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He’s Goetta Have it
How one man fell in love with our homemade mystery meat, and why he still can’t get enough.
Photograph by Ryan Kurtz
You can have your five-ways and your three-ways and your coneys—for me, the quintessential Cincinnati foodstuff is the one that’s made from pork and pinhead oats. This is a judgment I am willing to make despite having only lived in the city for a year. Truth is, were I a native, I probably never would have known the joy of goetta. After all, I grew up in suburban Philadelphia—primo scrapple country—without ever partaking of the Pennsylvania Dutch concoction of cornmeal and porcine parts.
I was your classic picky eater, happy to enjoy a PB&J for dinner while the family ate beef stroganoff and green beans from a can. Considering that lots of people with a more developed palate don’t embrace the stuff—if the offal doesn’t gross you out, surely the texture will—what hope was there for me, a teenage connoisseur of T.G.I.Friday’s potato skins? Plus, my family is Jewish. Not super-observant, but our breakfasts were accompanied by fish rather than pig (not that I myself ate lox or—gag—pickled herring). There were no pork chops for dinner, no ham sandwiches in my high school brown bags. Sure, I enjoyed the odd serving of bacon, which seems to have a special gift for undermining both religion and vegetarianism, but scrapple simply wasn’t in my universe. I figure if I’d lived in the Queen City, the same would have been true of its oaty cousin.
Two-plus decades later, I eat with less discrimination, if still myriad quirks. As a nomadic freelance journalist, I’m always eager to seek out a region’s signature junk cuisine. Hot Browns in Louisville. Cuban sandwiches in Florida. Green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico. Poutine in Montreal. I’ve also never parted with the food I fell for anywhere I used to live—Edwardo’s stuffed pizza from Chicago, Jim’s Steaks from my hometown, Salt Lick barbecue from Austin, Texas. In this age of FedEx and the Internet, you are what you mail order.
So when we moved to Cincinnati in October 2004, both my wife and I were ready to embrace the local favorites. We lived in Over-the-Rhine, and one Saturday night, instead of heading out to Nicola’s or JeanRo or Jeff Ruby’s, we happily dined at the Skyline on the corner of Seventh and Vine. We both had coneys, but I’m afraid neither the hot dogs nor what we found to be a cloying gruel did anything to win us over. I never came to love Montgomery Inn, LaRosa’s, or Graeter’s, either. (Not that I disliked Graeter’s; relatively speaking, it might be the least sweet of the local culinary legends.)
It took eight months before we crossed the goetta Rubicon, ordering it on a whim during our first visit to Tucker’s. Consuming this century-old Germanic food at a time-capsule Cincinnati lunch counter mere steps from Findlay Market just seemed like the thing to do, a way of paying homage to the city’s porky soul. I’d be lying if I said that it was love at first fork—initially, your taste buds process mouthfeel more than flavor—but by the second sampling…really, what’s not to like? Goetta’s crispy exterior is as satisfying as a well-done piece of bacon, while the meaty-creamy center becomes culinary velvet when kissed by egg yolk. And the goetta Tucker’s serves, from Eckerlin Meats, is made from pork shoulder and beef chuck—no “scraps” or internal organs. It’s no more artery-destroying than any other breakfast side, and no odder a foodstuff than sausage or meatloaf.
Of course, there is no one more zealous than a convert. At subsequent meals with various coworkers and other natives, both at Tucker’s and Hathaway’s downtown (which serves Glier’s), I was the only one to ever order goetta. I started getting it at Eckerlin’s myself to fry at home, and also picked up Glier’s goetta links at Kroger on occasion. Then around Christmas 2005 we resettled in Portland, Oregon—and, wouldn’t you know it, goetta was the thing we missed the most about our former home (with apologies to Jungle Jim’s and Cristian Pietoso’s bolognese). I placed an order for four pounds from Eckerlin’s, which lasted a couple of months. Then I placed another. But shipping perishables across the country isn’t cheap—the dry ice packaging and overnight charges often cost more than the food. Only then did it finally occur to me: Couldn’t I just make the stuff myself?
Every goetta recipe I’ve dug up on the Internet seems to omit an obvious first step:
1. Slaughter a pig.
Not so the instructions I found for making buckwheat scrapple on my first Google:
“Separate one hog’s head into halves. Take out the eyes and brains. Scrape and thoroughly clean the head.”
By all means, if we’re gonna eat the head, then let’s at least make sure it’s clean.
