Just out of college and living in Madison, I found there were few ethnic dining options outside of Chinese (as in chop suey and chow mein) and Italian (as in pasta with red sauce and pizza.) It wasn't that long ago, either. (Okay, Richard Nixon was president, but time is relative.) Tacos, bagels, croissants and a whole lot more would come later.
Today, I would be hard pressed without the assistance of the Internet to list every national or regional cuisine associated with a restaurant here in our area. Our dining habits have been swayed not only by other countries, but other states and regions of our country as well. Just like nearly every other change we've experienced the past fifty years, this is the result of globalization brought on my modern technology.
These efforts by outsiders to influence our taste, however, haven't always been met with success. Take the case of Maid Rite, for example. A hamburger sandwich that resembles taco filling more than a burger—the company's description is "loose meat"— it may be much beloved in Iowa but didn't make it here. Local Boy Scouts once sold a whole semi filled with Krispy Kreme donuts, but when the franchise with humble beginnings in North Carolina popped up everywhere, its appeal waned. Other chains, though, that feature regional specialties like Wisconsin's Culver's (cheese curds) and Chicago's Pizzeria Uno (pan-style pizza) have proved successful nationwide.
No doubt, Friday night fish fry and brats and beer will never lose their luster in Wisconsin, but that's not to say we don't recognize a good thing when we eat it, wherever it come from. Take these influences for example:
Whether our annual Thanksgiving feast—roast turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberries and pumpkin pie—had its origins with the Plymouth Pilgrims or not, it is undeniably a gluttony of New England favorites. Personally, I regret that lobster rolls—the all-time very best sandwich—haven't caught on here. Clam chowder, however, has become an essential component of Friday night dining out. Captain Bill's "world-famous-as-seen-on-the-Food Network" clam chowder is the specialty of the house. Tempest Oyster Bar is a rare find indeed that includes a lobster roll on its regular menu.
The Big Apple
It's hard to separate "New York" from "delicatessen." Traditionally in Wisconsin, a deli was the counter at the supermarket where you purchase sliced luncheon meat and macaroni salad. Some attempts to establish the real deal with piled-high corned beef and pastrami sandwiches have been met with limited success. The latest is Stalzy's. Authenticity factor aside, they make spectacular sandwiches and house-baked breads, including the rarely-seen-here bialy.
Speaking of breads, the now dominance of bagels for breakfast is dumfounding. However, it you've ever been lucky enough to slater cream cheese on one in New York, you know that they're not all created equal. In Madison, Gotham Bagels are as good as they get short of a trip East.
In the shadow of New York City lies often maligned Trenton. Who would have guessed that they made such great pizza there? In Madison and Sun Prairie, now we know thanks to Patrick DePula and Salvatore's Tomato Pies. Imaginative and often loaded with locally sourced ingredients, let's give praise to New Jersey for this great gift.
Southern cuisine covers a multitude of sins. The mantra here is if it can't be fried in grease, it isn't worth eating. Fried chicken enjoys—and deserves—a status it has nowhere else in the country. Properly seasoned and pan-fried, it puts the mass-produced and deep-fried likes of KFC and Popeye's to shame. For me, the best fried chicken experience in town is at Graze, the fried chicken and waffle on the dinner menu. Likewise, all types of pie are treated with similar religious reverence in the South. (A piece of banana cream pie topped with meringue has been known to make me swoon.) Humble Pie makes exceptional pies giving unusual attention to the quality of both pastry and fillings. The bourbon chocolate chess pie is southern decadence at its best. Sisters and co-owners Shelly Cross and Jill Long's southern upbringing should come as no surprise.
Then there's Cajun and Creole. The distinction between these two styles of cooking prevalent in Louisiana has blurred in recent years. Creoles were descended from the French and Spanish who settled in New Orleans and on nearby plantations, and their food mimicked what they enjoyed in the Old World. The Cajuns, or properly Arcadians, came to the Louisiana bayous via Canada and concocted spicy and rustic dishes from ingredients available to them. African Americans made their imprint on both cultures. Gumbo, a hearty soup enjoyed by Cajun and Creole alike is pure African in origins. Jambalaya on the other hand has evolved from the Spanish rice dish, paella. Cajun or Creole, locally we can't seem to get enough of either. New Orleans Take-Out, with two locations, recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. Liliana's aims to equivocate the modern New Orleans restaurant-dining experience admired the world over. It may not be Café du Monde, but it's comforting to know you can get a beignet in Madison.
