Tuesday, March 29, 2005

And the Winner Is...

In the first-ever Ohio Wine Producers Chili Cook Off, there is a winner.

Tarsitano Winery was the winner of the two-day event, held on February 25-26 at five different Northeast Ohio wineries. Tarsitano’s also topped Gretchen and I’s ballot (Chili Cook Off, Wine Tasting in Northeast Ohio”, posted on March 3) for their original presentation and great tasting chili.

The event drew 80 people to the wineries and the OWPA is promising it to become a yearly endeavor. Attendees received all the chili recipes and a collectable glass and had the opportunity to win a special gift basket or the grand prize being an overnight stay at The Lodge and Conference Center in Geneva.

Donniella Winchell, executive director of OWPA, wrote in a letter to attendees, “In future years the Great Chili Cook Off is sure to become known as a fun way to warm up from the mid-winter blues, add to your recipe collection, and enjoy the atmosphere of Ohio’s unique wineries.”

The next OWPA event on the docket for the Wines and Vines trail is the Wines N’ Bloom scheduled for the first two full weekends in May.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Medina Native Tells Tale of Civil War Preaching Grand Father

Saw this article in Today's Akron Beacon-Journal and had to retell part of the story.

Elizabeth Menges Ramirez-Graham has a leather-bound diary in a velvet-covered jewelry box. It has been in her family for more than 130 years, but it has only been in the last couple of years that she began to feel the power of the words.

"It was in my family but we never looked at it very much," she said. "We heard about my grandfather, just through the family. We always felt proud of him, but we never knew many details."
Elizabeth's grandfather was Reverend Louis Miller Albright and the diary is his 1865 Civil War Diary. Rev. Albright was not a soldier but rather a volunteer for the YMCA sponsored U.S. Christian Commission which formed in 1861 to meet the spiritual needs of soldiers in the field.

February 1865: Today I was assigned to General Hospital No. 3 in Nashville. Spent all the forenoon distributing periodicals and conversing with sick soldiers in the hospital. Distributed 50 papers and magazines and conversed on the subject of religion with six soldiers.

It was entries like this that led Elizabeth and friend and self-publisher Stanley Graham to write up the entries into a collection of his journal entries, Civil War Diary, which is available for $19.95 from Belding Publishing.

Albright attended Ohio Wesleyan University and following the War returned to campus as a math and science teacher. He married Eliza Lewis Downing in 1867 and the couple became a "Methodist Power-House" in central Ohio. Albright is the founder of Asbury United Methodist Church, which still worships in the sanctuary built in 1888.

"It just seemed the thing to do. I didn't like to think that his life and his contributions had been forgotten."

Monday, March 21, 2005

New Riegel Cafe -- Ohio's Best BBQ

Best ribs in Ohio. Period. End of story.

I have had ribs from all over the state and found many good ones, but there is something about getting BBQ from New Riegel Café in tiny New Riegel, Ohio, that takes the cake.

New Riegel -- all 220 people -- is the essence of quiet small-town life. A large Catholic church, a small "community" store, a bar, a bank, and the Cafe. Not much else, and the people of New Riegel like it that way. Just like thousands of other small towns all over Ohio and throughout the Midwest.

New Riegel Cafe

What makes New Riegel different is the Cafe.

I was in a Strat-O-Matic baseball league with a guy that lived between Dayton and Cincinnati, and when he found out that I'd lived in Tiffin. The first question was "Have you ever been to New Riegel?" People come from all over the state to enjoy a hearty-meal at the Cafe.

What should you expect. Great food, but really not much else. The ambiance of the place is 20th century bar motif, in other words it is your typical small-town diner. Uncomfortable wooden benches, or long-tables with uncomfortable chairs. The waiting room - always crowded - is not well-planned and you are often pressed into a corner. A gift shop sells items, but the only thing that I've been interested in is the wall that has all the news clippings on the Cafe. Neil Zurcher's One Tank Trips made a trip to New Riegel along with numerous other food editors over the years.

