Eating Your Way Through Ohio On The Campaign Trail

Jan 6, 2018

Food and good places to eat are the one constant of running for public office in Ohio. Every city and town, it seems, has a restaurant, a diner, a hamburger stand that is a candidate-magnet. I've been in dozens of them in every corner of the state. This is part one of a two-part Tales from the Trail on my memories of dining on the campaign trail. Part two will follow next Saturday.

The Maid-Rite Sandwich Shoppe, Greenville

I must admit that it has always puzzled me why this hole-in-the-wall diner, located in an obscure western Ohio town and featuring a somewhat odd signature sandwich, has become a "must-stop" for Ohio politicians. Particularly for Republican politicians trying to whip up the base in heavily Republican Darke County.

It's very odd. On the brick walls outside the Maid-Rite shop, you will find untold thousands of wads of chewing gum and bubble gum, which patrons are encouraged to stick on the walls. No one I've ever talked to is quite sure why. Tradition, they say.

The Maid-Rite Sandwich is sort of like a sloppy joe, without the sauce. Ground beef, finely chopped onions, a little brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce and a dash of yellow mustard are the principal ingredients.

If you are a serious Maid-Rite fan, you order up The Big Jim, which is a regular Maid-Rite with a slice of ham and American cheese.

Back in 2006, I was on an all-day bus ride through the small towns and farmland of Western Ohio with Ken Blackwell, then Ohio's secretary of state and the GOP candidate for Ohio governor that year.

It was mid-afternoon when we stopped in the Maid-Rite; and, of course, the place was packed with diners.

Blackwell shook every hand in the place; and most of the patrons told him he had to try The Big Jim.

He ordered one up at the counter, not really knowing what he was getting into. The woman behind the counter slid a plate towards him, with a great big mess of a sandwich.

I'm not sure if Blackwell liked it or not, but he put on a pretty good act. Believe me, it's an acquired taste.

One of the problems with eating a Maid-Rite sandwich is that you must work very hard to keep the loose meat from spilling out of the bun and onto your shirt, the table or the floor.

It is not for the squeamish.

Blackwell, of course, made plenty of nom nom noises to indicate his satisfaction; and, in the end, proclaimed The Big Jim the most delicious sandwich in this hemisphere. Or certainly in the Ohio part of it.

The locals seemed pleased; and we all poured out the door of the tiny restaurant and back into the campaign bus for the next stop.

I've often wondered how many of the good people of Greenville noticed that Blackwell didn't have any gum to stick on the wall.

The Montgomery Inn/The Boathouse, Cincinnati  

The Gregory family's famous ribs joints have often hosted politicos over the years – including several presidents.

In Oct. 2007, I was with one of them, George W. Bush, when he made a quick stop at The Boathouse, while in town for a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot and the Republican Party at Hyde Park home of Reds owner Bob Castellini.

I had been asked by the White House to be the local pool reporter for the presidential visit, which meant that I had to stick with the presidential motorcade wherever Bush went and file reports that other local news organizations could use.

Here's how I summed up what happened:

U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot got hundreds of thousands of dollars for his re-election campaign. President Bush got three slabs of pork ribs and some onion straws.

Everyone went home happy.

The miserable wretches – me included – who were on pool duty got to see none of what went on in the fundraiser at Castellini's house, where $575,000 was raised for Chabot and the Republican Party.

We were locked down nearby; and when the event was over, we all scrambled into the 30-car motorcade, under the assumption that we were heading back to the airport to watch Air Force One take off.

But, then, the Republican volunteer who was driving the local pool van in the motorcade, told us there was a change of plans and there was going to be an unscheduled stop. We could tell that was the case, as we headed off the highway, past Great American Ball Park and out toward The Boathouse.

The local pool was near the end of the motorcade. When the president's limo pulled up in front of The Boathouse, we had to run as fast as we could to catch up. We had no idea why President Bush was making the stop.

President, staff, Secret Service, a mob of national and local pool reporters, videographers and photographers all jammed into the front door of The Boathouse and up the stairway, where we burst into a room full of people having a party.

And in the center of the room was Johnny Bench, the Hall of Fame catcher for the Big Red Machine.

Dozens of Bench's closest Cincinnati friends were there to hold a 60th birthday party. I knew it was October 29; and I also knew that Bench's actual birthday is Dec. 7 – the day after mine.

But it was explained to me that this was the only time Bench could be in Cincinnati between then and his actual birthday – thus, an early birthday celebration.

I was also savvy enough to know that a photo-op as good as this – the greatest catcher in the history of Major League Baseball and the president who once owned a major league team – was too good to pass up.

Bush stayed in the room no more than two or three minutes, chatting with Bench as the videotape rolled and the cameras clicked away.

