Last week a co-worker of mine asked the question “so how did Buffalo Wings get their name?” If you’re from Western New York (or married to someone who is), you probably know that the classic wings recipe was invented at the Anchor Bar in downtown Buffalo in 1964. That’s a fun fact that I know only because of Souzz (I was born in Japan myself, so most of my factoids revolve around wasabi).
The timing of my co-worker’s question was perfect, as Souzz and I were visiting her hometown this weekend and we decided to bring back a few wings. The idea was to have a taste test for my office (read: a good excuse to take a long lunch). We stopped by three of the better-known places, Duffs, Bar Bill Tavern, and the Anchor Bar, and we picked up some sauce, too.
We got a “double” from each place (a double is 20 wings, for those of you that don’t speak Buffalo), and I did all of my driving during a snow squall. Nothing says Buffalo like plowing through snow to get wings–especially when you are bringing them back to a town that shuts down at the first flake.
The locals say that an authentic Buffalo Wing starts with Frank’s hot sauce, butter, celery salt, and black pepper–but each place seems to add their own twist. Duffs are on the spicy (!) side, Bar Bill has a decidedly sweeter sauce, and the Anchor Bar’s wings are milder and maybe a little larger. All of these places (and many more) are pretty popular–and they emerged from a crowded field based on an empirical sampling of five in-laws. So you know they must be good.
The stakes were then lowered a bit when my brother-in-law Fred announced that “just about any corner bar with a 716 area code will have better wings than the best place in Virginia.”
In any case, Buffalo’s wings all got back to Virginia intact, where they made for a very interesting lunch at my office.
Our tasting criteria included appearance, sauce, crispiness, texture, flavor, and aroma. The various hot sauces were also hotly debated, as you might expect. And all three floors of the building smelled like wings, which might not have been what our landlord (and co-tenant) had in mind.
After much (ok, a little) fanfare, Duffs was crowned the unofficial Virginia winner, with a complicated scoring system that would have made my in-laws shake their heads (again).
When I shared the results of our taste test, my brother-in-law Steve said “you really need to do this under more typical conditions, like late at night after a few Genny Creme Ales.”
I’m not sure our landlord would have gone for that.
It’s fun to share holiday traditions–although I suppose not all of them are worth sharing. For instance, Souzz could probably have done without the hanging bell that plays Jingle Bells for about two hours every time I pull the string, or my family’s spinning Christmas tree heat lamp that eventually caught fire.
Aaah, the famous bell!
Whoever invented these must have been a pyro
But one holiday tradition that is squarely in the shareable category is Souzz’s family egg nog. The nog tradition has its roots at the historicBuffalo Clubin Buffalo, New York. In the 1920s, Souzz’s grandfather and his friends often enjoyed freshly made nog in the club’s elegant dining room, perhaps after a long day at work.
Suzy’s grandfather, 1937
The elegant dining room at the Buffalo Club today
The nog recipe was soon brought home for the family’s annual New Year’s Eve party, and it eventually found its way on to the next generation(s). Making (and enjoying) the nog is now one of their biggest annual holiday traditions (well, that and spontaneously breaking into Christmas carols, which ironically makes me want to drink more nog).
Caroling erupts in the middle of conversation often in Souzz’s family. But at least they dress up.
Sometimes Caroling leads to dancing
A lot going on for one photo
The nog recipe is pretty straightforward: eggs, sugar, cream, nutmeg, a little brandy, a little rum–and roughly a cask of bourbon. But what really makes it special is how it is assembled. When the time comes, at least eight to ten folks across several generations crowd around a big antique (1920s) crock that seems to have its own magnetic pull. Hands swoop in and out adding ingredients and stirring, like an eight-armed mixologist (ok, so I need to work on my metaphors).
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Some of the family take the same roles from year to year, while others move into whatever needs to be done–but lively conversation and laughter are a constant, and the process can never be rushed.
Back in the day, young nieces and nephews wandered in and out of the kitchen puzzling over what could possibly be so amusing–and now they have grown into full-fledged participants. A few of the in-laws generally stand to the side and make snarky comments—while secretly wishing that they had a family tradition as cool as this one.
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After the nog is assembled, the crock is topped with an old cookie sheet and put outside in the snow, where it blends a little more each day. Souzz’s dad would always ladle out a cup the next morning and declare that year’s batch as “smooth, best ever!” It was something that he said–and meant–every single year.
