaded pork tenderloin sandwich generally starts a large cut of pork loin. The meat is tenderized until it is the desired thickness, usually 1/4 inch thick but sometimes up to a 1/2 inch. The breading is customarily a simple mix of water, flour, salt and pepper. Some places will add cornmeal or another special ingredient but the standard is to keep it simple. The sandwich is typically fried or deep-fried. The tenderloin is always significantly bigger than the bun which is typically a hamburger bun or sometimes a Kaiser roll. The condiments of choice are basic – usually pickles, often onions, and occasionally lettuce. In Indiana – expect mustard and/or mayonnaise while in Iowa it is most often mustard and/or ketchup. What a difference a few hundred miles can make. The sandwich is always a meal and taking some to go will have no negative effect on ones reputations with the locals.

(disclaimer: the sites below were last fact checked in 2005)

Mr. Dave’s
102 E Main St.
North Manchester, IN 46962
Closed Sunday

Mr. Dave is Dave Klapp. He opened this cozy little spot in 1962 on the corner of Market and Main. The pork tenderloin sandwich has been a local favorite for decades and is frequently mentioned in newspaper articles and national magazines. The sandwich won several contests and awards including the Pork Producers Appreciation award in 1990. Dave’s son Kevin is running the restaurant now and continues to stay busy frying up tenderloins. Customers order at the counter or drive through window and after a short wait they can eat inside, at a picnic table, or on the go. The sandwich is popular outside of town with over 1000 shipped around the country each year.

Nick’s Kitchen
506 N Jefferson St.
Huntington, IN 46750
260 356 6618
Closed Sunday
Open 6 AM to 2 PM

Huntington has the Dan Quayle Museum – but on a more historical note the town is home to Nick’s Kitchen – the originator of the Breaded Pork Tenderloin sandwich. In 1969, the restaurant was purchased by the Bailey family, and is now owned by Jean Anne Bailey. Jean Anne continues to serve the sandwich as it was at the turn of the 20th century. The motto of the restaurant is on the wall – “We don’t do fast food, we just do great food fast!” Diners can hear the tenderloins frying in the kitchen whether sitting at the counter or farther away in a booth. Service is quick and efficient but not rushed – it does take a little time to make homemade food.

Nickel Plate Bar and Grill
8654 E 116th St
Fishers, IN 46038
317 841 2888

The Nickel Plate Bar and Grill is on the right side of the tracks – the side with one of the best-breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches in Indiana. The Nickel Plate is more bar than grill and is located right at the railroad crossing. In 2005, Indy Men’s Magazine picked the tenderloin at the Nickel Plate as the best out of 64 entries. The tenderloin served in this sandwich is thicker than most and has cornflakes incorporated into the batter. The sandwich is served on a corn-dusted roll and served with a side dish. Customers in a hurry can order at the bar or get the sandwich to go. Fishers, Indiana is located just outside Indianapolis outerbelt (465) off I 69 so the Nickel Plate makes a nice side trip for anyone going cross-country on Interstate 70.

Red Onion
3901 W State Street
Sheridan, IN 46069
317 758 0424

Pork Tenderloin sandwiches are often described as two-fisted sandwiches. At the Red Onion, this type of description may be an understatement. Their oversized tenderloin still hangs out from the giant, double sized hand made bun so even eating halfway through is an accomplishment. Mere mortals or people adverse to leftovers would be better off ordering the junior tenderloin which is much more manageable. The Red Onion serves up to 900 of these sandwiches each week – that is a lot of pork and a lot of carry out containers.

Darrell’s Place
4010 1st St.
Hamlin, IA 50117

Darrell’s Place is an easy place to miss even though it is located in a very small town. If it were not for the sign, it would be easy mistaking this restaurant for some other type of business and just drive by. Finding Darrell’s is well worth the effort. In 2004, the Iowa Pork Producers Association proclaimed that Darrell’s Place had the best breaded pork tenderloin in the state. For the next several months, hundreds of people made the pilgrimage to Darrell’s to find out if this was true. The traffic has died down a bit but people keep making the journey to try out this sandwich and it is hard to believe anyone would be disappointed. Darrell hand cuts the pork loins himself and makes a very simple breading out of flour. The tenderloin is a bit thicker than the typical pork tenderloin sandwich and the breading is a little lighter and flakier than what is usually encountered. The sandwich at Darrell’s did earn the acclaim it received. Darrell’s is off the beaten path but it is worth the drive. For travelers with a little extra time – consider doing the scenic drive on SR 44 starting around Lake Panorama.

