National attention, finally, has veered inward to the Midwest, and the state of Ohio is getting a lot of it.
When the American Food Revolution broke out big-time (say, in the 1990s), no one around the country was talking much about the food of Ohio. The nation’s corners and extremities got most of the spotlight — as in New England clams, Maryland crabs, Florida Cubanos, New Orleans gumbo, Texas ribs, California fish tacos, and so on.
But things are changing. National attention, finally, has veered inward to the Midwest, and the state of Ohio is getting a lot of it.
Bill Glover, executive chef of the Hilton Columbus Downtown and an Ohioan since age 10, says it makes sense that Ohio was slow to gain national buzz, food-wise.
“Oh, we’ve always had great food in Ohio,” he quickly points out. “But our great food has usually consisted of one-off quirky specialties, often based on mainstream foods, found in singular places throughout the state. These things didn’t readily coalesce into an ‘Ohio cuisine.’
“There’s a very high number of small towns all over Ohio,” Glover explained, “that have their own local traditions, always tied to local restaurants. A good example is the awesome Fried Bologna Sandwich at the G&R Diner in Waldo, Ohio. Seriously. If you’re in a car with food-loving Ohioans driving anywhere near Waldo, someone will definitely erupt with, ‘Let’s go to the G&R Diner for fried bologna!’”
Another example is the southern Ohio Goetta, developed in local butcher shops -- a griddled breakfast patty made of steel-cut oats and ground pork. Additionally, says Glover, Swenson’s in Akron serves a “unique Galley Boy Double Cheeseburger with two sauces (a thick white and a smoky red), available since 1933 and one of the nation’s best burgers, which doesn’t get the attention it deserves.” Central Ohio, in fact — home to the headquarters of both Wendy’s and White Castle — may be considered the hamburger epicenter of America.
Then there’s the fried chicken gizzards, livers and hearts at Miller’s in Athens — served with other fried chicken parts — and the evolved Hungarian food in Toledo. Not to mention Ohio’s most famous regional dish, Cincinnati Chili, a pebbly meat sauce developed by Greek immigrants in the 1920s, served over spaghetti. All are terrific local specialties, available only in their localities.
So you see how they don’t all fall together so easily?
“But,” Glover continues, “the real reason Ohio food didn’t get ‘out’ for many years is that Ohioans have always been basic meat-and-potatoes people. Traditionally, there has been nothing glam on the table in Ohio every day, nothing that cried out for foodie attention.
“However, this home-spun simplicity was deceptive,” Glover says. “It’s worth noting that through these meat-and-potatoes years, Ohioans were actually anticipating national trends, by using meat and potatoes from local producers. Ohio is one of the major states that held on to its farm-to-table traditions throughout the 20th century — before ‘farm-to-table’ became a motto in the food world of the 21st century.”
Good food everywhere
These days in 21st-century Ohio, nothing has changed — except that everything has changed.
In other words: Modern Ohio still has no integrating statewide food image, the kind of image flashed proudly by states such as Louisiana, Texas and California. However, Ohio’s landscape of scattered, singular one-offs — thanks to the strong, food-loving base they laid down — has transmogrified into a land of striving chefs, and top-quality food, everywhere.
Glover, of course, who runs all of the restaurants at Columbus’ top hotel, is most focused on his own city. He believes it has every bit as much restaurant talent as the two other big cities in Ohio, which also happen to start with “C.”
“Columbus was a very sleepy food town about 25 years ago,” Glover says. “If you wanted ethnic food, or fine dining, you really had only one choice: The Refectory, classic French, which is still around today.
“But,” he continues, “other things started to happen in the 1990s.
“First of all, the Food Network came along. Which changed everything. Everywhere. In cities like Columbus, customers stopped settling for Red Lobster or Applebee’s when they wanted a good meal. They knew better now, based on the TV images they’d seen.”
At about the same time, in Columbus, a dynamo called the 55 Restaurant Group came along, which started creating smart, seductive restaurant environments with better food, now that there was a clientele to patronize these places. And “55” spawned a guy named Cameron Mitchell, who, in 1993, opened his first restaurant in Columbus — a tentative storefront start that has grown into The Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group, with 32 restaurants and 15 different concepts.
“It was Cameron,” says Glover, “who really lit the fire under the Columbus restaurant explosion.”
Twenty-five years later, the heart of the Columbus restaurant turn-around, as in most cities, is a group of talented modern chefs who put the city right up there in the major leagues of modern restaurants: places with basic French technique, local ingredients and creative ideas from all over the culinary map.
“When it comes to this kind of restaurant, people often discuss Cleveland and Cincinnati before they mention Columbus. But that doesn’t reflect reality,” Glover says. “Our group of top chefs is as strong as any other: chefs like Jack Moore of the Watershed Kitchen and Bar, Andrew Smith of the Rockmill Tavern, Josh Dalton of Veritas, Seth Lassak of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing Company, Tyler Minnis of the Market at Italian Village and Avishar Baura of the Service Bar at Middle West Spirits.
