In between all the museums, amusement parks, and sporting events, one of Ohio’s biggest draws, like much of the Midwest, is its food. It boasts some well-known delicacies as well as some things you’ve probably never tried, let alone heard of.
Ohio is home to many tourist destinations, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Cincinnati Zoo. All these fun attractions are sure to work up an appetite, which is why we’ve compiled a list of our favorite iconic foods in the “Birthplace of Aviation”.
It wouldn’t be right to start a list of famous foods in Ohio with anything other than buckeyes. Ohio is known as the “Buckeye State”, thanks to the prevalence of the buckeye tree. These trees produce large brown seeds with a white “eye,” known as buckeye nuts.
Buckeye trees and nuts are a huge part of Ohio history; so much so that tree was named the state tree in 1953. The Buckeye is Ohio State University’s mascot and buckeye nuts are a popular souvenir for those who attend OSU sporting events.
However, when referring to food, buckeyes are not seeds or nuts– they’re candy. In 1919, three women in Brooklyn, Ohio, invented a candy that looked similar to buckeye nuts.
They combined butter, peanut butter, and powdered sugar into small balls that they then dipped in chocolate. When dipping the candies, they were careful to leave one spot uncovered. This made it look like the white eye of a buckeye.
The candies were a huge hit and OSU began selling them at sporting events. Today, Ohioans consume more than 6 million pounds of buckeyes every year.
Anthony Thomas Chocolates is a candy shop that sells buckeyes and a number of other chocolate confections at their locations throughout Columbus. Visitors to their factory location can take a tour, see how the chocolates are made, and leave with a free sample. Tours must be booked ahead of time.
While Ohio’s climate is undoubtedly far from tropical, visitors can enjoy a taste of the islands with the pawpaw. Pawpaws are America’s largest edible tree fruit and are native to Ohio. Their taste has been described as a mix between a mango, a pineapple, and a banana.
Pawpaw trees are common enough to grow in backyards, but you won’t often find their fruit at grocery stores. Pawpaws ripen and spoil very quickly, making it difficult to stock them in retail locations. They also grow wild in many places.
Ohio celebrates its native fruit at the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival. This three-day event is held in mid-September, during the height of the fruit’s harvest. Events at the festival include a cookoff, a “best pawpaw” competition, a pawpaw beer tasting, and a pawpaw eating contest. There are also a number of food vendors, horse-drawn carriage rides, and live music.
If you’re not in town for the festival but would still like to try the fruit, you’re in luck. Wild pawpaws can be found in woodland areas and near bodies of water. Before picking any fruit, make sure you’re not on private property. You can also find the fruit at farmer’s markets in late summer.
For many in the United States, the word “goetta” is entirely foreign, pronounced, “GET-uh”. For a number of people in Cincinnatti, however, it’s a breakfast staple. They even jokingly called it “Cincinnati Caviar”.
Goetta comes from Germany, though it wasn’t called by the same name there. When German immigrants settled in Cincinnati (Cincy) in the 19th century, they needed a way to stretch their food stores. They added pin-head oats, onions, and spices to their pork and beef scraps. The mixture was then cooked into a loaf that could be eaten over several days.
The meat was popular enough that it became commercialized. The largest distributor of goetta is Glier’s Goetta, which produces more than 1 million pounds of sausage each year. Around 99% of their products are sold in the Greater Cincinnati area.
Today, goetta is generally eaten as a breakfast food in Cincinnati, sometimes as a substitution for bacon or regular sausage. However, many restaurants have gotten creative and Americanized goetta into a pizza topping or sandwich ingredient.
Arnold’s Bar and Grill, a popular restaurant in downtown Cincy, features a goetta-stuffed hamburger on their menu, known as the “Yo Mama Burger.” Order carefully, though; it’s a mammoth of a sandwich, with two patties, hashbrowns, a fried egg, and cheese. It was featured on The Cooking Channel’s Man vs. Food.
Without question, the most well-known item on this list is the Klondike Bar. Who among us can resist singing their classic jingle whenever the ice cream treat is mentioned? Until the 1970s, however, the dessert was limited in its reach to two states.
What would you do for a Klondike Bar?
In the early 1900s, William Isaly, grandson of Swiss immigrants, started the Isaly Dairy Company in Mansfield, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, he invented the Klondike Bar by dipping square slices of ice cream in Swiss chocolate. The company sold the bars in their dairy stores throughout Ohio, eventually expanding into Pennsylvania.
For many years, Klondike Bars were relatively unknown nationwide. Finally, in 1978, the company began distributing the bars to other states, and they became a massive success.
