USA TODAY International Edition
Is this 146- year- old butcher shop in Ky. the birthplace of goetta?
FORT WRIGHT, Kentucky — On Ash Wednesday, customers lined up at the counter of Bill Finke & Sons in Fort Wright, Kentucky, bearing black crosses on their foreheads and hoping for a decent plate of fish. Thankfully, the special was a baked cod, which a woman named Susan purchased along with some broccoli cheese soup.
Susan has been coming to Finke’s for 28 years, ever since she moved to Northern Kentucky from Southern California. As she made her way out toward her car, she stopped for a moment to chat with Bill Finke, part of the fifth generation of this family- owned butcher shop and market, which originally opened on Main Street in Covington, Kentucky, in 1876. It moved into its current location – a low- slung white building on Amsterdam and Sleepy Hollow roads – in 1962.
When Bill introduced me as a reporter, Susan couldn’t help but sing the market’s praises. “This place is so great,” she told me. “This place is so special.”
Finke’s is the kind of place that’ll remind you why it’s a blessed thing to live in Greater Cincinnati, which still boasts a large, albeit dwindling number of oldschool butcher shops and markets. Its counterparts might include Lehr’s in Milford, Summit Fine Meats in Anderson Township or Bridgetown Finer Meats in Green Township, among others.
In an age of Amazon deliveries and supersized grocery stores, Finke’s is still a place where kids stop by after school for an RC Cola and a sandwich. The kind of place parents send their kids to pick up a gallon of milk, knowing they’ll be safe in doing so. The kind of place where, as I witnessed last week, Bill Finke walks around with a bucket of candy, handing kids lollypops and Tootsie Rolls.
And while Finke’s seems to be doing just fine, a sign taped on the meat case made me realize just how much is lost when a place like this goes down. “Welcome Ebert’s Customers,” the sign reads, referring to the Newport meat market that closed a few months ago after the landlord kicked them out. “We got a lot of new customers when Ebert’s closed down,” Bill told me. “They just want a smaller meat market.”
The prices at Finke’s aren’t bad, either. A pound of thick- cut bacon and most of the steaks are cheaper than I’ve found at most chain grocery stores. “Our Amish chicken does cost a little more, but it’s so much better,” Bill tells me. No worries. You don’t come to Finke’s just to save money. You come here to talk to the staff, to run into your neighbors, to remind yourself that shopping for food should be a pleasure and not a burden.
All things meat at Finke’s
While the meat case is packed with beautiful- looking steaks, chicken, cold
cuts and deli salads, the freezer case is nothing to sneeze at. Along with homemade sausages and frozen fish, there are frozen lasagnas, baked ziti and homemade meatballs made with a rather mysterious recipe. “Years ago, this 90- year- old Italian lady came in and told my dad his meatballs sucked and gave him her recipe,” Bill told me. “We’ve never seen her since, but it was the best recipe we ever got.”
Speaking of good recipes, I’d recommend trying Finke’s horseradish- spiked beer cheese, too. The recipe was grudgingly given to Bill’s father by a family friend named Pete after a lot of cajoling. “We ate it at his house all the time, but he wouldn’t give us the recipe,” Bill told me. “When he got older, we said, ‘ Pete! You’re going to be dead soon!’ So he finally gave it to us.”
Finke’s was established by Bill’s great- great- great- great grandfather, George Finke, who, along with his wife, Louise Reinersman Finke, immigrated to Cincinnati from Germany in 1869. While the store has changed locations a few times, it’s always been owned and operated by members of the Finke family, which currently includes Bill, his brothers Timmy and Donny, Bill’s son, Cody, and his nephew, Steven, among others.
Based on everything I’ve tried so far, it’s worth a trip to Finke’s no matter where you live. On my most recent visit, Bill Finke gave me what seemed like a pretty standard Parmesan- crusted chicken breast to take home. When I cooked it for dinner the next night, it hit me as the juiciest, most flavorful chicken breast I’ve had in recent memory. I also took home a half pint of Finke’s chili, a non- Cincinnati- style version devised by Bill’s father, who died in 2007 at the age of 74. ( I’ll be back for more.)
Then, of course, there’s the goetta.
The empress of goetta
Depending on whom you ask, Finke’s has the best goetta in Greater Cincinnati. Some might even go so far as to tell you that goetta was invented at Finke’s by Louise Reinersman Finke when the market was at 1824 Main St. in Covington. Louise took over most of the butchering when George died of blood poisoning in 1888 and she quickly became known for her goetta.
Even if she didn’t invent the sausage and pinhead oat delicacy, Louise was definitely the first person to sell it commercially. Because of this, you might think of Finke’s as the Empress Chili of goetta. ( In his book, “Cincinnati Goetta: A Delectable History,” local food historian Dann Woellert said Finke’s former Main Street building, which is still standing, should get a historical marker so goetta lovers can pay homage.)
In the kitchen behind the meat counter, Bill showed me the iron pot of pinhead oats he steams by cradling it into a pot of ground Boston butt pork, beef and onions. He says a lot of butcher shops don’t cook the oats separately, an extra step he says is key to keeping the flavor and consistency of Finke’s goetta perfect. It also guards against those violent pops that often catch you by surprise when you cook goetta at home. Bill told me he sold about 24 tons of the stuff last year.
The first time I tried Finke’s goetta was when our nanny, Anadine, cooked some up for me in our Hyde Park kitchen. It was odd since A) Anadine doesn’t normally cook for us and B) she’s a vegetarian. I just came home one day and found her standing over the oven browning it up for me. A look of contentment on her face made it obvious there was something about the act of cooking, if not eating, goetta that she sometimes misses.
Anadine grew up just up the hill from Finke’s in Park Hills. She told me how her mother used to send her down to the market all the time to pick up groceries – which always included two 2- liter bottles of soda – and how she would have to climb up the hill lugging them all the way home. She knows all the Finke boys and jokes around with them whenever she goes back. Even as a vegetarian ( and despite the dozen or so deer whose heads were mounted on the wall after being felled by the Finke boys’ shotguns), she feels the pull of the little community this market has formed. Like Susan, that customer I mentioned earlier, she knows how special it is.
I liked that goetta so much that, shortly after Anadine cooked it for me, I made my maiden voyage to Finke’s on a Saturday morning to see it for myself. After ordering a goetta, egg and cheese sandwich at the counter, I took it to my car and devoured it the same way I used to devour boudin, the famous Cajun pork and rice sausage, outside the gas stations that served it when I lived in Louisiana.
It got me thinking about how many food writers have written about the sacred ritual of eating boudin in Louisiana, and how few food writers have raised sitting outside Finke’s and eating goetta to such high esteem.
Well, I’m here to do just that.
Get yourself to Finke’s, folks. Because the goetta is great. Because the meat is affordable and fantastic. Because, more than anything, this place is special.