the food of my youth
Today is simple, an ode to food and how it can be a corollary to happiness. Whether eaten at home or together in a favorite restaurant, it is the people we share it with that complete the dream.
My hometown is a suburb of Buffalo, NY. The region has an interesting history and is a great mix of ethnicity. This has led to great food culture. One of my memories of my teen years has returned in my later life so tonight we will talk about the food of my youth.
I have been adjusting my eating and other habits to better manage my blood glucose. There is more art than science to it for me at least. My life with diabetes is a bit like Goldilocks. The combination of food, drink, exercise, sleep, and stress in just the right ratios and my handy continuous glucose monitor (CGM) lets me know that all is right in the world for me. It is not as difficult as I might make it sound but it all goes pear-shaped with stress which seems the most difficult to manage. The truth is that each case is different and you just have to figure out what works for you. Last weekend I made two pounds of dry black beans, two pounds of pinto beans, and a pound of great northern beans.
By any objective measure, that is a lot of beans but these days I eat three servings of beans of some sort every day. So WHAT THE HECK does this have to do with the food culture of my youth. Buffalo has native food and eschews the chain. While others embraced Taco Bell and later Chipotle, in WNY it is all about “The Mighty Taco”. There was so much great food in my hometown as I remember it. Here’s a nice profile of some of those foods.
Pizza in a land where the chains do not tread
It always seemed that any trip home included pizza. I found a story that estimates there are about 600 pizzerias in the Buffalo area and amongst them are 13 Pizza Huts, 6 Domino’s, 6 Little Caesars, and a single Papa John’s. While chain restaurants have come to dominate most cities in America, food remains local in Buffalo. If you are interested, the story includes a long-form 25-minute talk about pizza. I would imagine most of the chains encircle the University of Buffalo campuses where out-of-towners can be comfortable with the reliability of a chain. The expression that comes to mind is “they are as happy as if they had good sense”. Time for an opinion expressed in the photo below. Buffalo has a distinctive ‘style’ to their pizza often with toppings to the edge:
In the 1970s, a local Buffalo take on Mexican food emerged in WNY called “the Mighty Taco”. A far cry from Taco Bell, and sometimes a bit like Chipotle. Anyhow, when you were low on money, there was always enough change to purchase an extra bean burrito. Now, here I am 40+ years later and I have returned to bean burritos of my design. My version is a flaxseed wrap, quinoa, a scoop of Cuban black beans, a scoop of homemade pinto beans all topped with red cabbage, scallions, and some avocado. Everything I need; tastes great, and I always have a steady supply. What used to be time for a sandwich has been transformed. The truth is though, if I were back home, my burrito of choice would be from “Mighty Taco”. The commercials for Mighty Taco are regional and weird. If you let this starting video just scroll you will get the gist of the cult. This is one of my favorite Christmas-themed commercials.
Mighty Taco epitomizes Buffalo food culture. This is a HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL chain of what some locals might call Buff-Mex eating. Taco Bell and Chipotle suffer in comparison in the eyes of the locals. In the same way, there are no chain pizzerias, this 20 location chain continues to thrive in WNY. The commercials have always been highly irregular and are charming in a unique way. Here’s a profile from the website foodandwine.com that captures what makes the Mighty Taco special. If your travels take you to Niagara Falls and the surrounding area, don’t leave without giving it a try.
The Mighty Hot Dog
On any trip home to visit family, we always made time for a trip to Ted’s Hot Dogs. What is Ted’s you might ask? Imagine a fast-food restaurant that closes during the winter and charcoal grills premium hotdogs and sausages. Yes, that is right, the staff is constantly loading bags of charcoal briquets and cooking indoors. Without a doubt, although an oxymoron to some, a great hot dog.
One of my sons, when he graduated from High School wanted to serve hot dogs for his graduation party. Rented an enormous grill, put on a paper hat, and flew in Sahlen’s hot dogs from back home. It was a rousing success! A wave of Greek immigration also brought an unusual variation on the hot dog best personified by a place named Louie’s Texas Red Hots. On a late-night foray, one merely looked at the man behind the counter and said two up which meant two dogs with the standard trimmings would be served quickly at the counter after a quick wipedown.
Beef Like No Other
In a previous post titled “Food Time - Beef on Weck” I explained the peculiarities of my favorite specialty of my youth, the Roast Beef on Kummelweck sandwich. I believe the best take on the sandwich is offered at Schwabl’s, an institution since 1837 that will serve the sandwich with a great side of German Potato Salad.