The place doesn't take reservations, barely has a menu. Up until about 3-4 years ago the only menu was the one printed on the wall; they must have gotten tired of being asked because now each table has a small stand with the menu on it. Not sure why though, only New Riegel rookies need to look at it. Personally, I'm a rib-and-a-half with extra sauce, the wife rotates between ribs, chicken, and shrimp. The salad is a couple bucks extra and is really not worth the money -- lettuce with a couple slices of carrots -- but the homemade salad dressing are worth the extra cost. The house, a sweet-and-sour, is excellent.

Service is a regional joke. "So what do you want?" is a common statement. They aren't there to be nice just to get you on to the food. The dinner is served in paper-tubs and you don't even notice.

If you were ranking New Riegel on all the pieces, it would not look very good. But the food out-weighs everything. It is a wonderful place to eat and honestly one of my favorite places to go.

If you head to New Riegel take cash, as they do not accept any form of plastic. The meals are reasonable, the 1-1/2 order of ribs is about $11. No free refills on drinks.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Waldo to be Featured on Travel Channel

Waldo's bologna fascination will lead to a second 15-minutes of fame for the community off U.S. 23 in southern Marion County.

Travel Channel's "Taste of America" was in Waldo in September and will debut the new show on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. Host Mark De Carlo was at G&R Tavern and Engle's Sports Bar and both are expected to be featured in this show.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

A Travel Trip: The Western Basin

Since it is going to be a week or so before I can get out and visit any new counties, thought I’d do a couple of posts on my favorite places to travel to within the Buckeye state.

We’ll begin the journey in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Anywhere from Sandusky to Maumee Bay State Park is fine with me, but the Marblehead Light House draws me in all the time. Living in Tiffin, I could be in Port Clinton or the lighthouse in about 45-minutes and after a stressful week at work, I spent many Sundays just sitting on the rocks that mark the exterior of the Lighthouse. Listening to the water lap the shore and the distant screams of thrill-seekers at Cedar Point provided a soothing calm as the water just washed away the stress from my day.

The Lighthouse is often crowded and while the state has dramatically improved parking in the last couple of years, it can still be a hassle. I like to take the first sunny weekend of the year, those days when the beauty shines through the 20-degree thermometer, and make a trip to the Lighthouse.

Port Clinton has a nice downtown section. However, in the off-season it is not quite as striking as during the summer. Downtown has the historic hotel, which during the off-season has offered a weekend dinner theatre program which offers a great deal and is quite entertaining. There is also a neat popcorn shop – that has been featured on FoodTV – making unique flavors for the popcorn. Among my favorites is the Walleye.

Continuing westward, Maumee Bay State Park was the crown jewel of the State Park Lodges until Geneva State Park opened last summer. Maumee Bay offers beautiful views and tons of things for the family to do. The wife and I spent our one-year anniversary at the park and enjoyed walking the grounds, visiting area shops, and just relaxing. We took the nature trail walk on two occasions and saw 15 deer over the two days.

Maumee Bay State Park is about as far west as I like to go. Heading further west on highway 2 lands you in the industrial section of Toledo. This area provides a vital cog in the region’s economy, but doesn’t offer the most welcome view for the beauty-thirsty traveler.

Grabbing a ferry from Port Clinton or Catawba Point will allow you to visit the islands. Kelly’s Island has traditionally been the quiet family spot with glacier grooves. I haven’t been to Kelly’s in several years, but the increase in “bar shirts” that I see advertising a location on the island makes me wonder if it isn’t beginning to take on the shape of its more famous brother to the west.

South Bass Island is probably the most famous of the islands in Lake Erie, as Put-In-Bay has been labeled the party town of the Midwest. If you head to South Bass in the early afternoon, you'll be rewarded with the peaceful beauty of the island. I have always enjoyed spending the morning riding around the outskirts of the island on a golf cart. However, head into Put-In-Bay about “happy hour” time an you will see a very different town. The small quant village becomes a thriving metropolis with more bounce than any spring break party in Daytona Beach and is not for the faint of heart.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Marion County: Popcorn, Presidents, & Bologna

“Our belief at the beginning of a doubtful undertaking is the one thing (now get that – is the one thing) that ensures the successful outcome of your venture.” William James, from Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking

Popcorn, Presidents, and Bologna. All find themselves at home in Marion County.

