The Foods…of my Americana

Part 3 in a never-ending attempt at defining my Americana.

A true part of Americana, my Americana were Sunday family dinners and since it was Sunday, that meant my mom’s roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy and whatever vegetable they forced on meI could stomach the canned green beans and peas, but never those vile lima beans.  A quick trip to the bathroom with a mouthful of those disgusting beans destined to be spit into the toilet was pretty much guaranteed to be replaced with a fresh serving when I got back to the table, along with the parental edict, “I don’t care how long it takes, you’re not getting up until that plate is clean.”

…couldn’t get anything over on them.

I enjoyed the fresh Jersey tomatoes and corn in the summer, and who doesn’t like a nice, light cucumber salad, heck I could even swallow the Green Giant creamed corn, but Lima beans were just one of the foods I swore I would never eat again once I moved out of my parents house, the same for baked beans, cream chipped beef on anything, eggplant, milk bone dog biscuits (that was on my own, nobody made me) and a whole list of other foods, mostly vegetables, too long for this space. Surprisingly, Scrapple is not on the list. And to my credit, I never made my kids eat anything I wouldn’t eat, no matter how much nutritional value Joe Carcione ( the Green Grocer) claimed it had. I’m many things, but I am not a hypocrite.

Growing up in my own little Americana, there was one food that ruled them all, King Sugar. It bordered on addiction, and probably was. It didn’t matter in what form I got it, Tastykakes, Hostess fruit pies (the glazed ones, my favorites), or by the spoonful right from the Dominos Sugar bag. I wanted it in or on anything I ate, still do, still addicted, I just don’t eat it from the bag anymore. My wife puts it into a Tupperware container as soon as she brings it home from the store. And all those Tastykakes, and all those Hostess fruit pies were bankrolled by early collections on my paper route…

…remember when kids delivered your paper, to your door (mostly)…

…it didn’t matter which paper I was delivering, the Philadelphia Bulletin or the Burlington County Times, I knew which customers tipped, how much, and if it was okay to collect on Tuesday and not Friday, (“Because my family is going on vacation, sir.”) thereby fueling the addiction. With money in hand, it was off to that fancy new 7-11 on the corner downtown, across from Mr. Jones’s clock store, where my only choice was cherry or blueberry. Or should I get a Slurpee?

If I had a great week delivering newspapers, and maybe had some extra money, I used  it to purchase a different kind of  junk food. McDonald’s or Gino’s Hamburgers (what many now know as KFC) were the fastest and cheapest, and yes, maybe the worst, food I could get my hands on. And if my mom and dad knew I was riding my bike around the Marlton Circle they would have killed me, faster than the food I was eating. Even today, for many always on the go Americans (I’m just too lazy to cook) McDonalds still dishes out those same burgers. I would think, to our dismay, that would have to put them in the Americana class of food.

Just about any kid who attended public school in the 1960’s and the 70’s probably had a school lunch at one time or another. Who could forget those lovable lunch ladies spooning out whatever was the creation of the day. Fish sticks, grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza like none you’ve never tasted at any pizzeria, or hot dogs. imageMore concerning than what’s this made out of, was the question of who were these women, and why, if I lived in a small town, did I not know any of them? None of my friends ever claimed to have a mom who worked in the cafeteria. Mine never did. Don’t you find that a bit troubling as well? For me and my sisters, lunch was usually simpler, PB&J or some kind of lunch meat with cheese on white bread, bruised fruit, and if we didn’t already eat them all at home, a Devil Dog. Placed with love by our mom in a brown paper bag or one of those cool metal lunch boxes. Remember, they came with a thermos bottle, guaranteed to break after just a couple of weeks, but mostly after you dropped the box for the first time.

Many of the foods we eat I would define as regional Americana. That is, foods created in other countries but now popularized in an American city. Pizza is probably the most recognizable of this group. New York City is credited with having the country’s first pizzaria and in 1905, we were introduced to coal-fired pizza. Chicago gave us deep dish pizza while in New Haven, Connecticut, thin crust pizza was the popular choice.

In Philadelphia it’s the cheesesteak. The debate over who makes the best Philly cheesesteak is carried out every night in South Philly by two of the oldest shops in town, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks, which sit across the street from each other.

Speed and simplicity are the rule when ordering a cheesesteak at these locations. Three simple words, one, whiz, with, gets you a cheesesteak with Cheez-Whiz and fried onions. Just an opinion here, but any food that ends in the word –Whiz, is probably pretty low on the nutritional value scale, and therefore not good for you.

Much like pizza however, you don’t have to live in Philly to get a good steak sandwich. Whether in PA, as I am now, or the NJ suburbs where I grew up, I’ve always found a shop who makes a good one. And put some fried onions on it and now you can say you’ve had a vegetable for the day.

