LIONEL ANDERSON, the aged proprietor of the once-prosperous Bickford Flavoring Company in Akron, Ohio, closed the plant and entered a nursing home seven years ago. When he did, the owner of a health food store that had become Bickford's last customer arranged to have Anderson driven in three hours a day to teach him how to make the 72-year-old recipes.
The rejuvenated company now sells the nonalcoholic, no-sugar flavorings just as Anderson made them. Only the flowery Victorian label, which did not meet FDA standards, is gone. The company's best seller remains its white vanilla extract -- the natural color of vanilla after it has been filtered -- which does not discolor light cakes and cookies. Twenty of the company's flavors are sold in local stores, but 40 others (nutmeg, raisin, blackberry) are available only at the small factory, next to O'Neill's Department Store on Akron's Main Street.
Bickford's is an American treasure -- one of a handful of small, regional firms whose excellent products have been made quietly for years and where quality has never wavered.
In an era when so many foods are franchised and mass-produced, these are the holdouts, the exceptions, the testaments to true entrepreneurial spirit that still flourishes in America.
Their ranks have been swelled lately by new companies, some of them little more than a cook working out of a home kitchen, producing small batches of fancy cakes, ice cream toppings, preserves and chutneys, beautifully packaged and usually expensive.
The time-honored companies have made it through the decades when American tastes leaned toward Spam and Velveeta, and when buying specialty foods didn't qualify as popular recreation. Their packaging often isn't artful -- no eye-arresting calligraphy or gingham bows tied around jars. Their catalogues, if they have become part of the burgeoning $465-million-a-year, food-by-mail industry, often lack the sophistication of the well-designed four-color efforts of more media-wise concerns.
Many of the firms are generations old and family-run. It almost goes without saying that a key factor in their longevity is an unswerving belief in quality ingredients and an emphasis on maintaining traditions that often approach fanaticism.
We're talking about Roasted Virginia Diner peanuts from Wakefield; the hand-twisted Wahoo Weiners from Wahoo, Nebraska; American brie from the Kolb Lena Cheese Co., in rural Illinois; desert date cake from Shield's Date Gardens in Indio, Calif.; buttermilk and flaky cottage cheese from Castle Farms, near Emmitsburg, Md.; and creamy caramels from Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa.
These one-of-a-kind foods are beloved by their neighbors, but often are unknown outside their region.
Bloomingdale's, quick to sniff out a trend, highlighted regional American foods in its recent fall promotion. And to serve this growing interest, Star Spangled Foods, a recently opened shop in Manhattan, sells only fine, American-made products.
Owner Barbara Kafka, who has looked at more than 10,000 items since she began her research four years ago, said the "wealth and depth" of excellent American food is extraordinary. "Some of the items are perfectly commonplace where they're produced and people are unaware of just how special they are," she said, citing semolina from North Carolina, Oregon pepper-cured hams and Calloway Garden hard grits from Atlanta. Two of her favorite regional foods are Hellfire and Damnation and Fire and Brimstone, hot sauces made weekly at a quilting bee run by the 90-year-old owner of Hilltop Farms in Cleveland, Texas.
Kafka's store manager, Clark Wolf, said, "Some of our biggest food snobs in New York are making pesto with pine nuts from Sante Fe, fresh basil from the Bronx, jack cheese from Monterey and Napa Valley olive oil you can cut with a knife."
Food lovers on the trail of America's locally produced treats often resort to desperate means to acquire the remote goods. Peter Wolf, a New York architect and land-use planner, arranges to have relatives bid for a case of Dennery's Chocolate Fudge Sauce each year at the public television auction in New Orleans -- the only place the thick, rich sauce is sold to the public. (Kim Hipsher, quality control manager for the C.D.M. Dennery Company, which sells pie fillings and flavorings to bakeries, explained, "The fudge got so expensive to make, we took it off the market." One batch is made yearly for the auction and the latest price for a 12-jar case was $120, he noted.)
"I first had it as a child growing up in Louisiana," said Wolf, who holds a yearly dinner party to parcel out the sauce on vanilla ice cream for special friends. "I have to use it sparingly and have fewer and fewer special friends."
Fans addicted to the exhilarating sharp bite of Vernor's Ginger Ale, a Detroit-produced soda, usually depend on friends to lug an extra six-pack from Michigan. Joe Sutler, owner of Sutler's Heritage Meat Market in Arlington, and his wife, a Detroit native, used to drive each Sunday to a Takoma Park market to buy Vernor's. They now stock it themselves. "We've got a steady stream of customers who depend on it," said Sutler. "I keep a bottle cold and pour cups of it so people can try it."
Many of the products exist simply because of the vision and persistence of a single individual or family. Consider Dudley Humphrey Jr., and his finely textured, oversized popcorn balls that were, for many, the highlight of a trip to Cleveland's grand amusement park, Euclid Beach. Although the amusement park was demolished in 1969, the popcorn balls, first sold by Humphrey's great-grandfather from a sidewalk stand in Cleveland's Public Square in the late 1890s, survive. "There are machines that make them, but they come out like bullets, very hard and tough," Humphrey said. Still made from the special hull-less, white hybrid popcorn grown on the family farm in Wakeman, Ohio, the balls are hand-formed by high school students at the Humphreys' small Shady Lane Park in Streetsboro. They are supervised by Otto Price and his half brother, E.S. Judd, who have been making popcorn balls since the l930s.
Also rescued from Euclid Beach were the family's famed white pulled-taffy kisses, made with cream and butter. Both items are sold only in northern Ohio supermarkets and at the park.