It doesn’t really matter what direction you enter Marion County from, as it provides large quantities of wide-open spaces (see photo at bottom, taken at the intersection of 95 and 98) for you to see.

But tucked in between the fields of corn and beans are some fun and interesting places.

One of the most popular is the Marion Popcorn Festival held the weekend following Labor Day each year. Marion is home to Vogel Popcorn (sold under Newman’s Own Gourmet Popping Corn and Act II), ConAgra Snack Foods (producers of Act II, Healthy Choice, and Orville Redenbacher) and Wyandot, Inc. (produces millions of pounds of caramel popcorn annually). The festival is an end-of-summer ritual for many in the Central Ohio area and a good one at that.

Marion is also home to the Warren G. Harding monument as the home of the 29th President. Harding is considered by many to be one of the worst President’s in American history; but don’t say that around Marion. Students in the city attend Harding High School and the team nickname is the Presidents.

Harding is buried in Hillside Memorial Cemetery but is not the only famous tomb in the city. The Gypsy of Marion County is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery and is one of the area’s larger ghost stories.

The Harding Memorial is located on 423 just north of the Marion “mall.” With more “coming soon another great store” signs than actual open store fronts, the mall appears to be losing its battle with the growth of stores on Marion’s East Side and the growth of Polaris Parkway, about 40 minutes to the south.

Downtown Marion is a classic downtown. The revived Palace Theatre and a beautiful court house are anchors and a lot of small shops greet visitors – as long as they arrive before 5 p.m. The downside is that the community directly north and south of the downtown section are some of the more impoverished sections of the town. The Warehouse is located just down from the theatre and offers great Italian food at the right price. Heading out State Route 95 East towards U.S. 23 and the quaint Marion turns into a “neon paradise.” The chain shops clutter the road and bring commuters upon the exit ramp.

Getting out of Marion, heading south on U.S. 23 and driving for about eight miles travelers come to a Food Network favorite, Waldo. Last year Al Roker visited G&R Tavern and he wasn’t the first to enjoy a bologna sandwich in the community. G&R started the bologna trend and now you can find the treat in two of the cities restaurants. Ingles Sports Pub even offers a fried treat of bologna “poppers” which taste a lot like corn dogs. J. Angelo’s is a classic Italian place and a favorite of the wife and mine, with large portion sizes and great taste it is well worth the trip.

Marion County also is home to Green Camp, Prospect, La Rue (pronounced LAY roo), and Caledonia, along with numerous cross road towns. My personal favorite, for obvious reasons, was Tobias until I drove through the “town.” Sitting at the corner of Tobias and Kirkpatrick Road northeast of Marion off State Route 4, Tobias has a small workshop and one house. In an earlier – less mature time – the road signs might have been in jeopardy.

Toby's Note: Sorry about the poor photo of the courthouse. It got dark on me and this is the best I could get out of my little HP Digital Camera. I plan to retake the photos in soon, this Courthouse is very beautiful and deserves better than blur.

Key Facts (from The Ohio Almanac)
Population (2000): 66,217
Established: April 1, 1820
Per Capita Income (1999): $22,136
Persons Below Poverty (1997): 11.9%
Name Sake: "The Swamp Fox" of the Revolutionary War, General Francis Marion
Items of Interest: The Edward Huber Machinery Museum displays many examples of early farming and roadbuilding equipment; Delaware State Park, Warren G. Harding Home and Museum, Harding Memorial, Claridon Prairie Reserve, Killdeer and Big Island Wildlife Areas, Palace Theatre, Stengel True Historical Museum, and Wyandot Popcorn Museum.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Crawford County: The Way It Was

Looking off in the distance she smiles to hide the pain

Another storm rolled in her life and the weather is not the same

Then she posed the question could they never be again

“Change” by Myopia off Radius

Crawford County is one of those quiet counties that people will drive through, and outside of butchering the pronunciation of Bucyrus, they won’t even know they passed through it.

Which is quite a shame as the county is rich in heritage and tradition – and corn and bean fields.

