Lobster roll

Cara Kinsey with the lobster roll—a rarity in Monterey County—at Stationæry.

Quiz time. “Windy City.” Right you are, Chicago. Another easy one next. “Mistake by the Lake.” Everyone knows that’s Cleveland. How about “Land of the Wing and Home of the Weck”?

OK, that may need some multiple choice deciphering.

Chef Jerry Regester at Carmel’s Rise & Roam occasionally wears a t-shirt bearing that slogan. He grew up in Buffalo, celebrated in the culinary world as the birthplace of the now ubiquitous chicken wing—so land of the wing makes sense. But there’s another dish specific to the city and its surroundings that has yet to achieve nationwide popularity.

Beef on Weck is a Buffalo staple, a sandwich of piled roast beef and a smear of horseradish on a Kummelweck bun studded with flecks of salt and caraway seed. Once, when he was at a different kitchen, Regester tried to convince his bakers to give it a try, but they balked at the bread’s toppings.

“Nobody understood the concept,” the chef complains. “I think all that salt freaks people out.”

Regional dishes exist across the U.S.—the Cajun and Creole favorites from the Mississippi River delta, the hefty casseroles of the upper Midwest, coastal Carolina and its low country cooking. And yet surprisingly few gain popularity outside of their domain.

Perhaps another quiz is in order. Where do you go in Monterey County for a slinger? A bowl of burgoo? Spoonbread—yes, you scoop it up with a spoon; no other way to eat it—or an open face hot brown? Oh, how about a slice of gooey butter cake? Take your time.

Rare sightings of some regional favorites can be found if you search long enough. Bear + Flag Roadside in Carmel Valley whips up pimento cheese. Toro Place along Highway 68 grills a Jucy Lucy—although they irk any passing Minnesotans by listing it as “Juicy.” The Oven in Seaside and Pocket Change in Monterey offer versions of St. Louis’ toasted ravioli.

Pop quiz. How is toasted ravioli prepared? Nope. Way off.

A puzzling dynamic is at play. New England clam chowder can be found just about anywhere. Same with Carolina shrimp and grits, which is all the more unusual because many people scorn grits otherwise…although the do seem to love polenta.

Oh well. Chicken and waffles—famously thrown together by a Harlem night club caught between dinner and breakfast, although its origins are more complicated—hit the big time. But Cincinnati chili? Nowhere.

Amalia Scatena, chef at Carmel’s Stationæry, draws a blank on Cincinnati chili. But a residue of dismay is evident in her voice as she mentions pork tenderloin, a comically mismatched sandwich popular across a swath of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana that is responsible for the additional X in XXL.

“No one has ever heard about it here or on the east coast,” says Scatena, who has worked on both ends of the country and has relatives in Iowa.

So why do a few regional foods travel while many others sit tight? “Some dishes are so iconic it tends to be what people take with them,” explains chef Brandon Miller, Monterey County’s mobile paella master, referring to the culinary diaspora as people move about. “And some things don’t get enough exposure.”

He may be onto something. Lobster rolls are destination sandwiches for anyone traveling through New England. But its popularity outside of the area is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Lobster salad recipes predate the 20th century. And culinary historians surmise that fishermen would make quick sandwiches of lobster on whatever bread they had on hand. As far as most can tell, the dish finally appeared on a menu in 1927, in Milford, Connecticut. Its first mention in print outside of a menu was a decade later in the New York Times.

Stationæry is one of the few restaurants in the county serving Maine-style lobster rolls. Yes, Maine-style. The Connecticut style lobster roll features warm meat drenched in butter. And its advocates will tell you the version is preferred by most diners. However, Maine-style—essentially a cold lobster salad on a split bun—is more familiar thanks to the interest taken by New York chefs in the 1990s.

The Big Apple hasn’t fared as well with its take on another dish, however. New England clam chowder is everywhere on the Peninsula. But Flaherty’s Seafood Grill in Carmel is one of the few places to find Manhattan style. 

So we have these little islands of misfit foods. “It’s very popular in a place and you look at it and say ‘really?’” Regester observes. One can only assume he’s referring to loose meat sandwiches.

Chefs are aware of many of these dishes. So there must be more to it than just lack of exposure. Indeed, they point to difficulty sourcing proper ingredients and a lack of experience relating to how a recipe comes together. Chef Jeffrey Thompson prepares a lot of New Orleans blackened seafood at the Carmel Valley favorite Jeffrey’s Grill & Catering. But, he admits, “it took me a while to get it right.”

Many local creations resulted from a moment in time—a wave of immigrants adapting their flavors to whatever ingredients were available in their new setting. A few ideas just don’t work well in restaurants. Frito pie is fine at a Texas football game. On a white tablecloth it would just be a lukewarm mess.