George the Chili King
5722 Hickman Road
Des Moines, IA
515 277 9433
515 255 9950
Closed Sunday

George Karaidos Sr. won a newspaper sponsored chili contest in the early 20th century so he was dubbed the Chili King, the name stuck. He opened this Drive-in / Diner in 1952 and not much has changed since then. Randy Karaidos is now the king of this castle, which still offers carhop service. If you want to eat inside, there is counter seating available in front of the grill. In addition to chili, this place is also well known for good pork tenderloin sandwiches. This restaurant makes a version of the pork tenderloin that takes this sandwich up a few points on the cholesterol scale. The Fat Man is a tenderloin with ham and cheese added as well as lettuce, tomato, onions, and more condiments. The tenderloins are frozen but deep-fried when ordered and cook up in less than 5 minutes. George’s is a local institution and worth a visit whenever visiting Des Moines.

Hamburg Inn #2
214 N Linn St
Iowa City, Iowa 52245
(319) 337-5512

Once upon a time, there were three Hamburg Inn’s. Now there is only one, which is Hamburg Inn #2. This restaurant is a favorite with local residents as well as Iowa State students and alumni. It has been featured in numerous newspaper and magazine articles as well as radio and television programs. Numerous celebrities including two presidents have dined in the Hamburg Inn. The Panther family has continued the Hamburg Inn tradition of serving great comfort food at a reasonable price. The gigantic menu features a good-sized breaded pork tenderloin sandwich that is best washed down with one of their renowned pie milkshakes. I tried the apple pie milkshake and it was the best I milkshake of my life.

Joensy's Restaurant by A Conaway

Joensy’s Restaurant
101 West Main St
Solon, IA 52333
319 624-2914

The folks at Joensy’s take pork pretty seriously. The large sign above the entrance (which is bigger than the sign for the restaurant itself) proudly proclaims “Home of the Biggest & Best Pork Tenderloin in Iowa”. Joensey’s has been pork tenderloin purveyor since 1983 and has generated a lot of recognition over the years. A variety of sandwiches and hearty dinners are served at Joensey’s but the breaded pork tenderloin remains the signature item for the restaurant. The tenderloin is about two to three times the size of the bun, which tries to serve as a delivery device for this oversized, two-handed, mammoth sandwich. A person could look for a bigger pork tenderloin sandwich elsewhere but I would suggest that they go to Joensy’s first so they have something to eat while driving around Iowa looking for something larger.

Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop
1401 S.W. Army Post Road
Des Moines, IA
515 287-4742
Closed Sunday and Monday

Smitty’s specialty is the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich, which is not a big surprise considering the name of the shop and that is in Iowa. Smitty’s does at least one thing a little different than other pork tenderloin hawkers – there are a variety of styles to choose from. The easy choice is whether to order a large or small sandwich. However, the tough choice is deciding among the King Tenderloin (Big), Chili-Cheese Loin, Taco Loin or Vegetable Loin (don’t panic – this is just a tenderloin with tomato, lettuce, and pickle). Smitty’s also ships tenderloins in packages of a dozen in the lower 48 states if you cannot make it to Des Moines or feel you need to try some of the other styles later.

The Breaded Pork Tenderloin sandwich seems to hold a special place in the hearts of many people from Iowa and Indiana. Some fans refer to the sandwich as a BPT (Breaded Pork Tenderloin). A few fans have taken fandom to the next level – BPT zealot. Here are two video resources to better understand this lifestyle choice.

Stalking the Wild Breaded Pork Tenderloin in Iowa

This website is a pictorial journey to some of the favorite spots for BPT in Iowa.

In Search of the Famous Hoosier Breaded Pork Tenderloin Sandwich
A documentary film by Jensen Rufe

The Other White Meat Sandwich?

The three biggest pork producers in the United States are Iowa, Indiana, and North Carolina. We know what Iowa and Indiana do with their pork but what about North Carolina? Well, the BPT pretty much unheard of in North Carolina BBQ country but there is a 2nd cousin of the BPT – the Pork Chop Sandwich.

Snappy Lunch
125 North Main Street
Mount Airy, NC 27030

The quintessential Pork Chop sandwich can be found in this quintessential diner. Mount Airy was the childhood home of Andy Griffith and served as the model for Mayberry in his television series. Too bad this sandwich did not appear on TV or we might be able to find more of them elsewhere. The Snappy Lunch menu features the Famous Pork Chop Sandwich, which is a large pork cutlet, dipped in batter, pan fried and served with tomato, onion, chili, coleslaw, mayonnaise and mustard. The pork is tenderized by a special machine and the sandwich accounts for about 90% of the food sold at the restaurant.

