‘Akron Family Recipes’ tells stories in food from city’s ethnic, cultural groups

Amanda M. Rye


AKRON — Judy Orr James is a keeper of treasures from Akron’s past.

As the founding manager of the Special Collections Division of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, she was responsible for creating and maintaining a department devoted to genealogy and local history, two of her favorite subjects.

That job eventually drew her into a five-year labor of love, collecting stories and food traditions passed down through generations into the new book “Akron Family Recipes” (American Palate/The History Press, $23.99).

“Family recipes are, to me, as important as all my little family knickknacks,” James said, gesturing to shelves of memorabilia in the Akron home she shares with her husband, Jeff. “I think they’re just as important as the artifacts that people have. They tell a story. And to preserve them, I think, is an important way to honor people from your past.”

For James, one of those recipes was her mother-in-law’s fried chicken. “She was a fabulous cook, and her fried chicken was phenomenal. About six months before she died, my sister-in-law said, ‘Mom, you have got to show me how you make this.’ It’s very simple recipe, but there are little tiny things that if you don’t do them, they don’t come out right.

“So, thank God, we have that recipe. It’s so important to us. It’s such a huge part of our family’s culture, and tied to so many of our family memories, all those Sunday fried chicken dinners that we had at her house.”

During the course of her research for the book, “I cannot tell you how many people have said to me, ‘Oh, I wish I had my grandmother’s recipe for whatever, but she never wrote it down.’”

Judy Orr James has written "Akron Family Recipes," collecting stories and recipes from the city's ethnic and cultural groups.

Judy Orr James has a collection of community cookbooks that served as inspiration for “Akron Family Recipes.”

The ingredients for a book

James worked for the Akron-Summit County Public Library for more than 35 years before her retirement in 2016. Being appointed to run the new Special Collections Division in 2001 played to her love of research and her interest in finding, preserving and sharing artifacts from Akron’s past.

She and an intern from the University of Akron talked about book ideas that could spring from the collection, such as a cookbook featuring old family recipes.

“I love community cookbooks. I’ve collected them for years. You open them up, and it’s ‘Mrs. Smith’s plum pudding recipe.’ What’s her story?”

James also felt that the story of the city’s ethnic groups “had not really been told very well,” and made preserving their history part of her mission with the new department.

In 2015, James and local historian Sharon Moreland Myers collaborated on an exhibit at the library featuring memorabilia from Summit County’s classic restaurants, which struck a nerve with local audiences.

“People stood in front of our glass display case, and tears were rolling down their cheeks, and people were so grateful that we did that,” James said.

Most of those restaurants were founded by pillars of Akron’s ethnic and cultural communities, which fueled her interest in documenting them: “I started thinking about it more and more, that these recipes are dying now, along with the restaurant owners and the family members.”

It was her daughter who gave her the final push, telling her, “Mom, these are your three favorite things. Family history, local history and food. If you don’t write this, who will?”

Judy Orr James has written "Akron Family Recipes," collecting stories and recipes from the city's ethnic and cultural groups.

Community cookbooks were a source of inspiration for Judy Orr James as she was writing “Akron Family Recipes.”

Bringing stories to the table

James dove into research, contacting the area’s surviving ethnic clubs (at one point in the 1930s, there were dozens of clubs catering to the area’s German, Irish, Hungarian and other cultural populations). She spoke to church and community groups, and reached out to restaurant families and other contacts she’d made over her lifetime living in Akron. She launched the “Akron Recipe Project” Facebook page and promoted her quest in local media.

Many of the groups “were very open and gracious and willing to share, others not s
o much,” she said. The German Family Society introduced James to their cooking group, and the Greek and Jewish populations were eager to participate.

Others were more reticent, viewing James as an outsider, or refusing to allow a recipe to be published that they considered a family secret.

But many of her sources became friends, checking in with James on the progress of the book even after their own chapters had been completed.

She soon realized that her original goal – to feature recipes and stories from all of Akron’s ethnic and cultural groups over its nearly 200-year history – was impossibly broad. She decided to focus on the period between Akron’s founding in 1825 and the wave of immigration just after World War II, and on the largest groups by population. She admitted that it was hard to leave out smaller groups who nevertheless had a sizable impact on Akron’s food history.

