It may not be Paris, France, but folks who call the “Great Black Swamp” home have to admit, they eat pretty well.
|Dr. Nathan C. Crook
From the apple butter that Grand Rapids produces each October, to the chicken paprikash and pierogies at church festivals in Rossford and Toledo, it’s pretty mouth-watering fare.
Bowling Green resident and author Dr. Nathan C. Crook has written an all-encompassing book on past and present food traditions in northwest Ohio, northeast Indiana and southeastern Michigan — the area known to the early settlers as the Great Black Swamp.
The History Press is introducing the new title: “A Culinary History of the Great Black Swamp: Buckeye Candy, Bratwurst, & Apple Butter,” which hits shelves Nov. 19.
“I’ve interviewed people from all over” to get their input on ethnic festivals, home cooking and the way certain foods have come to define the communities where we reside, said Crook, who is currently a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of English and agricultural communication at Ohio State University’s agricultural campus in Wooster, on the northern end of Ohio’s Amish Country.
Coming from northern Utah, originally, and having lived mostly in the Southwest until moving to Bowling Green to work on his Ph.D. in American Cultural Studies at BGSU, Crook discovered something Wood County’s own natives don’t always realize.
Certain dishes we take for granted are exotic or even nonexistent in other parts of the country.
Take, for starters, buckeyes.
“I didn’t have any idea what a buckeye was,” Crook adds. He’s not even talking about the chocolate-covered peanut butter candy that has become a mainstay of area candy shops and home kitchens at the holidays or before the OSU-Michigan football game. No, he’s referring to the item that falls from a buckeye tree.
“I was over at the (Bowling Green) recycling center” and — in an area for the collection of twigs, leaves and such — saw a posted sign: “No Buckeyes allowed.”
Sometime later, “I was up to The Andersons and saw a tub of Marsha’s Buckeye candies.”
Only later did he first see the fallen seeds from a local buckeye tree and make the connection.
Further research has revealed recipes for Buckeye brownies or Buckeye bark or any number of other Buckeye dessert items, but what they must all have in common is “that color combination, that flavor combination. If you change it to chocolate and caramel, for example, that’s not a Buckeye.”
Well, of course, we all know that. But the folks in Utah, Oregon and New Mexico probably don’t.
|The cover of ‘A Culinary History of the Great Black Swamp’.
Here’s another example of the Black Swamp’s claim to culinary uniqueness: sauerkraut balls.
While a Ph.D. candidate, Crook worked under Bowling Green’s Dr. Lucy Long as coordinator for the Center for Food and Culture which Long founded.
“Melissa Hill was an undergraduate student who worked for me and for Lucy. Melissa’s (Ohio) family would make their own homemade sauerkraut” and she was the source of a great recipe for sauerkraut balls.
“They don’t have sauerkraut out west. It’s extremely rare,” Crook says, so of course nobody he grew up with had ever tasted sauerkraut balls.
With Hirzel’s of Northwood-Pemberville producing SilverFleece sauerkraut, in healthy competition with Fremont’s Snow Floss brand, we come by the fried appetizer honestly.
Crook opens his book by telling how the terrain of the Great Black Swamp helped to define what culinary traditions would develop here.
The cultural and physical landscape of the Great Black Swamp is a monument to the hardship and perseverance of the people who drained and settled the region, he notes.
“They transformed densely forested wetlands into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the nation. Commercial crops of corn, soy, tomatoes and wheat are dominant in the fertile loam of this part of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. However, each immigrant group calling this place home brought its own culinary traditions — from pickled eggs to peanut butter pie.”
With a foreword by Long, his mentor, Crook’s 178-page volume goes on to explore the history, culture and representative cuisines that make eating here “a unique and memorable experience.”
Among the many recipes in the book are some your ancestors lived on, like fried corn, and others your own grandmother and mother probably served on a regular basis — reliables such as homemade shredded chicken sandwich, beer bread, homemade vanilla pudding and the aforementioned chicken paprikash from the region’s eastern European immigrants.
Crook acquired his pierogi recipe from John and Marge Michalak, whom he met at the LaGrange Street Polish Festival in east Toledo. “They have been involved with the festival for years.”
For Crook, his wife and their two daughters, going to church and ethnic festivals “was one of the cheapest ways to get to know the area” when they first moved here, in 2004. “That’s when I started to find there were some phenomenal foods in the area, you just had to go look for it.”
He examines the German, Hungarian, Polish and Mexican-American foodways, as well as Lebanese, “which is grounded in Italian.”
Crook lovingly describes the “incredibly romantic” tradition of maple production, centered around the Seneca County Maple Festival.
He has his own short list of under-appreciated area “gems,” including the Snavely Family Sugar Shack in Republic; Frobose Butcher Shop in Pemberville; and Takacs’ Market in East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood, behind Tony Packo’s.
Heading that list is The BratWorks in Bucyrus. “It is, in my opinion, the best bratwurst I’ve ever tasted, hands down. And I’ve eaten sausages all over, including internationally. Dean Fagan is an artist.”
The book also includes a treasure trove of extremely local photos, including “Will Oswald holding up a hog’s head at Roger Shope’s (annual) hog roast” in Bowling Green.
The paperback, priced at $19.99, will be available at local stores and online at www.historypress.net. It retails as an e-book via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s ibookstore, Kobo & Overdrive.
3 pounds loose bratwurst sausage or hamburger
1 quart sauerkraut, chopped fine
1 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 or 2 tablespoons butter
½ can beef broth
1 tablespoon minced parsley
5 tablespoons flour, plus ¼ to ½ cup for dredging
32 ounces vegetable oil for frying
½ cup water
¼ to ½ cup bread crumbs
Brown bratwurst, sauerkraut, onion and garlic in butter until meat is gray. Drain well. Add beef broth, parsley and flour. Continue to heat until mixture begins to thicken. Pour on a cookie sheet to cool. May refrigerate to speed up process. Cool until very thick and easy to roll. Roll into golf ball–size balls. Heat oil to 375 degrees. In a mixing bowl, whisk together eggs and water. In a shallow bowl, pour additional flour, and in a separate shallow bowl, pour bread crumbs. Roll each ball in flour and then dip in egg wash. Roll in bread crumbs to coat. Add to hot oil. Deep fry until brown. Then remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels or a drying rack to cool.
2 cups flour, plus extra for kneading and rolling dough
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten
½ cup sour cream, plus extra to serve with the pierogi
¼ cup butter, softened and cut into small pieces, plus 2 tablespoons
Filling of your choice
½ onion, chopped
1 cup applesauce (optional)
To prepare the pierogi dough, mix together the flour and salt and then add the beaten egg. Add the sour cream and the softened butter pieces and work until the dough loses most of its stickiness (about 5 to 7 minutes). A food processor with a dough hook works well for this, but be careful not to overbeat. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 20 to 30 minutes or overnight; the dough can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Each batch of dough makes about 12 to 15 pierogies, depending on size.
Remove dough from the refrigerator and roll out on a floured board or countertop until it is an ¹⁄8 inch thick. Cut dough into circles (2 inches for small pierogies and 3 to 3½ for large pierogies) with a cookie cutter or drinking glass. Place a small ball of filling (about 1 tablespoon) on each dough round and fold the dough over, forming a semicircle. Press the edges together with the tines of a fork.
Boil the pierogies a few at a time in a large pot of water. They are done when they float to the top (about 8 to 10 minutes). Rinse in cool water and let dry. Sauté onion in butter in a large pan until soft. Then, add pierogies and pan fry until lightly crispy. Serve with a side of cold applesauce or sour cream.