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The Horseshoe Sandwich, Springfield IL (Sandwich Week)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 8, 2017

Springfield, Illinois is nationally known as the home of Abe Lincoln. Although virtually unknown outside a one hour driving radius of the Illinois capital, locals are almost as proud of their other hometown hero – the Horseshoe sandwich. The Horseshoe is the house sandwich of Springfield with many restaurants offering some version of what is often referred to as a “heart attack on a plate”.

Local lore generally places the birth of the Horseshoe at the Leland Hotel (closed in the 1970’s) in 1928. A few sources name other spots, among them the (Wayne’s) Red Coach Inn, as the originator. The original horseshoe was an open faced sandwich consisting of two slices of thick, toasted bread with ham placed on top of each piece, a pile of fries with the whole heap drenched in cheese sauce. The sauce is typically a closely guarded secret and varies from place to place but most published recipes use a variation of Welsh rarebit sauce. Typical ingredients in the sauce include beer, egg yolks, butter, Worcestershire sauce, cheddar cheese and a combination of spices. Horseshoe history decrees that the original sandwich used ham steak, which looked like a horseshoe after it was cooked. The French fries are supposed to represent horseshoe nails. The plate is an anvil and slices of bead represent hoofs. Today, there are many variations in the meat part of the sandwich and a few restaurants even pony up an occasional vegetarian version. If you want to be more health conscious order a ponyshoe, which is half of a horseshoe.

D’arcy’s Pint
661 W. Stanford Ave.
Springfield, IL
(Closed on Sunday)

D’arcy’s Pint is consistently the local favorite for Horseshoes. This family friendly Irish themed bar / restaurant has only been around since 1998 and moved to it’s new, bigger location in May of 2005. D’Arcy’s serves up over a dozen varieties of shoes. The base sandwich is two pieces of Texas Toast; with meat placed on each slice served with either a traditional or spicy white cheese sauce and what seems like a pound of crinkle cut fries. Meat choices include corned beef, walleye, Italian sausage, and breaded pork tenderloin. The customer favorite is the Buffalo Chicken Horseshoe which is served with a side of hot sauce and blue cheese dressing. If someone in your party is afraid of ordering a pint (horsehoe) or half-pint (pony shoe), the menu also features traditional Irish favorites, bar food, and other famous sandwiches including breaded pork tenderloins, Muffalettas, New York style corned beef and Reubens.

Norb Andy’s Tabarin (actual spelling)
518 East Capitol Ave.
Springfield, Illinois 62701-1814
Phone: (217) 523-7777

There is a lot of history at Norb Andy’s. The building has been around since 1837 and it is on the national register of historic places. The name of this tavern is derived from the name of the man that owned it from 1937 to 1979 – Norbert Anderson. Norb Andy’s is a dark, cozy bar with nautical themed décor that is within easy walking distance of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum and most downtown sights. If you get lucky, you might even get a parking spot at one of the meters out front. Norb’s has eight varieties of “shoes” including Italian Beef and Seafood (shrimp and crab). Most customers order the horseshoe with hamburger patties, which is the baseline horseshoe in town. An insider tip from the bar staff – the bathroom is up front. Virtually everyone wanders off looking for it in the rear of Norb Andy’s only to find a small dining nook with a few tables and several portraits of famous ships of the 18th century.

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The Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich (Sandwich Week)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 7, 2017

Italian Beef

(Disclaimer: This was written in 2005 and 2006 so some site info many no longer be accurate)

Chicago is a food lover’s town offering three homegrown culinary inventions – Deep Dish Pizza, Chicago Style Dogs and the third (and least traveled) of the triumvirate – the Italian Beef Sandwich. Few people have heard of this Chicago cultural icon outside of the Windy City metro area, – but once you get a big, wet, messy bite of this sandwich – you are hooked.

The history of the sandwich is about as clear as the juice the beef swims in. You won’t find this sandwich in Italy; most people agree the sandwich evolved in the Italian neighborhoods of Chicago in the 1930’s. A place called Al’s on Taylor Street has been around since 1938. Other local lore implies the origin of Italian Beef at a place called Maxwell’s. The popular sandwich rapidly populated Chicago’s neighborhoods with beef stands in the late 1940’s. Today the signature sandwich is served up at hundreds of places from old mom and pop stands to new fangled franchises.

