Thursday, April 17, 2014

Place Named Foods

Originally published Gazette Newspapers, May 2003. Updated April, 2014         

As a food columnist one of the perks I often get to exploit is the tax deductibility of many of my meals, specialty foods and even some vacations. Case in point, last week I was visiting my sister in Colorado, and during one of our conversations the subject of food came up. I jokingly said that “sometime during this trip I need to eat a Denver omelet so that I can write about it and deduct the cost of this trip.” But alas, in a spirit of full disclosure and for the benefit of any IRS auditor who may be reading, I did not eat a Denver omelet in Denver, so I won’t be deducting this trip.
         
The conversation, however, did get me thinking about various place named foods. Denver omelets, Buffalo chicken wings, Philly cheese steaks, Boston baked beans, Boston Cream Pie and Monterey jack cheese to name a few. Many of these foods especially the Denver Omelet and Buffalo wings have become so ubiquitous that we order them without even considering their origins or their history.

The Denver Omelet, for instance, has been a staple of hash houses, diners and coffee shops throughout the U.S. for decades. For those unfamiliar with this diner delicacy it is an omelet made with fried ham, onions, bell pepper and cheese. Oddly enough this staple of Americana was one of the most difficult foods to learn anything about.

My initial quest for the origins of the Denver omelet turned up very little. In fact, the only mention of its origins I found was at an Internet site called stiffs.com.  On their “Obits and Pieces” page they attribute the Denver omelet to the late television and film actor Denver Pyle (Uncle Jesse Duke to anyone who grew up in the 80s). Denver Pyle was born in Colorado and he has an early culinary background, having worked as a short order cook for 3 days in the 1930s. But unfortunately, I have yet to find any other evidence to corroborate this connection.



However, several older cookbooks and a few culinary history books cast some light on the omelet’s secrets.  Both the “American Heritage Cookbook,” and the “American Century Cookbook,” claim that the Denver Omelet is a staple of the “Westward Ho days” when pioneer women out of necessity masked the flavor of eggs, which had rotted or went bad from exposure on the trip west, by mixing them onions, peppers and cured meats.

Others argue that the overland trail stories are pure food myth. Evan Jones in “American Food: The Gatronomic Story” asserts it was actually Chinese cooks working on the railroads in Colorado and Utah who invented the omelet. She writes, “When a hungry cowboy asked for a snack between meals…the Chinese cook prepared eggs foo yung by making the traditional Oriental omelet from meats and vegetables at hand--in this case the green pepper that was grown by early Spanish in the West, along with onions and some chopped ham…This hasty Chinese creation became the prototype of one of the most American of all omelets, the Denver omelet.”

Whether it was settlers on the Oregon Trail, Chinese laborers or Uncle Jesse who invented the Denver omelet the name itself doesn’t be come a fixture in our national vernacular until the early 20th century. The term Denver omelet, at least according to “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” began appearing on western restaurant menus in 1925 and became a nearly universal menu item by 1935.

Buffalo Chicken wings are a bit less mysterious and yet almost as controversial. While it’s hard to image a time when our favorite watering holes didn’t serve these fiery poultry parts, Buffalo Wings are a relatively new culinary invention and one whose exact origin are legend amongst New Yorkers. The story I subscribe to says that they were invented in 1964 at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York. Yes, I know if you’re from New York you’ve probably got another story of the wings origins, but in true New York style, I don’t care this is my column and I’m telling the story.

Most people believe, including the stuffy New Yorker and the New York Times, that Teressa Bellisimo who owned the Anchor Bar with her husband frank invented Buffalo chicken wings on a whim. The way she told the story, it was 1964 when her son Dominic and his friends came to the bar looking for a quick late night snack. “Mother Teressa” (People in Buffalo have beatified her) who was preparing to make chicken stock with a bunch of wing parts decided she’d serve these to her famished son and his friends. Improvising, she stuck the wings under the broiler (later they switched to deep frying), sprinkled them with a hot sauce she concocted from a commercially available base (Frank's), took some celery sticks off the antipasto dishes, put some blue cheese dressing (the house dressing) in a small bowl and served them, and thus was born a bar food classic.

The popularity of these wings was almost immediate. According to Calvin Trillin, writer for the New Yorker musicians who played at the Bar were so taken by these wonderful wings that they began asking other bars to duplicate the recipe. Many obliged and the Buffalo area began brimming with chicken wings. By 1975 Buffalo snow-birds who migrated to south Florida during the winter brought with them the wings and a desire to sell them. Edmund Hauck a retiree is credited with making wings a nation-wide phenomenon. In 1976 he opened Wings N' Curls, the first chain of restaurants specializing in wings, and by 1992 the company had stores in Florida, Indiana and California.


In 1981 Craig Claiborne food writer for the New York Times featured Buffalo wings in one of his syndicated columns and the rest as they say is History. Wings and the desire for them became omnipresent in bars and restaurants nation wide. By the early 90s fast food establishments like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Dominoes were all selling wings. Today Buffalo wings are a 400 million dollar a year product just for Pizza Hut and several Wings establishments have gone international. Wild Wings & Weck has an outlet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Salsa Cabana, a Tex-Mex restaurant sells thousands of wings a week to its customers in Yotsuya, Japan. It seems everyone is wing crazy.

So, the next time you bite into a Boston Cream Pie, or a slice of Monterey Jack remember your food has a history too.

Buffalo Wings (adapted from several recipes on ChowHound.com) 

Chicken:
36 chicken wing pieces (drums and flats)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose flour


Sauce:

1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
7 tablespoons of  Frank's Red Hot Sauce, or Tabasco, or  Durkee's sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter 


Toss the chicken wings in oil, salt and flour, shake of excess and bake in 425 degree oven for 20 mins, turn and bake 20 minutes more (or fry in a deep fryer until wings are golden brown).

While chicken is cooking combine sauce ingredients in a sauce pan, bring to a simmer for 5 minutes.

When chicken is done cooking, toss in warmed sauce until evenly coated and serve.


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