It’s not hard to find a snowbank in Buffalo during the holidays
TL after his first sip
There are some classic nog memories from over the years–like when Aunt Connie got engaged over a glass, or when Maggie (the family Labrador) over-served herself on some leftovers. And then there was the year that I opened the door to find the mailman helping himself to a cup (no wonder my Christmas cards were late).
Making the whites
Folding, folding, folding
Once again this year, the nog crock will be squarely at the center of the holiday for a few amazing hours–an enduring tradition that finds its place in the middle of the hustle and bustle of modern-day Christmas. It’s a ritual that feels like holiday magic–and especially so in a time where things can be so fleeting.
Souzz’s parents are no longer with us, something that we feel even more during this time of year. But the making of the nog will always be a symbol of their grace, their love of life, and their love of family. When I raise my first glass of nog this year, I’ll be sure to say out loud that this year’s batch is “smooth, best ever!”
This week I decided to change things up a bit and do a German themed dinner at home that included käsekuchen (German cheesecake),homemade sauerkraut, and kasseler rippchen. Kasseler is pork that has been smoked and ripened in salt brine, and rippchen basically means a chop (it’s almost like German is another language).
Kasselerdates back to the 1880s and it remains a very popular dish throughout Germany. It’s also quite popular among the many descendants of German immigrants now living in Buffalo, New York–including Souzz’s mom, whose family was originally fromAlsace-Lorraine. Kasseler rippchen was a favorite dish of Souzz’s late father, affectionately known as “TL,” who would cook it up on the outdoor grill in any kind of weather (and once even in the fireplace, but that’s another story).
You can find kasseler at just about any butcher in Buffalo, but it proved harder to find here in Virginia. A series of phone calls pointed me first to a place calledBinkertsin Baltimore and then to The German Gourmet in nearby Falls Church. I always thought “gourmet” was a French word, but there’s a TripAdvisor page aboutthe best schnitzel in Parisso I guess all bets are off on that one.
The German Gourmet is in a nondescript little storefront stashed between a shopping center and a dry cleaners, and I’d literally driven by it a hundred times without noticing it. The dated exterior doesn’t promise much of an experience…but walking inside was like stepping into another country.
The place was teeming with people, seemingly regulars, and there were a handful of folks speaking in German to a butcher standing behind a case packed with classic German cuts. Across from the meat counter there were multiple aisles of German foods as well as a big section for beer and wine. It was early in the day, but I caught myself staring hypnotically at the beer aisle (hey, it was 5pm in Frankfurt).
When I asked if they had smoked pork chops, the butcher responded “you mean kasseler? We’ve got a whole case of it right here.” With kasseler in hand, I also picked up a box of Käsekuchen (cheesecake) mix as well as German potato salad, cheese spread with Schnittlauch (chives), and a six pack of Kellerbier.
The majority of the food labels in the store were in German, which seemingly turned an ordinary shopping trip into a jaunt to Europe. When I got back to the USA ten minutes later, I discovered a new challenge: the directions for Käsekuchen included sentences like “drei eier, quark und joghurt hinufugen.” Thankfully my good friend Reto responded to my frantic emails from his native Switzerland and was able to walk me through my first multi-national cake mix.
In the end, everything came out just fine, although I overcooked the kasseler a bit. If TL had been with us, it would have been grilled to perfection and he would have declared it the best ever–as he always did. TL’s favorite drink was scotch, so after dinner we raised a glass in his honor (Scotland is a German territory, right?).
An ever-patient Souzz does a blind taste test: home-made sauerkraut (ten days in the making) versus store bought sauerkraut. Thankfully, the home-made version won.
I’m not exactly sure what appeals to me about niche businesses like The German Gourmet; maybe I just enjoy discovering new things in old places. In any case, dinner menus that feature käsekuchen, kasseler rippchen, and Kellerbier are fun…even if they do wear out the “k“ on one’s keyboard. And now that I know how close I live to Europe, I’ll most certainly be back. I just wish I could bring TL along with me.
I was down south this past weekend visiting family and I decided to check out a local sports bar to watch the Buffalo Bills football game. A quick search for Bills gathering spots led me toRonDao’s, a pizzeria in Fort Myers. I rolled in around halftime and found cars parked on every inch of road within two blocks of the place; it was a game day feel before I even stepped through the door.