One of my finest memories occurred in Crawford County, New Washington to be more exact. I was a high school freshman and we traveled to take on the Buckeye Central Bucks in my first game ever as a high school football player. The Blue Devils varsity handled duties well enough that a slow freshman got a chance to play in his first varsity football game.

The football field is located just off the railroad tracks that intersect State Route 602 in this small town. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how important the railroad still is in present day Northwest Ohio.

Growing up in the “hills” of Eastern Knox County, we watched them take out the stretch of track that ran between Danville and Brinkhaven on a summer morning. I thought the railroads were dead, I mean if they weren’t in my corner of the world then why would they be any where else ... ahh the blissful ignorance of youth.

But as you head into the open farm country of Western Ohio, the long trains stretch for miles. In Crawford County, you are introduced to it quickly as you pass over a set of tracks in as you enter the county from the East on U.S. 30. The county has three cities, Crestline, Bucyrus, and Galion and each is intersected with Conrail and Norfolk and Western rail lines. All three of these cities are situated in the southern portion of the county and are either located on or within ten miles of U.S. 30.

Downtown Galion has a lot of charm that is very similar to a lot of the old towns across Ohio. The community has a quaint charm that makes it feel like Silvertown from Joe Dirt. Get away from downtown and Galion becomes a typical small town, and the south side has a nice stretch along 98, but the majority of the community is struggling.

Downtown Bucyrus is even more interesting than Galion. The town has several murals that have been painted on the sides of buildings and are so amazingly life-like. The stretch of State Routes 4 and 98 that makes up downtown Bucyrus is a historic treasure. Would be wonderful for someone to reclaim the old theatre in town and bring back in a fashion like Tiffin did with the Ritz Theatre. The city has a theatre but it is a rather small venue and when I went to see “Fiddler” there a few years ago the community theatre had to perform it at one of the schools. The square is another neat part of the community with a fountain in a small park. The community isn’t wealthy, and it shows once you get off downtown especially in the community’s North side. On opposite side of the square from the park is the bar formerly known as the Mad Bull (the building on the far side of the square in the picture below). This may have been the most famous thing associated with Bucyrus for a few years -- and that is not a good thing.

Crawford County seems to have less of the small towns than other Ohio counties. But there are a couple that jump out at you.

Chatfield and New Washington are in the northern section of the county. Chatfield sits of State Route 4 and was probably a happening place when the railroad was carrying people across the area. The size of homes on the community’s single street shows at least a level of wealth in the community, unfortunately, many of the homes have fallen in disrepair. New Washington is very similar and has that same level of architecture, but is a larger community than Chatfield.

Oceola sits along Sward Creek on U.S. 30 in the western section of the county. I remember making the trip from Mt. Union to Bluffton in college and driving through Oceola. I promptly annoyed my passenger by repeating it over-and-over-and-over again until we reached Bluffton. It is still one of my favorite little communities, and I can’t really tell you why. These type of towns dot the Ohio landscape and many have more charm than this community.

The last is one that I’ve only been to once, Tiro. My wife keeps telling me that Tiro is home of the Testicle Festival. I didn’t believe her so I did a little Internet research…

When writing a story on bizarre Ohio festivals, one need no more than utter these four words: The Tiro Testicle Festival. Held annually at the Tiro Tavern in Tiro -- in the middle of nowhere between Columbus and Cleveland -- the fest's motto is "You'll have a ball," and who wouldn't? Pig and bull testicles are breaded and deep-fried to within a short hair of perfection. (Hot Spots: Weird Food Festivals , CityBeat, June 6, 2000)

In case you thought it was a one-time thing…
All I'm saying is stay away from The Tiro Tavern in Tiro, Ohio during the annual - I swear, this is true - Tiro Testicle Festival. This is the one festival in the world that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have completed depleted the world's non-renewal supply of festival themes. ( FOOD - IT'S ENOUGH TO MAKE BETTY CROCKER CRINGE, Oct. 2, 2002, Welland Tribune)

If that wasn’t enough…
This biker-bar-based festival has been going strong for 29 years, usually in April but call ahead to be sure; the supply of good balls is erratic. Non-gonadal food is provided by the Tiro-Auburn Volunteer Fire Department. (Attu Sees All, Web blog, Nov. 24, 2004)

How do you come back from that? I don’t know either, so until next time I bid you happy trails.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Chili Cook Off, Wine Tasting in Northeast Ohio

Pour out the wine without restraint or stay,
Pour not by cups, but by the bellyful,
Pour out to all that wull.
Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599)
Epithalamion, 250

The Ohio Wine Producers Association sponsored a Chili Cook Off Trail on Friday and Saturday at five northeast Ohio vineyards.

