The United States is very large — 3.797 million square miles to be exact. Our expansive landscape has given way to regional dishes foreign to the rest of us. Every regional dish has a past and stories to tell. Read on to discover Andrew Jackson’s alleged connection to ham juice and coffee. Or learn what Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes with his mayo. The answers may surprise you.
The Mother-In-Law Sandwich
Served in: Illinois
The phrase “mother-in-law” strikes fear in many, terror even. But rest assured, this is one sandwich that won’t be hounding you for grandchildren.
The three main ingredients of a mother-in-law sandwich are a Mississippi-style tamale in a hot dog bun which is then smothered in chili. So, it is possible that this fierce bite earned its name for the heartburn reminiscent of the indigestion an even well-meaning mother-in-law can sometimes bring about. Other common ingredients include raw onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
The mother-in-law can be found in the underrated culinary gem that is Chicago’s Southside. The mother-in-law sandwich even caught the eye of adventurous foodies. For example, the late, great Anthony Bourdain after experiencing this creation described it as, “the evil step-brother of the hot dog.”
Served in: Wisconsin
The name alone made us wonder if this dish was for anyone other than the most extreme food adventurers.
A tradition especially in the Milwaukee area, cannibal sandwiches are a piece of bread topped with ground beef, chopped onions, salt, and pepper. Using packaged ground beef from the supermarket is discouraged due to the risk of foodborne illness. Preparers of the cannibal sandwich should opt for fresh, raw meat from their butcher. Cannibal sandwiches also go by the name “tiger meat” and are especially enjoyed around the winter holidays.
Since 1986, there have been eight foodborne illness breakouts in Wisconsin due to the consumption of raw meat. But fans of the dish do not care — the cannibal sandwich is experiencing a comeback in popularity. So, go and enjoy. Just don’t tell the USDA.
Served In: Hawaii
Spam Musubi is essentially Spam sushi that is eaten as a snack or side dish on the beautiful Hawaiian Islands. They are ubiquitous in Hawaii and sold in convenient stores, Mom-and-Pop shops, at schools, bake sales, and grocery stores.
Although there are variations, typically the dish consists of Spam, short-grain rice, and nori (dried seaweed). It is then served with soy sauce or Japanese mayonnaise which carries a sweeter and eggier flavor profile than the American version.
But why Spam, the sodium-packed pork product who’s packaging once inspired works of art by Andy Warhol. It turns out that during World War 2, soldiers stationed on the islands received Spam and its popularity grew from there.
Today, Spam remains a food staple on the islands and is beloved by millions. Aside from being inexpensive and easy to prepare, people love the flavor. So, between the love Hawaiians have for Spam and Hawaii’s large Japanese population, Spam musubi was born.
Served In: Southwestern States
Cooking with cactus is very common in Mexico and increasingly so in the United States, although its popularity is primarily centered in the Southwest region of the country. Cactus as a vegetable has a flavor reminiscent of a bell pepper with green bean undertones.
To make cactus fries or “nopalitos fritos”, the firm paddles of a nopal cactus (commonly called a prickly pear cactus) must first have its needles removed. After which they are sliced, battered, deep fried, and served with a dipping sauce.
Cactus fries are a fun and delicious alternative to French or sweet potato fries. Additionally, they can be dressed up or down. If the fries’ batter is spiced, serving them with a cooling avocado dip is a huge crowd pleasure. Otherwise, they taste great with most any dipping sauce as “fried” goes with everything.
Served In: Southern States
Ever wonder what the snacks of champions are? According to Dale Earnhardt Jr., American stock-racing champion, one of his favorite go-to snacks is a banana and mayonnaise sandwich.
Many regional dishes were born of necessity and the banana sandwich is no exception. This “southern delicacy” got its start during the Great Depression; meat was too expensive, so people had to get creative. Thus, the anything-between-two-slices-of-bread technique prevailed as a commonplace way to fill hungry stomachs.
Miraculously, the banana sandwich has stuck; generation after generation continues to pass down this culinary creation and in doing so keeps part of history alive. Plus, the recipe is so simple: Take two pieces of bread, add mayo, and banana slices. For adventurous fans of gooey and slimy textures, this is a must-try snack.
