Food Snob Chronicles – Are we eating in? Or eating out?

Menus change. Right along with the times.

The typical U.S. dinner menu in the 1950s looked like something you’d get in a school cafeteria — potato ‘frosted’ meatloaf, tuna surprise and canned lima beans. In the 1970s, when we weren’t drinking down fondue, we were eating a lot more TV dinners — salisbury steak or turkey and dressing. By the 1990s, ranch dressing was served on everything from chopped salads to turkey pita pockets, and we’d already decided that microwave ovens were better suited for bags of popcorn. These days? We’re all over the culinary map when it comes to what we’re eating at home.

Much of it though is inspired not by the stuff we remember Grandma making, but the stuff thawed — and microwaved — by the 16-year-old kid at the local chuck & pluck. Yep. Fast food joints, and restaurants in general, seem to be steering our tastebuds in a different direction than that of our ancestors.

McDonald’s Fries
OK. A lot of fast food joints have served fries through the years. But McDonald’s fried theirs in a combination of vegetable oil and beef tallow, which is why the place gets top honors. — While most of us aren’t dropping fries in the deep fryer every night, we’re slapping them into the oven. Have you seen the size of your frozen potato section at the grocery store? Remember that same (much smaller) section 25 years ago?

Pizza Hut
Long before Dominoes and Papa John’s came onto the scene with their quasi pizzas, Pizza Hut was putting mom & pop artisans out of business. There was a time not so long ago that Chef Boyardee brand pizza mix was the only option at the market. But nowadays? Look across that long freezer of frozen potatoes and you’ll see an equally long section of pizza varieties. Somebody’s buying them.

Chinese food
I hate to be the spoiler, but that General Tso’s Chicken, Orange Beef and Chow Mein that you’ve been picking up at Mr. Chow’s are … American. General Tso is a mythical person — or at least unknown by any Chinese friends of mine. And Orange Beef is a knock-off of the popular dish named for the mythical general. As for Chow Mein? Yeah, it’s somewhat authentic, if you leave out the meat and half of the seasonings we enjoy here. Fact is, the Chinese people were (and generally still are) not with the amenities — such as free-flowing gas or electric — as we Americans. Furthermore, they don’t have an Iowa or Texas, where beef cows are as plentiful as mosquitoes. And some Chinese provinces are well within the coastal areas, which omits Happy Family or Black Pepper Scallops from the authentic menu. Sorry, folks. The stuff on that buffet was most likely concocted in San Fransisco.

Tacos
Though there are accounts of fried U-shaped tortillas showing up in New Mexico in the 1940s, Glen Bell is widely credited for filling the crunchy shells with mystery meat, plastic-like lettuce shreds, mealy tomatoes and some sort of wicked cheese. Yep. Same guy. (And you thought the ‘Bell’ was from old Mexico?) — Sorry Food TV fans, Aarón Sánchez and the Ortega company didn’t invent the shells for those Tuesday night tacos. Neither did the Old El Paso company, which actually originated in New Mexico. But both companies and their savvy marketing departments have made damn sure that many Americans celebrate ‘Mexican Night’ or ‘Mexican Made Easy.’

Caesar Salad
The history of this now-iconic salad is disputed. There’s the Caesar Cardini camp, which believes that the Tijuana, Mexico restaurateur invented the bowl of egg-laden greens for hungry Marines who crossed the border to drink alcohol during the Prohibition. We also have the Giacomo Junia fan club. They swear that Junia originated the dish in Chicago in 1903. — Either way, Caesar Salad is served in every restaurant and convenience store in the country. And the salad dressing selection these days is nothing like the Thousand Island and Italian selection of the 1970s and 1980s.

Bottled Caesar dressing is the number three seller in the U.S. behind ranch and vinaigrettes.

Nachos
This popular pub (and home) grub is said to have originated in a border town across from Eagle Pass, Texas in the 1940s. According to many food historians, the now-famous appetizer first appeared in a San Antonio restaurant in the 1950s. The liquid cheese (or queso) version first appeared at Arlington Stadium at a Texas Rangers’ home game in 1976. It was introduced by none other than Frank Liberto, owner of Rico’s — the same stuff on the shelves of the Hispanic section of your local grocer. Frito Lay and other companies have followed suit in a huge way.

