The Lexicon of Real American Food

Much as Speaking American taught me about regional differences in words for things throughout the U.S., The Lexicon of Real American Food, by Jane and Michael Stern, taught me a lot about regional differences in food—both specific twists on common foods, and things that seem to be pretty unique. Here are some of the things I learned:

An egg cream has three ingredients—chocolate syrup, whole milk, and seltzer. I have heard of egg creams (New York), but I always rather assumed they had egg in them.

The chow mein sandwich appears on menus of diners, drive-ins, and cafes in parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Made with crunchy noodles topped with sauced sprouts (no meat) on a plate with a bun.

Grape-Nuts Pudding, found in New England, consists basically of stirring Grape Nuts into a custard pudding. I’m not even going to venture to guess why New Englanders wish to punish themselves this way.

The Juicy Lucy is close to my backyard. A hamburger with molten cheese in the middle, it was invented in Minneapolis in 1954. Two bars take credit for it (and interestingly, they are not very far apart). I have eaten at both of them and find the Juicy Lucy at Matt’s Bar the hands-down winner.

A half-smoke can be found in Washington, D.C. Primarily street food sold in carts, it’s a fat hot dog with a coarse texture and heavy smoke flavor, served in a bun and usually topped with beef chili.

Also in the hot dog family, a ripper is a hot dog deep-fried long enough for its skin to rip. Rippers are a New Jersey thing.

Move inland to Ohio and find a different sausage specialty: the Polish Boy. Found in the barbecue restaurants of Cleveland, it consists of a large piece of crisp-cased kielbasa and comes on a bun with French fries and coleslaw, all topped with barbecue sauce.

Pico de gallo usually refers to a salsa of chopped tomatoes, onion, cilantro, peppers, and lime juice. In Tucson, however, it is a mix of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama. This is spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with a hot chili-powder mix. Wow.

Barbecue took up more than 10 pages. I learned about pulled pork, whole hog, Kentucky mutton, Texas beef, California barbecue, plus barbecue salad (Memphis, TN and Arkansas) and barbecue spaghetti (Memphis). Chili also gets several pages (including a recipe for Texas chili). But there are also separate entries for chili mac, Cincinnati chili, Green Bay chili, green chile cheeseburger, and Minorcan chowder.

Pizza also takes up a few pages: California pizza, Chicago pizza, Detroit (square) pizza, Ithaca NY’s hot truck that invented French bread pizzas, Maryland pizza, Memphis pizza (has a major barbecue element), New Haven pizza, New York pizza, Old Forge PA pizza, Southwest pizza, St. Louis pizza, and West Virginia pizza. I had no idea.

I also learned a few new things. For example, Jell-O is Utah’s official snack food. There were a lot of red items: red beans and rice, red beer, Red Bull, red-flannel hash (beets are involved), red-eye gravy, and red hots.

I also learned to read this at least somewhat skeptically. When I got to the entry on sloppy joes, I learned that in Minnesota it is gulash. Whoa. I grew up with goulash. Also called plain “hotdish,” Minnesota goulash is a casserole (i.e., hotdish) of hamburger and macaroni in a tomato sauce. It is not put on a bun, and it is very often served with Jello-O and a pickle. We also have sloppy joes (which I also called barbeque sandwiches while I was growing up). No goulash sandwich though.

Quibble aside, this is a very fun book. Check it out from the library. Even if you don’t read every entry, it’s fun to peruse, and there are lots of fun pictures.

The Things We Do

After the election, I decided to focus more on things here on the home front—at the neighborhood and city as well as the state level. It started with volunteering to “adopt” a storm drain. There were six at the intersection half a block north of our house, and we could pick whichever one we wanted. But it was just too hard to choose, so we adopted all six. This winter with the frequent thaws, we’ve been out there chopping out the snow and ice so the water can drain. You might be surprised at how difficult it can be to find a storm drain in the winter. And when you find one, you’d think the one across the street would be right across the street, right? Well, no.

But it’s always rewarding—good exercise and a sense of doing something in the community. And sometimes people stop and thank us. The bus drivers almost always wave. That feels good too. We’ve also started shoveling out both ends of our alley (where the snow always seems to accrue). We reap a very direct advantage from this, so it is not exactly a civic deed. Nonetheless, one day when we were clearing out the snow, a guy stopped his truck and asked if he could spell one of us for a while—he just wanted to help out. Maybe we will even get to meet more of our neighbors!

The other thing we’ve done right here in our neighborhood is volunteer for our small urban orchard. It is just starting out (no fruit until next year) but we will help to water and mulch and other sundry tasks as assigned. After the trees start to bear, we will also help with harvest and gleaning. It is quite an exciting project—a variety of fruit trees, including apple, crabapple, plum, pear, peach, and cherry. I wonder what a Minnesota peach will taste like?

There are a few town hall meetings coming up—two of them held/sponsored by my state senator and representative. There is also a town hall meeting in February on the minimum wage of $15 for the city of Minneapolis. I absolutely want a higher minimum wage, but I don’t know that $15 and just for the city of Minneapolis is the way to go. Geographically speaking, Minneapolis is a relatively small part of the 7-county metro area. And with a population of approximately 394,000, we are also a relatively small portion (approximately 13.5%) of the population. I need to learn more.

