As someone who loves to make and eat food, I naturally gravitate toward restaurants, markets and specialty food items whenever I’m in a new city. It’s a concrete way to get to know a place. It’s also the perfect way to share my home with visitors. I relish the chance to show off my favorite café or grocery store when friends and family come in from out of town. Lately I’ve been pondering this phenomenon of signature foods associated with our cities. You know that dish or pastry you just have to have when visit a certain place? Or even better, the food item that you mail to friends when you want to give them a taste of your town even though they’re far away? I’ve been wondering if every city has a signature food, and what the significance of these foods are to our overall urban experience.
The concept came to mind a couple months ago when I interviewed for a fellowship in New York City and realized I’d spent the weeks leading up to it craving a black and white cookie like nothing else. Part of that hunger stemmed from the fact that the last two trips I made to New York were sadly devoid of black and white cookie consumption, despite the fact that it was a pastry I’d heard labeled as New York’s signature for years. When I finally bit down on that pillowy cookie with contrastingly crunchy glaze post-interview (in the New York subway no less), I knew I was having an experience that I couldn’t get anywhere else. That taste is unforgettable.
As I’ve been thinking about these signature food items though, I realize that some of my favorite cities don’t seem to have them. Minnesota is undoubtedly the land of wild rice, maple syrup and honey-crisp apples (invented at the University of Minnesota!), but what is Minneapolis known for specifically? If I wanted to offer someone a distinctly Minneapolis delicacy, where would I go? I faced a similar conundrum when I lived in Washington DC. I kept wishing I could mail a food-based gift to my out of town friends, but I was stumped on what that might be. Chili from Ben’s Chili Bowl? Georgetown Cupcakes? I don’t think those would travel so well.
On the hunt for these standout dishes, I have to contemplate what sort of environment generates signature foods in the first place. Signature cuisine has never been a question in my college town for instance; Walla Walla is defined by its wine and sweet onions. My school even sent me a box of those onions when I was accepted. (I’m not kidding.) Meanwhile, recent trips to Milwaukee have shown me a city that loves its hometown beer—from Miller to Schlitz—like nothing else. I’m pretty sure they celebrated St. Patrick’s Day for a week. In places like Walla Walla and Milwaukee, I think the rooted presence of farming culture and industry translates easily into signature foods and pride for the product that an area produces. In the same way, other cities might not have a signature food industry, but they’ve got a famous food location that is emblematic and important to the local economy—the Madison Farmer’s Market for instance, or Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Plenty of our signature foods are also imported—a result of strong immigrant communities and commitments to cultural heritage. When I think about a brief trip through Providence, RI several years ago, my prevailing memory is of the lively Italian neighborhood that filled us with phenomenal pasta. Likewise, the sizeable Asian community in California means that visits to see family in Palo Alto are always accompanied by authentic sushi. (This is also due to the fact that my Japanese aunt knows exactly where to find the good stuff.) I love the fact that we can celebrate our heritage or that of others through visceral experiences like food. Claiming imported foods as signature dishes in our cities serves as a constant reminder that we are, indeed, a nation of immigrants.
Above all, I think signature foods locate us and recall fond memories of sharing meals with loved ones. Just the thought of deep-dish pizza makes me wish I was cozied up in a booth at Giordano’s in Chicago, chowing down with my grandma, uncle and other Illinois relatives. In my mind, the best way to enjoy food is always to share it with others. By sharing the signature foods of our cities, we’re offering a taste of distinct locations associated with adventures to new places or the comforts of home.
Does your city have a signature food item? Is it something you seek out when you visit a new place?
On a final note, forgive the poor photography, but Kosher Sushi from Byerly’s grocery store is definitely a St. Louis Park, MN signature dish you won’t find anywhere else.