And, what is probably the most popular appetizer anywhere, especially on football Sunday’s, buffalo wings, now come in just about any restaurant, tossed in a number of different sauces, as well as my personal preference, boneless (why get your hands dirty?)Buffalo wings gained attention back in the early 1980’s thanks in part to the Buffalo Bills, losers of 4 straight Super Bowls. No nationally televised Bills game comes without a sequence of a cook somewhere in Buffalo mixing up an order of wings.

Are you a fan of eating contests? Buffalo wings and hot dogs are the key staples in two of the largest and most popular eating contests anywhere…

…Wing Bowl in Philadelphia and Nathan’s Hot Dog  eating contest at Coney Island. 

At this past Wing Bowl? The winner received a Harley Davidson Fatboy motorcycle along with a $10,000 championship medal and ring.  The runner-up took home $5,000 and the winner in the Local Division claimed a 2016 Hyundai Santa Fe. Even this year’s Wingette of the Year pulled in a cool 5 grand. The winning eater? She ate 420+ wings and at 5’7″ and just 120 lbs., the last thing she looks like is a competitive eater.

Holiday dinners were always among my favorites growing up. Thanksgiving and Christmas were always the best, a turkey filled with my mom’s stuffing was the beast of the day. And it was one of the few times a year when you could get a good slice of mince pie or fruit cake, if you believed in such things. As a kid my parents were involved with the local V.F.W. Around Thanksgiving they would have a Turkey Shoot, they shot at targets, not turkeys, with the winners getting a nice Butterball turkey for their family dinner. My dad let me and my sisters shoot when we were old enough, and it was here I discovered I was unable to close (blink)my left eye, which is kind of important when you’re trying to line up the target. After failing to get the desired results by just covering my eye with something, one of the well-meaning vets barked, “Teach the kid to shoot left-handed!” It was after that first left-handed attempt that they took back the shotgun and told me to go in and get a Coke and a bag of Cheez-curls. So ended my chance at a career as a sniper.

It wasn’t until I met my wife that I was introduced to the tradition of The 7 Fishes on Christmas Eve (6 of which I disliked intensely), and lasagna on Christmas Day. It was imageabsolute culture shock, although after 27 years of marriage I’ve finally come to grips with lasagna on Christmas. The fishes, still not so much. My family usually hides at home now on Christmas Eve, like I said earlier, I would never make my kids eat something I wouldn’t eat myself,  and after attending Mass, we have a dinner of pizza or some kind of sandwich. Not much of a tradition, but it’s ours.

The backyard barbecue is a slice of Americana observed by many families during the summer, especially on the holidays.These events feature all-American favorites like barbecue ribs, smoked chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs, corn on the cob, and macaroni and potato salads. When my son was going through scouting, our troop would have a “family day” on the last Saturday of summer camp. Families would contribute their own side dishes and desserts, and the troop would cook a pig to be shared by all. I attended many camps as the troop Quartermaster Advisor, (or Adviser, your choice) and the smell of that pig cooking all day made the hot summer days making sure scouts attended their merit badge classes well worth it. That and watching 2 grown men having a friendly disagreement on how it should be cooked. How many different ways can you cook a pig?

Many townships, counties, and boroughs will often have a large celebration each year where everyone is invited. Fun I guess, until it gets held in the field behind your house. Two of the better traditional events held at these neighborhood picnics were the pie eating contest and the always fun, and somewhat violent, catch the greased pig. Can there be anything funnier than adults, some who may have enjoyed a beverage or 10, chasing a pig around a field. As a teen in the early 1970’s, I was old enough to participate in a couple of pig chases. Think of it as the kids game of Dog Pile, the game where everyone jumps on top of the kid with the ball. I was never lucky enough to catch one of those pigs (you have to get it by the legs, wrap it around the body and it will slide away because of the grease) and after the second year I stopped doing it when I asked myself “What the hell am I going to do with a live pig anyway?” And to be honest, it really is kind of a cruel thing to do.

Finally, I’ve mentioned many different foods and even some of the events that are tied to them. So let me end it here with my Top 10 Favorite Candies…in no particular order…

  • Hershey bar w/almonds
  • Chunky Bar
  • Goobers
  • Raisinettes
  • Almond Joy bar
  • Peanut M&M’s
  • NonPariels
  • Reese’s Peanutbutter Cups
  • Strawberry Licorice
  • Turkey Hill Banana Split Ice Cream…I know it’s not candy, but I had to fit ice cream in here somewhere.

As always, if you’ve been able to make it this far without falling asleep, thanks for reading, and I hope you can find time to read some of my other posts.

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