This, after all, is the not-so-secret origin of goetta, scrapple, and the other grain-based “forcemeats,” most of which made their way from Germany to the United States during the middle and late 19th century. In its purest form, goetta is a waste-not-want-not, everything-but-the-squeal food, a way to use up every byproduct and rendering of butchery. The oats were mixed in not because a bunch of farmers were trying to shrink their LDL cholesterol, but to stretch out the higher-value meat protein. Obviously this is no longer an issue. Goetta continues to exist not out of necessity, but as tradition. And because it’s yummy.
It also continues to exist because of Glier’s. If a homemade ethnic food “isn’t successfully commercialized, it goes away,” says Dan Glier, the 60-year-old president of the Covington company, which was started by his father Bob in 1946. That’s probably why scrapple, which flourishes in a larger region with more widespread retail penetration, has a higher profile than its Cincinnati analogue. Glier’s, which shifted its main focus from all-around meat wholesaling to goetta in 1999, has both the Web site (www.goetta.com) and the address (“533 Goetta Place”) to announce it as the center of the goetta universe. If you order goetta at a Frisch’s or Perkins, or buy it at Kroger, Meijer, or Walmart, it will be Glier’s. The company’s marketing and sales director, Mark Balasa, calls himself a “goetta evangelist.” Glier’s raises the profile of all goetta, just as Skyline and Gold Star do for Cincinnati-style chili.
The goetta I enjoyed at Tucker’s has a longer history; Eckerlin Meats opened as a retail counter on the same day Findlay Market did, in 1855, and has been making goetta for over 100 years. Frieda Lillis and Adolph Eckerlin, the children of founder Ernie Eckerlin, get credit for the recipe; the store’s current proprietor, Frieda’s 48-year-old grandson Bob Lillis, still sells about 300 pounds a week (and as many as 1,000 around Thanksgiving and Christmas). Glier’s cooks up over a million pounds a year, but it’s still an artisanal food by meat-packing standards—the goetta is stirred by hand in 180-pound vats, using oarlike paddles that the company gets custom-made. Glier’s signature tubes are usually not more than a week old if you get one at the supermarket, and even fresher if you order up a slice at Price Hill Chili or Colonial Cottage in Erlanger, the company’s two highest-volume restaurant clients.
I followed it dutifully, perhaps too much so. Just “a pinch” of pepper? In Eckerlin’s goetta, pepper is almost all you taste, its little black flecks visible in every bite. And no other spice at all? Sure enough, my first batch was quite bland. But one thing about goetta is, like chili or stew, if you screw it up it’s not impossible to fix. I dumped both loaves back into our cast iron dutch oven, let it re-warm into mush, and then jacked up the bay leaf, salt, and (especially) pepper. Better, but still not entirely goettalicious.
Two of the ingredients that I find listed on Glier’s goetta provide another hint: pork hearts, pork skins. (Also listed: MSG, which surely doesn’t hurt.) One might assume that using “parts” allows Glier’s to produce more cost-effective goetta, but flavor and tradition are both on their side. You can taste the porkiness, which gives their goetta a distinctly unctuous quality that is by no means a bad thing. “They are definitely necessary ingredients,” says Dan Glier. “The heart gives you color. And the pork skin is essentially what holds it together.” As William Woys Weaver notes in his 2003 food history and cookbook Country Scrapple: An American Tradition: “Far worse things end up in many processed beef products, such as hot dogs and fast food hamburgers, and especially in commercial pepperonis.”
Yup, what we pretend we don’t know can’t hurt us. When it comes to offal in America, there’s a continuum. You have the older generations, people who grew up with meat that wasn’t pre-wrapped at a supermarket distribution hub. My dad, who is 66, is crazy about liver, and sweetbreads never vanished from the menu of restaurants like Maisonette. Then you have the generations who were theoretically set free from blood and brain and gristle, even as they subsisted on white bread, Kraft slices, and high-fructose corn syrup. And now we have the modern foodies who eat “nose to tail” because it is a more sustainable and ethical approach to meat, one that reconnects us with the actual creatures that our dinner comes from. And because it’s yummy.
Funnily enough, not every butcher falls into the latter category. John Stehlin of Stehlin’s Meats in Bevis, which is unique in that it’s both a meat store and a slaughterhouse, puts a little bit of pork and beef “head meat” in his goetta; whereas Bob Lillis of Eckerlin’s and Len Bleh of Avril-Bleh & Sons downtown both consider it a point of pride to only use pork shoulder. “It’s a more expensive way to go, but it’s a better way to go,” says Bleh. “I figure, I’m eating it, and my kids are eating it….”
Yeah, OK, you won’t find me stocking up on pig hearts either. But after my first few batches, I was definitely ready to take my goetta-making beyond overpaying for a couple pounds of ground pork and ground beef at Whole Foods. If nothing else, I would be grinding my own meat.