The building blocks of the Italian Beef are:
Bun – a Chicago style French roll – crusty on the outside – soft on the inside
the beef – thinly sliced and cut against the grain
the juice/sauce – a highly seasoned au jus with slight variations depending on the establishment but usually including some combination of garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, basil, red pepper flakes, and other herbs and spices
and the toppings – typically sweet peppers or Giardiniera (Jar Din Era). You can get cheese at a few places but for most Chicagoans that is like putting ketchup on a Chicago dog – you just don’t do it.

Before ordering a Beef – you need to know what to ask for. Each choice is critical and needs to be made before you approach the counter.

First decision – Dry or Wet. A wet sandwich will have the roll dipped in the juice as well. A dry sandwich will have what escapes the meat or a little extra juice the sandwich maker ladles in with the meat.

Second decision – Sweet or Hot? Sweet will get you roasted green bell peppers. Hot will typically give you Hot (Spicy) Giardiniera relish – the typical combination includes cut up cauliflower, celery, jalapeno and/or sport peppers, carrots, and spices (the recipe for this relish varies from place to place).

Third Decision – can you get a combo? The Combo sandwich adds Italian sausage to the Italian beef – can you say coronary disease!!!

Fourth decision – can you get “red Gravy/sauce? A few places offer a red sauce for the beef – this is basically spaghetti sauce – but this is rare and not favored by many Italian Beef aficionados.

Fifth decision – “ya want fries with that?”

Pat Bruno and Dennis Foley, famed food writers and known Beef eaters describe the Chicago Lean. An Italian Beef Veteran will often eat this sandwich standing up with the torso leaning forward or at least maneuvering the tail end of the sandwich to a strategic angle to avoid the drippings of the sandwich. Any strategy that avoids loosing the slightest bit of sandwich while protecting ones clothing is preferred. Some of the better beef stands invest a little extra in a thicker grade of wax paper to wrap the sandwich in – but even this will not guarantee keeping the sauce off your shirt.

Many of the places get their beef from Scala Beef – which has a great reputation in town. Most of the rolls are from Gonnella Baking Co. or Turano Baking Company – also highly thought of companies. It is not uncommon to see giardiniera served out of a large glass jar from one of several local purveyors. Considering all these commonalities – what separates one beef from another – quite a bit. Beef fans will scrutinize every detail such as how the sirloin is cut – too thin or too thick and how each place handles their beef from first cut to the last. Seasoning and toppings are critical too and always noticed by anyone that has been to more than a couple beef stands. Even small touches such as how the rolls are stored and whether or not the Giardiniera is self serve can be crucial factors.

My Chicago beef guide – who I will call Mac the Knife for safety purposes – said this after one place – “they say you can’t screw up an Italian Beef – well you can and _______ did!!” So to make sure your first experience is a good one – here are some places that consistently do everything right.

Looking for beefs around Chicago – you will hear the name Al mentioned more than once. The problem is there is more than one Al’s, so where do you go first – I will help you sort out A Tale of Two Al’s.

Al’s #1 Italian Beef
What does the phone book say: Al’s #1 Italian Beef

Locations: Over 10
Most convenient location:
169 West. Ontario
(312) 943-3222

Open since:
The Franchise started in 2001. But the Ontario Al’s does have common ancestry with the Taylor St. Al’s. This location has been around for several years.

Beef is cut and cooked in house: Yes

What you need to know. The Ontario location is within a baseball toss of Ed Debevic’s, Carson’s Ribs, Gino’s East Pizza and a Portillos – so you can cover all of your Chicago food needs on foot.

Getting there on the EL / Subway:
Brown Line to Chicago or Merchandise Mart

Can you get a beef on Sunday:

Inside seating:

or you could go to…..

Al’s #1 Italian Beef

What the phone book says: Al’s Bar-B-Q

Location(s): one
1079 West Taylor St
(312) 226-4017

Open since:

Beef is cut and cooked in house:

What you need to know:
Mario’s Italian Ice shop, which is among the best in Chicago, is across the street. This Al’s has been listed in nearly every article written about Italian Beef. Little Italy is a great neighborhood for food lovers to stroll around.