Red Eye Gravy
Served In: Southern States
Red Eye Gravy is a two-ingredient regional specialty that combines pan-fried ham drippings and black coffee to be served with succulent country ham and biscuits. Other names for this condiment include cedar gravy, red ham gravy, bird eye gravy, and bottom sop.
Legend has it that former president, Andrew Jackson, scolded his hungover cook while requesting a country ham, noting the gravy should be as red as the cook’s eyes. However, its preparation technique was the more probable way it earned the name Red Eye, aside from the coffee.
After a ham is pan fried, chefs deglaze the pan using black coffee. Ham drippings and black coffee have a molecular reaction similar to oil and water, where separation occurs. In this case, the black coffee gathers in the middle, forming what looks like a pupil in the pan, surrounded by red that mimics the rest of the eye. The literal image of a red eye combined with caffeine’s jolting effects makes it the perfect name for this perfect southern gravy.
Bread in a Can
Served In: New England
Nothing beats the scent of fresh baked bread wafting out of a bakery in the crisp morning air. So why in the world would someone choose canned bread over a fresh loaf?
Canned bread was allegedly invented by colonists in New England, using the easy-to-find ingredients of rye, wheat, sometimes molasses, and steaming it over an open fire. Then in the early 1900s, the company B&M produced a nostalgic canned bread for consumers to enjoy alongside their already-famous baked beans. And the product hasn’t changed much since its inception; the texture is dense and the flavor sweet.
New Englanders today still enjoy the nostalgic flavor of canned bread, especially around the winter holidays. Likewise, survivalists approve of its two-year shelf life, making it a great last minute addition before the big one hits for any bomb shelter or secret bunker.
Served in: Ohio and Northern Kentucky
During the 1880s, when Germans emigrated to the Ohio River Valley (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky) along came the cuisine of their homeland including the imitable dish, goetta.
Goetta is a German sausage that blends pork, beef, oats, and spices. It is very popular for breakfast but is often included in other meals. And like regular sausage, there is the classic ongoing debate between whether to add ketchup or syrup.
For those in the Cincinnati area who enjoyed it as a child, the scent evokes memories of weekend mornings in grandma’s kitchen. Goetta’s delicious, nostalgic flavor is celebrated every year in Cincinnati at Goetta festival. If traveling through the region, however, heed these words: Do not call or mistake goetta for scrapple. It’s an offense not taken lightly.
Served in: Tennessee
Hailing from Memphis, BBQ spaghetti is more than mixing the two remaining items in your kitchen, a box of pasta and BBQ sauce, into the same bowl (because, come on, we’ve all been there.)
This tangy, smoky dish is Tennessee BBQ royalty. It starts with shredded or pulled smoked pork, vegetables often including green peppers and onions, and mouth-watering BBQ sauce mixed with spaghetti. Although it’s often served as a side dish in Memphis barbecue restaurants, this combination works perfectly as a main dish as well.
BBQ is serious business in Tennessee. One restaurant even cooks the base of their barbecued spaghetti for 12 hours in a pit. So, next time you enjoy a meal of sumptuous barbequed pork, instead of a bun why not elevate your meal Memphis style and give another favorite carb a shot.
Hot Beef Sundae
Served In: Iowa and Indiana
For the proverbial cherry on top, our final regional specialty for today is the hot beef sundae. While this dish mirrors an ice cream sundae, it is anything but sweet.
To mimic the look of a traditional sundae, the cook uses scoops of mashed potatoes for vanilla ice cream. For the hot fudge sauce, we have gravy and roast beef. Add some sprinkles (cheddar cheese), whipped cream (sour cream) and a cherry tomato on top et voila, hot beef sundae.
The hot beef sundae is a savory, indulgent tradition enjoyed as carnival fare in Iowa and Indiana.
Embark on a Food Adventure and Try Something New
So, ready to try one of these regional specialties? Which one has got your taste buds revving? And which dish gets a hard pass? Let us know in the comment section!