What is the quintessential American food?
The answer is hard to pin down. This is a vast country made up of astounding array of people and as a nation we have yet to really establish a satisfying answer for what our emblematic meal is. I have a contender I’d like to put forward on this, the birthday of the United of America: The garbage plate.
You may not be familiar with garbage plates but that’s OK. Someday every American will know the inimitable joy of this hodge-podge dish that combines the finest fares that this country has to offer. It’s not a simple food to explain, and that’s possibly what makes it such a perfect fit for this place so many people call home.
We just need to spread it far and wide from its humble beginnings in Rochester, New York.
The garbage plate has multiple parts, all of it usually contained inside a styrofoam or hopefully more recyclable container with steep enough walls so as not to let any of the food fall out while shoveling it in your mouth.
First there’s the base. At the bottom of any garbage plate there should be a healthy serving of few different foods: french fries (or, as the locals call their shorter, fatter variant: home fries), macaroni salad, or baked beans. Usually you pick one or two of these, the most common and acceptable choice being the french fries/mac salad combo.
Next there’s the protein. On top of the base you can put hot dogs, hamburger patties, chicken tenders, mozzarella sticks, veggie burgers, a grilled cheese, sausages, or a fish fry. It can be whatever your heart desires as long as you can cut it up pretty easily and it’s something you personally find tasty.
Finally there’s the toppings. Ketchup, mustard, and onions are all optional, but there’s one essential ingredient that ties everything together: hot sauce. The traditional garbage plate uses a flavorful, meaty hot that you can easily make with onions, garlic, beef, tomato sauce, vinegar and a handful of spices including cayenne and chili powder, although you can sub out the beef if you’re not into that kind of thing.
Once the three layers are assembled, it’s encouraged to mix all of it thoroughly so that you get a little piece of everything in every single bite. And don’t forget the side of bread and butter, just because.
Thus we have the garbage plate.
The garbage plate is a local feat of ingenuity that stems from the greater Rochester area of Upstate New York, located about 70 miles east of Buffalo and situated upon the winding Genesee River amidst rolling farmland and suburb-spackled swampland.
Known as the birthplace of Kodak, Xerox, and Susan B. Anthony, Rochester has a rich history that stretches back hundreds of years, rising up out of Lake Ontario’s shadow as America’s first boomtown toward the tail end of the 18th century. As a town with a lot to offer for people looking for a new start in the western hemisphere, Rochester was a natural magnet for all different kinds of people.
In the second half of the 19th century and leading into the turn of the 20th, a large influx of Greek immigrants came to the states, some of who ended up in Rochester. One of those immigrants, Alexander Tahou (pronounced like Tahoe), opened up a restaurant just west of the Genesee River on West Main Street in 1918.
It was called West Main Texas Hots, the “hots” part referring to Rochester’s distinct hot dogs that come in both red and white varieties, the former being pretty much your standard hot dog and the latter being a pork-, beef-, and veal-based, unsmoked hot dog similar to Germany’s weisswurst. To the residents of Rochester and whoever passed through, West Main Texas Hots offered a hots and potatoes dish that served as the building blocks for what later became a Western New York institution.
Alexander’s son Nick took over in the ’40s and changed the name of the joint to Nick Tahou’s, which remains to this day. Over the decades, the restaurants stayed true to its nature as it catered to Rochestarians with its carb- and protein-covered plates.
Legend has it, according to Eater, that college students in the ’80s asked for “that plate with all the garbage on it,” and thus the garbage plate received its official name, sealed with a trademark in 1992.
Since then the garbage plate, also known simply as “the plate” has flourished throughout the area, with an uncountable number of restaurants offering their own takes on the plate, some sticking to the traditional setup of varying qualities, others offering their own spin on it with inspirations from other countries and regions.
Garbage plates have sprung up here and there all around the country, slowly injecting themselves into the lifeblood of the U.S.A. and becoming more and more popular.
This is the garbage plate’s time to shine.
So what is the quintessential American food? Is it the hamburger? The hot dog? Perhaps it’s pizza, the chicken wing, barbecue, or even the burrito?
No, I say it’s the garbage plate.
The garbage plate is a dish brought to the states by an immigrant. The garbage plate got many people through the Great Depression and the second World War. The garbage plate is able to be personalized to fit any person’s tastes.
When most people think about American food, fried and grilled food often comes to mind, and perhaps the word “abundance,” or maybe “large helpings.”
The garbage plate fulfills all of these things and more. It’s amazing mix of food that can work as a hearty meal out at a table service restaurant or late night take out grub for possibly intoxicated individuals that need to satisfy their junky food cravings.
If you love hot dogs, put hot dogs on your plate. If you love fries, put fries on your plate. If you want to make a Mexican-style garbage plate with chorizo, refried beans, or some guacamole, do it.
The garbage plate represents everyone and the thing that everyone wants: lots of food. It is the quintessential American dish.