Then, the entire entourage raced down the steps again to the front of the restaurant, where one of the employees handed the president a couple of bags full of Montgomery Inn treats – three slabs of ribs, with extra barbeque sauce; Saratoga chips and a large order of onion straws.  

Bush paused briefly to have his photo taken with some restaurant employees and then we all dashed out again to hop in the motorcade vehicles for the ride to the airport. I made it into the local pool van just as the driver was pulling out.

With my laptop, I knocked out a quick version of this momentous occasion – Johnny Bench, Montgomery Inn Ribs and POTUS – to distribute to any and all media out there who cared. Try writing on a laptop in a moving vehicle on a major highway sometime – it is no easy feat.

We got to the airport – the local pool peeled off to a media pen to watch the take-off; the national pool climbed onto Air Force One through the rear entrance. In minutes, POTUS was off, on his way to Andrews Air Force Base.

I learned later that the President Bush, his staff and the Secret Service laid into those ribs as soon as they were airborne and finished them off long before it was "wheels down."

Katzinger's Delicatessen, Columbus

Anyone who ever spent any time around President Bill Clinton knows one thing for certain – that boy likes to eat.

From Parma Pierogies in the suburbs of Cleveland to Gold Star Chili in Cincinnati and dozens of eateries in between, Clinton ate his way through Ohio in two presidential elections, in 1992 and 1996, and won the Buckeye State both times.

There is, in fact, one Columbus dining establishment where Clinton actually created his own sandwich when he visited there in 1994 as president.

Sandwich No. 59 on the menu at Katzinger's Deli, on the north side of Columbus' German Village is called President Bill's Day at the Deli, which, as the menu notes was created by President Clinton himself!

So what's in the sandwich engineered by the 42nd president of the United States? How about hot corned beef, swiss cheese, and hot mustard on pumpernickel.

Trust me, it's very tasty.

The Spot, Sidney, Ohio

Travel north on Interstate 75 about 95 miles and you will come to Sidney, a western Ohio industrial town surrounded by some of the best farmland in America.

Drive into the center of Sidney and, in the heart of downtown, at the corner of S. Ohio Avenue and E. Court Street, in the heart of downtown Sidney, is The Spot restaurant, the busiest breakfast and lunch place in town.

A bright, mid-20th century neon sign out front beckons in diners for some of the best hamburgers around and the restaurant's famous specialty, Old Fashion Cream Pie, a sugary and tasty concoction that you will find only at The Spot.

Nearly every politician running for statewide office in Ohio eventually ends up in The Spot. And why not? It provides great visuals for the TV cameras and still photographers – the gleaming tables, the comfy red-and-white booths, the fact that there is always a crowd that is unrelentingly friendly and welcoming, even when their breakfasts and lunches are interrupted by the hub-bub of a political campaign.

There was never a bigger hub-bub at The Spot than on August 28, 2004.

That's the day that President George W. Bush pulled up in front of The Spot in the Bush-Cheney campaign bus, followed by a motorcade of media and staff, while on a tour of western Ohio, where the counties may be small and rural, but, when put together, form a massive block of GOP voters.  

My guess is that either then-U.S. Senator Mike DeWine or then-governor Bob Taft put the Bush-Cheney campaign on to The Spot; they'd been there before, as had then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, who was also on the Bush bus that day.

There was a huge mob of people outside The Spot, smack in the center of downtown Sidney, who had waited hours for the arrival of the president. (You can see The Spot's own two-minute documentary on the president visit here.) 

And, of course, every table and every booth in the restaurant was jam-packed with diners, also anxious for what they hoped would be the chance to shake the hand of a president.

Bush 43 did not disappoint.

He bounded off the campaign bus, dressed in a blue, open-collar shirt, sleeves rolled up, and shook hands with everyone in sight – all under the watchful eye of his Secret Service detail – before leading the Ohio politicians, the media mob and everyone else inside, where he stopped at every booth, shook every hand and posed for photos with countless Shelby County folk.

"I hear you have good pie here,'' Bush said to a woman behind the counter. "I'd like to get one to go."

She showed the president a menu. He skipped over the Old Fashion Cream Pie – The Spot's signature pie – and ordered a whole pecan pie. It was delivered instantly and he showed it off for the crowd.

Presidents do not usually walk about with money in their pockets, but Bush was an exception.

He went to the check-out counter, whipped out a $20 bill and handed it over.

"Keep the change,'' he told the woman running the register. I think the pie cost $11. Maybe $12. Then he posed for a photo with her.

Within 15 or 20 minutes, Bush – carrying his pecan pie with him - and the rest of the campaign mob was back on the bus and in the motorcade, heading back toward Interstate 75 and the next campaign stop.

But I will guarantee you this – as well accustomed as the patrons of The Spot are to politicians visiting, they are still talking about August 28, 2004 at the counter at The Spot.

Look for part two of Tales from the Trail's chronicle of politicians eating their way through Ohio will appear here Saturday, January 14.