While living out of a suitcase has definite drawbacks, one of the bonuses of visiting new places is trying local foods. Because my family both moved and traveled a great deal as I grew up, I learned early the joy of sampling regional delights every time I hit the road.
Around central Kansas, I love taste-testing bierocks, green bean dumpling soup, galuskies, and kolaches in different communities. If I’m lucky, such a feast also offers fried noodles as a side dish to accompany these favorites.
In Rocky Mountain mining country, I look for eateries that dish up traditional pasties. This choice food of the men who work deep underground every day has a flaky crust that reminds me of pie. The filling of chopped roast beef, potatoes, turnips, and onions simmered in brown gravy is like visiting Grandma’s for lunch after church on Sunday.
These miner specialties worked as bierocks did in our region. On their way out the door to work in the morning, men tucked the warm meal in their pockets to keep fingers toasty. At lunch, the former hand warmers served as belly fillers, providing energy to finish a day’s hard labor.
In Texas and New Mexico, I venture from restaurant to restaurant searching for the perfect chile relleno. Nothing beats a hand-dipped and cheese stuffed poblano pepper fried in sizzling oil. The savory topping adds even more kick to a taste-bud exploding meal.
Every one of the regional specialties I’ve mentioned is memorable, but my all-time favorite is Indian fry bread. I love it hot from a grease bath and slathered with honey. At Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah, I ate it in the form of a sheepherder’s sandwich. The cook used two pieces of fry bread to create a roast beef, cheese, and onion hot sandwich. When I make it at home, we eat it smothered with hot chili and topped with cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes in a Navajo taco. I coat leftovers with cinnamon and sugar. It’s even delicious plain. I don’t think I’ve eaten freshly made fry bread I didn’t like.
A sad aside about this food favorite is that it came into existence when native tribes were forced to give up nomadic lives to enroll at Indian Agencies to receive government subsidies. People who hunted, gathered, and sometimes grew their own crops successfully for centuries had to depend on federally issued bacon and weevily white flour to fill their stomachs. Using these unfamiliar ingredients, they learned bacon rendered fat, and flour and water created dough.
With a bit of ground wheat, leavening agent, salt, water or milk, and a pan of bubbling grease, cooks created a food that enabled them to fill lots of rumbling bellies. This reminds me of Jesus feeding the multitudes. From another perspective, Native American author Sherman Alexie fondly remembers great fry bread cooks of his youth on the Spokane Reservation in his novels.
While each of my regional favorites has a unique flavor, they share a common factor. Bierocks, galuskies, green bean dumpling soup, kolaches, pasties, chile rellenos, and fry bread use easy-to-find ingredients, and they aren’t hard to make.
Hitting the road isn’t only about seeing new sights. It’s also about sampling new foods and picking up new recipes. I never know when I’ll find a fresh favorite.