Archive for “June, 2016”

The Polish Boy

They're not pretty sandwiches. And this one had a car ride.

My name is Tracy and I can’t find the right sausage. When I go into stores, I see lots of bratwurst and hot dogs.  I can get locally sourced, cruelty free, sustainable, handmade, creatively-combined tube meats that can be really tasty.  But they don’t do the trick.  I want Polish sausage—preferably beefy.  But I’m in Wisconsin where the ingredient I want doesn’t show up readily.  They have their own thing.


Wisconsin food traditions took me by surprise.  Although I am from Cleveland, I lived nearly as long in Los Angeles before moving to Wisconsin.  When I got here, I saw foods I had never seen before.  Cheese curds, poutine (which I know is not from Wisconsin), and Bloody Marys with meat garnishes all took me by surprise.  To be honest, so did bratwurst.  I don’t think I had ever eaten it; it’s not that I was avoiding it for any particular reason.  But it wasn’t served in any of the little neighborhood restaurants I had visited.


When I did have non-breakfast sausage while growing up, it was almost always Polish.  With hindsight, I see the cultural logic of at work here.  Cleveland was a city of tightly knit neighborhoods, in part due to entrenched segregation that remains today.  One thing that’s different between when I was growing up and now is that ethnic lines existed along with racial ones.  By the time I was 10 or 11, I knew that there were Polish neighborhoods because I could recognize which street and church names that accompanied various groups.  I had internalized the city’s segmentation so thoroughly that it never occurred to me that people in other places might live differently.  It also never occurred to me that even though I had few substantive interactions with many of those groups, their foods had influenced my eating habits.


Once I left Cleveland I realized that somehow I absorbed enough from eastern Europeans to think of paprika as a kitchen staple.  Then there’s the Polish sausage.  It was in our local grocery stores.  But my most significant consumption is in the form of the Polish boy.   It’s a Polish sausage on a bun with fries, coleslaw, and barbecue sauce.  It’s as messy as it sounds.  I can’t hold a complicated sandwich to save my life and the plastic utensils don’t stand much of a chance against a good one.  Fortunately, this is almost always a carryout food.  I can be alone with my food and grab a real knife and fork.


My favorites have beef sausage that’s a bit gristly and a bit spicy, medium sized, crisp browned fries, a basic creamy slaw that’s more cabbage than mayonnaise, and slightly sweet, spicy barbecue sauce.  The bread is an afterthought for me.  As long as it doesn’t interrupt the experience, I’m fine with it. That means no fancy or chewy rolls allowed.  It should come with two wrappings—an inner paper one and an outer foil one.  It drips anyway.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed much broader appetites and I’ve come to think about how the food I eat influences my health.  But I still crave Polish boys.  They’re good.  They’re so very good.


I can’t buy one in Madison.  At first I thought it was because of the lack of black-owned barbecue places (There is one now that we hope to feature soon).  There’s an entire saga waiting to be told about the lack of black-owned restaurants and bars here.  That may be forthcoming too.


What I didn’t know is that I can’t buy the sandwich here because it’s a Cleveland thing.  I only discovered that a few months ago when I went online to try to figure out the closest place to get one or at least a good sausage to make one myself.  Although the rest of the country has no idea what it’s missing, they’re only served in Cleveland. Even with that, the dish is kind of Internet famous.  If you Google “Polish boy” images, you’ll get more than 30 sandwich pictures before you get to a few snapshots of smiling Polish kids.


I know I’m biased toward this taste of my childhood; but my memories of Polish boys from several local barbecue joints is such a warm one and such a common that I couldn’t imagine how relatively rare my experience was.  And my neighborhood restaurant visits were so consistently segregated that if I ever thought about what might be at non-black barbecue spot.  Places like Hot Sauce Williams, Open Pitt, B & M, and many now-defunct businesses were our preferred destinations rather than consolations.   could only imagine a larger physical space, but never thought it would have something we didn’t.  In fact, I imagined fewer menu items, less spicy food, no vegetable sides, and no cake. I imagined they would charge more.  I didn’t think they’d have Polish boys. Years later when I ventured out to those places, I realized my assumptions were correct. I assumed it was all a matter of taste.


Yet I went through a lot of my adult life thinking that at least around the industrial north, black barbecue places would have Polish boys.  They don’t.  I never thought they would have much traction in white owned places.  They didn’t. But another thing that happened when I searched the Internet for Polish boys is that rather than any of the places mention above or those that have gone by the wayside, I kept getting recipes from Food Network regular Michael Symon and a lot of articles praising place called Seti’s.  I had never heard of them.  So I looked them up and discovered that they had become Food Network famous and raised the price of their Polish boy to $7.  That’s not proper Polish boy pricing.  And they offer cheese, which feels very wrong and as the kids say, disrespectful.


