Monday, October 16, 2006

Cross Country Eats

When my sister and I drove from Boston to Santa Fe at the end of July, we had to average 500 miles a day, and didn't have much time to see the local sights. But we vowed that we would not stop for lunch at fast food/chain restaurants, and that we would take the time to get off the highway and eat at a "local" place. It has seemed to me for some time that the whole country is so homogenized that you could be dropped down in the suburbs of any part of the continental US, and you would have very few clues as to where you were. Everybody's got McDonalds and Burger King and the other fast food joints, the same big box stores (Walmart, Target, Home Depot), the same department stores (Sears, JC Penney), the same clothing stores (Gap, TJ Maxx, Chico's, Victoria's Secret), etc. Like the author and his readers in The Accidental Tourist , many Americans wouldn't have it any other way.

NOTE: I had the experience of living in Germany from 1961-1962, and we met several American military families who had never shopped anywhere other than the PX, and were totally missing out on the fabulous experiences of German food in particular.

I happen to love finding those little regional differences when you go out to spend money in a part of the country you're not intimately familar with. So here are a few regional treats from our trip.

Utica, New York: "chicken riggies". The restaurant we ate at claimed that their chicken riggies were truly top-notch (compared to all the obviously inferior chicken riggies in other restaurants in Utica). Apparently there is a big "chicken riggies" festival every year where the restaurants compete against each other for the best chicken riggies performance. The waitress was quick to tell us that while they hadn't won best of show in the most recent festival, they had won other times and they were really excellent. Chicken riggies turn out to be a dish with chicken, rigatoni, olives, and other ingredients and when we showed up later than evening in. . .

Buffalo, New York: "roast beef on weck". . . . the waitress had never heard of "chicken riggies" but informed us that "weck" (the longer name is "kummelweck" which I pronounced as if it were German, which made it incomprehensible to the native Buffalonians) is a local rye bread, and "roast beef on weck" a local treat. (I wouldn't stoop so low as to use "Buffalo chicken wings" as my example here--WAAYYY too obvious...)

Milan, Ohio: "fried bologna". This entry shows up here because I haven't seen fried bologna on the menu since high school, where it was one of the few hot food choices available. While I didn't order it in Milan, I became immediately nostalgic for a fried bologna sandwich with lots of mustard. We found fried bologna at the Invention Restaurant in Milan, with a nod to Thomas Edison (invention--get it?) who was born there. It was a fabulous local spot like something out of an old movie or TV show. Everyone eating there--at the counter or at a booth--appeared local except for us, and included tradespeople, real estate agents, insurance agents, etc. Everybody knew everybody else and spent time inquiring about the health or occupations of various family members. The waitress knew everyone's name, and said sure it was fine if Bill paid for his lunch next time he was in since he forgot his wallet.

Davenport, Iowa: "vanilla phosphate", "egg cream", and liverwurst sandwiches. We stopped in Davenport because our grandmother grew up there, and we ate at Lagomarcino's in East Davenport--a restaurant that had been there for 75 years or so. It was basically an old ice cream parlor, serving homemade ice creams and candies, but also with a lunch menu. They had all the old soda fountain treats, and the aforementioned liverwurst sandwiches--another processed meat I have a childhood-remembered weakness for.

Walnut, Iowa: gizzards and "Dorothy Lynch salad dressing". Not served together, actually, but the first time I think I've ever seen gizzards on a menu. We didn't ask about "Dorothy Lynch salad dressing"--assumed Dorothy was a local lady (maybe the owner or the cook?). But the next day in. . .

Cozad, Nebraska: . . . we stopped at a truck stop for gas and ate in the restaurant there where Dorothy Lynch made another appearance. We had to ask this time, and it turns out this is a brand introduced in Nebraska in the later 1940s. As the website tells the story:

"Yes, there really and truly was a Dorothy Lynch. In the late 1940s, Dorothy Lynch and her husband ran the restaurant at the local Legion Club in St. Paul, Nebraska. This is where the original recipe for Dorothy Lynch Home Style Dressing was born. As the Legion Club members were introduced to this delicious recipe the legend of Dorothy Lynch began to grow and the dressing fast became a "must-have" favorite. Stories of local people bringing their own bottle or jug to town to have it filled with "that delicious Dorothy Lynch salad dressing" were quite common.

In 1964, Tasty-Toppings, Inc. purchased the recipe and rights to Dorothy Lynch and built a production facility in Columbus, Nebraska. The company later expanded its production capacity with a modern 64,000 square foot plant in Duncan, Nebraska. This is where every bottle of Dorothy Lynch Home Style is produced today."

They actually sell it at the Albertson's in Santa Fe--it's available in about half the country--everywhere to the west of Ohio and Louisiana. Who knew?


Peggy said...

Thanks for memorializing our eating adventures.

Tim said...

I agree, the homogenization of American culture seems to be most visible in our commerical culture. Part of my dark, cynical side envisions the day when we go out to buy ANYTHING for the house we just go to one big store that has everything from shoelaces to shoestring french fries to brake shoes - imagine one store having all those things in one place? [wink, wink, nudge, nudge] After we've gone to the store, we go to grab something to eat. Where better to eat than the new food court that has all 6 of America's restaurant under one roof? We just drive to the big restaurant, buy some food tickets and exchange them for anything from twin lobster tails to Twinkies.

The conglomeration and reduction of American restaurants and other service and retail business models is mostly dissapointing, but it is a product of agressive advertising, branding and generally consistent product. It almost seems a force that is too strong to reckon with. And as, I too do not like the inevitability of this form of commercial force, it is not entirely without benefit. In terms of roadside eats and hotels, people have become settled into certain levels of familiarity of products within a broad field of choice, that can provide that produt with relative ease and rapidity.

We need more people who are willing to step out of their comfort zones and patterns and into the diners, obscure cafes and greasy spoons of America if there is any hope that these places can remain economicaly feasible.

But I digress.

SantaFeKate said...

But a very nice digression it was!!