I am from the Rust Belt. Where steel mills and machine shops used to thrive. Now they sit abandoned, crumbling with each passing year, while more industry exits the city limits for other countries or states that entice the industry with better legislation. Perhaps, though, it is simply that the need for a particular item once manufactured there has fallen by the wayside, a relic, like the disintegrating buildings.
I am from Erie, Pennsylvania. Also known as "the mistake on the lake." Perhaps since I now look at it with eyes that have traveled all over the world and lived in major metropolitan cities, I see it in a less harsh light. Don't get me wrong: I have no intention of ever living there again. I can't live there, as there are very few restaurants or even a viable market where I could peddle my higher-end pastry goods.
The food is simple and hearty, a needed necessity to get you through harsh snowy winters.
Hank's Frozen Custard, Meadville, Pennsylvania
My parents still base their manufacturing business in Erie, so our flights in and out are the usual route for my parents. Fly into Pittsburgh, rent a car, and drive the hour and 45 minutes north to Erie. The trip is carefully planned around a stop in Meadville, where Hank's Frozen Custard has been churning out creamy custard since 1952.
We arrive just before noon, parking near the walk-up window. As the minutes tick closer to noon, other cars begin to file into the parking lot. The blind behind the windows flap up and four small windows open to take orders.
The custard is extremely creamy, and the flavor is rich. Chocolate is by far the best flavor, in my opinion. Old Electro Freeze machines dispense the custard down a shoot, where the girls slather the custard onto cones or into cups with a paddle.
My father and fiancée send me back to retrieve seconds for them. Paper cone wrappers and chocolate smudged napkins are stuffed in the door garbage bin.
Roadside Farm Stand Strawberries, Pennsylvania
Erie is where I learned to eat. Throw seeds on the ground in Erie and come back in a week, and you will have the beginnings of a garden. Everyone here has a backyard garden. Most, like our former neighbors, Herman and Helen Klauk, set up a roadside farm stand near their driveway. My mom would stop on our way home from school or on an errand to pick up an onion or some tomatoes, placing the money in an old coffee can with a slit cut in the lid. Honor system.
There still are some roadside stands today, though the honor system no longer is utilized. It's lush with fresh fruit and veggies, pulled that morning from the farmland. The one item I miss the most: fresh strawberries. Best consumed on the beach.
Smith's Hot Dogs, Erie
I'm weird about hot dogs. (That's what she said.) Honestly, in my family, Smith's hot dogs in Erie are regarded as the best, and every other hot dog just falls short. About four times a year, a Styrofoam ice chest arrives from Erie, holding 30 packs of Smith's hot dogs, which are squirreled away in the freezer for a little taste of home.
Smith's currently is under fourth-generation ownership by the Weber family, turning out hot dogs, sausages, bacon, hams, and deli meats. The natural-casing hot dogs are filled with high-quality beef and pork, which I have come to find out, is not easily replicated.
Apparently other Erie-ites feel the same way we do, as I see picture after picture pop up on my Facebook feed of an ice chest arriving or being toted back to a home in another state.
Steak & Fried Zucchini, Ricardo's, Erie
Back in the day, the story goes, the runners of Ricardo's wore button-down shirts and nice dress pants to transport the perfectly cooked steaks and crisp, hot fried zucchini. Ricardo's is where I fell in love with being in a kitchen. Old friends of my parents, Peter West and his business partner Kathy, have known me since I was a baby.
As a child, I spent our company Christmas parties standing in the kitchen watching as they cooked steaks and dropped battered zucchini into fryers. I felt special when I was allowed to head back in the kitchen to be a spectator or when they would allow me to make my own crème de mint sundae -- the boozy crème de mint, too.
The building is newly remolded after a fire destroyed it a couple of years ago, but the vibe is still the same and the food has not changed. The steaks are tender and always cooked perfectly, a plastic stake with your desired temperature stuck in it upon arrival. Its placed on a plate with a sprig of parsley. Sides are ordered on the side, and the hashbrowns are everything I want in a potato -- creamy, crunchy, spiced, and salted perfectly.
Fried zucchini is delivered by the plated full, hot from the fryer. Crunchy on the outside and a tender interior. Extra salt has to be added the minute it hits the table. This is how my fiancée would like me to always make vegetables.
Beer Battered Perch Sandwich & Yuengling, The Sloppy Duck, Erie, PA
With Lake Erie as our backyard, fishing is huge in Erie, as it should be. In the winter, as dawn cracks, you will see the silhouettes of ice fisherman dragging their shacks and coolers of beer out onto the lake for some fishing and brews. In the summer, fishermen line the docks and the peninsula to catch dinner.
Come Friday nights, the most common fish to hit Erie menus is the yellow perch. A white, flaky fish, it has a mild, yet slightly sweet taste. Often pan-fried or battered and deep-fried, this is the fishy mascot of Erie.
Yuengling is a lager made by the touted as "America's oldest brewery." It's made in Pottstown and is near and dear to me, as I spent many college evenings partaking of this fine brew. It's not artisan or a fancy microbrew, but a hardworking man's beer.
Offered in pretty much every establishment in Pennsylvania and Ohio, this beer is not distributed past the East Coast, making it a must have when I return home. It pairs perfectly with Lake Erie perch, beer battered and served with a thick tartar sauce and a side of fries.
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SHOW ME HOW
If you are passing through my hometown, don't be alarmed by all the chain restaurants lining the streets. Take a moment and search out the little guy, because while tucked away and mostly forgotten, they are still there, making good food.
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.