Monthly Archives: January 2015

Hot dogs and gyros and scrapple and barbecue, oh my!

Travel, as the intellectuals say, can be a broadening experience. Especially if you munch your way from coast to coast.

Most people travel for one of two reasons, either to do some sightseeing or to “get away from it all.”

Getting away from it all certainly has its advantages. The problem is, sooner or later you’ve got to get back to it all, and it’s always all there when you do get back. The dirty socks are still on the floor by the washing machine, the couch in front of the TV is still infested with stale popcorn and stray sprinkles from Christmas cookies, and the job, lurking like a particularly vicious incarnation of Rush Limbaugh, is still there, smirking, waiting for you to show up.

Then there’s sightseeing, which can be okay, I suppose. At least you can take those fleeting images of some colorful native handcrafter or the sight of sea gulls eating the cruise ship’s garbage back home to warm you on a winter’s eve. But, really, when you’ve seen one Taj Mahal, you’ve seen ’em all.

For my money, the only way to travel is, as Napoleon said of his armies, on your stomach. Not that I mean you’ve got to slither along Interstate 80 like some demented two-armed, two-legged python, of course. No, you can still drive your ’63 Grand Prix at 65 mph in perfect comfort, with the vents open and the AM going all fuzzy every time you go under a high tension line. The trick—and the reward—is to know when to stop and smell the regional food a-cookin’.

For some reason, most Midwesterners don’t believe we have any regional cooking to enjoy. But, in fact, we do have distinctive regional dishes you might want to introduce to out-of-towners.

For instance, Italian beef sandwiches are a staple here in the Chicago area, but you just don’t find them many other places, absent a Chicagoland expatriate establishing an eatery in foreign parts. And gyros, those Greek pita sandwiches filled with thinly sliced roasted lamb and slathered with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce, were first introduced in the U.S. in Chicago, which still probably has more gyros joints than any other part of the country.

The well dressed Chicago style dog is much more than a mere hot dog. You can eschew the peppers if you want; I always do.

The well dressed Chicago style dog is much more than a mere hot dog. You can eschew the peppers if you want; I always do.

And then there are our hot dogs. Chicago style dogs are unique, although for some reason they seem to be an acquired taste for some. Chicago dogs are properly served in a steamed poppy seed bun and dressed with mustard, onions, pickle relish, a kosher dill slice, celery salt, tomatoes, and sport peppers. You note the pointed absence of ketchup. In fact, some militant hot dog purveyors will not even allow ketchup in their establishments. Not too long ago, my son was at a hot dog joint and asked for ketchup for his fries; the owner reluctantly complied but kept a suspicious eye on him to make sure he didn’t adulterate the dogs he had dressed with so much care.

We don’t take hot dog interlopers with much equanimity, either. Every once in a while, some New Yorker will arrive in Chicago to great fanfare with plans to introduce us Midwestern barbarians to East Coast dogs, only to soon leave due to monumental disinterest on the part of local hot dog lovers.

A Springfield breaded pork tenderloin horseshoe in all it's cheesy, carby glory.

A Springfield breaded pork tenderloin horseshoe in all it’s cheesy, carby glory.

There’s one other unique Illinois dish that you’re not likely to see elsewhere: Horseshoes. The horseshoe is a sort of open face sandwich invented by a Springfield hotel in the 1920s (possibly as a clever plot to shorten the lives of members of the General Assembly through induced coronary disease). Horseshoe may have been inspired by the Canadians’ poutine, which is French fries with gravy poured on top. The horseshoe, my friends, is poutine on steroids.

Let’s look at a typical lunch horseshoe: Take a couple pieces of toasted white bread on a dinner plate, add the meat of your choice—hamburger, ham, pork chop, chicken, whatever—cover the meat and bread with a thick layer of French fries, and then cover the fries with cheese sauce. Breakfast shoes contain ham or sausage patties covered with hashbrowns and then doused in sausage or white pepper gravy.

Go to one of Springfield’s cafes, and you’ll find breakfast shoes, lunch shoes, and dinner shoes. For those who don’t want to consume their entire monthly allotment of carbs and fat in one sitting, there are also pony shoes, which are supposed to be smaller.

Moving on East…

While the East Coast is not everyone’s cup of tea, I must grudgingly admit it has some pretty good regional food. Along the Connecticut shore, small roadside stands sell steamed freshly caught lobster, cooked while you wait. You eat them outside at picnic tables. New York’s delis serve the best corned beef and pastrami in the nation.

Farther south, in Delaware, you can find small cafés and roadhouses that feature crab boil. Crab boil isn’t just boiled crabs. Rather, it consists of crabs boiled in highly seasoned water, and then covered with more of the seasoning. You get them by the dozen, served on giant platters, and they are excellent.

