My profession has taken me to many interesting places across the US, Mexico, and Canada over the past 48 years. In my travels I visited a wide variety of business ventures from a mushroom farm in Kentucky, to a prosthetic breast manufacturer in Texas. I’ve been to automotive plants in Mexico and nuclear fuel cell producers in Canada. Work opportunities have taken me to 38 of our 50 Great States, from Maine to California, and I’ve seen many wonders along the way. Some of the most memorable things about all those trips are the regional foods I’ve eaten.
Leaving my Pittsburgh home and moving to Cincinnati in 1971 was my first encounter with regional cuisine. I had only been in Cincinnati a few weeks and was just learning my way around. A friend had invited me to join him for lunch at the chili parlor. It had been a while since I had any of my mom’s homemade chili and that sounded great. When the food came I was served a plate of spaghetti with about a half pound of grated cheddar cheese on top. I told the waitress she made a mistake, I ordered chili! She looked at me like I had two heads. I soon learned to love “Cincinnati Chili”. Whether it is Gold Star, Skyline, or Moonlight Chili, it’s all good. Another Cincinnati delicacy is Goetta, sometimes referred to as “Cincinnati Caviar”. The German immigrants brought Goetta to Cincinnati. It is made with ground pork or beef, mixed with steel cut oats and seasonings, and then pan fried to a crispy brown. It is a breakfast staple served with eggs and grits.
I’ve eaten many stranger regional foods in my travels. In previous articles I wrote about my first field trip to Syracuse with A-Man-Named-Earl. Being a very “junior” apprentice on that trip, I was dependent on Earl to pay all the travel expenses, including meals. The very first night Earl took me to a Syracuse bar. As we sat at the bar to watch the ball game, Earl asked for a beer and a “Bean Sandwich”. The bartender pulled a large can of pork-and-beans from the cooler. He scooped out a wad of cold beans, spread it on sliced white bread, and handed it to Earl. He then asked if I wanted one, but I passed on the offer. Thankfully, we did go out to dinner at a little nicer place after that.
Later in my career another experience found me in Mexico with one of our installation mechanics. He had previously spent a year in Mexico on another project. He knew the language and basically how to stay safe in a foreign country. He was with me to help field measure, and to watch my back. On our last night in Mexico he suggested a better steak house for dinner. He ordered for both of us and began with an appetizer of Cridillas. He dug right in when they arrived. When I sampled the dish, he stifled a snicker and asked me if I knew what I was eating. I said I was pretty sure they are better known as “Rocky Mountain Oysters” in the western states.
Another delicacy I’ve tried, and surprisingly enjoyed, is escargot, which is a fancy French word for snails cooked in herb butter. I found them to be a bit chewy and tasted just like..Snails! Along with the snails I also enjoyed a meal of frog legs. In Canada I’ve tried Poutine, which is cheese curds with French fries covered with brown gravy. In Milwaukee I had Butter Burgers; a burger served with big pads of butter that melt into the bun. Some places serve them with so much butter that the plate will be swimming with it. I’ve eaten fried rattle snake in Texas, and fried gator in Florida. But, I’ve never tried fried Twinkies. Some things are just too gross to consider. Louisville, Kentucky is known for its barbecue and hosts one of the largest annual barbecue festivals in the country. There is another Kentucky dish called Burgoo made with four or five different meats and vegetables. It is cooked into a thick soup, or stew. I believe they created this dish just to get rid of leftovers. One of my more unique dining experiences came when a Japanese customer I became friends with invited me to an authentic Japanese restaurant for a traditional meal. We sat on floor mats and were served at a low table. I did not speak Japanese, so my host interpreted for me. I tried the traditional meal he suggested consisting of soup, rice, tofu, seaweed, pickled radish, and tempura. I enjoyed the experience and left there very full. On recent travels I discovered some of my co‑workers enjoy Sushi. Initially, the thought of eating raw fish was not too appealing, but I did try it and found it to be much better than I expected. One of the weirder snack foods I’ve tried is meal worms. When these little guys are dropped into hot oil they puff up about 20 times their size. They have the consistency of crunchy cheese puffs and taste a little like fried pork rind. I understand them to be full of protein.
There are a few foods I have tried with regret; Oysters-On-The-Half-Shell and Mud Bugs. I know there are folks who love Oysters, but I made the mistake of chewing this glob of nastiness when I tried them. I was unaware that the proper way to eat them is to just let them slide down your throat. This is probably to sneak the oysters past your taste buds before they realize it is in your mouth. I hear some people chase them with a shot of Vodka, probably to kill the taste. Mud Bugs are better known as crawfish and are a Louisiana treat usually prepared in a boil. I’ve thought about trying these on several occasions, but just could not get past the smell. I’ve only seen these served at festivals, and they do seem to be enjoyed and sell out fast. Maybe someday I will build up the nerve to try them.
I do have a few more years of travel ahead of me, and if you think I will refrain from sampling the local cuisines on my ventures, well Good Luck with that!