The Cincinnati delicacy is crispy, mushy, and perfect in every way
Cleaning out my freezer on a recent Sunday morning, I pulled out an assortment of oddities: a two-year-old pork chop from the grocery store down the street; a three-year-old package of biscuit mix from Tupelo Honey, in Knoxville; a Krackle bar from this past Halloween. But as I dug deeper into the frozen abyss, I felt something unexpected that sent a wave of excitement from through my Cincinnati-raised soul: It was solid and slick and cylindrical, wrapped tightly in plastic and twisted shut on each end by two metal clamps. No effing way, I thought. But, yes, pulling it from the depths, I read the words I hoped to see: Glier’s Goetta.
My God. Glier’s Goetta.
To a homesick Cincinnatian, those words are as comforting as a bowl of Skyline chili or walking into a bar and unexpectedly catching a Reds game on TV. Goetta—pronounced “get-uh”—is the city’s signature contribution to the world of breakfast meats, and something that, despite the food media’s obsession with regional cuisines, has remained largely contained to southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.
For the uninitiated, goetta is a usually a mixture of pork shoulder and sometimes beef, which is ground together with onions, spices, and, most notably, pinhead oats. It is formed into a loaf, chilled, sliced, and fried in a skillet. It is to Cincinnati breakfast joints what scrapple is to Philadelphia, and grits are to Charleston. But let my highly biased opinion be clear: It’s better. It’s so much better. Even so, while I love goetta more than any other breakfast side, it took me a while to come around to it.
Growing up, we didn’t eat goetta all that much in my family. As transplants from Massachusetts, it simply wasn’t on our radar. I wasn’t all that into sausage that much either. Aside from a bite or two off my parents’ plates at Bob Evans or Bill Knapp’s, I didn’t eat it. It was far too greasy, too salty, too porky. I felt the same way each time Dad ordered sausage on our LaRosa’s pizza, or served Italian sausage at home, tucked into a plateful of ziti.
A dislike of sausage is a shameful thing in Cincinnati. Afterall, our economy was practically built on the backs of our sows and stags. In the mid-1800s, the city was known as Porkopolis—it packed, shipped, and slaughtered more pigs than any other place in the world. From late fall through deep winter, the streets of Cincinnati ran wild with swine, so much so that 19th-century residents often tossed their garbage into the streets at night, knowing it’d be devoured by packs of hungry piglets by morning. Cincinnati was also home to an enormous German population, which settled in a neighborhood just across a canal from downtown that was dubbed, none too kindly, Over the Rhine. There, German butchers made and sold a cornucopia of bratwursts and mettwurst, blood sausage, and other German specialties, including, of course, goetta.
Goetta is what’s known as a gruetzwurst, a sausage made from ground pork and grain. Most people place it in the scrapple family, even though it’s stretched out with steel-cut oats instead of cornbread. To me, it’s less mushy, more porky, and generally more flavorful. Instead of the offal found in scrapple, it’s often made with braised pork shoulder, and sometimes beef. Throughout most of the 20th century, it remained a little-known holdover from the old days, something the city’s German grandmas would whip up for Sunday breakfast, or something you might find at a good German butcher shop or an old German restaurant.
As I grew older, I noticed goetta gaining traction on restaurant menus, as well as in people’s homes. I’m not sure why, exactly. Maybe it was something everyone was ashamed of for a time, but eventually admitted they couldn’t live without. As a teenager I never had a burning desire to try it, despite the encouragement of a friend’s German-American parents, or a waitress at the local diner, where I sat in a booth drunk on Miller Genuine Draft at 2 a.m.
“It’s like sausage,” old people would tell me. “Just try it.” Eventually, and very reluctantly, I did. And while it wasn’t a revelation per se, I thought it was just fine. But then I kept on eating it. And then I started craving it. Like a milky cup of diner coffee or a lethal drug, eventually I couldn’t imagine life without it. I fell hard for how the outsides got all caramelized and crispy and how the insides were mouthwateringly mushy. I loved how it broke up so easily, making it perfect for mashing into a hash with my eggs-over-easy. It’s salty as any breakfast sausage, but the oats make goetta seem lighter somehow, less cloying, and they even give it a bit of a chew. It changed my attitude toward sausage, serving as a gateway to the boudin, andouille, braunschwager, and even scrapple I came to love later in life while living in the South.
Sure, you can order goetta from Glier’s—they make it with offal, including hearts and, well, minds (brains). I also love the beefier version of goetta that comes from Eckerlin Meats, a beloved butcher shop in Cincinnati’s Findlay Market that’s been making goetta for more than a century. Still, I’m pretty steadfast in my belief that regional foods should always be experienced in their native lands. So yes—YES, you have to go to Cincinnati to truly experience goetta. Because eating goetta requires feeling goetta. And feeling goetta requires a trip to Cincinnati. Too bad you’re not there right now, since this week Glier’s is hosting its annual Goetta Fest, which takes place just across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky.
There are a lot of restaurants that serve goetta in Greater Cincinnati, some simply, some fancily. Among the best are The Echo in Hyde Park, where it’s served as part of the Glier’s German Greats breakfast, alongside two eggs, potato cakes, baked apples, and toast. The best late-night goetta can be found in Covington, at the Anchor Grill, where you can wolf it down with a few cups of black coffee and pray that it’ll suck up all the beer in your stomach.
Long under the radar of more high falutin’ chefs, goetta is also finding its way into our more lauded establishments. At Senate, chef Daniel Wright often serves his Goetta Superstar Hot Dog, which features fried goetta with pickled ramps, lettuce, and foie gras. At Yat Ka Mein in the city’s Oakley neighborhood, it’s a component of their Goetta Fried Rice. There’s goetta quiche and goetta omelets, and goetta nachos. When I visit the city next time, I’m going to try goetta pizza. I dream of that friggin’ pizza. God willing, it’ll be as good as it sounds.
Still, there’s one place I like to eat goetta more than any other. It’s a diner in Over the Rhine called Tucker’s. Owner Joe Tucker and his wife, Carla, are getting ready to reopen the place after a fire ripped through it last year. Tucker fries his up (he gets it from Eckerlin; his dad did, too) on a flattop like nobody’s business. As the meat sizzles and the oats pop, he'll talk to whoever's listening about the Bengals maybe winning a playoff game one of these days, or the Reds getting their pitching game together. He might even talk about the old days at that punk rock club in Clifton, where he met Carla way back when. She was a manager at a Gap outlet in Kenwood, and he was determined to never, ever work for the family diner his mom and dad opened in the 1940s. But once that goetta arrives on your plate, you’ll be happy he did, and that Carla quit working at the Gap to join him. That goetta is something worth devoting your life to; that goetta is something worth learning to love.