Getting there on the EL (subway):
Blue Line to UIC-Halsted

Can you get a beef on a Sunday:

Inside Seating:
No – but there is room to do a Chicago lean inside and a few picnic tables outside.

more places to try:

Carm’s Beef
1801 S. Wolf Road,
Hillside, IL
708 449-0125

Any second or third generation Italian Beef eater will probably pause for a minute and smile when you mention Carm’s. Many years ago, there were four locations. The original and favorite was on Cicero Avenue. Today, just the Hillside location remains. Joe Mantenga seems to love the place – he has two autographed photos inside. This Carm’s serves much more than Italian Beef but it keeps the family recipes and legend alive with the most appealing looking Italian Beef sandwich in town.

Carm’s Italian Beef
1057 W. Polk St.

The Little Italy Carm’s is no relation to the Hillside Carm’s. This location opened in 1926 as a grocery store called Fontano’s. In the 1960’s the store moved across the street and this location started specializing in sandwiches and Italian Ices. The DeVille family knows many of their customers – people from the neighborhood and nearby University of Illinois at Chicago students. I lady at the counter asked me “who would want to read about Italian Beefs?” This book is the answer.

Boston’s Bar-B-Q
2932 W Chicago Ave (Corner of Grand and Chicago)
Chicago, IL
312 486 9536
(Closed Sunday)
Boston’s started out as a bar in 1949 but switched over to a Beef place as their sandwiches gained more renown. This place is a little out of the way in an industrial section of Chicago but is worth the trip – at least in the daytime. Over the years, Boston’s has been consistently listed as a top place when Chicagoans rave about the best Beefs in town. This beef stand is also highly frequented by the Chicago police and other public servants, which is a solid endorsement for any type of food. Beef eaters will also find a Godfather movie poster hanging on the wall – although not scientifically proven, this type of décor typically has a high correlation with good Italian Beef. If you have not had a combo sandwich – this is one the best places to do so.

2839 S Pulaski Rd
Chicago, IL
312 762 2333 (BEEF)

Chickie’s is a classic Chicago Italian Beef Stand that blends into its working class neighborhood. The inside is standing room only but there are two picnic tables outside. The beef is strongly seasoned. The Giardiniera is homemade with a lot of large slices of celery mixed in with the spicy blend. The place has been around since 1962 and is a lunchtime favorite for nearby office and factory workers.

Duke’s Drive In

8115 S Harlem Ave
Oak Lawn, IL
708 599-0576

Duke’s is kind of the new kid of the Italian Beef block. This south side establishment has been serving Italian Beef sandwiches since 1975. Duke’s is a quintessential drive-in, which makes it a favorite of truckers and classic car enthusiasts. Although some places have received higher rating for sandwiches – for the Chicago gull population Duke’s is the hands down favorite. Not even the multiple signs posted that state feeding the bird is against city statutes will keep these feathered French Fry eaters way.

Johnnie’s Beef
7500 W North Ave
Elmwood Park, IL
708 452 6000
(Second location –
ARLINGTON HTS, IL 60005-4017
(Closed Sunday)

Really good beef can be found outside the Chicago Loop and Johnnie’s Beef is worth the trip to the burbs to prove it. Expect to find a line of customers when you pull in this drive in’s driveway. Don’t let the sight of people queued up outside the door deter you – this place moves people through quickly because the guys at the counter are efficient order takers – much like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld. If you forget to order your fries or the type of peppers you want because you panicked then you can drown your sorrows in one of the best Italian Ices this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Max’s Italian Beef
5754 N Western Ave (near Hollywood Ave.)
Chicago, IL 60659-5114  
(773) 989-8200
(Closed Sunday)

The Estes family takes their business seriously – they post their home and work phone numbers on the wall so you can call them if something is not to your satisfaction. The stand has been around since 1957 and you can see a leftover wooden sign from the day that Beefs were well under a dollar. Today, the place has four tables and counter seating that rings the inside with plenty of TV’s for watching local sporting events. Max’s offers self-serve, spicy Giardiniera and a giant menu including their famous Ghetto Fries (BBQ sauce or gravy, Onions, Giardiniera, and a lot of melted cheese). When they dip a Beef at Max’s it comes out really wet – so be ready.

1503 W. Taylor St.
Chicago, IL 60607
312 829 0454
The Patio has been around for over 50 years with the last 23 at this location in the heart of Little Italy ( There is no patio at the Patio (that was at the original location) but there is one of the least expensive Italian Beef sandwiches in town. As a bonus they wrap their sandwich a high-grade wax paper (extra protection for beef greenhorns) that is more resilient than what other places use. The friendly counter staff will make you feel at home in this cozy spot that seats about ten.

