November 23, 2020

Dann Woellert

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Goetta Life

A Germanic sausage that's unique to Cincinnati

If you live outside the I-275 loop, maybe you’ve never heard of the weirdest and most beloved breakfast food in Cincinnati. If you live in the goetta zone, you’ve probably heard more than enough. In my family, goetta is on the table at every major gathering. What is it? Cincinnatians struggle to explain. Many call it our local breakfast sausage. They’re not wrong, but for a more detailed answer, we have to go back to Germany.

Goetta comes from a long line of gruetzwursts—“grain sausages”—that were once the province of peasants. The best cuts of meat went to the manor house, while the off-cuts and offal went to tenant farmers who mixed meat scraps with local grains such as rye, buckwheat, oats, and barley to create nourishing sausage and meatloaf. Germans call those kinds of make-do dishes “arme leute essen,” or “poor people food.”

The greutzwurst heartland is northwestern Germany, primarily present-day North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony, within a rough parallelogram bounded by the cities of Munster, Oldenburg, Hamburg, and Hanover. Their gruetzwursts belong to the same tradition as Scotland’s haggis, England’s blood pudding, and Poland’s kishka. Goetta is kin to other New World descendants, including Pennsylvania scrapple, North Carolina livermush, and the Dutch balkenbrij found in some parts of Michigan.

Goetta Life - Quote

The best cuts of meat went to the manor house, while the off-cuts and offal went to tenant farmers who mixed meat scraps with local grains such as rye, buckwheat, oats, and barley to create nourishing sausage and meatloaf.

All evidence points to Covington, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati, as goetta’s first stop here, after it came over with Germanic immigrants in the mid-1800s. It then crossed the Ohio into Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where it landed in corner butcher shops and our historic Findlay Market. It’s still a house specialty at Eckerlin Meats, part of Findlay since the market opened in 1852.

You can tell how long it’s been in the family by how we pronounce it. The prevailing pronunciation here is “getta,” which has evolved from “gutta.” Glier’s, the major local producer, intentionally helped shift the pronunciation with a seventies marketing campaign, to distance it from its association with organs—guts. While traditional gruetzwursts do often contain offal, goetta has evolved, too, to use other cuts of meat.

Goetta is not a quick make. The basic recipe that most of us use today calls for slow-cooking pork shoulder and beef, boiling pinhead oats, mixing in spices, and pouring the mixture into bread pans, where it solidifies into its sliceable, crispable final form. Over the years, recipes have become a matter of honor, as in barbecue, with cooks priding themselves on their family formulas. Onions are a must. The simplest spice blend is allspice, salt, and black pepper. Most recipes call for pork shoulder, though older versions substitute pork necks or even cheeks. The grain portion—the key element—must consist of pinhead oats. They’re heartier and higher in fiber than rolled breakfast oats, but they take longer to cook. For years, before a new crop of grain suppliers came to local stores, the go-to was Dorsel’s Pinhead Oats, only available in greater Cincinnati. Many local cooks still use the goetta recipe printed on Dorsel’s bags.

Cincinnatians debate whether goetta is best with sweet or savory toppings. Ketchup or jelly? Sriracha or maple syrup? My family is in the savory camp, but we don’t hate the families that choose grape jelly instead. Like the majority of goetta cultists, they probably still eat it fried crisp, though a small minority prefer it soft, or “loose.”

Local chefs have embraced goetta, serving it straight and working it into other dishes. For straight goetta, try any local institution that knows breakfast. Tucker’s and The Echo, both open since the 1940s, are good bets, but you can get a crisp side of goetta at even the new-wave, “West Coast-style” Maplewood Kitchen and Bar.

You can find goetta tots, goetta sliders, biscuits and goetta gravy, and goetta-fied takes on a favorite local appetizer, the creamed-sausage-on-toast hanky panky, around town. Tuba Baking Co., a business rooted in Germanic tradition, sells a goetta-stuffed soft pretzel, and you can order goetta fried rice at the Yat Ka Mein Noodle House. Goetta is the signature pizza topping at Trotta’s on the West Side. Catch-A-Fire Pizza, a newer operation, sells a pepper, onion, egg, and goetta pie.

Last year, making an off-menu practice official, two of Cincinnati’s food-world elders, octogenarians Johnny Johnson of Camp Washington Chili and Elmer Hensler of Queen City Sausage, teamed up to release the 513 Way. The spin on the traditional three-way—spaghetti, chili, and cheese—doubled down on local flavor by replacing the noodles with goetta. The promotion sold out quickly, but you can still special-request the combo at Camp Washington. Then, anything goes at Glier’s annual Goettafest, where you can try a carnival’s worth of grain-sausage pleasures, from goetta brownies and ice cream to goetta-spiced beer, in northern Kentucky each August.

It’s all evidence that goetta is here to stay, in our hearts and stomachs, whatever brilliant new dishes our chefs create. It’s a symbol of our Germanic heritage and the immigrant push for the American dream, achieved via gruetzwurst.


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