In Wisconsin, when I talk about barbecue, I always preface the conversation with "I'm talking about meat slowly smoked over a wood fire ... not brats grilled in the back yard." Its origins are in the Deep South, but it was a regional specialty that spread as far west and north as Kansas City. I say "was" since barbecue has now reached a trendiness nationally surely about to emolliate. Over the years, several serious efforts have been made to introduce genuine barbecue to our city, but disappointing to me, many have failed. There are two shinning stars that I hope will buck the trend. Double S BBQ came to Cambridge about three years ago and is moving to Monroe Street. Its specialties are pure East Texas: fall-apart beef brisket, the only authentic bowl of gumbo I ever eaten in these parts, and buttermilk pie—a type of heavenly chess pie that I adore. That BBQ Joint recently moved to a bigger joint on Willy Street. The choices here cover the barbecue map with pulled pork, beef brisket and ribs. The long list of sides that includes collard greens, hushpuppies and deep-fried okra is a testament to its legitimacy.
Texas is a place where cultures collide: divergent favorites from the greater South and those from across the border. Eldorado Grill covers all the bases with the likes of fried chicken with buttermilk gravy, soulful smoked brisket, all kinds of enchiladas and, of course, chili.
Originally, chili could have been pigeon holed as a Tex-Mex specialty—for once it's something Texas can rightly take credit for. However, during the depression it became commonplace nationwide since it was cheap to make. Every locale seems to have its own idea about how it should properly be concocted. In the Midwest, more often than not chili appears as a tomato and hamburger soup flavored with blended chili powder. An exception is in Green Bay where it is a spicy meat sauce served atop spaghetti. The original, Chili John's Chili, is available frozen at many groceries around town. However, the version made at The Old Fashioned is so much better. The No. 18, beef and red beans serve atop spaghetti, comes complete with chopped onion, sour cream and grated cheese.
Santa Fe Style
In the 90s, the attraction for anything and everything—food included—associated with this historic city reached delirium. As in Texas, the cooking there is a mixture of traditions, but in this case, Mexican, Spanish Colonial and Native American. Deb & Lola's, a wonderful restaurant once located on State Street (where Overture is now) thrived in this era and deserves inclusion in the Madison Restaurant Hall of Fame. Dating back to 1985 is Pasqual's, which introduced the taste of the Southwest here. Locations have come and gone, but it remains popular—including its salsa that's sold refrigerated all over town. The new restaurant and bar on East Washington Avenue (the old Fyfe's Corner Bistro) is its most ambitious venture to date.
Probably no city has had a bigger influence on American culture than Hollywood. It's also home to the Cobb salad, which never seems to lose its allure at lunch. Most likely the original chopped salad originated at the Brown Derby, a rendezvous for movie stars and producers. An essential ingredient was the once exotic—if you lived outside California or Florida—avocado, which helped promote the salad's popularity. Bonfyre American Grill makes a great spin on the classic, substituting ahi tuna, shrimp and crab for the more pedestrian chicken. What really put avocados on the culinary map, however, was guacamole. Though it may not have originated in California, people there certainly know how to make the most of it, whether as a dip or a sauce. Whoever thought to put guac on a burger was a genius and Tipsy Cow's guacamole bacon cheeseburger with pickled jalapeño mayo is truly inspired. Burgers aside, there's no disputing the influence northern California—particularly San Francisco, a city synonymous with fine dining—has had on what we eat and drink in this country today. Thanks to Seattle's Starbucks, the concept of a coffee shop is entirely different from what it was fifty years ago.
A melting pot is often used to describe our country's diverse nationalities, cultures and ethnicities. When it comes to food, a salad bowl might make a better metaphor. No matter what is tossed together, individual components manage to maintain their unique character.
See below for a Kentucky-influenced Lemon Chess Pie recipe.
Chess pies are universally popular throughout the South and made in numerous variations. What they all have in common is a rich, baked custard made with eggs, sugar, cream or buttermilk. Sometimes flavored with chocolate, coconut, raisins and nuts, the varieties seem endless. This lemon version is from Kentucky.
1 chilled, unbaked 9-inch pie shell
2 cups granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon corn meal
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
¼ cup heavy whipping cream
¼ cup fresh lemon juice, strained
Preheat oven 350 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt, grated lemon zest, flour and cornmeal. Whisk in the eggs, melted butter, cream, lemon peel and lemon juice.
Pour the filling into the pie shell and bake in lower third of oven for 50 to 60 minutes or until golden brown and the center is set. Cool completely before serving.