Another family that has quietly maintained standards set in the last century are the Fralingers, of Atlantic City, N.J. Although Boardwalk tourists may know them mainly for their salt-water taffy, long-time residents head for the almond macaroons and molasses taffy paddles covered in chocolate. "We haven't played with the recipes at all," said Arthur Gager, the president of the 97-year-old firm and the grandson of a Fralinger.
The macaroons, sold in an Art Deco-style box designed in the 1930s, were developed in France and introduced in Atlantic City at the turn of the century. They were sold in The Macaroon Shop, which rented space from Joseph Fralinger and was eventually acquired by him.
Mail orders have always been popular and thousands of homesick soldiers in both World Wars and Vietnam were the recipients of Fralinger's goodies. The frailty of the almond paste combined with the large number of egg whites used, means a short shelf life for the macaroons and they're mailed out only hours after they've achieved their distinctive brown crackled crust.
But a number of quality products are available only on their home turf.
An example are the sodas made at the John Lasser Company in Chicago. Although Greg Lasser, great-grandson of the firm's founder, has been known to ship a few cases of ginger ale via Greyhound Bus to homesick ex-Chicagoans, the only consistent source of supply is the company's vintage plant, a few blocks from the DePaul University campus. There, you walk into the warehouse, grab a dolley, and start filling up boxes with old-fashioned one-quart size glass bottles of such varieties as grape, cream soda, strawberry, black cherry, cola, ginger ale, root beer, Pop-Up (Lasser's version of Seven-Up), Sizzle Fizz (lemon-lime) and a tonic water with a bluish cast named Aqua Tonic.
The Lassers still use authentic flavorings -- vanilla for the cream soda, herbs and barks for the root beer and ginger root for the ginger ale. In the last two years Greg Lasser has been working with his great-grandfather's syrup formulas for dozens of other flavors, and the firm often produces small batches of out-of-the-ordinary sodas. During the winter holidays peppermint and maple cream sodas are made, as well as pumpkin, cranberry and sugar plum sodas and a pine-flavored drink called Spruce Moose. In the summer, Lasser has turned out small quantities of watermelon, casaba, canteloupe, plum and peach drinks.
"People say how innovative we are to make these," he says. "I say, 'No, it's actually quite an old idea.' Before cola came in, there was an unlimited number of sodas made by small bottlers."
A bonus is the price. After paying an initial deposit of $3.40 for a dozen bottles, customers pay $4.29 for a case of 12 quarts--about 36 cents a quart.
Another product worth searching for is Dieffenbach's "Old Fashion Potato Chips" of Womelsdorf, Pa. Sold only within a 20-mile radius of the plant, the thick, unsalted chips taste deliciously like potatoes. They have been made since 1964 by Mark Dieffenbach, a Dutch native, and his three sons, Elam, David and Harold.
"I thought of trying mail order two years ago and was floored at the price of postage," said Mark Dieffenbach, who recently rejected an offer to ship a trailer-load to California. "I just intend to keep it in the family. You have to keep your quality chip." The chips are sold only in local stores, or at the plant.
Another mecca for people in search of quality is the OK Market in Wahoo, Nebraska, home of the Wahoo Weiners. Each year thousands of pilgrims carry away coolers full of what they consider to be the nation's finest homemade hot dogs. The Beranek brothers, Jerry, Joe and Clarence, have made the weiners, along with Bohemian liver and blood sausages, garlic bologna and homemade pork links, since they inherited the business from their father.
Inside the plant, located behind a small butcher shop, the Beranek brothers now assist two younger home-town boys, Bob and Jerry Divis, in producing the hand-twisted weiners. "We link them, hang them on sticks and carry them out to the smokehouse," said Bob Divis, 35. The irregular-sized hot dogs of coarse-ground beef, with some pork, are packed into natural casings--costly sheep intestines from New Zealand, because the Beraneks found the grasses the sheep graze on provide the right texture and flexibility.
The visits to the small factories and showrooms dotted across America's countryside can be as rewarding as the purchases. Just south of Dubuque, Iowa, down a gravel road off Highway 52, sits a lovely stone abbey, home to a group of Trappistine nuns and some of the best caramels around. Following the Rule of St. Benedict that their living should be made by the labor of their hands, the nuns of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey have been turning out their carefully made vanilla, chocolate and hand-dipped creamy caramels for 17 years.
The recipe comes from their motherhouse, Mount Saint Mary's Abbey in Wrentham, Mass. Saint Mary's, which still makes and sells caramels and other candy, has been in the business since 1956, when a master New England candymaker, John Crand, gave the nuns both his prized caramel recipe and many hours of instruction. Legend has it that Crand used to put his bare hand into the bubbling caramel to check whether it was ready to pour, but the sisters use more conventional methods.
The Iowa nuns also make a caramel using honey instead of sugar, because "some of the younger sisters objected to some of the sugar," said an older resident. The specialty of the Massachusetts nuns is a confection known as Butter Nut Munch, consisting of a chopped almond brittle coated with milk chocolate with roasted filberts hand-patted into the mixture.
Prices are reasonable: a one-pound box of vanilla, chocolate and light and dark chocolate-dipped caramels, along with a separate six-ounce sampler of vanilla caramels, is $5.95, postage paid from the Iowa abbey.
Both abbeys sell wholesale, but rely heavily on mail order business. They do not, however, want to become too successful. "It is not a business," said Sister Thomas, one of the Iowa cooks. "We don't want it to grow so much that it interferes with our life of prayer and solitude."