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Of the many characteristics that make a particular region of our country unique and memorable, food is among the most important.
As the melting pot of many different cultures, the United States has also become the mixing pot for many cuisines. To be sure, Americans have been preparing and enjoying regional fare for centuries. In each of the main U.S. culinary regions—New England, Mid-Atlantic, South, Midwest, Southwest/Tex-Mex, West, and Pacific Northwest—there are countless examples of local signature dishes that were introduced by the early European immigrants but modified to take advantage of indigenous products and local tastes.
Not surprisingly, a number of the most beloved regional specialties revolve around a center-of-plate protein: Chesapeake crab cakes, chicken pot pie, St. Louis barbecue, Yankee pot roast, Louisiana jambalaya, Maine lobster, Philadelphia cheesesteak, country fried steak, Southwest chili—the list goes on.
But perhaps no regional American meat specialty has become as popular and prolific in recent years as the venerable Buffalo wing. As meat industry veterans readily recall, it was not all that long ago that chicken wings were considered scraps worthy only of the stockpot.
Today, of course, wings are all the rage far beyond the borders of the Queen City, thanks to Buffalo's Anchor Bar, which is said to have served up its first order in 1964. In keeping with the appetizer's reputation as a mainstay of taverns, restaurants, stadiums, and supermarkets, there are innumerable recipes for wings, ranging from hot and spicy to sweet and savory, with every flavor and ethnic variation in between.
According to Harold Heinze, director of marketing for Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods' retail division: "A few years ago, the industry was all but throwing wings away, and the advent of Buffalo wings really helped create demand for a product that we could sell at retail and make some margin off of." Peak wing season, he adds, surfaces during the winter, particularly for holiday parties and sporting events where appetizers are a must.
Convenience and taste
Bill Welsh, Tyson's processed retail marketing director, says the company has seen steady growth, "not only for chicken wings, but also for our fully cooked products that consumers are eating more of." During the last 52 weeks, Welsh says sales of the processed chicken wing category, in which Tyson maintains a 30-plus percent share of market, rose 9 percent, excluding club store sales.
The category's overall growth "is a reflection of consumers' needs for appetizers, snacks, and hot, hearty, meaty products that give them the convenience and taste they're seeking," says Welsh, adding that the further processed, more convenient products are showing the most dramatic growth.
Wings aside, Charlie Roesch—a.k.a. Charlie the Butcher—whose grandfather left the butcher's block to become mayor of Buffalo in the 1930s, says ethnic influences and local food sources are at the heart of the country's most distinctive regional dishes.
"Nearly everywhere you go in the country, every city has its own specific and unique foods and flavors" based on several generations of various ethnic groups, he points out. And while many regional dishes are similar in the types of food used, Roesch says, "Be it Cleveland, Toledo, Chicago, or Milwaukee, they all have their own distinctive cooking techniques and traditions."
The migration of regional cuisine, Roesch says, is a connecting element that strengthens our national bond. "Food triggers a lot of memories and nostalgia, and draws people back to the places where they were born."
In this regard, Roesch knows of what he speaks. As one of western New York's most recognizable "food ambassadors," he is closely identified with another Buffalo specialty that predates the town's namesake chicken wings: beef on weck.
What the heck is weck, you ask? Along with horseradish, warm beef is piled high on a large, hard kummelweck roll. The "weck," native to the Black Forest of Germany, is topped with caraway seeds and coarse salt that gives the sandwich an audible crunch when eaten. The top half of the roll is dipped in the roast's amber juices just long enough to soften.
During the past year, Roesch and Wegmans Food Markets teamed up to bring the sandwiches to two Wegmans' stores in Amherst and Buffalo, N.Y. via "Charlie the Butcher's Kitchen." Roesch, who swears by Alto- Shaam's cook-and-hold ovens to prepare the beef, says the beauty of the partner- ship not only gives Wegmans a chance to offer consumers a quality product with local ethnic flavor, but also embellishes dollar sales of the stores' prepared foods options without cannibalizing sales of other such products.