“At one point, it was suggested to me that maybe I include a chapter with some of the recipes of Akron’s new ethnic groups,” such as the Nepali refugees who have arrived in recent years, she said. “I just felt very strongly that it would appear to be an afterthought, that our new immigrants deserve their own cookbook, their own stories to be told.”

“Akron Family Recipes” profiles 10 ethnic and cultural groups: African American, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Serbian and Appalachian/Southern. James had also planned to include recipes from Akron restaurants, but settled for a final chapter that focuses on the city’s ubiquitous appetizer, the sauerkraut ball.

Each chapter begins with a brief history of the group’s presence in Akron; the churches, clubs and organizations that were the centers of cultural life; and the food and restaurant businesses they founded, followed by individual families’ recipes and the tales behind them.

The recipes are varied – the Italian chapter isn’t just multiple versions of red sauce – but there are commonalities. Most feature simple and affordable ingredients; there’s a lot of cabbage, for example. The instructions can be more freewheeling than modern cooks may expect (“use whatever you like or have on hand”).

And the family stories that accompany each recipe are warm, affectionate remembrances of holidays or everyday meals made special by a parent’s, grandparent’s or other relative’s touch in the kitchen.

“There are some really poignant stories,” said James, who will be donating any profits from the book to the Summit County Historical Society and the Akron Library. “My goal was to honor these people.”

Judy Orr James has written "Akron Family Recipes," collecting stories and recipes from the city's ethnic and cultural groups.

Sauerkraut balls, an iconic Akron food, are featured in “Akron Family Recipes.”

About those sauerkraut balls

James says she’s “been kind of obsessed with sauerkraut balls for a long time,” and now, after extensive research into their history and lore for the book, “I think I can say that I know more about sauerkraut balls than anybody in the world.”

They’re virtually unknown outside Northeast Ohio, and since they’re not tied to a particular ethnic or cultural group, she debated whether to include the chapter. She finally decided that it wouldn’t be an Akron recipe book if it didn’t include sauerkraut balls.

Like hamburgers and ice cream cones, there are competing stories about where they originated. James believes the beloved snack may be something of an immigrant, too – possibly coming to Akron by way of Gruber’s restaurant in Cleveland.

James traces early newspaper mentions of the snack in the 1950s, its growing popularity at area restaurants like the Brown Derby, and its place in Akron’s culture; she also unravels the mystery of who “Bunny B” was and how her name ended up on a commercially produced version, and tells us how many millions of sauerkraut balls are churned out every year by Ascot Valley Foods.

The book includes six recipes for the deep-fried snack, using different meats (pork, corned beef, ham, a mixture), breading (cracker crumbs, dry bread crumbs, panko) and methods of preparation (to grind or not to grind the sauerkraut?).

One of James’s quests was to find a copy of a sauerkraut ball recipe that was sent out in the mail to several hundred people by the late Akron Beacon Journal food writer Polly Paffilas. James promised a free book to the first person who came up with it, and finally, a woman who lived nearby came through. It turned out to be a recipe from the Brown Derby, and is included in the book.

Sadly, the provider of the recipe never got to collect her book; she died a few months ago, James said. She mailed a copy to the woman’s daughter instead.

It underscored the importance of the book’s mission, to get these heirloom recipes and family stories down on paper before a generation fades away.

“One of the things I hope that people take away from this is that they’re inspired to save their own family recipes, whether it’s their recipe, or to talk to their mother or grandmother and say, ‘Look, you have to write this down for me,’” James said. “Because again, I can’t tell you how many people said, ‘I wish I had that recipe.’”

Disclosure: This writer did a pro bono copyedit of the manuscript of “Akron Family Recipes.”

Talk and

James will give a presentation on “Akron Family Recipes” at 2 p.m. Aug. 14 at the Akron-Summit County Main Library, 60 S. High St., Akron. Registration is required at 330-643-9030 or email [email protected].

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Judy Orr James has written "Akron Family Recipes," collecting stories and recipes from the city's ethnic and cultural groups.

Szekely Gulyas (goulash), a traditional Hungarian recipe, is featured in “Akron Family Recipes.”


