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. From the great expanses of the Nebraska plains to the chilly enclaves of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, there's a wealth of culinary treasures just waiting to be devoured - here’s eight to get you started.
1. 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.
2. Snickers salad – Iowa
If ever an award was given for foodstuffs with names that are seemingly contradictory (see: vegan meatballs, boneless ribs, nonfat ice cream), Iowa’s regional specialty would clinch the top prize. Snickers salad is a tradition that’s immortalized in countless 20th-century church cookbooks.
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?
3. Garbage plate – Rochester
One chef’s kitchen scraps are another's treasures, right? Rochester’s signature Garbage Plate was created, as legend goes, at Nick Tahou Hots, a circa-1918 luncheonette 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.
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4. Cornish pasties – Upper Peninsula, Michigan
In the bucolic English country of Cornwall in the 1700s, miners would carry pasties — compact, streamlined descendants of the medieval English meat pies — into the tin mines for sustenance during their 12-hour workdays. The half-moon-shaped pocket is filled with spiced meat and veggies 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 residents of the Upper Peninsula are called) and bakeries that specialize in them dot the region.
5. Runza sandwich – Nebraska
The Runza sandwich is another example of how the traditions of Eastern European immigrants evolved in the US. 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, in 1949, Sally Everett, a Lincoln native, opened up Runza, a modest drive-through and made it her signature. The restaurant soon became a chain, the sandwich was trademarked, and today it's as ubiquitous across the Cornhusker State as bagels and lox are in NYC. In 2016, the company sold nearly two million Runza sandwiches.
6. Lutefisk – Minnesota
Within Scandinavian-American communities in Minnesota, it’s said that about half the Norwegians who immigrated to the US 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 that involves soaking the fish for up to 14 days. 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.
7. Steamed cheeseburger – Connecticut
Food empires have been built around distinct burger styles (see: Whoppers, Big Macs), and for one 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, 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.
8. Fried brain sandwich – Evansville, Indiana
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.
During the Depression, when the area was a center of the meatpacking industry, restaurants and butchers would use cows’ brains as sandwich fillers.
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?
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