Frito pie? Essentially it’s the inner workings of an American taco—you know, ground beef, “Mexican” cheese—shoveled into a bag of Fritos. It may have traveled from Mexico across the border, but it became a Texas and Southwestern thing. If you are inclined to question how “pie” became part of this, consider that “walking taco” is another name for this concoction.

If only regular tacos were so portable. Oh, wait…Yeah, let’s stick with pie.

Toasted ravioli is equally perplexing. It’s a plate of deep fried pasta dusted with grated Parmesan, no oven involved. Then how did “toasted” end up in the name? According to the most common story, a restaurant owner insisted “fried” would turn customers away—and this in a country of fried chicken, fried bacon, fried fish… 

The story gets weird from here. The owner in question was either Angelo Oldani or Angelo Oldani—a different one of the same name, who both happened to employ German cooks at their Italian restaurants in the 1940s. In the most accepted tale, the befuddled cook assumed a handy pan of oil was meant for the pasta. Some versions involve quite a bit of alcohol in the run up to the big moment. The other story finds a cook still learning his way with the English language. When instructed to “drop some raviolis” he did—into the fryer.

For some reason scholars haven’t bothered to clean this one up. But years of research went into The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili, for which Dann Woellert is still awaiting his Pulitzer. 

More than 200 restaurants in the Cincinnati area devote their kitchens to the city’s namesake plate. Yet because it is served on a plate—and smothering a mound of spaghetti—haters even dispute its chili status. They won’t even allow it in the bolognese category.

Instead, Cincinnati chili is in its own space. The sauce relies on cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves for a soft, almost sweet tang. It is based loosely on Greek pastitso, which is similar to lasagna and may explain why Macedonian immigrants Tom and John Kiradjieff decided to marry it to pasta when they opened a restaurant in 1922.

Or not. Their first menu mentions “spaghetti chili”—a simple mash up.

But wait, there’s more. Spaghetti drenched in meat sauce is just the foundation. It builds from there: three-ways adds a pile of suspiciously orange shredded cheese; four-ways brings either beans or chopped onions; go five ways and you get both.

That’s how it’s ordered. And some places tack on a sixth way.

As far as we can tell, there’s no heavily footnoted study of the Jucy Lucy, just the dictionary. And if you side with the dictionary, you’ll have to take up the matter with former president Barack Obama.

The Jucy Lucy is simply a cheeseburger, except the cheese is trapped in the middle of the patty. On the griddle it turns explosively molten, so sandwich veterans know to let the thing rest for a moment. Otherwise, a blast of American processed cheese food will be the last thing their palates see.

To the more important matter—that of spelling. When the creation turned out to be a hit in 1954 the folks at Matt’s Bar in Minneapolis thought to hoist a sign advertising the burger. Unfortunately, they missed a typo.

Of course, as happens with most origin stories, there are other claimants—in this case the 5-8 Club, also in Minneapolis and on the same street. However, they can’t pinpoint the moment of creation. In a 2016 article, Thrillist’s Kevin Alexander noted the club’s printed timeline narrowed it to the 1950s. They are not very specific when it comes to staking the claim, either: “The Juicy Lucy, a home grown hero, was born.” But where? And clearly they heed to the dictionary.

Another thing is clear. Matt’s served the first one, misprint and all—or so Obama declared with authority in 2014.

It’s part of a long list of food fights resolved by the former president. New York tops Chicago-style pizza. The hot dog? Not a sandwich. And as he told Jimmy Fallon, pineapple on pizza—“that’s just wrong.”

Maybe he could weigh in on the calzone versus stromboli schism.

When a plate does pop into the national consciousness (like a calzone, not a stromboli), it also becomes subject to every chef’s desire to adapt to their style and location. When the gooey butter cake does escape its St. Louis environs, bakers doll it up unnecessarily.

“I think food is very trendy,” Scatena observes. “Nashville hot chicken is fun for chefs. You can put a local spin on it.”

Riffing is natural, and can improve a recipe (ditching the Cheez Whiz common to a Philly cheesesteak is a definite improvement), although at the cost of any specific regional identity. Once fast food chains get into the act, so long Nashville hot chicken. Bye-bye fish tacos.

So perhaps it’s best that some regional dishes stay put. Chefs might prepare scrapple from Berkshire pork chops and short ribs. Half smokes and stuffies, garbage plates and hush puppies, horseshoe sandwiches and shoofly pie remain the stuff of travel tales.

“That’s the beauty of traveling—trying new things, opening your eyes,” Thompson points out.

So have we settled the Burning Question? Probably. Like the chefs said, a lack of exposure to the dish or an understanding of the way it pulls together is part of it, as is lack of access to proper ingredients. That works as an answer.

And, really, when you think of Spam musubi, loose meat or the garbage plate, some tastes you just don’t want to acquire.

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