Today, we know the treat for its thick ice cream center, brittle chocolate shell, and the signature foil wrapper. There are many varieties of the bar, including mint chocolate chip, cookies and creme, and double chocolate.
The original Isaly’s Dairy Company no longer exists. Of course, you can still find Klondike Bars all throughout the United States. They are sold in grocery stores, gas station convenience stores, and pharmacies.
The exact origins of the Polish boy sandwich are unclear, but it almost certainly was invented in Cleveland. The Polish boy is Cleveland’s signature sandwich, much like Philadelphia’s cheesesteak. It consists of a kielbasa, or Polish sausage, on a bun, topped with coleslaw, French fries, and barbecue sauce.
The most widely accepted origin story of the Polish boy begins in the 1940s. It’s said that Virgil Whitmore, owner of Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q restaurant, invented the sandwich using ingredients he had on hand. It was so popular, it became a permanent fixture on the menu.
Later, other members of the Whitmore family opened other barbecue restaurants in Cleveland and continued using Virgil’s Polish boy recipe.
You can find Polish boy sandwiches at barbecue joints throughout Cleveland, including several still owned and operated by the Whitmore family. Another popular option is Steve’s Diner, located in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the city.
Shaker Lemon Pie
You’ve likely heard of lemon meringue pie, but have you heard of its more frugal cousin? Shaker lemon pie comes from the religious sect known as the Shakers. Shaker communities existed throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana in the 19th century. The religious community has very few practicing members left, but their delicious lemon dessert is still an Ohio favorite.
Shaker lemon pie is unusual in that it uses the entire lemon, peel, and all. This is likely because the Shakers usually grew their fruit, but lemons don’t grow well in the Midwest. They began buying lemons for pies, and to make the most of their purchase, they used the whole lemon.
Modern-day Shaker lemon pie recipes still call for entire lemons. The pie is described as sweet and tangy, with a buttery crust. Some variations use Meyer lemons, which removes some of the tartness.
The Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio, has a wildly popular version of the pie on their dessert menu. The restaurant and hotel is the longest continuously operating business in the state, having first opened in 1803. Reservations for the Golden Lamb can be made online.
If you think you’ve tasted everything chili has to offer, think again. Cincinnati residents love their version of the warm, hearty dish, but to outsiders, it may look a little strange. Cincinnati chili is thinner and sweeter than other chilis. It’s usually made with ground beef, water, tomato paste, and a variety of herbs and spices, and is often served atop a pile of spaghetti.
It’s believed that two brothers from Macedonia, Tom and John Kiradjieff, invented the dish in 1922. Initially, they created a sauce to go on top of hot dogs, but later modified it to create “chili spaghetti”.
There are several ways to order Cincinnati chili– literally. Three-way, four-way, and five-way chili are all popular options to choose from. The number of “ways” you select determines the number of toppings on your chili spaghetti.
Three-way chili is piled high with shredded cheese. Ask for four-way, and you’ll get beans (usually kidney or refried) or chopped onions as well. Five-way, or “the works,” comes with cheese, beans, and onions.
Pleasant Ridge Chili in Cincinnati has hundreds of five-star reviews. They offer every version of the dish, from plain chili without spaghetti, all the way up to five-way chili. They are a cash-only restaurant, so keep that in mind before you go.
Sure, Kentucky Fried Chicken gets all the press, but some give the title of “Fried Chicken Capital of America” to Barberton, Ohio. This is because of the unique Serbian-style chicken the area is famous for.
Manojlo and Smilka Topalsky immigrated to Barberton from Serbia in the early 1900s. In an attempt to survive the Great Depression, they opened a restaurant out of their farmhouse. They called it Belgrade Gardens. Initially, they served soup and sandwiches.
However, legend has it that one day, Smilka was making chicken for her family from a recipe she learned from her mother. The chicken smelled so good wafting in from the back of the restaurant that a customer demanded she put it on the menu. It was an instant hit and helped the Topalsky family thrive throughout the Depression and beyond.
Barberton chicken has very specific preparation guidelines. The chicken should always be fresh, never frozen, and the entire chicken is always used. It’s seasoned with salt only, then breaded and fried in lard. It’s typically served with coleslaw, French fries, and hot sauce.
Belgrade Gardens is still in operation in Barberton and is still owned by descendants of the Topalskys. They serve a number of cuts of famous Barberton chicken, along with sandwiches, seafood, and pasta.
Many of Ohio’s most iconic dishes are hard to find elsewhere, which is what makes them so special. When traveling through the Buckeye State, don’t forget to make time for its unique local foods.