The Green Plate: Road Tripping Regional Eats

Column Unique foods from state to state.

Last week, The Green Plate took us on a street food tour around the world. This week, we’re going to survey regional delicacies across the U.S. that rarely leave their regions.

It’s not easy to find these culinary outposts because we (and our food) have become so mobile. We’re not talking national standbys like bagels and burritos, but rather loose meat sandwiches and boiled peanuts. Join us as we drive from West to East. (Pretending all the while we’re in a beat-up station wagon.)

Cioppino was invented by Portuguese and Italian fishermen in San Francisco. It’s a tomato-based broth, chock full of seafood, but the main (and most necessary) ingredient is Dungeness crab in the shell, which is what makes it a San Francisco classic, (since this crab is native to the West Coast). And for strict traditionalists, the crab must be served in the shell.

I tried Indian Fry Bread only once, on a visit to Arizona. I bought it at a roadside stand and sunk my teeth into it. It was hot, puffy, chewy, and tender all at once, but without the greasy feel of most fried foods. Inside were big, fat, creamy brown beans, a sprinkling of cheese and some shredded lettuce. I was smitten, and I’ve never seen the bread anywhere else.

The first known Muffaletta sandwich was served at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A roll piled high with meat and cheese, it might seem like just another deli sandwich, but what makes it special is a Sicilian-inspired, vinegary olive salad with chunks of olives and pickled vegetables tucked inside – the perfect counterpoint to the rich meat and cheese.

Boiled Peanuts are not only the official snack of South Carolina, but are also popular in other southern peanut-growing states like Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. They are raw peanuts boiled in their shells for hours with plenty of salt. The result tastes like a cooked bean. Only available while the peanuts are still green, this seasonal delicacy is thought to have supplied the Confederate soldiers with much-needed protein during the Civil War.

Chess Pie is for those with a real sweet tooth. It’s a simple mixture of butter, sugar, eggs, and maybe vinegar, flour, cornmeal, or corn syrup, poured into a single crust. It is sweet, sweet, sweet. Think pecan pie without the pecans. Sounds like a rush to me.

Some people will fry anything. I first tried Fried Pickles in Louisiana at a peel-and-eat shrimp place and I must say, I didn’t really get it. But they seem to be plenty popular. I guess if you like grease and salt, they’re the perfect food.

I share the Chicagoan disdain of ketchup on dogs, and the uniquely Windy City Chicago Style Hot Dog is like no other. It doesn’t seem to have traveled outside Chicago – at least I’ve never seen anyone put their dog on a poppy seed bun and add tomatoes, celery salt, neon green relish, and a host of other condiments.

Loose Meat Sandwiches are a strange concoction unique to Iowa. Like a Sloppy Joe without the slop or a hamburger without the patty, the sandwich features cooked loose hamburger piled on a bun with condiments.

Cincinnati Chili is a strange creature for two reasons. First, it’s a meat chili served over spaghetti. And second, it’s usually made with surprisingly sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves. Cincinnati fans order it two-way (spaghetti and chili), three-way (the basics with cheddar cheese), four-way (with beans), or five-way (with onions and beans).

While bagels and New York Style pizza have traveled far and wide, the New York Egg Cream remains tethered to its city of origin. Containing neither eggs, nor cream, it’s a fizzy drink made with chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer. Why few seem to make egg creams outside of New York is a mystery to me.

I only came across Indian Pudding once in my life and that was at a family Christmas celebration in Connecticut. It’s a cornmeal dessert with plenty of spices, maple syrup, and raisins. Think sweet polenta. It’s delightful, and I’m not sure why it hasn’t traveled beyond New England.

I’ve seen Lobster rolls in California, but they’re really a regional food. Lobster comes from the East Coast, so if you have to fly it in, you’re cheating. And the special soft, white rolls that are split at the top are unavailable outside of New England.

Tell us about your favorite regional dish in the comments below.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Top: Amanderson2 via Flickr

Cioppino: Zemistor via Flickr

Indian Fry Bread: flavouz via Flickr

Muffaletta: Jasonlam via Flickr

Boiled Peanuts: scaredykat via Flickr

Chess Pie: sleepyneko via Flickr

Fried Pickles: pnoeric via Flickr

Chicago Dog: Arnoldinuyaki via Flickr

Loose Meat: Cindy Funk via Flickr

Cincinnati Chili: Joyosity via Flickr

New York Egg Cream: cck via Flickr

Lobster Roll: kthread via Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.