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Americans’ Love Affair with Regional Cuisines

The eighth White Castle store was built in Minneapolis; later it became a jewelry store, but the architecture was left untouched.

Pete Gillespie was the first one to clue me in on this, way back when.

He was a music professor, director of the glee club at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. He was also a composer and, it turned out, one of the world’s leading teachers of Carl Orff’s schulwerk, an approach to music education that aims to pull rhythm, melody and dance out of any population, old or young, “musical” or not.

In my early 20s I was in love with him. He’s gone now, died young, but is still one of the most dynamic people I’ve ever met. Talent just oozed from him. He never became famous, but he was a star.

We were in Indianapolis; he was a Hoosier out of the Evansville and Terre Haute areas, but he also grew up in southern California, which made him as unlike most Hoosiers as you can get.

He’d been traveling that year, teaching and putting on workshops, and hadn’t been in the Midwest for awhile. He was dying to go to White Castle. “When I fly in to Columbus or Indianapolis, the first thing I tell my cab driver is ‘take me to White Castle!’ Don’t go to the hotel, get me some burgers!”

White Castle is based in Columbus, and once I lived there years later, I found out what Pete meant. When you’re hungry and you don’t have any other prospects and it’s late at night, White Castle is your place. But at the time I’d never even heard of the joint.

The company is the first American fast food chain. As the photo above indicates, you could get a hamburger (little tiny thing about three inches square) for 5¢.

Well, a price that cheap is always going to attract attention, and in time a certain kind of crowd: working men and women, students, old folks, regular people, those on the brink of homelessness, the occasional prostitute, addict and pimp — a nice diverse crowd, who almost always get along because they’re there to eat cheap and save their money for their more important projects.

Add some late-night hours, a friendly, efficient staff, and the Gay boys, the dykes and drag queens feel right at home. Grabbing some food on the way home after partying all night at the bar is part of the Gay experience; often it’s a way to keep the party going.

If you can find a smaller burger than this one, let me know.

McDonald’s and the other fast food chains can’t compare – and never wanted that urban crowd. Mickey D’s is about suburbia and kids, highways and cars, spreading all over the world; it’s about uniformity, not personality.

Regional cuisines are about this place, this crowd and this food.

I started learning about regional cuisines when I got exposed to a Southern pork barbecue sandwich WITH SLAW (not cole slaw) at a little dive in Charlotte, North Carolina. People down there tried feeding me all their delicacies; I didn’t think much of them, and finally gave up on grits altogether (“Oh, you should try these, these are different!” But they tasted exactly like the last batch). It’s true, Southerners are good cooks. But putting a perfectly formed layer of chopped cabbage on top of mildly flavored pulled pork was an eye opener. I can’t even tell you why but it’s the perfect combination.

In 1976 I moved to Cincinnati, and that’s where I really got hooked. The Queen City of the West has a chili parlor on every corner (sometimes three, competing with each other) and man, there’s nothing like it.

Cincinnati chili is an acquired taste; the first time you eat it it’s kind of strange. You get a little oval plate filled with fat spaghetti, on which is ladled 3 ounces of runny chili with ground beef, which everyone says tastes like chocolate and cinnamon. New Yorkers know this as coney sauce. It’s good stuff but it’s not exactly what Texans think of as chili. This gets topped with a huge mound of shredded Cheddar cheese. Greek immigrants in Cincinnati invented it, and it looks so decadent with all that cheese that you go ahead and try it.

A few Gay guys at a table, a smiling waitress and a Skyline 3-way, and you're set.

It’s mild, and the pasta soaks up all the beer you drank; the perfect thing after a night at the bars. (My favorite Skyline location is on Ludlow Avenue just down from the city’s oldest, nastiest Gay bar, the Golden Lions.) Of course the waitresses know, come 1 a.m., “the drunks are coming,” and we did. But there are a lot of Straight bars on Ludlow too, and everyone gets along.