"After doing this solo for some 20 years, I didn't think there was anything special about it," Roesch says. "But now that we've put it in a supermarket and made it more convenient, it's just been great for customers." Aside from beef on weck and carved turkey breast, his stations also offer one different main meat item that rotates on daily basis.
The right mix
Noting the pervasive marketing trends directed at children and teens over the past 20 years, Roesch says, "The last place baby boomers would ever think about going out to eat is a supermarket. But there's great potential to get them back by changing the philosophy and shocking them a little bit" with good-tasting products they never thought could be found there.
"Consumers are looking for unique products, and we've found that they're willing to pay for quality. You just have to find that right mix of authenticity and ethnicity in that city to give it a little twist," Roesch adds.
In a similar partnership, St. Louis-based Dierbergs opened on-site Super Smokers Barbecue satellite restaurants inside the front of three stores, near the sit-down café areas. Throughout St. Louis and around the world, Super Smokers has earned rave reviews for its barbecue, dry-rubbed with special seasonings and slowly smoked over applewood fires. The lineup features ribs, brisket, chicken, pulled pork, and side orders for sit-down or takeout orders.
Another longtime staple of the South, Southwest, and Midwest that has gained popularity across the United States is country fried steak. Also called chicken fried steak, it's usually made with tenderized round steak dipped in a mixture of egg and milk, dredged in seasoned flour and/or crumbs, and deep fried until browned and crispy.
The item is a stalwart of Enid, Ok.-based Advance Food Co., which carries a full line of country fried steaks, according to Rhobb Walter, national sales manager. At one time, he says, "they were sold only in the South, but now we have accounts in every state in the country."
Noting that Advance Foods offers a variety of formulations for different retail customers, Walter says his employer has also been enjoying success with other regional meat specialties, including the Wild West chili served at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, fajita strips, and breakaway corned beef, as well as fully cooked Italian-style meatballs, smoked beef brisket, shredded beef, and shredded beef in barbecue sauce.
"Barbecued items—and smoked briskets in particular—were formerly something more popular in Texas, but now people up north also want it," Walter says. Ditto for chili, he adds, which was traditionally sold with beans only in the North and sans beans in the South. "Now we sell a ton of chili in the South with beans, which again goes to show that a lot of regional barriers are broken down because people want things that taste good."
Philadelphia cheesesteaks and fajitas are yet other items consumers have embraced across the land, Walter says. "Five years ago, it was difficult to find a Philly steak outside of eastern Pennsylvania or a fajita beyond Texas, but now you can go to any city in the nation and find them on menus."
Dianna Stoffer, corporate chef for Wooster, Ohio-based Certified Angus Beef, says barbecue and briskets are becoming ever more popular with home cooks. "It used to be that briskets weren't available, but now you can go into a grocery store and buy a smaller portion of brisket and feel comfortable tackling it at home."
Beef tri-tips are also making major inroads as a national favorite, Stoffer says. Made from a boneless cut of meat from the bottom sirloin, the tri-tip was seldom marketed in the days when carcass beef was delivered to stores, because with only two tri-tips per carcass, there wasn't enough for a case display, so the butcher would generally grind or cube it.
"One of our California-based foodservice customers will use close to 400,000 pounds of tri-tips this year," she says, noting yet another important beef entry in recent years—the flatiron steak—that has sparked considerable interest at restaurants and meat counters nationwide.
"Regionalism in cuisine—be it American or international—is one of the biggest trends going on right now," says Stoffer, citing the customized menu used by the Chili's chain, "which not only has a main menu, but also a regional specialties menu that varies throughout the country."
Any discussion of culinary trends, Stoffer says, comes down to people's penchant to "keep it fun and interesting. Folks today are more willing to try new things because of their desire to know all things culinary." And while consumer spending currently may be more restricted, Stoffer believes people are making better choices for their food dollars.