Pop’s Italian Beef & Sausage
7153 W 127TH St
Palos Heights, IL
773 239 1243

14279 Wolf Rd.
Orland Park, IL 60467-1932
708 403-9070
10337 S. Kedzie Ave.,
Chicago, IL
773 239-1243
18328 Governors Highway
Homewood, IL
708 647-9999

Even though Pop’s family of restaurants has grown – the friendly service helps retain the feel of a Mom and Pop establishment. Pop’s has one of the best cost to beef ratios of any Italian beef purveyor, they do not hold back on the beef in their sandwiches. As for toppings, this small chain has the best self-serve hot giardiniera in town. This is a good place to come if you need a place to sit down since there is some seating available.


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The Sandwich Chronicles: A Prelude to Sandwich Week

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 7, 2017

Welcome to the beginning of Sandwich Week. Which means, like Shark Week, etc, this may be a ploy to get the ratings up. It is a long and rambling road that got his here, so I will begin, with an explanation to how we got here and why.

Why do Sandwich Week now you might ask? Because this blog is eleven years old today. And why did I start this blog? It was not so I could serve up Sandwich Week eleven years later. The short answer is I started this because my friend A. Conway suggested I look into doing a blog. Back in the old days, they were just taking off. I was weary of this hipster, electronic method of self disclosure. A. Conway has an interesting ability to make subtle suggestions for how I might improve my lot in life which started my senior year of high school. The downside is that because he was subtle, I often missed these queues and did not recognize his hints as potentially helpful until years or decades later. A few of these nudges did fight their way through to my single-minded skull. One of the most important was suggesting I join him to learn about different committees with the Ohio Drake-Unions Activity Board. I took a shine to the Fine Arts Committee and the people I meet there became 99% of my friends in college. And unlike most other cohorts in my life, this group of friends “stuck” and have remained loyal for decades. Through this group I had many important post college experiences. Great road trips, a “camping” tradition that lasted ten years, a few girlfriends, my post college roommate and the man who I orchestrated to be the first Dudeist Minister in the state of Ohio so that I could be married by a guy wearing a bathrobe.

So in the summer of 2006, A. Conaway said something a long the lines of hey man, you might want to look into doing a blog. These are the series of events that lead up to me being in Chicago and his suggestion. In 1998, I blundered into free-lance writing and had some success with it. I even assisted in research for some popular food books. But after surviving Y2K, missing getting trapped in Ireland by 911 by a few hours and basically spending a lot of time doing a lot of things but not really making any forward movement in my life I decided to double down on a few life goals. 1) Leave my job that I decided I hated in 1995 (not so much because the job was bad but that the majority of my peers and especially superiors were wretchedly horrible humans) 2) Emigrate to Australia 3) Write a book so I could be a “real writer”.

Number one took a lot longer than I planned. My initial plan was graduate with a degree in Library and Information Science, with a focus on the information part so I could work at OCLC which had the potential of getting me to Australia some day. That did not happen. I did get the degree but not the OCLC. As it turned out, I was so focused on getting into OCLC I overlooked an important reality, there was a shortage of librarians in Australia at that moment of time which would have given me enough points to make my move. The sad thing about that job that sucked, that even though I increasingly found most of my co-workers and all of my superiors deplorable, I finally found my niche and really started to excel but I made a critical mistake, the very second I trusted “them” – they pulled a Lucy on my Charlie Brown and took the football away from me at the last possible second. That was devastating. That moment in time created a level of pure hatred that persists to this day. So that explains part of the outcome of goals one and two. During the middle of all of this I had not one, but two opportunities to write a book. The first was about the history of pizza. I had a partnership with an editor, I wrote the entire book outline and completed much of the research. But the publisher decided to go in another direction and gave the book to another team. Their book was not that good but they did manage to get on the History channel to talk about pizza. About the same time, Ed Levine released his book on Pizza which I consider to be one of the best. I was not bummed about the outcome of “book one” because at the same time I was working on the pizza book, I was asked what type of book I wanted to work on for a new publishing company that had just launched. I immediately said “regional sandwiches” and was given the green light to start after the pizza book was completed for the other company. When that fell through, I was told to “start now” and given an advance to do sandwich research. I jumped in deep to that project but had to make a hard decision. I needed to travel around the country to visit all of the sandwich spots for my book. To do that I needed money and a lot of vacation time. My sucky job had that, so I sucked it up I stopped looking for another job or trying to figure out a back door to the land down under so I could do this book right. Well, I almost gave up on that back door. I made a “hail Mary” attempt to get Down Under non traditionally, but I could not seal that deal either. And the week after I got back from that exploratory mission (my sixth trip there) I got the call from my publisher. My book project was canned because they were closing shop. I told I could to keep the balance of my advance and I would retain the rights to all of my material. That is a good deal for a company that was ending. But it was not a book. I found myself back where I started years before and my tail was very much between my legs.