Skyline is not my favorite company, however; that’s reserved for Camp Washington Chili on Colerain at Hopple Street, where the clientele is even grittier. The Camp Washington neighborhood is where the stockyards used to be. They’re mostly gone now, but it’s still a working class enclave of Appalachians, Black folk and Vietnamese. Plus Gay people with cars on their way home to Western Hills, Northside and College Hill.

The longtime owner of Camp Washington Chili helped build up his business by holding out for decades against the city’s plans to buy him out and widen the street. He’s only got the one store, which he’s worked at since he arrived from Greece in 1940, and he proved you can fight City Hall.

(I also like his deli sandwiches and pies, which most chili parlors don’t offer.)

My typical chili order is a 3-way (spaghetti, chili and that big mound of cheese), plus a cheese coney, no onions, heavy mustard, which is a tiny hot dog slathered in chili and topped with cheese. I took Peter there a couple of years ago when he was visiting from Amsterdam; he enjoyed the atmosphere, even in the middle of the day, as much as the food. The atmosphere is seedy, even at Mr. Johnson’s “new store” (20 years old by now) – and sometimes you just know that seedy is where the good food is.

Today when I get a hankering for Cincinnati chili I buy a can of Skyline at Murphy’s and build my own. I admit, this happens regularly; Skyline’s on my list of staple foods, never to be without. You never know when an emergency might happen!

Since I’ve lived back in Northwest Indiana these last six years, I’ve become acquainted with Chicago-style hot dogs. They are all the rage from southern Wisconsin, through the city and suburbs and down south another 50 miles, stopping a little bit short of my hometown. Chicagoans think these things are fantastic, and have big fights over which hot dog joint serves the best ones. But after sampling Chicago dogs several times from many different purveyors, I quit.

Chicago dogs are schizy. The toppings don’t fit in the bun and there’s really no easy way to eat them, all the stuff keeps falling out.

What stuff? Sliced tomatoes, not ketchup; Chicagoans are adamant about that. A dill pickle spear. Mustard, onions, pepperoncinis, celery salt. An all-beef wiener with a sesame seed bun. It isn’t a bad cheap meal but it doesn’t fit in a bun. Try eating one at a Cubs game and you’ll wear it home.

Maybe my problem is that A) I did not eat these growing up here, it’s taken time for them to spread this far south; and B) I’ve always eaten them by myself, so I’ve gone without the added attraction of friends saying how great this food is, devolving (with any luck) into a fistfight because someone else’s across town are even better. The arguments surely are part of the attraction for any regional food fetish.

However I can happily report that Chicago deep-dish pizza is worth driving for. People argue over it too but every one I’ve had has been fantastic.

I first ate Uno’s in Cincinnati, again on Ludlow Avenue; lots of meat and cheese and fresh vegetables in a great golden crust, baked in its own pan and served from it at your table.

You can do so much more with a pizza when you’re not just covering a flat surface. I love New York pizza too, especially when you can buy it by the slice as soon as you come up from the subway, but Chicago pizza is a real pie, stuffed full of goodies.

The signature dish from Ike Sewell's Pizzeria Uno.

Uno’s used to serve a seafood pizza with crabmeat, which was my all-time favorite. But I’ve since eaten at several deep-dish competitors and I swear, each is better than the last. Giordano’s makes a great pizza; the last time I got one I brought the leftovers home and invited two friends – who raved, even though it was used pizza!

A pie from Giordano's; the deep dish makes it so much denser, chock full of goodies.

Of course, Detroit and St. Louis each claim their own styles of pizza, and Los Angeles does too. Every city of any size has its local favorite joints, whether it’s ribs in Kansas City, lobster shacks from Maryland to Prince Edward Island, po-boys in N’Orleans, Dick’s Burgers in Seattle or Mexican food in Las Cruces and Mesilla. Sometimes the worse a place looks, the better the food seems to taste.

It’s all about being from here, eating what people like us eat, not necessarily paying a lot but getting filled up and satisfied. And then if an argument breaks out, much less a fistfight, welcome to the floor show!++

Kansas City barbecue. Yum!