Close by Chesapeake Bay, crab cakes are menu kings. Don’t confuse the poor excuses for the crab cakes, redolent with preservatives and who knows what, you see on restaurant menus here in the Midwest with the succulent variety available along the shores of the Delmarva Peninsula.

From the shore, head west into the Keystone State, and look for small Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants. The best have scrapple and shoofly pie on the menu.

Traveling through West Virginia some years ago, we had something for breakfast called Country Pudding. It was served with our eggs sort of like scrapple, but the waitress, looking embarrassed, refused to tell us what was in it. Turns out, the major ingredient is what is called in polite company (and family blogs) “sweetmeats.”

Although the might look like Maid Rites, Canteens, served only at Canteen Lunch in downtown Ottumwa, Ia., have their own special flavor. Canny diners get theirs with cheese to avoid losing too much loose meat while dining.

Although the might look like Maid Rites, Canteens, served only at Canteen Lunch in downtown Ottumwa, Ia., have their own special flavor. Canny diners get theirs with cheese to avoid losing too much loose meat while dining.

Let’s keep going west. We’ve already covered Illinois food, so we’ll head on to Iowa, home of the Maid Rite sandwich and its cousins. This blend of secret spices and loose, steamed hamburger was invented in the Hawkeye State. Maid Rite restaurants, one of the first fast food franchises in the nation if not the world, still serve up the delicious sandwiches, which got some brief fame on the old “Rosanne” show as “Iowa Loose Meat Sandwiches.” If you get to Radar O’Reilly’s hometown, Ottumwa, try the variety served at the tiny Canteen Lunch café, located in an alley behind the main downtown business street. The female staff makes fresh Canteens all day for patrons who sit at stools around the horseshoe counter. Served with Sterzing Potato Chips (the pride of Burlington, Ia.) and followed by a giant slice of homemade pie, it’s a Midwestern feast.

Turn south at Ottumwa and head into Missouri before turning farther west to Kansas. On your way, be sure to stop for the barbecue. Lots of good places in Springfield and in Kansas City, where Arthur Bryant’s and Oklahoma Joe’s are so good, it’s almost unbelievable.

Great Mexican food at El Chorro Cafe is maybe why John Wayne was so determined to get to Lordsburg, N.M. in the classic movie "Stagecoach."

Great Mexican food at the El Charro Café is maybe why John Wayne was so determined to get to Lordsburg, N.M. in the classic movie “Stagecoach.”

One rule of travel we’ve found is that the farther southwest you get, the better the Mexican food gets. By the time you get over the mountains and get to Lordsburg, N.M. you should be hungry enough to fully enjoy the restaurants there. (Diner’s advisory: Go easy on the green salsa. Under the right conditions, it can spontaneously combust). I heartily recommend virtually anything on the menu of the El Charro Café, just across the railroad tracks that’s been owned by the same family since 1922.

You can head farther west if you want, but I’d strongly advise that when you get to the California line, you turn around and head back to virtually any other region of the country because, frankly, California food is terrible.

Travel. A broadening experience in a caloric kind of way. And besides, it’s as American as apple pie. Which is pretty good too, come to think of it.

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Filed under Food, Local History, Nostalgia, Transportation

Building a barn, 1912 style…

Back in the summer of 1912, Charles Sorg, a farmer living out on what was then called the German Prairie east of Oswego, decided he needed a new barn. So he contacted one of Oswego’s well-known carpenters, Lou C. Young, to build it for him.

Lou C. Young, in an image by his son, Dwight S. Young, taken in September 1911, the year before he built Charles Sorg's new barn.

Lou C. Young, in an image by his son, Dwight S. Young, taken in September 1911, the year before he built Charles Sorg’s new barn.

Young was the son of Oswego blacksmith and wagonwright John Young. Not only was Lou Young a good carpenter and contractor who built a number of prominent Oswego area buildings, but he was a bit of an innovator, too, with at least one patent to his credit.

Young also seemed interested in publicizing his talent at constructing farm buildings because he contracted with his son, Dwight S. Young, to photograph the process of erecting Sorg’s barn. Accordingly, Dwight Young set up his camera on the site and snapped a series of photos that allow us, today, to follow the process of erecting a typical early 20th Century barn. Copies of the photos were passed on to the Little White School Museum in Oswego by Dwight Young’s grandson, Glenn Young, where they form part of a valuable collection of images that show snapshots of the Oswego area’s history.

What struck me the first time I saw the sequence of photos was the small number of men it took to erect the barn’s timber frame, not to mention the relatively quick process. Of course, all the work shaping the timbers, and completing the mortise and tennon joints had already been completed when the frame was raised on July 18, 1912. But nonetheless, it’s still startling to see how much work a few men can accomplish using those simple machines we all learned about in school: The pulley and the lever. Here’s how it was done (with Dwight Young’s caption information):

Sorg's Barn, ready to be raised on July 18, 1912

The timber bents for Sorg’s Barn, ready to be raised on the morning of July 18, 1912

Jib booms up and ready to pull the first bent.

