Editor’s Letter: Ghosts, Gravy, and Sauerkraut Balls
A secret family recipe
Our family hotel and restaurant is haunted.
That’s the story, anyway. The Golden Lamb, which is the oldest continuously operating business in the state of Ohio, has been serving and sheltering road-weary customers since 1803. Locals will tell you that some of those guests decided to stay in small-town Lebanon. Maybe they’ll tell you about their encounters with Sarah Stubbs, a giggling nineteenth-century innkeeper’s niece, or a mysterious, cigar-smoking “gray man” rumored to be Charles Sherman, the father of general William Tecumseh Sherman. The elder Sherman was only forty when he died suddenly at the Lamb in 1829.
Maybe they’ve felt the presence of Clement Vallandigham, who was a prominent anti-war Democrat, called a “Copperhead,” during the Civil War. After Lincoln personally ordered his exile, he ran for governor of Ohio from Canada. Later, back home and working as a lawyer, he accidentally shot himself in the gut while demonstrating how he was planning to convince a jury that the man who his client was accused of killing had done just that. Vallandigham cried out “Oh, murder!” and expired the next day, likely in what is now the second-floor Vallandigham Dining Room.
Or maybe they’ve come across some of the more famous figures who have walked our halls and slept in our beds, including thirteen presidents, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens. (Dickens panned the inn, then run by teetotalers who denied his request for a drink, in his 1842 American Notes.) The building claims so many ghostly residents that Kesha spent the night there for a ghost-hunting episode of her MTV show, My Crazy Beautiful Life, 2013.
I’ve never met any of those ghosts. Neither has anyone else in the family, as far as I know. My great-grandparents lived on site, in what’s now a private dining room, for years, and they spent their professional lives within the building’s brick walls. The only ghost story that came from all those decades was my grandmother’s half-hearted claim that she once heard chains rattling outside her door. While appropriately Dickensian, it’s no bone-chilling manifestation of Charles Dickens.
We can tell you about the ghost who haunts the menu, though: the ghost of Edith from Cleveland.
Edith was an accountant from Cleveland. When my grandfather Bill Portman moved from northern Ohio back to his hometown of Cincinnati to take over a Clark dealership in 1957, he didn’t have a local accountant, so he called Edith. When she came down to help with the books, she stayed at the Golden Lamb.
On one of those visits, she apparently shared a family recipe for sauerkraut balls—described in our family lore as an Eastern European recipe—with chef Norm Sims. A fried chicken pro, he was no stranger to deep-fat cooking, and he liked the recipe enough that it joined the likes of Swiss Steak and Sister Lizzie’s Shaker Sugar Pie on the menu at the Lamb.
That’s what we know. There’s plenty we don’t, at least for now. For example, what was her last name? It’s probably in a filing cabinet somewhere, but none of us know where to look. And how did she end up sharing the recipe?
I thought I remembered that someone had asked Edith for feedback on Golden Lamb, and that she had responded, “You have a nice menu, but you could use a better appetizer,” and volunteered those savory bites from northern Ohio. No one else in the family seems to remember that story, but no one disputes it, either. I like that confident version of Edith, a midcentury accountant prescribing her family recipe for an inn that had been serving guests since the early 1800s. I like it because she was right. Today, sauerkraut balls are our signature appetizer, as classic as the prime rib or turkey dinner. The Lamb serves about 150,000 hand-rolled and hand-breaded balls each year, per general manager Bill Kilimnik.
You can find sauerkraut balls around Cincinnati. They’re on the menu at Mecklenburg Gardens, a hangout for Cincinnati Germans since 1865, where my dad remembers playing under the table while his Swiss-German grandfather, born Arthur Portmann, drank lager in the 1960s. Cincinnatians order sauerkraut balls from kraut-heavy menus during the city’s busy Oktoberfest season, though local food detective Dann Woellert writes that the balls as we know them may have originated here in Ohio, not in Germany, and that their heritage may in fact be Eastern European.
Really, the golf-ball-sized pork-and-kraut croquettes, most often seasoned with mustard, pepper, and onion, belong to northern Ohio. Akronites, particularly, snack on sauerkraut balls at parties, potlucks, and sports bars. The pork is usually ham, loin, or sausage, sometimes helped along by (and rarely replaced by) corned beef or brisket. Some cooks add cream cheese for a richer texture. Others just buy the balls frozen from Ascot Valley Foods, founded in Akron in 1964 as the Bunny B Sauerkraut Balls & Ice Company. (From 1993 to 2015, the company was called Or Derv.)
Over the years, though, Edith’s recipe has become part of countless family traditions at the Golden Lamb.
To my knowledge, we have never shared our sauerkraut ball recipe with the public. (I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some guests have taken it home over the years.) In fact, the current menu lists the balls’ makeup as “a secret blend of spices, pork, and beef roasted with savory kraut.” That blend can stay secret. The kitchen has tweaked the recipe in the past decade, adding beef for a richer texture and making other small changes, as I’m sure the kitchen has for half a century. (We also now offer mustard, a popular sauerkraut ball condiment, alongside our traditional cocktail sauce.)
Today, I’m sharing the recipe that I took away from a stint at the Golden Lamb back in 2012. We use it at home. It works. I have successfully swapped out ingredients, once substituting turkey for pork and sour corn for sauerkraut. When I don’t want to buy ham, I just use pork loin, and it works. The elements matter more than the specific ingredients, in my experience, and if you’re catering a party on a budget, you can buy a lot of pork loin for cheap at Costco. The only obvious concession to modernity is the Panko. Edith and Norm probably didn’t have those light, Japanese-style breadcrumbs, but we’ve tried making the balls with both conventional breadcrumbs and a basic flour coating, and I recommend the Panko.
When your family, friends, and post-pandemic party guests can’t get over these crunchy, golden-brown bites, thank Edith.
Golden Lamb Sauerkraut Balls, circa 2012
Makes several dozen balls, serving a crowd (You may want to cut this in half, or even quarter it, for a generous family-sized portion)
2 lb. pork loin, cut into chops
1 lb. ham, diced in ½-inch cubes
1 white onion, sliced
2 lb. sauerkraut, divided
½ lb. + ½ cup all-purpose flour, divided
2 tbsp. mustard powder
1 tbsp. salt
1 tsp. white pepper
Panko, for coating
Canola oil, for frying
Cocktail sauce and spicy mustard, for serving
In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté pork chops until cooked through. Remove chops and add ham, onions, and 1 lb. sauerkraut. Cook until onions are translucent, then stir in mustard powder and ½ lb. flour. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, or until flour is absorbed. Cube pork chops. Combine the contents of the skillet with salt, white pepper, and cubed chops in a large bowl. Mix well and then let the mixture cool in the fridge for 1 hour.
Once cool, chop the mixture in a food processor until relatively uniform, working in batches if necessary. Stir in the remaining 1 lb. sauerkraut, then return mixture to the fridge for at least another hour.
Whisk eggs with ½ cup water to make an egg wash. Shape the mixture into golf-ball-sized spheres and coat each completely in flour, then egg wash, then Panko. Deep-fry for several minutes at 375 degrees. These can be made ahead of time and fried to order. Serve with cocktail sauce and a spicy mustard.