RonDao’s is a nice spot for transplanted northerners to enjoy their favorite team, a scene that must be common in countless cities across the country. That said, it was also a brand new subculture for me. In a sprawling room covered with LCD televisions and sprinkled with Bills posters, there were 400+ people decked out in Bills jerseys, Bills hats, and, in at least one instance, a Bills tattoo. If you squinted, you could have easily been in Buffalo…well, except for the tan lines.
As fans trained their eyes on one of the 65 LCD TVs, a cheery wait staff decked out in referee jerseys served food and drinks on any flat space: tables, bars, re-purposed pool tables, even a foosball table covered with a piece of plywood (bearing the Bills logo, of course).I shared a corner with Rob from North Buffalo, Rob’s girlfriend Cheryl, and Eddie fromCheektowaga. At one point, I asked Eddie about the wings, and he said “It’s noDuffs, but they’re pretty good.” Motioning towards a dish of wings, he then asked “want to try one before you order?”
As it turns out, RonDao’s has pretty good wings, and the fans are a lot like those in Buffalo. They are friendly and enthusiastic, they sing “Shout” after touchdowns, they complain about the refs, and they ring cowbells after big plays–which seemed to be really important to the slightly over-served guy in the Jim Kelly jersey. The atmosphere certainly mirrored the game day experience in Buffalo—but without the snow, and without a guy in front of me with a giant inflatable Bills helmet.
As the afternoon went on, Eddie from Cheektowaga bought me a beer, the Bills lost in a close game, and I won an appreciation for why people come to dimly lit bars on sunny Sunday afternoons. Familiarity is a beautiful thing–especially away from home–as is finding a connection to others. Perhaps the only thing more important is finding really good wings.
Thankfully, these kinds of designations are well regulated.
It’s been a busy few months of travel, with long road trips book-ended by visits with family. Souzz’s roots are in western New York, where Buffalo summers are pure magic—temps in the 70s, lots of family fun, picnics everywhere, and cool breezes coming off of Lake Erie. The town is booming again, with a lively waterfront and a lot of new businesses popping up. Oh, and there’s also some pretty good food.
Main Street at the turn of the century
During Buffalo’s early days as a mill town, a lot of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Poland settled here–so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are tons of ethnic dishes around. That said, the abundance of enduring family-owned restaurants is somewhat surprising–perhaps rivaled only by the amount of snow in a typical winter (94 inches…but who’s counting?).
Beef on ‘weck
People seem to have refreshingly unfiltered opinions up here, and the passion goes right through the sports teams and onto the dinner table. Folks are generally agreeable…right up until you start to talk about which restaurant has the bestbeef on ‘weck. Different suburbs each have their own favorites, and they are all proud of their neighborhood place. Food matters here, a lot, and subtle differences in classic dishes are a point of pride.
Another thing that matters a lot are personal connections, of which there are many. Buffalo’s metro area is 1.1 million people–roughly the same size as New Orleans or Salt Lake City—and yet most of the natives have a connection to just about everyone they meet (“so it turns out that her aunt taught my sister to play piano.”). Western New York is a big place, but it’s also a small place. Perhaps that’s why there are so many thriving family-owned businesses.
With that in mind, here are six landmark spots that we visited on our trip:
Duff’s: This classic restaurant opened in 1946, and the low ceilings, dark interior, and mahogany bar suggest that it hasn’t changed much since–save for a few new coats of paint on the stucco exterior. My in-laws say that the crispy wings at Duff’s are the best around…and considering that the chicken wing was invented at the nearbyAnchor Barin 1964, the locals should know (well, chickens did actually have wings prior to 1964, but you get the idea).
Watson’s Chocolates: The Watson’s storefront on Delaware Avenue dates to the 1950s, and its signature offering issponge candy, a very popular regional treat. Each piece is a chocolate coating over an airy but firm center, sort of like a malted milk ball (but with much better chocolate). If you are from the suburb of Kenmore, Watson’s is the favored place for sponge candy–but expect arguments from other neighborhoods thatParksideorCondrellsorFowlersorAlethiasare the best. Your favorite place likely comes down to where you grew up; eat a piece of sponge candy from any of these shops and you’ll quickly realize that everybody’s right.
