Chili Size

When I was young my parents would take us kids on vacation to the land of my parent’s youth, Arizona. One year my Aunt excitedly took me to a road-side cafe and general store where her friend the proprietor made this wondrous dish I was sure to enjoy. Seems the old gent had been exposed to this dish on a trip back east and when he returned to his little desert bodega, he recreated it from memory.

Boy, was I excited. But then what appeared to be a soggy cracker covered with Velvetta and sliced hot dogs was placed in front of me with a flourish: PIZZA!

Back in the fifties even pizza was not widely known throughout the United States. Growing up in San Diego there was effectively only two restaurants that made pizza. This was before Shakey’s and even before the local pizzaria. When it was my turn to select a birthday dinner, I always demanded Pernicano’s.

Nowadays pizza, like hot dogs and chili, varies depending on where you are in the country.

After graduating from university I travel eastward, ending up in the New York area. First thing I noticed was when ordering in a Chinese restaurant, it was Sweet & Pungent, not Sweet & Sour. Also, the one-from-column-A bit was generally not practiced. And what the heck was a Poo-Poo Platter? Other regionalisms kept popping up: Rueben Sandwiches in LA were hand-held whereas in NJ they were open-faced; my go-to hash browns, beans, or grits disappeared from the breakfast menu and hominy wasn’t even available in the grocery stories.

One year I returned to San Diego with my then girlfriend and at dinner she ordered a soda. My father intervened explaining that she was asking for two-cents plain and if she wanted a fizzy-sugary beverage she must order a pop. It seems silly now but the distinction apparently continues to this day. Then again, it’s a soda pop so I supposed either shortened term is acceptable.

Which brings me to the recent issue of the Sloppy Joe. I have to confess that growing up in San Diego my family didn’t included sloppy joes on even the occasional dinner menu; however, my best friend’s mother was a regular sloppy joe provider. This was the presumably traditional version of sloppy joes: crumbled ground beef, diced onions and peppers, spicy red sauce between a standard hamburger bun. It’s interesting to note that my friend’s mom had a regular meal structure that started with sloppy joes, evolved into chili, followed by spaghertti, and then chili-mac, with Fridays off for mac & cheese or fried shrimp.

The real surprise was eating at a local NJ cafe, ordering a sloppy joe, and being served a well-stacked deli sandwich with various slices of meat and cheese and slaw. I complained and when I described what I considered a sloppy Joe, the waitress looked at me like I was delusional. So add Sloppy Joes to my regional variations list.

Most of my adventures in regional foods occurred during the ’50s, ’60s. and ’70s. Then the world took a twist to the right and I began to regret losing some of the regional differences.

Back in the days we would go on vacation and would often visit the stores and malls to experience the differences around the country. It was Bullock’s in LA, Macy’s in New York, Famous-Barr in St. Louis, Marshall-Field’s in Chicago. I think they’re all Macy’s now and the dress you see in New Jersey is often the same dress hanging on the rack in Waukegan. I don’t know about you, but when I travel to a new and exciting part of the world, I’m not looking to be greeted at the local Walmart.

The same with food. Even if I cringe at calling that deli-sandwich a Sloppy Joe, I appreciate the variety. Even though that desert cafe put sliced hot dogs on their ersatz pizza, it’s better than traveling a hundred miles amid saguaros and tumbleweeds only to discover the town luncheonette is a MacDonalds when I’m hankerin’ for a chili size and a frosty Tecate.

One thought on “Chili Size

  1. A very nostalgic piece that reminded me of the 50s and 60s here in the UK. Now everywhere seems to be Macdonalds, Pizza Hut and similar outlets. The old regional cafes have disappeared largely. Although just recently “artisan” cooking as made a small presence on some High Streets.


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