The Birthplaces of 10 Great American Foods
by Streeter Seidell - November 10, 2008
We’ve compiled a list of all the foods you love, and all the places you need to thank for them.
1. Louis’ Lunch, New Haven, Conn.
There are competing claims for the coveted “Inventor of the Hamburger” title, but according to Louis’ Lunch (and the Library of Congress, for that matter), this small New Haven restaurant takes the prize. The story goes something like this: One day in 1900, a rushed businessman asked owner Louis Lassen for something quick that he could eat on the run. Lassen cooked up a beef patty, put it between some bread, and sent the man on his way. Pretty modest beginnings for arguably the most popular sandwich of all-time, huh? If you visit Louis’ today, you’ll find that not much has changed. The Lassen family still owns and operates the restaurant, the burgers are still cooked in ancient gas stoves, and, just like then, there is absolutely no ketchup allowed.
2. The ChipShop, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Fried Twinkie
Sometimes what counts isn’t being the inventor, it’s being the innovator. Take the fried Twinkie, for example. The Twinkie—in all its indestructible glory—has been around for ages, but when ChipShop owner Christopher Sell had the brilliant idea to freeze the snack, dip it in batter, and deep-fry it, the Twinkie took gluttony to new heights. Even The New York Times raved about how “something magical” happens when you taste the deep-fried Twinkie’s “luscious vanilla flavor.” Sell, who was trained in classical French cuisine, didn’t start with the Twinkie, though. In his native England, he fried up everything from M&M’s to Mars bars.
3. Myers Avenue Red Soda Co., Cripple Creek, Colo.
Root Beer Float
If you thought what happened up on Cripple Creek only happened in song, you’re sorely mistaken. In August of 1893, a failed gold-miner-turned-soda-company-owner named Frank J. Wisner was drinking a bottle of his Myers Avenue Red root beer while looking up at Cow Mountain. Just then, a full moon illuminated the snowcap on the otherwise black mountain, and Wisner had a brilliant idea—float a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a glass of his root beer. The new drink was christened the “black cow” and became an instant classic. Today, of course, most of us call it a root beer float.
4. Cozy Dog Drive In, Springfield, Ill.
In 1946, Ed Waldmire, Jr., revolutionized the stick-meat world when he debuted the Cozy Dog—the first corn dog on a stick. At first, he wanted to call his creation the “Crusty Cur,” but his wife convinced him to change the name to “Cozy Dog.” She felt people wouldn’t want to eat something described as “crusty.” Good call, Mrs. Waldmire. Shortly after the Cozy Dog’s inception, the Cozy Dog Drive In opened alongside old Route 66 and has been serving up corn dogs ever since.
5. Lombardi’s, New York City, N.Y.
Pizza has existed in one form or another for a long time, but America got her first true pizzeria when Gennaro Lombardi opened up a small grocery store in NYC’s Little Italy. An employee named Anthony “Totonno” Pero started selling pizzas out of the back, and in no time, Lombardi’s was concentrating on its burgeoning pizza business instead of plain old groceries. In 1905, the establishment was licensed as a pizzeria, and it’s stayed that way ever since. Well, almost. The original restaurant closed in 1984 but reopened down the street 10 years later. On its 100th anniversary in 2005, Lombardi’s decided to offer its pizza for the same price it’d been sold for in 1905—5 cents a pie. Needless to say, the line wrapped around the block.
6. R.U. Hungry, New Brunswick, N.J.
The Fat Darrell
You may not know what the Fat Darrell is, but when you hear what it contains, you’ll understand why it’s truly a work of inspired genius. Since 1979, Rutgers University has played host to a collection of mobile food vans collectively known as the “Grease Trucks.” Originally, they served a sandwich called the Fat Cat, which contained two cheeseburger patties, French fries, lettuce, tomato, and onions. Then one night in 1997, a hungry (and broke) student named Darrell W. Butler convinced one of the vendors to put chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, French fries, and marinara sauce on a sandwich. Strangely, the concoction sounded so appetizing that the next 10 people in line ordered it, and the Fat Darrell became a mainstay at the Grease Trucks. Hey, not any old sandwich gets to be named Maxim magazine’s top “Meat Hog” sandwich.
7. Pat’s King Of Steaks, Philadelphia, Pa.
Philadelphia is known for many things (Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, and Rocky, for starters), but fine dining is not really its forte. That’s OK, though, because Philly is the home of Pat’s King of Steaks, and Pat’s King of Steaks is where the Philly cheesesteak was born. One day back in 1932, hot dog stand owners Pasquale (Pat) and Harry Olivieri decided to change things up and make a steak sandwich with onions. A cab driver who ate at Pat’s daily insisted on trying the new sandwich, and with the first bite declared, “Hey, forget ‘bout those hot dogs, you should sell these!” Cab drivers know fast food about as well as anyone, so the brothers did just what the cabbie suggested. In no time, the modest stand turned into the Pat’s that exists today. Controversy remains, however, over who’s responsible for putting the cheese in cheesesteak. Pat’s claims it was the first to do so (in 1951), but across-the-street rival Joe Vento of Geno’s Steaks (opened 1966) insists he added the finishing touches.
8. Brown Derby, Los Angeles, Calif.
Let’s face it; most salads are wimpy little affairs meant for nothing more than occupying your mouth while you wait for the main course. Not the mighty Cobb, though. With lettuce, eggs, bacon, chicken, avocado, tomatoes, chives, watercress, Roquefort cheese, and a special dressing, the Cobb salad is not your traditional salad (or a healthy one, either). The man responsible for the concoction is Robert H. Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles. Late one night in 1937, Cobb and his friend, Sid Grauman (owner of the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre), were rooting around in the Derby kitchen looking for a snack. Cobb essentially grabbed whatever was left in the fridge, chopped it all up, and prepared a salad. Grauman came by the next day and ordered himself a “Cobb salad.” Word spread quickly (this was Hollywood, after all), and soon it became the landmark restaurant’s signature dish.
9. Pig Stand, Dallas, Texas
According to most sources, the onion ring was invented when a careless cook at a Pig Stand location in Dallas accidentally dropped an onion slice in some batter, then pulled it out and tossed it in the fryer for lack of a better destination. Now, you’d think inventing the onion ring would be enough for one restaurant chain, but not Pig Stand. The company also lays claim to opening America’s first drive-in, inventing Texas toast, and being one of the first restaurants to advertise using neon signs. Not bad for a little outfit from Texas.
10. Melrose Inn, Prospect, Ky.
A Kentucky favorite, derby pie is a chocolate and walnut tart with a pastry-dough crust—and that’s about all we know about it. Why? Because the recipe is jealously guarded by the Kern family. Melrose Inn manager George Kern created derby pie in the mid-1950s with help from his parents, Walter and Leaudra, and the dessert was such a hit that the family was soon baking the treat full-time. In fact, Mrs. Kern, being the crafty monopolist she was, copyrighted the name, and to this day, you can only get real “Derby-Pie®” through Kern’s Kitchen, Inc. Not only that, but a man from New England once handed Leaudra a blank check for the recipe so that his daughter could make the pie at home. She refused.