Cincinnati: Unexpected love in the Midwest
I'm gonna be honest here, I had no idea what I was in store for when it came to Cincinnati, Ohio. My perception of this mid-western city didn't expand past the stereotype that you're probably thinking now: rural atmosphere, open fields, and not too much to do. There's few things more enlightening or eye opening than having your expectations and assumptions get completely shattered and then have those expectations get exceeded with each hour that passes.
Cincinnati needs to be added to your list of vacation destinations before everyone catches wind of how exciting this city is and all of it's overlooked potential. You'll thank me later.
I was in the city for the Cincinnati Music Festival, presented by P&G (CMF), the largest R&B festival in the country. That's one surprise right out the gate! I wouldn't have expected Ohio to house the mecca of musical legends such as Earth, Wind and Fire, Mary J Blige, Maxwell, Blackstreet and so many more. The festival was filled with so much positive and up beat energy.
You couldn't help but smile as you saw crowds of people walking through the streets to the festival grounds at Paul Brown Stadium. Most of the incoming attendees already playing music on the way or singing their favorite songs, or eating from one of the various delicious vendors and even just casually making new friends in the middle of the street.
Just around 70,000 people attended over the course of 3 days. 70,000 phenomenal people that not only livened up venue but the city as a whole was in high spirits the entire weekend. It's a great introduction to the atmosphere that permeates throughout the city seemingly at all times of the year.
The Cincinnati Music Festival is definitely a highlight of the city but so many other things stand on it's own and deliver on all fronts. Whether it's culturally, community based, cuisine based or anything else you can think of Cincinnati embraces it completely.
Cincinnati has an overflowing cup of mid-western pride that is glazed over all things in the city. It's definitely prevalent in their booming food scene which puts a lot of these larger cities in check. Of which, Boomtown Biscuits and Whiskey is one of the standouts of the city. Their specialties are biscuits and whiskey. What a combination!!
Though we didn't sample the whiskey (it was the morning) their biscuits were showstoppers and we had plenty of them. You can tell Chef Christian Gill has a deep love for cooking that's stemmed from his family. Above the kitchen door is his grandmother's actual rolling pin as she was one of his largest inspirations to culinary greatness. Safe to assume how proud his family is of his accomplishments.
The real kicker at the restaurant was hearing some inspirational words from Kick Lee. Struggling artist turned music producer who founded the Cincinnati Music Accelerator, a non profit that teaches life and entrepreneurial skills to musicians and other music creatives in the city. The overbearing amount of support Kick brought to his community flooded the entire room he spoke in and his message was heard loud and clear.
Over time, that deeply rooted support that's felt inside of Christian's restaurant steadily becomes a staple that the city thrives off of.
Not far from Boomtown Biscuits is Findlay Market. On its surface it appears to be just another farmers market style plaza where you can find local vendors and places to eat.
Of course in true Cincinnati fashion, those first hand impressions were much deeper than anticipated. Most, if not all, of these small businesses started from humble beginnings, are family owned through several generations or simply have Cincinnati's best interest at heart and have fully engulfed themselves within the community. On this culinary tour of Findlay market, each store visited had a story founded in inspiration and hard work. Eckerlin's Meats for example is a butcher shop approaching it's 6th generation of business and is a community landmark at this point. Right around the corner from Eckerlin’s was Dean's Mediterranean Imports.
Going on their second generation after 15 years of being at Findlay Market the store houses dozens of various olives, breads, olive oils (from over 15 regions), and spices that'll make your head swirl with excitement. Store founder Dean still lives above the market to this day while his daughters have taken over the family legacy and spread the wealth of information about the food culture from the Mediterranean.
Simply walking through and experiencing the market gives you a keen understanding of the thriving community that Cincinnati holds so proud. Conversations heard between long time customers and their established vendors consisted of tips and advice for the upcoming monthly dinners that have been hosted seemingly for years. No one was “selling” anything in this space as the intentions were much more wholesome. Their goals appear to have always been to provide exception products to exceptional people and fortify these lasting relationships with their customers that no doubt turn into friends.
Even Barb (founder of Cincinnati Food Tours) who took us on the food adventure is a product of Findlay Market. She saw a need for visitors who wanted to dive into the culinary world of Cincinnati and being that she was already so adept with city information, she took the chance and has been running this for quite a few years now. Everyone knows her, welcomes her, and looks forward to having their history introduced to new people from all over the world.
As we learned about Barb and her traveled history she let us in on one of the best bits of support the community receives, Findlay Kitchen. Located directly across the street, this non-profit supports it's rising food entrepreneurs by providing access to 11 licensed commercial grade kitchens stocked with all the equipment you'd need to really fulfill a culinary vision. Working with various programs and organizations, mentors, training, and a slew of business resources Findlay Kitchen's primary mission is to ensure its community thrives, grows, and establishes solid footing for those to follow.
Cincinnati is historical in so many ways and holds significant relics of American history. A city that cultivates so much food and culture already still continues to expand on it's archiving of the countries past. These were most notably seen in two museums: The American Sign Museum and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
The American Sign Museum was a surprising gem. I had absolutely zero interest in sign history and was something I'm sure we've all overlooked or didn't even think of until now. It's quite an interesting lense to see history unfold in the form of neon lights and antiquated signage that range from the early 1900’s to through the 50s. You don't notice the lack of neon until it's brought to your attention or the rise of plastic in the 50s that completely changed how signs were made. There's a lot of life and art held within these tangible pieces of history. Signs in the past brought a different level of brevity and energy that is fading a bit which made it so refreshing to be engulfed in a neon city.
Touching on a different historical note, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center was filled with stories of hope, despair, struggle, and triumph. It's impact was felt long after the visit because it did require my full undivided attention. Located on the banks of the Ohio River also known as The River Jordan, the center is a historical landmark of some of America's darkest history that still bleeds over within today's issues. The journey of slaves from their homes, to the years of mistreatment to people of color is told with bold facts and emotional exhibits all nestled within digestible blocks of information. The stories are as tragic as they are beautiful and an eye opening display of humanity.
One of the recurring themes about Cincinnati is it's support for its community. Though it's been displayed with Findlay Market or pillars in the community like Kick Lee, the Ohio Innocence Project dives even deeper and has created an Opera called Blind Injustice. At the world premier, they showcased how they've exonerated six men and women who were wrongfully convicted for their crimes. All losing anywhere from 15 to 39 years of life for crimes they didn't commit, these stories were told by the exonerees in their own words. Blind Injustice honestly and unabashedly shows the flaws in our judicial system and how easily someone's life can be taken away from them. Funny, informative and powerful Blind Injustice delivered on every front. Emotions ran high in the room when the actual exonerees themselves took to center stage. They are truly some strong people.
Cincinnati hits with impact and it's always unexpected. It's one of the best underlying attributes of the city. You're constantly rethinking it's perception and gladly accepting it for what it is. It'll ease you into its glory and make sure you leave happy, with a smile wondering why it took you so long to visit. It's got all the history you could ask for, a huge supportive community and most importantly none of the traffic even compares to what's in LA.
Enough of a reason to make anyone move.