It was strange to see this place featured so prominently as a long-standing Cleveland purveyor of the Polish boy.  I feel too young to think that any business that started after I had finished college can have legacy status.  And what about the people who have been putting their own special twists on the sauce, or ordering their own special sausages for decades longer?  Is it habit, or politics, or aesthetics, or the corralling of financial rewards that keeps them from widespread recognition?


This last concern is one of the reasons that Dark Meat exists.  There are a lot of people making great food who are are exiled from the admiration heaped on the stars.  What would be the stakes in changing the landscape of the culinary adoration world?  Is it possible to have a superstar restaurant with a primarily black clientele?  Would the recognition be worth all the complications that accompany it?




something to food about – a review

Now that I’ve read Questlove’s something to food about, I want to experience it another way.  Do I nap with it? Take it dancing? Watch it get into conversations with my other books?  The latter is certainly happening as I sort my responses to the book.  It’s a Questlove-curated collection of interviews with ten chefs whose work has inspired him in some way.  All of the people he includes are currently working in their own restaurants in the United States.  The places are pricey; although the expensiveness is not the focus, both he and the chefs actively consider how few people have access to their dining rooms.  In some ways, the rarified atmospheres are inevitable.  He wants to talk to people at high points in their careers, specifically exploring the idea of a creative “early middle age” that he asserts describes both his state and theirs.  They discuss how each became successful in crafting not only food, but also the entire dining experience so carefully cultivated in their restaurants.


For food geeks, especially those inclined to become fans of particular chefs’ approaches to planning and cooking, the insights into how restaurants are made can be riveting.  Questlove’s enthusiasm makes him a perfect guide.  He pushes his interviewees to think about their food in terms of creative outlets that are not necessarily familiar to them.  When he asks Daniel Patterson which other art provides the best analogy for his food, Patterson balks, insisting that cooking is a craft rather than an art.  His goal of creating affordable, high quality, quick meals is reflected in that answer.  With a little prompting, more than a few chefs talk about their practice in terms of music.  Daniel Humm’s entire ethos is based around Miles Davis.  Dominique Crenn and Dave Beran talk a lot about writing in its more florid and formidable forms as essential to crafting a menu.


The question about a complementary or comparable art form arises in all the conversations; perhaps it is Questlove’s favorite.  Mine is the question about the chefs’ first memories of eating in a restaurant.  I have a longstanding fascination with autobiography that’s tickled by this inquiry.  The restaurants range from fast food to Michelin starred eateries, with some chefs remembering what they ate while others were fascinated with the rituals.  This question, which I can imagine many of them had not been asked before, really helped to differentiate them for me.  The memories the recounted felt less rehearsed, less studiously considered than those about their steps from their early careers to their current places.


I know that desire for a different kind of story is a personal nitpicky frustration of mine.  It doesn’t come from the interview questions which I really enjoy.  I think it comes from our culture.  There’s a history of the Ben Franklin self-made man ideal that encourages all these conclusions within a life story.  Most of the chefs describe themselves as achieving a level of technical proficiency that enabled them become creative.  While I’m sure that’s true in absolute terms, I hate the narrative shortcut.  I want to know how the story would have been told without the ability to say there was an endpoint to training.  I want the stories of how they knew or who doubted them or doubts them still.  I want to ask whether they have worked with someone whom they consider as good as they are, or better who remains outside the spotlight.  After reading the interviews, those transitions remain elusive for me.  I’d like more.


Another factor to be aware of is one that Questlove marks at the beginning of the book.  The world he is exploring is mostly white and mostly male.  The Ben Franklin kind of narrative I describe above is one often said to the dominant American male form of autobiography.  I spent enough time steeped in studying autobiography to become hypersensitive to the patterns.  Most people won’t notice them.  But for me, Dominque Crenn’s chapter felt very different than the ones that came before it. Her descriptions of the information and emotions she wanted to convey in her cookbook and of the kinds of events that inspire her menus left me with more clarity about her process even though it seemed to take a few more questions to ge there.  I responded similarly to Daniel Patterson’s discussion of his place in the world; his discussion helped illustrate the place of fine dining within a larger culinary landscape in a way that felt satisfying even as he insisted that he does not have all the answers to the larger societal problems that surround him.


If you’re food fan, or a Questlove fan, or a fan of dynamic interviews, read this book.  It’s a great effort.  It will make you both hungry and curious.



Randoms that Didn’t Fit into the Review:


  • The book has really wonderful photos by Kyoko Hamada. Each chef gets a photo section.  They’re bright, crisp and appealing.
  • Nathan Myhrvold, the food scientist of the collection, is doing amazing work excavating older forms of cooking and working with foods in new ways. He has a lab.  He’s doing fascinating things.  Now I want to read his 2500 page book, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.
  • How do I get to eat with Questlove, or at least get a list of his cheaper recommendations?
  • When the chefs were comparing their cooking to another art form, no one chose painting. What’s up with that?