Sponge candy from Watsons
Federal Meats: The meatpacking industry was a booming business here in the early 1900s, and, while much of that has moved on, the city has retained its appetite. Every neighborhood has its own butcher shop with a friendly and helpful staff…and with prices that are about 30% cheaper than I expected. In addition to Federal, there’s the classicBroadway Marketdowntown, as well as Scimes, Hoelschers, Redlinskis, Battistonis, Zarcones, and probably a dozen more that I’ve never heard of. If I were an aspiring chef or a budding cardiologist, I’d move to Buffalo.
Anderson’s Frozen Custard: This modest little stand started in 1953 as a summer-only ice cream place. It’s now is open year round across several locations and with a greatly expanded menu. The Sheridan Boulevard storefront is cleverly designed, with a window to take orders in good weather but with garage-style doors that can enclose the lobby for the colder times of year. Be forewarned that ice cream is generally called frozen custard in Buffalo, something my in-laws have never let me forget (I got a blank stare when I ordered “soft serve” on my first visit). Buffalo folks enjoy frozen custard year round, and it’s not uncommon to see big lines at Anderson’s in the middle of January.
Ted’s Hot Dogs: OK, so how novel can a hot dog place really be? But Ted’s uses real charcoal, so things taste different here—quite a contrast to those poor dogs rolling around on metal bars at the local mini-mart. Ted’s was started in 1927, and even foodies like Souzz stop in for a regular fix. Yes, a hot dog can be (and is) a delicacy.
Mighty Taco: This could be the outlier on the list, as it’s a relative newcomer (it’s only been open for 42 years) and western New York isn’t exactly synonymous with Mexican cuisine. I figured someone must have moved here from south of the border to start this place, but the owner’s name is Dan Scepkowski—and there can’t be very many Scepkowskis in Guadalahara. Regardless, it’s busy any time of day or night. And it is a pretty good taco.
By the end of our visit, my stomach was full and my nieces were tired of hearing the word “iconic.” But there is something different about the scene up here–even beyond the friendly people and the over-rated winters. In some towns, food is about the latest trends, while in Buffalo it is a connector of generations.
Amazingly, and despite the twists and turns of the local economy, these six family-run businesses have been operating a combined total of nearly 400 years (an average of 66 years each). Show me a town with that kind of loyalty, and I’ll show you Buffalo.
The country owes a lot to Teddy Roosevelt, including the quote that titles this blog entry. Roosevelt’s vision around conservation is credited with inspiring much of the national park system–and his appreciation of the country was of course gained when western travel required an incredible commitment.
With that in mind, Souzz and I headed further west yesterday, through Fargo and Bismarck and on to the tiny jump-off town of Medora in western North Dakota. On the way, we stopped in Tower City and picked up a rhubarb pie that we planned to have for last night’s dinner. We arrived atTheodore Roosevelt National Parkaround 6pm and made a simple camp in Cottonwood Campground.
Since arriving in the park, we’ve learned that Teddy Roosevelt first came here in 1883 to hunt bison. He returned a few years later for extended visits after the tragic loss of his wife and mother, and one can easily see why he might get a lift from this landscape. It is a peaceful study in contrast, brown canyons surrounded by green buttes. There are also meadows with hundreds of buffalo, much like Yellowstone…except hardly anybody else is here.
The park itself was established by President Truman in 1947, and it seems wholly under-appreciated and under-visited. Of course, there are only 740,000 people in the entire state of North Dakota, about 8% of the population of the metro Washington DC area, so crowds are relative. We chatted with a few locals that come here every year, and it seems that the park is greatly appreciated by the people of North Dakota. Based on our experience, the locals are super-friendly and immensely proud of their state.
During dinner prep in camp, a buffalo ambled by just 50 yards away, and a wild horse came by to say hello, as well. For dinner, we had steak (from North Dakota, of course), local corn, a simple tomato/cucumber dish, and of course the rhubarb pie. Nothing fancy, just grilling over charcoal, but sometimes the simple meals are the best.
The corn, which we soaked in water before grilling, was sweet and crisp, and the rhubarb pie was really good. It was both tart and sweet, lots going on. I hadn’t eaten rhubarb pie since I was a kid, and remember hating it. My memory isn’t what it used to be.