Our local confectioner was Wahl’s. A Home turned into a storefront at the edge of the Polish suburb of Cheektowaga. Candies of all shapes and sizes. The specialty of the region was sponge candy and orange milk chocolate. I can still taste it in my mind’s eye. While I didn’t experience chocolate quite like this as I ventured out into the world, I simply assumed that meant I was nostalgic. When the Mall of America was opened with much fanfare in the suburb of the Twin Cities named Bloomington, the challenge of 1000+ stores and kiosks meant there were a lot of slots to fill. A well-known national operation founded in Durango CO, “The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory” became one of the must-stop retail options now open in flyover country.
I went in there one day to investigate the options. I asked about orange milk chocolate and sponge candy. They offered neither. I happened to open up a conversation with either the manager or the owner of the store. I shared the story of the candy of my youth. I talked about my long-ago memories of looking at the options at Wahl’s. He paused and said, oh, yes, Wahl’s. They are well known and we use their chocolate mixing machines. While I doubt my memory was the same Wahl’s, I did not need to inquire any further. Sometimes it is important to hear a story even if it is not true. There is no place like home.
Let’s Not Forget the Wings
For the visitor, Buffalo is synonymous with the chicken wing. There are indeed some great local versions. My favorite is Duff’s. When we would make a trip back, my wife and I always carved out some time together to have our outing at Duff’s. A fond memory of days gone by. While I love the local chicken wings, many of the other favorites I discuss in this post are, for me, the things to look for.
Time Has Expired
I did not forget about spaghetti parm (Chef’s), or a great fish fry (Hoak’s). I simply ran out of time.
My Best Food Memories
My Mom passed away in 2018. We are all partial to the food of our youth. If you are from a place like Buffalo, the associations are with local specialties. What I remember the most was the consistency and commitment of a Mom that loved us unconditionally. As a Polish-American who knew what comfort food meant, Mom best exemplified that in her cooking. When we eat fast food I think we often seek “reliability and conformity”. My memory of Mom was that she took all that she did so seriously and always gave it her best.
Mom baked incessantly. She cleaned up as she moved along. The cookies and pies and cakes were always great. What I remember were her attention to detail and the resulting uniformity. The cookies were always the same size, never underbaked, never burned on top. Mom wasn’t one to experiment with a tried and true recipe. Mom liked to color between the lines. She made all sorts of ethnic foods outside of her comfort zone.
When I think of the real food of my youth I think of the stability Mom brought to our home. My Dad was a shift worker and our house still operated like we were on a normal schedule.
The food I remember best was homemade pierogi and golumpki. It wasn’t until my forties and fifties that I discovered these in a wonderful Ukrainian restaurant in Minneapolis. The truth was I never ventured beyond the ones Mom used to make. Hers were smaller, more uniform, and just right. RIP Mom.
After I was married, my food memories became even richer. In every way one could measure commitment, my wife worked so hard in all aspects of our relationship. In the same way that Mom worked at it, my wife added a twist. She was willing to experiment and the effort and selflessness enriched our lives. She was creative and willing to color outside the lines. How something tasted in the early days was never the point. It was the effort and the love. I remember returning from Thanksgiving home in Buffalo when we were dating. I returned to turkey soup in Minnesota. It was wonderful. The taste was great but the love with which it was made was my everlasting memory.
Food as memory is what inspired this post and this is how it will end; just dreams of turkey soup. It will ALWAYS REMAIN the very best thing I have ever eaten.
The song tonight is “foodish”. Song #1 is for all of you who understand the cult nature of the Mighty Taco and their commercials.
We are coming to the finish line and I’m a little blue. The first month of writing in October of 2021 was an adventure. I was excited but did not know if this was a habit I could make my own. I tweaked the plan in so many ways and steadily gained readers. I came to feel responsible to write a good story and I hope I did that for most of you. On Saturday we continue with CRISPR Part 3. We did Parts 1 & 2 last Saturday and Sunday. After a certain amount of time (not that long) I came to love writing. While it was never easy, it was fulfilling and worthwhile.
It even managed to make me “love the treadmill”. The treadmill became the place where I just didn’t log the steps I needed to sustain my health, it became the place where an idea for a post would germinate. If I decided to make it a longish 8000 step jaunt, I was conscious after 4000 steps if I had not yet found an inspiration. This became my weird and personal creative process.
When writing became hard, I took it hard. Life became a little harder and it upset my applecart. I hope that life can pivot back soon. One of the first things I might try and do is write again. I hope that happens.