After perusing recipes, talking to butchers, and reading Country Scrapple, I considered several steps and variations, all of which were really just good cooking common sense. The fattier something is, the more flavorful it is. Using stock instead of water means more taste; making stock yourself is practically a given; and whether you use offal, neck bones, ham hocks, or a slab of bone-in shoulder, it will make for stronger stock than boneless or pre-ground meat. Roasting meat might add something extra, as will browning it beforehand. Once I thought about all this stuff, I went from being intimidated by the messy, time-consuming notion of making goetta from scratch to not wanting to do it any other way. I decided to roast pork shoulder and some beef chuck, slow-cook it in water, mix the resulting broth with the oats, grind up the meat, and put it all together.
I’m as disconnected from my food as anyone—I no more picture the actual bone, muscle, and sinew of a cow when I’m eating a steak than I do a wheat field when I’m eating Raisin Bran. But the thing is, messing around with a four-pound hunk of meat is fun—and manly! Blood, knives, bone, and the potential to burn yourself on cast iron are involved. And after an ill-advised attempt to use the Cuisinart (felt like cheating, and also imprecise), grinding the meat using a Kitchen Aid stand mixer attachment became my favorite part. The first time I watched those little pink and white ribbons of pork drop into the metal work bowl, I knew it was unlikely I would ever again make meatballs or burgers any other way. Most of all, it’s much more satisfying to slice off a piece of goetta and know that 12 hours ago it was two bloody, solid slabs of beef and pork. It’s also more satisfying to have gone through all the steps, especially the meditative stirring/bubbling of the goetta mixture in the pot.
But there was one thing that remained a mystery: the spicing. If there’s a single perfect answer to the way goetta should taste, well…it’s in a drawer somewhere next to the formula for Coca-Cola and the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices. John Stehlin says he puts nothing extra in his goetta, just like the Dorsel’s recipe. Dorsel’s itself had an alternate prescription: leave out the bay leaves and onions, add in summer savory (which I tried and did not love). Bob Lillis says that Eckerlin’s goetta includes two telltale ingredients besides the usual. Surprisingly few recipes insist on garlic, but to me garlic improves anything. Marjoram and sage are also common.
I finally went with a clove and allspice recipe, inspired in part by Findlay Market’s other great meat place, Kroeger and Sons. The first batch I made was a bit too perfumey for my taste—almost like…ahem…Skyline chili—so I improved it with a bit more salt plus cayenne pepper. That left it overspiced initially, but well-balanced on the second day—mellow with a spicy afterkick.
After several further rounds of cooking and a few mail-orders (to have a point of reference) our apartment was about ready for a chest freezer. Or else I needed to host a four-course goetta dinner party. My wife conducted a not-entirely-blind tasting (due to its shape and size, Glier’s is hard to miss, and the Eckerlin’s is all too familiar at this point). She liked the structure of Eckerlin’s the best, and thought the Glier’s could have used more spice (next time she’ll try their “hot” goetta, I guess). Mine was chunkier, more jagged, and didn’t crisp up as perfectly, but it was prettier, due to the browned and roasted meat, and she pronounced it her favorite. Thank you, cayenne pepper—even though I was not entirely won over by my own work. I felt the 50-50 ratio of meats was off (next time I’ll go with 60 percent pork) and I’m not sure the pre-cooking, or even the homemade stock, made it that much better than my earlier attempts. And certainly not better than Eckerlin’s.
But there are many other spice combos to try. And I understand that Eckerlin’s cooks their goetta not on a stove top, but by slow-roasting it at low heat for several hours. I am currently preheating my oven to 200 degrees.
Not long after I started making goetta, my wife and I went to Simpatica, a part-time “dining club” in Portland (two dinners a week, plus Sunday brunch) whose owners also ran a meat counter inside our local gourmet grocery. They’re known for their patés, and a porchetta that they make by roasting a whole pig stuffed with sausage and pork loin, so it was no more than a half-surprise to see this on the menu: Cincinnati-style fried goetta, with braised housemade sauerkraut and two over-easy eggs.
