Pasties, Pizza, and Stewart's

I have the above postcard hanging up next to my desk at work. It makes me think about regional foods. Do they mean anything in terms of the sense of identity people have relating to a specific place? What does it say about places if they don't really have their own regionally specific foods? I've lived in three places - Detroit, NYC, and Albany - and when I think about the foods that might be associated with those places I wonder what it means. The funny thing about regional foods is if you grow up in that place you assume everyone in the world knows about those things. It becomes a bonding thing or a short hand for relating to someone who is also from there (like sports teams). If you grew up in Michigan, you couldn't possibly know that if you went to Florida and ordered Mackinac Island fudge ice cream they would look at you like you were crazy.

  • As featured above pasties are big in MI. I saw something similar when I was in Scotland, so I wonder if it was Scottish immigrants who worked in the lumber trade who brought them over. Vernor's and Sanders are also unique there. Coney Island restaurants are big. I've had to explain that phenomenon to people - it is like a diner, but has Greek food and also foot long hotdogs. In Coney Island, Brooklyn chili dogs are called chili dogs (as I remember), in MI they are called "coney islands", and in Montreal they are called a "Michigan". At restaurants, portions are enormous, and people don't seem to think they are getting a good value unless it is more than they could ever eat for a very cheap price.

  • When I first moved to NYC I didn't know what a black and white cookie was. I wouldn't say they really added to my life much. Same goes with their pizza and bagels. Sorry, but I feel most pizza at your average slice place is not that great, and has, in fact, most likely sat under a heat lamp all day. I think people idealize those two products who grew up there and became accustomed to a certain style. As far as NYC being famous for hot dogs, well that seems to be something that is mostly eaten by tourists and characters in Hollywood portrayals. Of course there are amazing restaurants there (Balthazar, Peter Luger), but as far as naming foods that are specifically associated with the place my mind first goes to things I wouldn't really want to eat like Tasty D-light (and all those awful thousands of women who seem to eat it for every meal). I guess also the buffets and delis at salad bars, which I haven't really seen in other places I have lived, and which frankly never had very good food on them anyway. Also it makes me think of bad habits like people folding a piece of pizza in half and eating it as they walk down the street (extra dust and city grime on your pizza, anyone?).  I tend to think more of all the people I knew who didn't eat much of anything and stories of women on crash diets fainting into the subway tracks. One food ritual that seems specifically of that place  is the Sunday brunch. While in MI, the Coney Island restaurant seems to be the normal place for a breakfast - NYC Sunday brunches are more likely to be fancier with benedicts, bloody marys, and many hours to catch up with friends. I can't remember having gone out to brunch with anyone in MI, but in NYC it is so popular that you and your friends may have several invites on any given weekend for brunch. It seems in the rest of the country fancy brunches are reserved for things like Mother's Day and bridal showers. At restaurants, portions are incredibly small, trends die out as quickly as they arrived, food is incredibly expensive (like everything), and I always seemed to have a couple friends around who openly claimed they just "don't eat". That is NYC for ya - equal parts disgusting, fabulous, and expensive with a splash of narcissism thrown in for good measure.

  • Which brings us to Albany. Why do we seem to lack food we are known for? I feel like this is part of why people seem to have such a local pride for Stewart's Shops. Even Utica has Utica Greens and Chicken Riggies. I guess I might say we have a great Italian tradition, which seems to branch out into good options for sandwiches. Also drinking seltzer (especially Polar Beverages), seems to be a local thing as people from MI thought this was weird. There is an impressive variety of restaurants for a city of this size, including incredibly tasty ethnic restaurants like Ala Shanghai. I might say that more than any place I have lived, I feel really aware of the availability of local ingredients. I think this fact is related to the proximity to the Hudson Valley, Vermont, and the Berkshires and all the produce, cheese, and meat that come from these places. You can go to the farmer's market in Union Square in NYC, but I think that you feel a lot less of a connection to the source if you have never been to any of the places the farmers come from or even really have an idea where those places are. Up here, I drive by Ioka Valley Farm on my way in to work, and then if I eat at Castle Street Cafe in Great Barrington I can order a burger made from their meat.  I feel more connected to the place because I stand in line behind their farmers waiting for coffee at the gas station. Overall, I am puzzled by the fact we don't seem to have Albany-specific dishes at all, but I am happy with the variety, local enthusiasm, and proximity to sources. The price/portion balance is more in the middle - not as obesity-inducing as Detroit, but not as expensive as NYC. Besides I'd rather have Indian Ladder Farms than be famous for inventing black and white cookies anyway. 
For my discussion of grocery stores in the different places I have lived see this post.


  1. Seltzer is definitely an east coast coast thing. It was so hard to find in Chicago and even here on the west coast, it's not so common. I ended up buying one of those SodaStream devices to get my fix.

    Also, Mr Dave of the Ridiculous Food Society would argue that little hot dogs are an Albany-area thing.

  2. Oh right! I forgot about the little hot dogs! my apologies.

    I love seltzer. But when I ask MI people if we should get some, they act like I made it up there on the spot.

  3. My boyfriend is from Michigan, so he's explained to me that I'd have to call it a coney and not a chili dog, and if we were to get coneys, we'd have to go to a coney island. And then there's the sauce - do you go Detroit or Flint style?

    As for a Capital Region specific food, this area is the only place I've seen those mini hot dogs. Other than that, maybe the rectangle pizzas? I'm used to circle ones, but here... they like corners.

  4. ha that is funny - Detroit style! :) they don't even call it a "coney" in Coney Island.. kind of how it isn't Canadian bacon in Canada...

    hmmm rectangular pizzas? I'll have to look into that.

  5. In Montreal, a chili dog is called a "Michigan."

  6. You should also include the Fish Fry. That 12" thin strip of fried fish on a hot-dog bun. Bob & Ron's and Ted's are the two famous local institutions, but you should get out to Off Shore Pier in East Greenbush, to taste a superior version.

    There was Mike's Neba sandwich, but that went away. And before the Hudson was super-polluted, and the fishery closed, Albany was awash in so much local Sturgeon it was known as "Albany beef."

    And while it's not entirely distinct to Albany, our seasonal soft-serve shacks are a religious experience to many (as our the apple cider donuts from our regional orchards).

    Unique to the region are Harvest Spirit's Applejack, which may be the best version of the stuff available in the U.S. and has rekindled an ancient American tradition.

    I could go on.

    What all these things need is some better promotion. Because there are people who have been living here for a decade who have never tried a mini hot dog from Famous Lunch or a Fish Fry from Ted's. And that's just wrong.

  7. We did make it to Famous Lunch, and it was very good (It is is my guidebook I bought when I first moved here funny enough). Maybe part of it is what I sort of said in my first paragraph - when you are from somewhere you don't realize it is specific to that place. It takes not being from somewhere to see differences. So people don't brag about these things or promote them, because maybe they don't realize they are unique? And then not promoting them doesn't help outsiders to learn about those things.

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