It was shortly thereafter I found myself in Chicago visiting A. Conaway. He knew about the sandwich project because the previous fall I had used his house as a base of operations twice. The first time, I passed through after eating Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches in Indiana and before I started to eat Limburger Cheese Sandwiches in Wisconsin, more Pork Tenderloins in Iowa and a few others on my way back east. The second time, he drove me around Chicago while I sampled Italian Beef Sandwiches at 15 places in 4 hours. On this occasion, I was passing through on my way to Wisconsin to judge BBQ near a small town called Ellisonville. He asked about the book, and the hail mary attempt at Australia and the job I had worked so hard to get (OCLC) and I had to regrettably share that all had gone down in flames. And he said, “you might want to try a blog and use that sandwich material in it.” That is how we got here.

I never used the sandwich content in the blog, because it still stung a little….a lot, that it did not happen. After over a year of working twenty plus hours a week on this book, I could not look at it anymore. I had too much of my heart invested in it. But eleven plus years after, it does not bother me as much. Hence, we have Sandwich Week. I am dusting off old content and sharing a a few bytes of my archive of regional sandwich lore.

Thanks A. Conaway. This blog did not lead to another book, but it created countless opportunities over the last eleven years and more importantly, it connected me to many people, most of whom, did not suck. So this blog thing, was well worth doing.

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Judging (Cookies & Pastries) at the Ohio State Fair

Posted by cmh gourmand on July 31, 2017

I’ve written about food judging more than a few times. Reviewing my archives, I think this ->right here is my best post on the subject. It covers a lot of my philosophy on the matter, but as both an art and a science there is plenty of room to grow and expand my knowledge base as well as question my own standards on how to evaluate a food item.

This year at the Ohio State Fair, I judged a new category (for me) Cookies and Pastries (that would be 3104 for those on the circuit this year). This was a doozy! There were 135 entries in 14 subsections. Each subsection had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winner and of all of the categories, one had to be selected for Best of Show. My understanding is this food competition gets the most entries of any contest every year and because of that, not many judges do a repeat visit to these tables the following year due to PTSD – Post Traumatic Sugar Decompensation. The sheer volume of sugar based treats to eat was initially exciting but a few sugary bites in, I found the concept of finishing overwhelming. I was fortunate this year, apparently bad weather the weekend before the contest discouraged a large number of entries from actually delivering their cookies to the show. In some categories, I would see the entries listed as 22 total but ONLY 15 presented for judging. Had every cookie made it for the competition I do not think I would be a live to write about this. But still 135 is a daunting, if less than a typical number. To make this viable for all of us, we agreed to break into two teams of two with each team evaluating one half of the cookies / categories and then sampling all of the 1st place finishers and a few honorable mentions in every category before picking the best of show. So in the end, I sampled about 80 cookies. A typical judging gig lasts about 1 hour. A professional BBQ competition with prizes of $10,000 or more typically lasts 3 to 4 hours with breaks in between samples. For this contest, it took over 4 1/2 hours to sample and evaluate my assigned cookies.

We had some pluses going into the session that I was happy with. Each team was assigned a scribe whose job it was to write down on positive feedback for each cookie as well as our suggestions for improvement. This, I am sure, is a giant staffing and otherwise, pain in the ass for the fair but I salute the organizers for doing so. For many of the people who enter the culinary arts competitions at the Ohio State Fair, this is a big deal. It is a matter of pride and accomplishment. Sometimes it is rewarded with a ribbon and many times it is not. Often there is no opportunity to figure out what you might have done better so you can win the next year. I know in one contest I judged years ago, a woman in the crowd watch my every chew and at the end, when she did not win, she grilled me like a perp in a Law & Order episode. I was happy to provide feedback but not ready for the intensity of competition for what is in many cases a ribbon not a life changing cash award. By entering the competition, I feel strongly that entrants deserve the opportunity for feedback considering the hours a contestant spends learning their craft, considering a recipe and delivering it for evaluation to the fair.