I have stuck to my New Year’s resolution to send a postcard a week to our new Senate majority leader. I have already heard back from him—not wordy responses but acknowledging my concerns (in this case, responding to two separate postcards, one about infrastructure and the other about healthcare). I did not actually expect him to respond to my postcards. I don’t think I’ll tell him that. I’ve also written about funding the University of Minnesota; a potential crackdown on protesters—potentially making it a felony with some serious financial implications; a suggestion that the state NOT invest in developing a from-scratch computer program to distribute health insurance premium rebates (as that has not worked so well in the past—the build from scratch part); and the definition and use of the word “exponential” (sorry, but it’s numbers AND words, an intersection I can’t ignore).

The acknowledgment has further spurred me, and I have chosen to believe that he actually appreciates these postcards. I know this is a glass half-full to overflowing viewpoint, but why not? I am always respectful and try to send interesting postcards (and a nice variety—I have scads that I’ve collected for the haiku project).

Anyway, I should have made the resolution to send AT LEAST one postcard a week, because I have already sent 10! They are addressing so many things in the Legislature (as well they should, leaving so many things undone last year) that I feel I can’t wait a week on some things. I sent three postcards on healthcare, and the legislation is now signed and done. It is a decent piece of legislation, and both sides compromised. The Republicans put some interesting things on the table that I want to learn more about: a farmers health insurance co-op, and a reinsurance program. Since I am one of the 5% that purchases my health insurance independently on the market, I watch this issue very carefully.

Not long ago I got together with a friend for lunch. We were talking about things we were doing since the election. She has doubled her volunteer commitment at a local nonprofit, working a shift two days a week instead of one. She’s made phone calls to national House and Senate leaders (and our reps as well) on various issues. She participated in the women’s march in St. Paul.

It wasn’t a tallying, it wasn’t a comparison, and often it wasn’t even the focus of the discussion. But as we moved on to the second beer, I realized that even just between the two of us, we are doing quite a lot! Lots of contact with government representatives (she more national, I more local), local involvement, even drinking local beer. Yes, I know. Civic to the bone.

A few days later, after reading the newspaper I was a bit despondent. I went online and signed two petitions (one sponsored by a Minnesota senator, one by moveon.org) and sent a congratulatory postcard to the Senate leader for the healthcare legislation which was actually quite a good compromise. But it felt so little.

And then I remembered the lunch with my friend, and when it all added up, it had seemed like a lot. And I thought it might be inspiring to track that for two or four years. So I emailed my friend and another good friend of ours with this idea: Report in on what you’re doing. It will give each of us other ideas, as we have different approaches and different areas of priority. Even if each of us did one thing a week, at the end of a year, that would be more than 150 actions. It’s not meant to be competitive, but I do hope it challenges us. And I know it will encourage us, just having this list of ongoing things that we’re doing, small and large: a postcard sent, a phone-call to a senator, attending a town hall meeting, a petition, an email, a volunteer gig, a letter to the editor, a march, a poem.

This is not a partisan thing. Everyone can do something to make community stronger, to make their voice heard, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Start where you’re comfortable. Maybe make a pact with a friend, keep a list. Do one thing this month, this year, tomorrow.

These are the things we do.

When it comes down to it, perhaps they’re the only things that matter.

The Warmth of Other Suns

Warmth of sunsI was familiar with the concept of the Great Migration (the movement of African Americans from the South to the North throughout much of the 1900s), but I didn’t know much about the particulars until I picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s most excellent book, The Warmth of Other Suns. All in all, about 6 million blacks left the South in the Great Migration—spanning from about 1915 to 1970. They left the South for nearly every corner of the United States (and perhaps beyond). The migration didn’t end until the 1970s. By then nearly half of the country’s African Americans lived outside the South. Prior to the migration, 90% of blacks resided in the South.

In 1879, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a former slave who had a job making coffins for victims of lynching, led 6,000 ex-slaves to Kansas after years of far-too-steady work. A steady trickle continued over the next decades. “The trickle became a stream after Jim Crow laws closed in on blacks in the South in the 1890s.” But the precipitating event that triggered seriously large numbers of migrants was World War I:

[T]he masses did not pour out of the South until they had something to go to. They got their chance when the North began courting them, hard and in secret, in the face of southern hostility, during the labor crisis of World War I. Word had spread like wildfire that the North was finally “opening up.”

More than half a million blacks left the South during the decade of World War I. At firstTangerines the South didn’t seem to care. But when the fields were increasingly empty, they began to panic. There was a huge labor shortage what with so many white men gone to war, and they were increasingly dependent on black people who were increasingly moving north. I often forget that Florida is also part of the deep South, but I have learned that all those oranges, those grapefruit, and those most-difficult-to-pick tangerines, were picked by black people. And with a labor shortage, the whites in charge were desperate:

From the panhandle to the Everglades, Florida authorities were now arresting colored men off the street and in their homes if they were caught not working. Charged with vagrancy, the men were assessed fines of several weeks’ pay and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane to work off the debt if they did not have the money, which few of them did as the authorities fully anticipated. Those captured were hauled to remote plantations or turpentine camps, held by force, and beaten or shot if they tried to escape. 

As you might expect, this made anyplace-but-the-South look increasingly attractive. As blacks continued leaving after the war, some states tried a different tack:

In the 1920s, the Tennessee Association of Commerce, the Department of Immigration of Louisiana, the Mississippi Welfare League, and the Southern Alluvial Land Association all sent representatives north to try to bring colored workers back. They offered free train tickets and promised better wages and living conditions. They returned empty handed.

I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown….
I was taking a part of the South
To transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom.

–Richard Wright