“Cincinnati and Cleveland are a little different, sure. Cincinnati is stuffier, more conservative. Cleveland is old money and old resources. But pound for pound, when you put our best chefs against their best chefs, there’s no difference in quality. I don’t say this competitively or antagonistically; we are all fraternal brothers in the great food state of Ohio.
“Of course,” Glover concludes, “a food city is not just fancy, creative chefs at high-end places. Especially in Columbus. We have the largest undergraduate college in the country — that’s 60,000 students — which of course means the full retinue in Columbus of food trucks and ethnic restaurants. Mexican is big (with some places making every tortilla to order), Chinese breaks out into regional restaurants, sushi bars fly in great fish, Vietnamese has become a kind of local specialty, and the food of Somalia — Somalia, Africa! — is in greater abundance here than in any other city in the country.”
And there’s more. College students? You can count on pizzerias everywhere, including the Brooklyn-born Paulie Gee’s Short North, where Glover and I conducted some of this conversation, over absolutely top-notch, Naples-style, brick-oven pizza.
Pizza in Columbus that’s as good as pizza in the top New York and Los Angeles Naples-style pizzerias? Leave your prejudices behind. Welcome to Columbus, in 2018!
Stout-Braised Pork Shanks with Pork and Beans
Here’s an Ohio-oriented recipe from chef Bill Glover. In it, he likes to use a local Ohio beer producer, Jackie O’s, for the amber ale and the stout. If you’re making it in another state, feel free to use any amber or stout. Same with the pork shanks: Glover likes to use shanks from Anderson Farms, a pork producer just outside Columbus.
For the Stout Braised Pork Shanks
• 4 10 oz. pork shanks
• 2 tablespoons canola oil
• 1 tablespoon butter
• 1 onion, fine diced
• 2 ribs celery, fine diced
• ½ cup carrots, medium diced
• 3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
• 1 small bunch of fresh thyme
• 1 tsp. ground coriander seed
• 1 tsp. ground cumin
• 1 lemon, juiced
• 1 tsp. ground black pepper
• 4 each 12-ounce cans of Jackie O’s Java the Stout
• 4 cups chicken stock (Kitchen Basics brand)
• 2 tablespoons Kosher salt
Preheat oven to 300°F. Season shanks with salt and pepper.
Place braising pan over medium-high heat and add canola oil. Once oil is shimmering, sear shanks on all sides until a rich brown color is achieved, then remove from pan and reserve. Pour off excess oil and discard.
Add butter to pan the same pan without washing it and allow it to melt. Then add onion, celery, carrots and cook until soft and just starting to see brown edges, then add the garlic, thyme, salt, pepper, coriander, lemon juice and cumin. When this is done place the seared shanks on top. Pour 3 full cans of beer and half of the other can over the shanks, then drink the rest while you are waiting for the shanks to cook.
Next add chicken stock until shanks are just covered. Bring to a simmer, place the lid on braising pan and place in the oven. Cook until shanks are tender, about 2 hours depending on size of shanks.
Once shanks are tender, remove from braising liquid and cover with foil. Strain the braising liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a sauce pot, pressing on vegetables to capture all of the liquid. Reduce the braising liquid down to 16 ounces and reserve for the Pork and Beans.
Pork & Beans
Yield 1 gallon
• 2 cups dried navy beans
• 8 strips smoked bacon, julienned
• ½ cup smoked ham, small diced
• ½ cup red onion small diced
• 2 Anaheim chilies, small diced
• ½ cup celery stalk, small diced
• 2 Roma tomatoes, medium diced
• 4 cups fresh Swiss chard, hand torn into approx. 2-inch square pieces
• 2 garlic cloves, minced
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 tsp. dry thyme
• 1 tsp. ground coriander seed
• 2 tsp. dried oregano
• 2 each 12-oz. cans of Jackie O’s Firefly Amber Ale
• 16 oz. braising liquid from the shanks
• 1 tsp. salt
• Juice of 1 lemon
• 1 bunch of flat leaf parsley leaves, rough chopped
Lay navy beans out on a metal sheet tray and sift through them being sure to remove any debris, small stones or other foreign objects that can be found at times in legumes. Soak overnight in the refrigerator in 3 cups water with a pinch of baking soda.
Render bacon in a heavy bottom sauce pot until crispy. Add ham, onion, celery, tomato, chilies, swiss chard, garlic and all spices and salt, then add soaked beans to the pot.
Add 1 full can of the beer and ½ of another (enjoy drinking the remainder of the can) to the mixture of beans, vegetables, spices and the shank braising liquid to the pot, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook this until beans are tender, about 1 hour on low heat uncovered, stirring every 10 minutes.
After the beans are tender add the lemon juice and fresh chopped parsley and adjust salt to taste.
Scoop a portion of the beans into a bowl and place a pork shank on top of the beans. Serve with corn or flour tortillas.