Biscotti Family Winery (Conneaut), Laurello Vineyards (Geneva), Tarsitano Winery (Conneaut), The Lakehouse Winery (Geneva-on-the-Lake), and Old Firehouse Winery (Geneva-on-the-Lake) all provided visitors with samples of wine and chili.

The Chili
We went for the chance to get away and enjoy the wine, the chili was just a good excuse. We found some good tasting chili and some, well, not so good.

Our final score card looked like this...
1. Tarsitano - The red chili was about what you would make at home with stewed beef in it. The bread bowl and broiled cheese was an awesome touch that we would have probably appreciated more if this hadn't been our first stop. They provided us with a bonus Southeast Asian soup that was great.

2. The Lakehouse Winery - It was a red chili with a "Tex-Mex" feel adding corn and some extra spice. The presentation was in glass bowls and if we hadn't arrived in the small tasting room as the same time as the other 100 people on the tour it would have probably been more enjoyable. The workers did a great job of trying to keep everyone happy.

3. Biscotti Family Winery - The chili was your basic chili. It was a good bowl of chili, but in a cook off, I guess I expect more. My wife liked this one, but the Lakehouse presentation gave them the nod over Biscotti.

4. Laurello Vineyards - This was our last stop and left a sour taste in my mouth, while the wife thought it was okay. They went with a vegitarian chili that lacked the depth of flavor and blended tastes that makes for great chilli.

5. Old Firehouse Winery - If I had been selecting on my own, this would have been No.1 on the list. But, since it was the only place she wouldn't eat the chili it has to fall to last place by default. Old Firehouse did a seafood white chili with scallops, fish, and shrimp. I thought the flavor was more like a New England chowder than a chili, but the creativity was awesome and I really like the flavor. Gretchen on the other hand...well...

The Wine
If Old Firehouse was last on the chili list it was definately tops on the wine side. We walked out with six bottles of their finest, and I'm already looking at ordering a case online after we ended up giving away most of the bottles to friends.

The only other bottle of wine we purchased was a summer blend at Tarsitano.

It was a great time and we've been exploring other opportunities available through the Ohio Wines.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Where has the relaxation gone?

Pardon this "rant" -- something that has been bothering me for a couple of days and needed to vent it in an informal way...

Take it easy, take it easy
Don't let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don't even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand,
and take it easy
“Take it Easy,” by the Eagles

Where has the relaxation gone?

It feels like it has been forever since the wife and I got a “quiet” weekend. With March already booked, we jumped at the opportunity for a weekend away in Ashtabula County this past weekend.

And all looked great, until Friday afternoon. We got a last minute call inviting us to dinner with a couple of dear friends. We both knew what we had to do – and wanted to do – though we didn’t want to admit it at the time. So we cancelled the Jacuzzi room and altered our plans to make it back to Tiffin in time for dinner on Saturday.

It was the right thing to do. The events of Saturday and Sunday proved that to me.

But still, during that trip when the miles were blowing past the Blazer’s tires faster than an American Idol winner’s fifteen minutes of fame, I wanted to be selfish. I wanted to be greedy. I wanted a quiet weekend without the hustle and bustle of running from site to site.

After the selfishness bled out, I began to wonder what has happened to our society that has created a “drive” that forces us to run-run-run during the week, but then when the weekend comes we try to pack everything we’ve missed from the previous week into 48 hours.

It is the drive that has me sitting here as the midnight our approaches trying to update this Web blog and staring at a “to do” list 15 items long that I want to have finished before heading on another trip this weekend.

The relaxation will come...right?