3 tablespoons shortening, divided

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon paprika

2 cloves garlic, diced

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

3 ounces tomato juice

2 pounds pork butt, diced

1 pound sauerkraut

1 head cabbage, sliced

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup sour cream

Melt 2 tablespoons of the shortening in a large skillet. Brown the onion. Add the paprika, garlic, salt, pepper, tomato juice, and pork. Add ¼ cup of water. Cover and cook over low heat for 45 minutes.

In another skillet, melt the remaining tablespoon of shortening. Add the sauerkraut, cabbage, and ¼ cup water. Cook until the cabbage is tender. Add flour and stir until mixed. Add this mixture to the meat along with sour cream. Mix thoroughly and serve.

Recipe courtesy of Elizabeth (Guba) Domotor.

From “Akron Family Recipes,” by Judy Orr James (History Press, 2022, $23.99)


5- to 6-pound single-cut choice beef brisket

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon paprika

2 to 3 cloves garlic, smashed

2 large yellow onions, sliced

3 carrots, cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces

1 cup ketchup

½ cup white vinegar

¾ cup brown sugar

½ cup water

Season brisket with salt, pepper, and paprika. Cover the bottom of the roasting pan with garlic, onions, and carrots. Place seasoned brisket on top.

Combine ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, and water. Pour over brisket. Cover and roast at 325 degrees – 35 to 40 minutes per pound. Remove from oven and let cool. Once it is cooled, place it in the refrigerator for a few hours. Slice and return to refrigerator. Reheat the next day at 325 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes.

Recipe courtesy of Rita (Sill) Solitt.

From “Akron Family Recipes,” by Judy Orr James (History Press, 2022, $23.99)


Noodle layer:

2 pounds ziti or penne noodles

½ stick butter

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup Romano cheese

Meat sauce:

4 pounds ground chuck

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 (28-ounce) can of crushed tomatoes

⅛ cup chopped parsley

2 to 3 teaspoons of cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

Salt and pepper


2½ sticks butter

7 tablespoons corn flour

6 cups milk, heated

1 cup milk mixed with 3 tablespoons cornstarch

6 eggs, beaten

3 cups Romano cheese

Boil noodles. Drain and toss with butter. Let cool and toss with eggs and cheese. Reserve a few handfuls for topping later. Spread in a greased 11 x 18 pan sprinkled with corn flour.

Brown meat with onion and garlic. Add tomatoes, parsley, spices, and salt and pepper to taste. Spread over noodle layer, completely covering noodles. Lightly spread reserved noodles over the meat layer. This helps to hold up the crema.

Melt butter. Add corn flour and stir to blend. Slowly add warm milk, stirring constantly. Add the milk and cornstarch mixture and stir until very thick. Remove from heat and trickle in eggs, stirring quickly. Stir in cheese. Pour over the meat sauce layer, leaving at least ¼-inch clearance at the top of the pan. Bake at 400 degrees for ½ hour. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for an additional ½ hour, until the top is slightly browned.

Recipe by Sophia (Tzelissis) Vernis, courtesy of daughter-in-law Kim (Cabot) Vernis.

From “Akron Family Recipes,” by Judy Orr James (History Press, 2022, $23.99)


½ pound lean, boneless ham

½ pound lean, boneless pork

½ pound corned beef

1 medium onion

1 teaspoon parsley, minced

3 tablespoons vegetable shortening

2 cups flour, plus more for rolling balls

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups milk

2 pounds sauerkraut, cooked and drained

2 eggs, slightly beaten

Dry bread crumbs

Put meats and onion through a food grinder. Add parsley. Blend well and sauté in shortening until browned. Add flour, mustard, salt, and milk. Blend and cook, stirring constantly until thick. Add sauerkraut and put entire mixture through food chopper. Mix thoroughly. Return to skillet. Cook, stirring constantly until very thick. Cool. Form into balls about the size of a walnut. Roll in flour. Dip in eggs and then roll in bread crumbs. Heat oil to 370 degrees. Fry balls until browned.

Recipe courtesy of William Gruber.

From “Akron Family Recipes,” by Judy Orr James (History Press, 2022, $23.99)


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