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If you aren’t from the Midwest, you’ve not likely heard of the Maid-Rite chain. Their specialty? Loose ground beef sandwiches. Sort of like Sloppy Joe’s … without the nasty Manwich-style sauce. I was introduced to a homemade version of these about 25 years ago and thought they were a family recipe. Then, along came the Internet.

Maid-Rite sandwiches are what they are — slow-cooked ground beef and onions. They are messy. Not very attractive to look at. And addictive. Some cooks go a little crazy with the ingredient list, adding various herbs, spices and bottled sauces. But this is truly a 4-ingredient dish: Ground beef, onion, salt and pepper.

I prefer mine with mayonnaise, American cheese and a couple of pickle slices. They are traditionally served with a tomato slice, fake cheese and mustard. No matter what, you must have these on steamed buns. No frills. Delicious.

Maid-Rites

Maid-Rite sandwiches. Simple. Delicious. Addictive.

Maid-Rite sandwiches. Simple. Delicious. Addictive.

2 lb – Ground beef
1 – Medium Onion, diced
1 TB – Salt
1 TB – Black pepper

Place all ingredients in a large Dutch oven or slow cooker. Cover with water by about an inch. Cook on low heat for about 4 hours; or at the ‘low’ setting for about 6 hours.

Drain and serve on steamed hamburger buns with your favorite hamburger toppings and a stack of napkins.

Serves 5, with seconds for someone.

Comments

  1. Wow! I never realized that “Pappy’s Piles” were actually Maid-Rites.
    The grandfather of my best friend was Pappy, and I lived for the nights we were invited to have dinner at his house. Crumbled beef in my lap and yellow mustard on my shirt. Those were the days!

  2. Very eye opening!! Thank you!

  3. Never heard of Maid-Rites, but Sloppy Joes, yeah, and ours were homemade, no Manwich for us…couldn’t afford those ‘convenience’ items! As for all these eating out places, I can’t even remember the last time I darkened any of their doors…of course, I admit, I do sneak into PFChangs on occasion…and, it’s not real Chinese? Oh, man, I’m crushed! Great post, and, yep, I’ll try those Maid Rites!

  4. Our favorite Chinese take-out place recently burned to the ground due to a grease fire. :( Never heard of Maid-Rites, but now I have to ask: Do you think Philly has the best Philly cheese steaks?

    • Technically, Megan, Philly has the only Philly cheese steaks. The rest are just Philly-style cheese steaks. Truth is … I’ve eaten cheese steaks from roach coaches and mom & pop restaurants between D.C. and NYC and there were a lot of good ones. My favorite one ever, though, was from Pat’s — the king of cheese steaks (in Philly). Oh, the sandwich was no better than the one made at WaWa in Manahawkin, NJ. But I really enjoyed being yelled at at America’s original cheese steak joint.

  5. I worked for a place that was owned by the Chinese. When they came to visit my boss thought they would love the local China Buffet. I knew they wouldn’t. Their systems can’t handle all the fat in the dishes!

    I’m glad the trend now is fresh ingredients. Some decades were a bit scary!

    • I remember eating at a place on Long Beach Island, NJ on a regular basis (my favorite Chinese restaurant ever and the inspiration for my Gold Coin recipe). Anyway, the matriarch of the family was forever eating Italian subs or eggs and bacon, while everyone else in her family (all first generation immigrants from China) stuck with rice and soup. She was definitely trying to become Westernized. I’m sure her colon paid the price. ;-)

  6. Maid-Rites? I’d never heard of them before! We always called tacos and nachos “border food” because we knew it couldn’t actually be authentic Mexican! Thanks for the food history and clarification…

  7. Sigh. All of this just makes me homesick. We’ve got McD and Pizza Hut here, but nachos, Caesar salad and tacos have not really made the leap across the big pond. Chinese is available everywhere, but highly Japanized, meaning heavily soy-sauced. I guess every country adapts imported cuisine to suite it’s own palate.

  8. Love this!

  9. ok, now i don’t know what to make first, the enchiladas or these burgers. Looks good Adam.

  10. juanitascocina says:

    Made these. They’re the BOMB. That’s all.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Menus change. Right along with the times. The typical U.S. dinner menu in the 1950s looked like something you'd get in a school cafeteria — potato 'frosted' meatloaf, tuna surprise and canned lima …  […]

  2. […] as soon as I saw THESE LOOSE MEAT SANDWICHES over on one of my favorite blogs, The Unorthodox Epicure, I was all…”Roseaaaaannnnne […]

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