I was very fortunate to be teamed up with Joe. Joe has judged at the fair many times but more importantly, he has competed in national baking competitions, so I found him a great resource as I sometimes struggled with diagnosing off flavors in some baked goods. The three criteria we had to evaluate for each cookie were: Appearance, Texture and Flavor. The basics of each of those three criteria were explained on our sheet but not elaborated on. We then decided to give each a point value. We both agreed that flavor was the most important aspect of any cookie so we would give that a 50 point range and the other two categories a 25 point range each. To help calibrate each other, we sampled the first three cookies, then reviewed our point scores to get a sense of our judging styles as well as talk through how we determined appearance, texture and flavor for each. This was a good learning experience for both of us and helped us avoid having too many cookies in the center of our respective score bell curves. We found we were generally within 5 points of each other on Flavor scores and 3 for Appearance and Texture. That made it easy for us to talk through later categories when we had a clean winner but a not always a clear second or third place finisher. And so it began.

At the end, I was not sure I could take another bite (and we were not taking giant pieces of each to sample). One would not think judging cookies could be so exhausting but it was on this day. Physically, it was a lot of sugar and carbs. Mentally, I was really trying to give helpful feedback to the contestants. You can seen not our best of show winner as well as our 1st Place Ribbon entry in the bar cookie category. Oddly, this was the third cookie I tried out of all of them and it was a slam dunk beginning and at the end when I tried it again. Our other team agreed, having tried the same amount of cookies we did. The Dulce de Leche Bar really stood out from a very competitive group of winners and earned the win. I could have brought one of these home with me and plate or two of anything I wanted from table after table of cookies (and candies across the aisle) but I wanted to have nothing to do with sugar at that point. I just wanted to drink a swimming pool full of water and maybe rock back and forth in a corner for a few hours while the withdraw tremors burned the sugar out of my veins.

Here are some general tips I have for you, if / when you enter the cookies category at the Ohio State Fair.

1) Read all of the instructions and follow them (we found several that did not or were clearly in the wrong category of cookie type).

2) Make eating your cookie easy for the judges. Secures your recipe and entry sheet to the outside or your ziplock bag or make it so it is easy to do so without digging in to your cookies inside.

3) Taste your cookies before you plate them. I had at least four entries that were horrible. In three cases it was pretty clear they either did not mix their ingredients completely or used the wrong/poor ingredient (baking soda when they wanted powder, stale nuts, old chocolate chips, etc).

4) Consider what your cookies will look and taste like after experiencing the heat of a hot summer day at the Ohio State Fair.

5) Don’t enter a chocolate chip cookie in the drop cookie category.

6) Simple is better. I tried a death by chocolate cookie, that literally tasted like death. The baker modified the recipe so much by adding extra “fancy” ingredients to make the recipe sound much better than the end product tasted. There were so many types of very different chocolates competing against each other in the batter that no chocolate flavor remained after the battle to the death in the oven.

7) If you want a good chance of winning, enter in a category that is not as popular. This year, there were not many Molasses cookies or Short Bread cookies in their respective subsets and a well executed version in either would have 3rd place at the least with no extra effort needed.

8) Before you enter, have people you don’t like try your cookies so you get honest feedback if they are good or need more work. There was one cookie that was so bad, it was clear that no human tasted it before it went into a ziplock bag for the ride to the fair. If someone did taste it, it must have been like the scene in the Andy Griffith Show when Aunt Bea made horrible pickles and Barney and Andy were afraid to tell her, so she made more. Friends, and enemies of your enemies do not let someone make a bad cookie, whenever something like that happens an angel LOSES their wings. Cookies by their nature should be at least good, that is a given.

9) In some categories, especially chocolate chip, think of what a quintessential version of that cookie should taste and look like. For instance, a chocolate chip cookie should be fairly uniform in size from one to another. It should not be small or extremely lumpy. Ideally, you should be able to see there are chips in it or on it or are part of the cookie in some way. Walnuts or other nuts are a risk, you might like them but nuts often add a wild card to flavor and may not be a favorite of judges. Intuitively, you want to stand out in the crowd, and in some categories that is good but not the All-American Chocolate Chip – conformity is good in an iconic category, just focus on it tasting good.

I hope you enter the Fair in some contest sometime. It is a great experience. Or if you judge, take your job seriously. I have sometimes worked with judges that do not. Judges also need to remember that in the world of food, one person can not judge, they can only render a subjective opinion. It is only by defending or explaining that opinion to others that have done the same, can you truly judge and evaluate what you ate. The debate makes tasting as close to objective as possible.

Posted in culinary knowledge, culinary misadventure, Food For Thought | Tagged: | 5 Comments »