Jib booms up and ready to pull the first bent.

Putting in the first girth.

Putting in the first girth.

Noon, July 18, mule on top of pole, two bents up.

Noon, July 18, mule on top of pole, two bents up.

Third bent half up.

Third bent half up.

Putting in the girths; fourth bent.

Putting in the girths; fourth bent.

Putting up the plates.

Putting up the plates.

Sorg Barn frame at quitting time, July 18, 1912.

Sorg Barn frame at quitting time, July 18, 1912.

Putting up end girths  jul 24, 1912

Putting up end girths jul 24, 1912

Putting up end rafters  July 25, 1912

Putting up end rafters July 25, 1912

Charles Sorg's barn, still standing after more than a century, as it looked on April 13, 2014.

Charles Sorg’s barn, still standing after more than a century, as it looked on April 13, 2014.

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Filed under Architecture, Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego

Crowdsourcing the fate of the St. Charles Experiment…

From what I read on the Internet these days, crowdsourcing is all the rage among the cool kids. Apparently, you can visit a crowdsourcing web site and solicit funds to make that movie on the history of darning needles you’ve been hankering after for years, or persuade people to fund that new invention you’ve come up with to do the Popeil Pocket Fisherman one better.

Thinking about that in the shower this morning, I had an idea to try to do some crowdsourcing historical research.

So here’s the deal: Back in the 1840s, a fellow that some might have called a crackpot, but others may have called a visionary, decided to build a steam boat here in northern Illinois on the Fox River, and then sail it down to Ottawa where the Fox empties into the Illinois, down the Illinois to Grafton where it empties into the Mississippi, down the Mississippi to the Ohio, then up the Ohio and eventually all the way to the St. Lawrence River in Canada. No small plans did this gentleman make. I related the story here once before, but I never get tired of telling people about it, so I’ll let the Oct. 2, 1840 edition of the Illinois Free Trader at Ottawa lay out the entire story:

 Fox River Navigation — Arrival

of the Bark “St. Charles Experiment.”

On Tuesday evening last Mr. Joseph P. Keiser and lady arrived at our steamboat landing in a beautiful bark, six tons burthen, from St. Charles, Kane county, Illinois. Mr. K. left St. Charles on the 18th inst. amid the smiling countenances of a large collection of citizens of that place who had assembled to witness his departure on this hazardous and novel enterprise. He descended Fox River without much trouble, notwithstanding the low stage of the water at present and the dam at Green’s mill, &c, might be considered by some as presenting insurmountable barriers.

The St. Charles Experiment would have steamed past Starved Rock on its voyage own the Illinois River to the Mississippi in October 1840.

The St. Charles Experiment would have steamed past Starved Rock on its voyage own the Illinois River to the Mississippi in October 1840.

The “Experiment,” we believe, is the first craft that has ever descended this beautiful stream this distance, save, perhaps, the frail bark of the Indian in days gone by. The distance from St. Charles to this place is about eighty miles by water, passing through a section of country which, in point of fertility, is not surpassed by any tract of country in the Union, and to the enterprise and exertions of Mr. Keiser belongs the honor of first undertaking and accomplishing the navigation of Fox River, which winds its meandering course through it.

The object of Mr. K’s enterprise is somewhat of a novelty. His design is to travel by water to the river St. Lawrence, in Lower Canada, by the following route: From St. Charles down Fox River to its mouth at Ottawa; thence down the Illinois to its mouth; thence down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio; thence up the Ohio river to Beaver, Pa.; thence by way of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal to Akron, O.; thence on the Ohio Canal to Cleveland; thence on lake Erie to Buffalo, N.Y.; thence on the Welland Canal to Lake Ontario; and thence to the river St. Lawrence.

This route will doubtless prove arduous to our friend, but he is in fine spirits and considers his worst difficulties ended by having successfully descended Fox River at the present stage of the water. He has our best wishes for a safe and pleasant journey, hoping that he may be able to inform us of his safe arrival at his distant destination.

So far as I’ve been able to tell, the St. Charles Experiment is the only steamboat to have ever navigated the Fox from the river’s northern reaches to its mouth at Ottawa.

And here’s my historical crowdsourcing question: What the heck ever happened to Mr. K, his lady wife, and the St. Charles Experiment? Did they make it to the Mississippi? Did they actually steam up the Ohio to the canal system, puff through Akron, and into Lake Erie?

Perhaps some hardy researchers with access to microfilm newspaper files in towns along the route of the St. Charles Experiment will check for the period starting in early October 1840 and see if a strange craft from a town on the Illinois prairies stopped by to say hello on its journey to Canada.

I’ve wondered about the fate of the Keisers for many years now, and would like to put a “-30-“ at the end of their story. Can any of you loyal readers of historyonthefox add to the tale?

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Local History, People in History, Technology, Transportation