Bite Into the Buckeye State: What to Eat in Ohio
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Ohio, the “Heart of It All,” as its slogan proclaims, is the seventh-most-populous state in the nation. So you can expect a wide variety of culinary tastes, trends and traditions. Situated on a Great Lake, bordered by the mighty Ohio River and full of farm-rich plains and valleys, the Midwestern state possesses a rich allotment of local flavors. When it comes to distinctive food and beverage products, the Buckeye State just might be the richest terrain in the nation.
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The Galley Boy
Jeni's Ice Cream
Like many passionate food entrepreneurs, Jeni Britton Bauer started small — really small. Her handcrafted ice creams were available only at a tiny food stall in the North Market, a popular public market in the heart of Columbus. It took four years before she opened a second, larger Jeni’s shop in another part of town. Now, years, cookbooks and innumerable awards later, Jeni and her ice cream are seemingly everywhere, with shops dispensing those irresistibly delicious cones and cups of Salty Caramel, Brambleberry Crisp and Darkest Chocolate in scoop shops all throughout the country. But Columbus is and always will be home.
Back in the 1940s, barbecue legend Virgil Whitmore concocted the first Polish Boy using ingredients he already had on hand. Back then, smoky Polish-style sausages earned the nickname “Polish boys,” and since this sandwich is built atop such a thing, the name seemed to have been adopted. On top of that flavorful kielbasa is a stack of crispy fries, creamy coleslaw and zesty barbecue sauce, all stowed in a sturdy hot dog bun. The deliciously filling Polish Boy has been a staple of Cleveland barbecue joints for decades, but the sandwich is enjoying a renaissance of late thanks to places like Banter, a sausage and poutine shop on the city’s near west side. Owing to the butcher-crafted kielbasa and pitch-perfect fries, the Polish Boy never tasted so good.
Hungarian Hot Dogs
Though these uniquely flavored hot dogs have been a Toledo staple since Hungarian-American entrepreneur Tony Packo opened his first eponymous spot in 1932, the brand found unexpected notoriety in 1976. That’s when Corporal Max Klinger, played by Toledo native Jamie Farr, sang the praises of the soul-satisfying sausages on a little television show called M*A*S*H. You can guess what happened next. The best way to enjoy Hungarian hot dogs, most agree, is buried in chili, onions and mustard, preferably by the pair or trio. Now available at outposts throughout the region, including one just steps from where Minor League Baseball’s Toledo Mud Hens play, Tony Packo’s has a fix ready nearly anywhere a craving strikes.
Paw Paw Wheat Ale
Though it is largely unknown to most Americans, the pawpaw is the largest edible fruit native to the U.S. Miraculously, this tropical fruit tree thrives in the temperate forests of eastern North America, especially in Southeastern Ohio. In fact, for almost 20 years, the Annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival has taken place each autumn near Athens, Ohio, where the mango-like fruit is concocted into smoothies, salsa and ice creams. But one of the best applications, many agree, is for use in beer, specifically Jackie O’s Paw Paw Wheat Ale, which the popular Athens-based brewery has been crafting seasonally since 2003. The wheat ale is fermented with local pawpaw fruit, producing lovely notes of melon and banana.
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Maple Syrup
Fried Lake Perch
More fish are caught each year in Lake Erie than in all of the other Great Lakes combined. The relatively warm waters, especially in the lake’s Western Basin, make for productive catches of smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, yellow perch and the beloved walleye. All along the coast, but especially on the fun-filled islands of South Bass and Kelleys, fresh-caught, fresh-fried lake perch finds its way into sandwiches, wraps, tacos and baskets overflowing with fries and coleslaw. On a prime summer weekend, the Village Pump on Kelleys Island might serve 3,000 hungry visitors, many of whom opt for the mild and sweet fried lake perch dinner baskets.
Baby Swiss Cheese
Nearly half of all Amish families reside in Holmes County, a lush and sweeping countryside in rural Ohio, where horse-drawn buggies are as common a sight as “English” driven automobiles. It was here, in 1947, that Swiss native Alfred Guggisberg set up his eponymous cheese-making operation – right alongside the happy cows that provided him with all the sweet grass-fed milk he needed. Guggisberg’s Baby Swiss, known by its characteristic small holes, was crafted to suit more-timid American tastes. Its irresistibly creamy, nutty and mild-by-comparison flavor is an Amish Country original with very broad appeal. Fans flock to the shop in quaint Millersburg, Ohio, to sample cheeses and take home a wheel or three of this distinctive American product.
Parma, Ohio, is a working-class neighborhood of approximately 80,000 residents, nearly half of whom have roots that stretch back to Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — places where the pierogi is king. Most Parma households still possess at least one family member who can fashion a few dozen pierogi in a jiff, but why bother when Perla Pierogies is on the job? The best pierogi, anybody will tell you, sport a gossamer-thin wrapper as opposed to those thick and gummy exteriors. Perla starts with fresh dough that is stretched to its delicate limit before adding a dozen different fillings like potato, potato and sauerkraut, and potato, cheddar and bacon. Each dumpling is pinched and pressed by hand and par-boiled, leaving just a minute in a hot pan (with butter and onions, naturally) at home to crisp them up.