Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Labor Day eats

Ironic, isn't it, that Labor Day in the United States typically involves very little actual labor? Unless, of course, you consider the labor involved in putting together the ultimate backyard barbecue. As the last unofficial day of summer, families gather for one last outdoor get-together and seemingly endless platters of the ubiquitous burgers and hot dogs, macaroni salad and fresh-picked corn on the cob.

Barbecue menus vary widely from region to region. Here in upstate New York, "must-have" food traditions differ from city to city. In the Syracuse area, it's just not a cookout without the salt potatoes and coneys! Syracuse is the Salt City thanks to its early industry, the harvesting of salt from brine pools that once dotted the shores of nearby Onondaga Lake. In the 19th century, laborers looking for a quick, inexpensive meal found it by boiling tiny potatoes in heavily salted water and dipping the tender, salt-encrusted pieces into melted butter. It's a classic vegetarian summertime treat. Today, the standard is a big bag of small (maybe 2 inches in diameter) round white potatoes - not the more creamy red potato, nor fingerlings - boiled up in the kitchen while the pit boss heats up the grill for the coneys.

And what are coneys? The most popular brand in town makes 'em: white hot dogs made primarily of pork and veal inside a natural casing. When grilled, they turn a most delectable crispy brown and they split right down the middle - perfect for applying some spicy brown mustard (or ketchup, if you must!). Some say it "cooney" but I've never actually heard anyone pronounce it that way; to me, it's a "coney" with a long O.

Go an hour or so south of Syracuse and you'll find yourself in Binghamton, home of the spiedie. You take cubes of meat (could be chicken, beef ... you name it) and marinate them in a special spiedie sauce for at least overnight. Using wooden skewers, you grill the marinated pieces (I prefer them grilled over a charcoal fire) until perfectly tender, then drop them, skewer and all, into a hot dog-style bun. Pull the skewer out while holding on to the bun, and you have yourself a spiedie sandwich. Nothin' like it.

I lived in Rochester (an hour west of Syracuse) for a year and a half while attending the University of Rochester, and the one thing I could discern to be truly, uniquely Rochester was the garbage plate at Nick Tahou's. It's mostly indescribable except, perhaps, by its very name. You choose the basic elements and Nick does the rest. My buddies advised me to simply mix together everything on my plate, which was antithetical to my usual dining habits; however, after gingerly tasting the macaroni salad and other items separately, I saw the wisdom in combining everything into a massive pile and digging in. Unforgettable.

Over in Buffalo is the home of the world-famous Buffalo wings, fried chicken wings and legs and whatnot smothered in a red, spicy sauce tempered with a side of bleu cheese dressing and, if you're lucky, a crisp stalk of celery. But Buffalo is known for another local treat: beef on kimmelweck (or "beef on weck," for short). Order one, and you'll be handed sliced roast beef with horseradish sauce inside a bun topped with caraway seeds and pretzel salt. There's no escaping beef on weck in Buffalo.

With the variety of food traditions in just upstate New York (and I didn't even go NEAR New York City!), other states must have unique personalities that shine in their local menus. What are the classic foods found in your area?

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