This photo shows Mary Meier and son, Joe in their bakery and store on Herman Street on Buffalo’s east side in the mid 1930s. By 1938 the Meiers would move to Hamburg and open another combination bakery and store on Lakeshore Road in Mount Vernon (June 6, 1996 article).
The Herman Street store that you see in the photo was at that time in the middle of a large German-American community. And it was to this store that William Wahr came to from Germany’s Black Forest, with the recipe for what has become one of Western New York’s favorite ethnic foods.
It is believed that Mr. Wahr opened his bakery just after the turn of the century, when you could buy kummelweck rolls for a penny or for 2 cents, with mustard.
Wahr’s son, Fritz, would later take over the business and start a kummelweck route, in which he delivered the rolls exclusively to area taverns.
The Wahr family would later retire and then sell the business to Frank and Mary Meier in 1934. The Meiers continued the baker for another four years, along with the kummelweck tradition, before moving to Hamburg in 1938.
Most Western New Yorkers never give much thought to their “beef on weck,” other than what is required to find one and eat it.
Kummelweck seems to be an ersatz work, German only in the sense that “chop suey” is Chinese. It apparently arose from combining “kummel,” German for cumin or caraway seed, with “weck,” which means roll, loosely translated.
Bread and rolls have been an important part of the Teutonic diet since early pagan times, when they were used in religious rites. Historians believe that the peasants baked bread and rolls in special shapes and offered them to the gods as sacrifices. This is probably how the Gingerbread Man got started. However, it seems hardly probable that the kummelweck was ever used in pagan ceremonies.
By the 1930s, “beef on weck” was standard fare throughout the City of Buffalo. Many victims of the Depression often made it a meal in a sandwich. It was widely available in neighborhood taverns for 15 cents, but some bars offered a generous sandwich for a nickel to lure the budget conscious.
In the 1960s, the best beef on weck sandwich in the area was 45 cents, but in the 70s, double-digit inflation and the so called “beef shortage” ended the honeymoon. Today, the price is about $8 and many consider that a bargain,
Here in Western New York, the striking dining experience of “beef on weck” is available on every other street corner.
It’s probably no different then many parts of the country that are known for other special ethnic foods. However, nobody seems to notice except the tourists. Part of the problem is, no doubt, the indifference bred by long exposure.
The “sandwich” has been a part of Western New York life for so many years, it is as familiar as Lake Erie.
However. to many tourists who leave the area raving about “the great sandwiches you can get in Buffalo,” they are anything but familiar. I guess that we Western New Yorkers are the lucky ones who can eat our kummelwecks and have them too. Guten Appetit!
Horseradish, anyone?Photo– the late Joe Meier
Reference: Column on foods from the Buffalo Courier Express 1975.
This column is written each week by Hamburg Town Historian Jim Baker.
Anyone wanting to submit photographs and/or materials can call the historian’s office in the Hamburg Town Hall on either Wednesday or Thursday between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at 649-6111 ext. 2400.
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