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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.