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America’s story is perhaps best told in food. These lesser-known culinary traditions from across the country tell tales of entrepreneurs and enterprising immigrants.
Everyone knows about Maine lobster rolls, New York pizza, Chicago pizza, and Kansas City barbecue. Jambalaya, po’boys, muffulettas? Check, check, and check. Crab cakes in Baltimore? Been there. Hot Brown in Louisville? Done that. But there’s much more to regional food traditions than these marquee dishes. From the great expanses of the Nebraska plains to the chilly enclaves of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, there’s a wealth of indigenous culinary treasures just waiting to be devoured.
1. St. Paul Sandwich: St. Louis, Missouri
The St. Paul sandwich is right up there with chop suey when it comes to exemplifying Chinese-American fusion. Despite its name, the sandwich is indigenous to St. Louis, where, in the 1970s, cooks at Chinese restaurants—usually take-out spots—essentially reimagined egg foo yong (a fried egg patty with onion and bamboo shoots) for the new world. The result: an egg foo yong patty and beef, pork, chicken, or shrimp pressed between two slices of white bread. There’s iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, dill pickles, a slather of mayo, and a few other all-American accents in there, too. As with po’boys in New Orleans, the pickles are the defining ingredient here, giving the otherwise soggy texture a zingy crunch. The sandwich, served in wax paper, is ubiquitous throughout the city today.
2. Spam Musubi: Hawaii
Whatever you do, don’t call it spam sushi. Spam musubi is such a staple throughout Hawaii that nearly every convenience store sells small portions to-go, and children in public schools can get it with their lunch in the cafeteria. This island delicacy is like a sandwich, but its simplicity belies its deliciousness: Fried spam slices flavored with a soy-sugar sauce are layered on top of (or between) carefully shaped blocks of rice sprinkled with furikake, a Japanese seasoning. Traditionally it’s all wrapped up in nori, but these days, it’s also prepared open-faced. Either way, it’s a sweet and salty treat in a compact package.
3. Steamed Cheeseburger: Connecticut
Food empires have been built around distinct burger styles (see: Whoppers, Big Macs), and for one modest region of Connecticut, it’s the steamed cheeseburger. Since it was introduced in 1959, this burger—a meat patty topped with cheese and cooked in a custom steamer—turned Ted’s Restaurant (tedsrestaurant.com), an unassuming joint in Meriden, into an institution. Carnivorous pilgrims made it such a popular destination that the restaurant now operates Ted’s Steam Machine, a food truck, and other restaurants caught on, so now you can get steamed cheeseburgers throughout the area. Enthusiasts insist it’s the way that the cheese melts when it’s steamed (versus when it’s cooked on a grill) that makes the finished product so legendary.
4. Fried Brain Sandwich: Evanston, Illinois
Organs have been part of many cultures’ food traditions for centuries. While in some places they’re used as cheap fillings, in others they’re a delicacy that belongs on a silver platter. In southern Illinois, the fried brain sandwich is a foodway thanks to the former. During the Depression, when the area was a center of the meatpacking industry, restaurants and butchers would use cows’ brains as sandwich fillers. Across the river in St. Louis, cooks had the bright idea to use mustard, onions, and pickles to temper the offal flavor and conceal what many judged to be an unsightly appearance. It’s thought that the large German population kept the dish on menus in area restaurants to this day, although the outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1980s prompted a switch from cows to pigs. How’s that for smart food?
5. Garbage Plate: Rochester
One chef’s kitchen scraps are another’s treasures, right? The signature dish of Rochester, New York, the Garbage Plate was created, as legend goes, at Nick Tahou Hots (garbageplate.com), a circa-1918 luncheonette that was previously best known for its “hots and potatoes,” a dish involving cured franks and tubers. But late one night, a ravenous University of Rochester student requested a plate with “all the garbage on it,” which prompted a now-legendary impromptu response from the short-order cook: a pile of good-old American proteins (think: fried ham, burgers, hot dogs, eggs) and sides (home fries, baked beans, macaroni salad) drowned in ketchup, mustard, hot sauce and a few other surprises. That greasy-spoon indulgence has been riffed on by local chefs in their own restaurants, and more refined versions are served around the city today, but your best bet will always be at a table at Nick Tahou.
6. Snickers Salad: Iowa
If ever an award was given for foodstuffs with names that are seemingly contradictory (i.e., vegan meatballs, boneless ribs, nonfat ice cream), Iowa’s regional specialty would likely take home the top prize. Snickers Salad is a tradition that’s immortalized in countless church cookbooks from throughout the 20th century. Straddling the no-man’s-land between appetizer and dessert, the dish is served in a deep bowl and calls for Granny Smith apples, whipped cream, pudding, and the namesake candy bar. Creative twists include, but are not limited to, sliced bananas, crushed pineapple, cream cheese, grapes, marshmallows, and mayonnaise. How’s that for a conversation starter?
7. Cornish Pasties: Upper Peninsula, Michigan
In the bucolic English town of Cornwall in the 1700s, miners would carry pasties—compact, streamlined descendants of the medieval English meat pies—down into the local tin mines for sustenance during their 12-hour work days. The half-moon-shaped pocket is filled with spiced meat and veggies (usually turnips) and has a thick pinched crust that makes it easy to handle. Portable, fortifying, simple, and utilitarian, it’s easy to see why it endured. The Cornish miners brought the pasty to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the early 1800s, when there was a rush to mine newly discovered copper deposits. In the 1860s during another mining rush, laborers from Finland arrived in droves and adapted it as their own. In Michigan today, pasties are simply known as Yooper food (as residence of the Upper Peninsula are called), and bakeries that specialize in them dot the region.
8. Runza Sandwich: Nebraska
The Runza sandwich is another example of how the traditions of Eastern European immigrants evolved into something completely different. In this case, the pierogi, which arrived with European laborers in the mid- and late-1800s, went through a series of transformations and finally morphed into something like a rectangular hot pocket, stuffed with sautéed ground beef and cabbage. The sandwich was formally christened when Sally Everett, a local woman, opened up Runza’s, a modest drive-through in Lincoln, in 1949 and made it her signature. The restaurant soon became a chain, the sandwich was trademarked, and today it’s as ubiquitous in the Cornhusker State as bagels and lox are in New York City. In 2016, the company sold nearly two million Runza sandwiches.
9. Lutefisk: Minnesota
Within Scandinavian-American communities in Minnesota, it’s said that about half the Norwegians who immigrated to the United States came in order to escape the hated lutefisk, and the other half came to spread the gospel of its wonderfulness. Loosely translated as “lye fish,” this translucent whitefish dish is an acquired taste for sure. Making it involves an extensive traditional process: soaking the fish in cold water for up to six days, then for another two in a solution of lye and water. At that point, it loses about half of its protein and becomes gelatinous. And caustic. Yes, it’s not ready for human consumption quite yet. But after another six days of soaking in cold water, it’s ready to be cooked at last. For meals, it’s typically served with boiled potatoes, melted butter, green peas, cheese, or horseradish. It’s a seasonal delicacy served around the holidays, which is a blessing for those who try to avoid it and a bummer for those who love it.