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Zombies, beer, and Buffalo's favorite sandwich

Did you know Buffalo's favorite roll, the kummelweck, has its roots in Halloween? Me neither. Ralph Visano, an attorney and local food historian, sent me an essay on the subject, which was too interesting not to share:

Zombies, Beer and Buffalo’s Favorite Sandwich

It is generally accepted that restaurant owner Teressa Bellissimo created Buffalo wings at the Anchor Bar in 1964. No similar dramatic moment seems to exist for Buffalo’s other well-known delicacy, the beef on weck. Historians credit William Wahr, a German baker, with bringing kummelweck to Buffalo from the Black Forest. But how could that be true when there’s no such thing as “kummelweck” in German cuisine?

The answer is tied to the German roots of Buffalo – and Halloween.
Besides being unknown in Germany, kummelweck is also unknown anywhere else in America. Germans immigrants settled everywhere, which is why pretzels and sauerkraut are found everywhere, including Buffalo. If any other Germans were familiar with kummelweck, why is it found nowhere except Buffalo?  A little detective work will supply the likely answer.

The word itself provides a clue. Kummel is the German word for caraway. Drinkers will know this as the name of a caraway-flavored liqueur. It follows that weck should mean “roll” in the sense of a bread roll, but the standard German word for this is brotchen.

However, German has many dialects and the same item may have different names in different regions (think: pop vs. soda).  In Austria and Bavaria, for example, a roll is a semmel; but in Swabia, the southwest corner of Germany, it’s a weck. This particular word is linguistic DNA that marks Swabia as the origin of kummelweck, or of the person who named it. It is also the location of the Black Forest.

This brings us to William Wahr. It seems he really was a baker in Buffalo and very likely came from the Black Forest region. According to records, William (actually Wilhelm) was born in Germany in 1858 and settled in Buffalo in 1886.  He lived and operated a bakery at 38 Herman Street, on the city’s East Side until his death in 1924. His obituary notes he was a member of the Wurttemberger Schwaben Untersteutsungs Verein, which translates roughly as the Wurttemberg Swabia Support Society, probably a charitable or social club for Swabian immigrants

Many of Wahr’s descendants still live in the area and while they proudly believe the legend that he brought kummelweck from Germany, there is no proof. Since kummelweck is not found in Germany, how could it have been brought from there? An even more intriguing question is: why it is found in Buffalo, and only in Buffalo? The most likely explanation for our little bar buddy begins with a pagan death ritual.

In pre-Christian Europe, people believed the dead rose from their graves for one day at the end of the harvest season to visit old familiar places. Gifts of food were offered to these souls to ensure good luck in the upcoming year. After Christianity took root, belief that the living dead roamed the earth conflicted with Church doctrine and was discouraged. However, the new religion was accommodating. Special holy days were created at this time of year to honor the deceased, hence All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day.

Though it was officially unacceptable to believe the dead wandered from house to house, some people continued to leave offerings while others played the role of the departed to collect these treats, just to be on the safe side. Thus began Halloween. Each region had its own specialty for the occasion and in Swabia it was a long thin loaf, like a baguette, covered with salt and caraway seeds and known as Schwäbische Seele. This translates into English as "Swabian soul" bread. Centuries later and thousands of miles away in Buffalo, this Halloween treat would be cast in an entirely different role.
Credit may belong to William Wahr ultimately, though any baker trained in Swabia would have been familiar with soul bread; so would any Swabian tavernkeeper or customer for that matter. Maybe it was suggested as a novelty, or only as a seasonal item? Perhaps it was autumn, and nostalgia brought old customs to mind? We may never discover the exact details, but the result was a small, round, tavern-friendly version of soul bread christened in the native dialect: kummelweck. Thus was born a local specialty, neither Old World nor New, but a mixture of both.
So the next time you are in your favorite tavern, offer a trick-or-treat when you order a beef on weck. If you get a strange look, just explain that you’re trying to keep your “spirits“ happy.

                                                                          Ralph Visano is an attorney and local food historian
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