When they get down to city chicken skewers and empty Hough Bakery boxes alongside half-burned little candles, they’ll know they’ve found Twentieth-Century Cleveland. We’re a legendary knife-and-fork city, filled with people who can be identified by their food preferences.
You know you’re a Clevelander if you’re familiar with city chicken. It isn’t a bird you ever studied in zoology class or a definition you’ll find in most culinary dictionaries, but you can still see the cubed pork and veal in our supermarket butcher cases, sold in packages with those little wooden skewers. If you’ve ever blown out the candles on a Hough Bakery birthday cake, wiped away an ice-cream moustache after drinking a malted at the Frosty Bar in Higbee’s basement downtown, ordered another hot dog at a ball game because you liked the mustard, or eaten way too many candy kisses at Euclid Beach Park, chances are you’re a baby boomer who grew up in Cleveland.
Let’s face it: The region surrounding Cleveland might just as aptly be called Northeat Ohio. We love to chow down. Rib fans congregate around smoking grills in the city’s parks, lake perch aficionados know where to find a great fish fry, and steak-lovers have their choice of hot spots. We’ve always had lots of great stuff on our plates, and it’s a good thing, too, because we take food seriously.
The Great Seal of the State of Ohio features a sheaf of wheat that symbolizes our agricultural strength. The flag of Cleveland might just as well depict a napkin being tucked into a shirt collar, symbolizing our great chow-houndery. During the warm-weather months, we’ll drive way across town for the fare at ethnic fairs and cultural festivals. We talk about food, we read about food, and we reminisce about it.
Maybe you’ve studied Cleveland’s weather and its topography. If so, you know we’ve got it made for growing some yummy seasonal and regional foods. This is a great area for fruits and vegetables. In summer, we have our pick of robust ears of sweet corn, plump flavorful tomatoes, or juicy peaches. During the autumn harvest season, we have a wealth of opportunities to buy pumpkins and apples. Late winter and early spring bring maple syrup season.
Gardeners and gourmands alike are sometimes surprised to learn that this is also a city of great food products. Cleveland gave the rest of the country Stouffer’s Frozen Foods, Chef Boyardee spaghetti sauce, Life Savers candy, and Beeman’s Pepsin Gum. But we’ve kept for ourselves the treasured memories of our favorite food spots. Whenever anybody mentions Euclid Beach frozen custard or Ball Park Mustard within earshot of a couple of Clevelanders, you’re bound to hear a sigh of nostalgia.
In fact, we’re pretty spoiled. While the rest of the country was probably getting all excited back in 1903 just because ice-cream cones finally arrived on the scene, here in Cleveland we had double cause for celebration: That was also the year Hough Bakery was born. We got to have our cake, and ice-cream cones, too.
We all know how lucky we are. Unlike New Yorkers, we don’t have to take a taxi to some dingy downtown grocery store with a produce section the size of an open suitcase just to meet up with an ear of corn—corn that’s probably bounced around in the back of a hot truck for a few days, at that. In the fall, we can drive a short distance and buy ripe grapes fresh from the vine. We don’t have to wait until they’re doctored up and turned into wine, the way those folks do in Napa Valley, California.
On the other hand, if we don’t feel like muddying our boots hiking out to pick our own sweet corn or strawberries, we can just tool on over to the West Side Market. Here in Cleveland, we’re just the right distance between the fields where food grows, and the stores where it’s sold fresh.
In the past, when our mothers made rhubarb crisp, raspberry jam, pumpkin pie, or apple strudel, they were just as likely to have used homegrown fruit as fruit bought at the store. Good bagels are nothing new to us, and we can find great baklava anytime we want it.
And speaking of ethnic specialties, our city’s diversity translates to a rich food supply. In some other parts of the country, it’s a chore just to find a town where you can buy pizza that comes out of an oven rather than a freezer case. In Cleveland, we argue over which pizza was the best one we ever tasted. And then we start debating about where to buy the best pepperoni and sausage.
We’re also legendary hot dog eaters. With 1.1 million hot dogs consumed, Jacobs Field is one of the country’s hot dog–eatingest stadiums. Based on an annual survey of major league ballparks, we take second place only to the 1.5 million hot dogs consumed at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Today, as in the past, our food tastes remain tied to the richness of the land, the bounty of the lake, the diversity of our city’s culture, and the imagination of its cooks.^ top
Excerpted from the book Cleveland Food Memories, copyright © Gail Ghetia Bellamy. All rights reserved.
This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
by Gail Ghetia Bellamy
Remember when food was local? Cleveland companies made it, and local people sold it and ran the restaurants where we ate it. Now, take a delicious trip into the past.
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Gail Ghetia Bellamy is a Certified Culinary Professional with a Ph.D. in creative writing. The managing editor and food editor of Restaurant Hospitality magazine, she has also written about food for m . . . [ Read More ]