Whenever I see something unfamiliar on a menu, I am irresistably drawn to it. I'll admit, however, it's often the story behind a dish I'm more interested in—and not as much the dish itself. I want to consume knowledge, the way Mary Antin wrote about in The Promised Land:
I want to taste of as many viands as possible; for when I sit down to a dish of porridge I am certain of rising again a better animal, and I may rise a wiser man. I want to eat and drink and be instructed.
This is how I came to eat my first dish of goetta (pronounced "gedda"), found on the brunch menu at The Hay Merchant. The menu just refers to it as a "Cincinnati classic, served with fried green tomatoes, Redneck Cheddar sauce, and a fried egg." Though I'm innately distrustful of all Cincinnati-born foods ever since trying the abomination that is Cincinnati chili—as any good, chili-respecting Texan would be—I figured a deeply regional dish like goetta wouldn't simply crop up on a faraway Houston menu if it were terrible. I had to try it.
The Hay Merchant
Goetta is one of those niche foodstuffs brought over by immigrants—in this case, Germans from Hannover and Westphalia who settled in Cincinnati in the 1800s—that's managed to survive across generations in a pocket of America where it's become a beloved symbol of a city's past and its foundations. Take, for example, the Barberton chicken in the opposite end of Ohio from Cincinnati, brought over by Serbian immigrants in the 1930s. Or yaka mein in New Orleans, believed to have been brought to the city by Chinese railway workers in the mid-1800s. Or even Cincinnati chili itself, created by Macedonian immigrants in the 1920s.
What's equally intriguing about all of these dishes is that they'd be virtually unrecognizable in their "homelands" today. Although goetta—a sausage made from ground pork, steel-cut oats, and a blend of herbs and spices such as black pepper, bay leaves, rosemary, and thyme—is popularly eaten for breakfast in Cincinnati, you would never find it on any breakfast menu in Germany. Especially not eaten the Cincinnati way: cut into rectangles and deep-fried.
What we've preserved with these iconic regional dishes isn't necessarily an authentic representation of a German or Chinese or Macedonian dish, but the ingenuity of our immigrant ancestors and how they adapted their own foods to survive in a new world—either to suit the palates of fussy Americans or to best mimic a dish lost to time and distance with whatever ingredients were available at the time. Goetta was poor-people food, thrown together to stretch a little bit of ground meat into a full meal and to remind homesick immigrants of the Rhineland as they settled in to their new country.
The housemade version at The Hay Merchant is certainly much better than those initial loaves of goetta must have been. It's smothered with a sharp Cheddar sauce whose creaminess is further enhanced by the dark golden yolk of a fried egg on top. The goetta is paired with two tart slices of fried green tomato—forcing the dish to straddle the Mason-Dixon line—which do a nice job of relieving your palate between bites of the slick, fatty sausage. Goetta, as far as I can tell, is essentially a far more palatable version of haggis.
It's certainly delicious on its own merits, and lives up to The Hay Merchant's own tradition of turning old standards on their ears (see: chicken fried water buffalo; pig's ear tacos; corned beef fried rice). But more than that, goetta is a history lesson on a plate.