Of course we had to have it, despite having consumed two pounds at home over the previous two weeks. We weren’t disappointed. Turns out chef David Kreifels’s fiancée is from Chillicothe, so on his first visit to Ohio a few years back, he had himself some Skyline (which he liked better than us) and, at Hofbrauhaus in Newport, goetta links. Then he found a recipe at his future in-laws’ house. “It was like one of those Cincinnati housewife cookbooks that maybe a PTA group put together in the ’40s,” he says. “I made it verbatim one time, and it was awesome. Then I started playing around with it.” Simpatica still serves it every couple of months. “People will be like, ‘What the hell is GOH-etta?’ and then our servers give a little spiel. It’s the most often-asked question about the menu,” he adds. “But we also get people from Cincinnati who just glow at the sight of it. They’ll say, ‘OK, I’m gonna get it, but we’ll see if it’s as good as what I had growing up.’ ”
Ah, but is it ever? What I finally realized from my own goetta odyssey is that there’s no right way to make it. The goetta you grew up with is the goetta you like best, whether it came from the old country, your grandmother, Price Hill Chili, or the local butcher shop. My favorite Philly cheesesteak maker, Jim’s, is kind of the equivalent of Camp Washington Chili—not one of the city’s two most famous places, but prominent enough that any tourist (or in my case, sheltered suburban kid) can still discover it. I didn’t know from the blue-collar sandwich shops, neighborhood taverns, or Italian groceries that were making cheesesteaks all over Philadelphia. Now I do, so for the past couple of years I’ve tried a new one every time I’ve been back home. I’m now about 10 cheesesteaks into the search and none have swayed my loyalty.
“We honestly say, we’ll take second place to mom,” says Dan Glier. “But when hers isn’t available, or she doesn’t want to make it anymore, please buy ours. We have literally hundreds of people tell us, ‘My mom used to make it’ or ‘Grandma used to make it, and yours is closest to hers.’ ”
So I guess in my case, “grandma” is Frieda Lillis. Eckerlin’s will always be my ür-goetta, preferable even to my own—that big hit of pepper is what I crave, and I’m not too crazy about all-pork goetta (both Eckerlin’s and Glier’s add beef). So even though I’ll surely journey through the goetta diaspora next time I’m in town—Stehlin’s and Finke & Sons in Ft. Wright would top my list—I suspect I’ll always be comparing it to what I first enjoyed at Tucker’s.
With one big tasty loophole: I’ve become a nut for goetta variations, which I see as a food group all their own. I’ve made spicy chicken sausage goetta (with beef) and buffalo meat goetta (with pork); because of the lower fat content in both, I learned to double-spray each slice with Pam, but the texture and the flavor is just fine. Glier’s makes both a turkey goetta and an all-beef version—not to mention goetta hot dogs (served at Great American Ball Park) and burger patties—which will no doubt find their way to me before the summer’s over. The Northside restaurant Honey cooks up a vegan goetta for its weekend brunch, which co-owner Shoshannah Hafner bases around a mirepoix (onions/carrots/celery) and textured vegetable protein. DaVeed’s in Mt. Adams used to serve an apple, foie gras, and crisp goetta appetizer. Teller’s of Hyde Park serves a goetta hot brown drenched in hollandaise and sausage gravy at their weekend brunch. And while Trotta’s Pizza in Westwood offers goetta as a topping, I feel I can do better than just a normal cheese/tomato pie, à la Wolfgang Puck or California Pizza Kitchen. Goetta, poached egg, arugula, and gouda? Goetta, apples, cheddar, and maple syrup? Better start working on my pizza dough technique.
It seems to me that Cincinnati chefs could come up with a lot more upscale spins on such a classic local flavor, but David Kriefels, who has paired his goetta with sweet-and-sour radicchio and piccalilli (green tomato relish) in addition to sauerkraut, points out that people who go out for a nice meal don’t want to have their peasant food sold back to them. “You can make a really rustic, simple Italian or French dish, or even a Cajun dish, and you can kind of play that up when you’re not in that actual region,” he says. “But when you go to Hawaii, for example, how many good restaurants do you find that actually do Hawaiian food? To get a good plate lunch you have to go to a restaurant in a mini-mall.”
To put it another way: In Cincinnati, goetta is for breakfast. In Portland, it’s for brunch.
Goetta may be part of the scrapple family, but it’s truly exclusive to the region—certainly more so than chili or ice cream. It’s a humble cuisine in a city that has never put on airs, country food in a place that used to be an urban hog farm (or so legend has it). Sure, Kentucky has two goetta festivals (the MainStrasse Village Original Goetta Festival and Glier’s Goettafest in Newport) but they seem to be more focused on the alchemy of goetta with other foods. (Can goetta fudge possibly improve on either fudge or goetta?) They also serve up all of their goetta from a single maker; J.B.’s Barbecue in Elsmere does the honors for MainStrasse, while Glier’s obviously caters their own. “A couple of years ago we called to try and get into that goetta festival in Covington and they never called us back,” taunts John Stehlin of Stehlin’s Meats. “So we assume ours is the best.”
Sounds like a challenge to me. Let’s find out, on this side of the Ohio River, with an old-fashioned cook-off—one for all the many goettas you can buy commercially and one for all the homemade versions. Welcome to Goettaopolis.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue.