By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 20, 2003
What's so scary about a sauerkraut ball? Deep-fried cabbage blobs are what people eat for snacks in Columbus, Ohio -- or in its cobblestoned German Village, anyway. And I am determined to bite into one. I am going to taste the cream cheese, sausage, mustard, bread crumbs, all the condiments.
But first, bartender, can you bring over another mug of beer?
It's the first warm day of spring and I am holed up at the Hey Hey Bar & Grill. Bar talk buzzes around the fact that I am from out of town. How do I like the historic brick and sandstone homes?
I think they are fine.
Have I been to Schiller Park and seen its man-made miniature hill, built for sledding?
Not yet. Not yet.
And, well, what about those tasty chunks on my plate? When am I going to dig in?
Columbus is the kind of town you visit for a particular reason, not just on a whim. Maybe you are touring Ohio in 2003 -- the state's 200th birthday. Perhaps you've come to look at the house where writer James Thurber grew up. Or maybe you are an alum of national football champ Ohio State, which sits on the northern edge of town.
As for me, I happen to like old sections of cities. I am told that Columbus's 19th-century German Village neighborhood covers more than 230 acres. That it is the largest privately funded historic district in the United States. And that it is a mecca for good sausages, pastries and pilsner beer.
Susan Chirac, from the village's preservation group, is leading me through Beacon Hill-like streets and alleyways. Here are fancy Italianate mansions, and over here a group of 1840s cottages, all in brick. Is that a grape arbor? Yep. And here are stables that have been converted into garages, as in Manhattan's Washington Square Mews.
Everywhere we walk we step on patterned cobbles, and most of the churches and houses have slate roofs. "If you climb up into the attic of one of these," says Chirac, "it's like a planetarium. Between the slabs of stone are little pinpricks of light, like stars."
Windowsills and lintels show off Alpine-style curly patterns, and at one of the limestone stoops in front of 130 Jackson St. I make Chirac stop. "Those are fossils in there," she explains. "That's a snail that was embedded when the stone was quarried. That's a sand dollar -- Ohio was once an ancient inland sea -- and that looks like some kind of shell."
The German Village is starting to seem enchanted. But Chirac reminds me that it is not a theme park. "People ask us what hours the village stays open," she complains. "It isn't Santaland."
German settlers first came to the area in the 1830s to work in local breweries, brickworks and quarries, building houses with back gardens and European-style squares like Schiller Park, which serves as the town green. By the mid-1800s, German immigrants made up about a third of Columbus's population. But after a wave of anti-German feeling touched off by World War I and the demise of breweries during Prohibition, the village began losing its ethnic character and slid into a decline that lasted until the 1960s, when restoration began.
One strange thing about the German Village in 2003: It's hard to find any Germans. No one I talk to has a last name like Heinz or Schaeffer. Just a ho-hum bunch of Allens and Baileys and McPhees. Open a copy of a German Village cookbook called "Share the Flavor" and there's really nothing about schnitzel, but page after page on Shrimp & Feta à la Grecque, Pasta Fagioli, and Zucchini & Tomato Bearnaise.
Still, I see some German words on signs outside village restaurants and stores. Here is the window of a mysterious place on Fourth Street: What the heck does the owner do or sell? The placard saying "Juergen's Konditori" isn't a great deal of help, so I hunt for clues in its display of Munich beer steins and sculptures in the shape of bunnies, alligators and fish. The door is locked, and I am stumped until I find a tiny, taped-up notice: "Four-Pound Party Breads -- $12.50," it says. "Feeds Fifteen."
Because I am alone and haven't been invited to any parties, I move on. I get to a combination laundromat/general store on Third Street that, although I try, can't pass by. It's called the Hausfrau Haven, and as I push through the door I expect some kind of place where you can put your clothes in the washer and then relax. I think of villagers exhausted from too much hauscleaning. Maybe this is a spa? It turns out that Hausfrau Haven sells mostly bottles of liquor. But, according to Jim Byrd, the man at the counter, it's been a center for village shopping for more than 100 years.
"First we were a dry goods store, and then a butcher's," says Byrd. "Then we were a drugstore. And during Prohibition, we were a pool hall selling bootleg gin." Byrd points out the original pressed-tin ceiling and shows me some of the items he's found in the basement. There are jars of transparent liquid (the gin), rust-tinted canisters of Federal brand allspice, a box of Fun-To-Wash soap flakes and a still-useful supply of Rexall cold cream.
Most interesting is a slightly evaporated but unopened bottle of locally made Old Mork Whiskey ("18 Summers Old"). The label says it was distilled in 1915 and bottled in 1933. Might be worth a taste. But when I ask if he would consider twisting it open, Byrd says no.
The final stop on my walk is Schmidt's Sausage Haus on East Kossuth Street and its companion, Schmidt's Fudge Haus, right next door. Fudge 'n' sausages. Maybe these things go together better than I thought.
Tim Dick, Schmidt's confectioner, shakes his head at the idea of a blend. "No one around here would eat that," he decides. "But after a bratwurst, people do come in to get some pecan-fudge schmurtles for dessert."
Dick shows me how to pour out a layer of molten chocolate to begin forming the fudge. "Martha Stewart was here," he lets me know, "and I guess she liked it because she asked us for a list of ingredients."
"Did you give it to her?" I ask.
"I told her some," Dick says, "but held some things back."
Over at the Hey Hey, the bar crowd is getting impatient. This is my first-ever sauerkraut ball. When am I going to take a bite?
Okay, okay, I say, using a prong of my plastic fork to inspect one of the little balls. Some steam puffs out and there's a pungent smell.
Slicing off a chunk, I draw in a deep breath and chew.
It tastes . . . rich. Nicely varied, like the village.
It doesn't seem very German, I say apologetically. But, well, what does that matter? It isn't bad. Not bad at all.
Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel about Charlotte Harbor, Fla.
Columbus is at the intersection of I-70 and I-71, about 400 miles (or less than seven hours by car) from D.C. The German Village neighborhood is six blocks south of the Ohio State Capitol via Third Street. Its rough boundaries are South High Street to the west, Blackberry Alley to the east, Livingston Avenue to the north and Nursery Lane to the south, although some residents argue about this.
Its promotional postcard says it's "historic," but the
As long as you don't mind a friendly dog on the premises, the
Schmidt's Sausage Haus (240 E. Kossuth St.), carved out of a former livery stable, has been a German Village landmark since 1886. Its bratwurst and knockwurst are a big draw not just here but also at the Ohio State Fair and Ohio State football games. Plus, the wiener schnitzel looks and tastes like the real thing. Entrees start at $8.95.
Planks Bier Garten (888 S. High St.) is worth checking out if you've never been to a beer garden. There's outdoor picnic table service in the summer, and the inside is like a YMCA camp, with bare wooden rafters and folding chairs. The grilled bologna sandwich goes great with beer. Entrees start at $6.50.