I moved to Indianapolis in August of 1983. I moved here to begin law school, and my residence here began as a transitory one. However, after returning from a summer job at Seyfert’s potato chip factory in Fort Wayne in August of 1984, I have been here ever since. There are many things about this city that I love, but one thing is a tremendous disappointment: I settled in a place that has not a single signature food.
One of the things I have always enjoyed when traveling has been to sample menu items that are unique to a particular place. The list is a long one. In my life, I think of Cincinnati’s style of chili that features a touch of cinnamon and is poured over spaghetti. There is Louisville’s hot brown sandwich. Chicago is known for its unique hot dogs with the poppy seed buns and loaded with toppings, as well as the deep dish pizza with its tangy crust.
As a kid, I learned to enjoy breakfasts of scrapple with eggs during visits to family in Philadelphia. I later learned that the cheese steak hoagy is more commonly enjoyed (with Cheez-Whiz instead of the provolone that everyone else puts on them). And during a recent visit to St. Louis, I was introduced to gooey butter cake.
Each of these local delicacies is a great way to entertain out of town guests, as most of us enjoy trying something that is not common (or very faithfully prepared) at home. But when out of town guests come to see me? Nothing. Zip. Nada. Sure, we have some local restaurants that are institutions – St. Elmo’s Steakhouse and Shapiro’s Delicatessen come to mind. But every city has favorite local restaurants. I am talking about a kind of food, one that can be ordered several places around a city or even prepared at home, because it is a local favorite.
When I posed this question to a friend, he suggested that maybe the breaded tenderloin sandwich could represent Indianapolis. But I would classify this as more of a state or regional thing. Like the crab cake in Maryland or grits in the south, the breaded tenderloin sandwich is found all over the midwest. And it’s a good thing too, because they are quite good when made properly. Mustard and pickles on mine, please.
Perhaps the problem is that we are so average here. We are not any one overwhelming ethnic group, but have a number that are well represented. We are too far north to be Southerners, but too far south to be real Northerners. Does this really make for a mix of humanity that is too bland and generic to have our own signature food? Quite possibly (says the guy who is not from here, more smugly than really necessary.)
In my hometown of Fort Wayne, that signature food is the coney dog. There are things called coney dogs in several areas (and many of them are quite good, I’m sure), but a Fort Wayne coney is a unique item with a thin grilled hot dog, a steamed bun, a runny sauce with meat, topped with mustard and loads of chopped onions. There is one place that is coney central (Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island) because it has been dishing them up since 1914. There are, however, several competitors around the city that will serve up a reasonable facsimile if you don’t have time to drive downtown. The thing is that they all differ only slightly from one another.
Indianapolis? All I can do is shake my head in embarrassment. We have a race track of some repute, and a couple of decent sports teams. We can even boast of a former President in Benjamin Harrison, or famous writers and artists like James Whitcomb Riley, Kurt Vonnegut and T. C. Steele. But what local food that is unavailable anywhere else do we proudly serve our guests? Sorry locals, but Hoosier Hospitality just isn’t a good enough answer.
Could we be too late? The old timers in other places came up with their signature foods before the days of the internet and Food TV, which may have given time for a local favorite to take root among the citizens. Now, as soon as someone comes up with something new and yummy, it gets copied everywhere. I, however, refuse to believe that we are past the point of no return on an Indianapolis signature menu item.
I guess this means that I need to get busy and come up with something. You native Indianapolisers have had a hundred years or more and have yet to deliver. But what will it be? I have no idea yet, but ideas involving pork, corn or dairy products are promising given their prominence in local diets. Testing will be arduous and I may have to sacrifice my trim physique in order to make this happen for you people. But sometimes selfish pleasures must be put aside so that the necessary sacrifices can be made. Really, I’m doing it all for you.