With summer fast approaching, Kim and I are looking forward to something we haven’t been able to do in what seems like forever – taking a summer vacation.
It’ll only be five days and, though many of our friends will be heading to a beach or the mountains, we’re only going to around Peoria, Ill., for a family event. But, honestly, we could not be more excited if we were headed to St. Kitts or the Andes. We’re also planning to drive, and the 12 hours or so up and back (with an overnight each way) will be a long-overdue chance to explore some spots we’ve never seen. Or at least I’ve never seen, having not spent much time in the Great American Heartland outside of Kansas City, Chicago or St. Louis for business purposes.
As with any part of the world, this particular part of the Midwest has its own particular culinary favorites. In this case, it’s the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich – an oversized piece of pounded-out pig that dwarfs the bread that attempts to corral it, akin to a giant wiener schnitzel stuck between two budget-priced Wal-Mart buns. I’ve heard it’s wonderful and the photos I’ve seen look great. I’ll be finding out in a month or so.
As a chef and restaurant operator, few things irk me more than when someone goes to an unfamiliar place and tries to make the local food fit their own palate. We see it all the time here in New Orleans and all over south Louisiana, when tourists try to get us to tone things down or otherwise alter a local favorite so what makes it unique has been removed. Seems to me the best part of going anyplace is diving whole-hog into what’s being served and do one’s best to enjoy like the locals. I might not like it – but if I don’t, it’s not because I didn’t try it in its full glory.
I call this the McDonaldsization of America, or the Applebee’sing of our nation. This is not to slight McDonalds or Applebee’s – both very successful chains. And, to be honest, sometimes I’m in a particular mood for a particular thing and these places specialize in being the same everywhere. There’s room for that and should be – but it’s not what I call being on vacation. If a tourist comes to New Orleans and wants that kind of food, we have McDonald’s and Applebee’s here. Please don’t try to make the local places that specialize in local cuisine do something they don’t do. Thank you.
I’ve had some very good and very bad surprises in tasting various local cuisines. I thought the combination of mashed potatoes and sauerkraut would be the worst thing I’d ever put in my mouth. But when done right, like they do it in Wisconsin, it is tremendous. On the other hand, the smoked mullet that’s a favorite in the Florida Big Bend failed miserably. They smoke that trash fish until you can eat it bones and all – and I’ve never had any that’s worth the time to pick it up. Its saving grace is it is usually served with cheese grits, which are almost always excellent.
Hopefully, on this trip, I’ll be able to pick up a good plate of Memphis barbecue. And I’m sure we’ll also stop at a Steak ‘n’ Shake (I know it’s a big chain, but it’s a good one and it has been too long) or maybe I’ll get a chance to sample something else new. I have yet to eat a Five Guys burger or go inside a Red Robin. I have no clue what’s up there, but finding out is part of the fun – and that includes chain restaurants that have built themselves to their size by doing something right. Ain’t no shame in that.
Eat like a local on your summer vacation.. And enjoy some different chain food as well. It’ll give you more stories to tell when you get back.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.