Local Flavors: Springfield, Illinois - #104

BURT WOLF: Every town in the world has a local flavor ... a flavor that comes from its signature dishes, from a group of preferred ingredients ... a type of restaurant that is popular.  It is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of equipment, or a cooking technique.  There are dozens of things that make up the local flavor.  But the most important influences are always the result of history, geography, and economics.

Springfield has been the capitol of Illinois for over a 150 years, and during that time it has been influenced by every major food trend that has swept over our country.  As the first of our nation's great highways passed through town, Springfield responded with some of our earliest roadside restaurants. 

Restaurants that changed the way our nation eats.  But Springfield is also the home of Abraham Lincoln and from the moment of his passing in 1865, it has been a center for tourism, determined to preserve the memory of our 16th President.  It's an interesting city and worth a visit.  So please join me, Burt Wolf, for a taste of the local flavors of Springfield, Illinois.

During the 1920s, Henry Ford began producing automobiles that many people could afford.  No longer a luxury for the rich, tens of thousands of people started driving cars.  But there was one major problem. 

We didn't have a road system designed for them to drive on.  America was covered with dirt roads that were originally developed to transport agricultural products to market.  We also had some old roads that had been used by stagecoaches to connect one town to another. 

And that was pretty much it.  Both federal and state governments quickly recognized the need for a national highway system.  And in 1926 began building the great mother road.  The ribbon of concrete that ran from the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago down to the banks of the Mississippi at St. Louis, and then west to the beaches of the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles.  It became a symbol of America's progress.  And so powerful was its attraction, that hit songs invited us to get our kicks on "Route 66."

Route 66 was the first major element in the national road system built for the automobile.  And for almost 50 years, it was the main street of America.  It changed the way we traveled but it also changed the way we ate. 

As Route 66 headed out of Chicago, on its way to St. Louis, it passed through Springfield.  Springfield became the state capitol of Illinois in 1837.  And visiting legislators and lobbyists required eating places.  It was also Abraham Lincoln's hometown, and tourists began arriving from all over the world.  And they expected suitable eateries during their visit.  Springfield is home to an important university, and a major medical center.  Tourists and local residents make varied demands on Springfield's restaurants and that has made it an ideal community to study how American eating habits changed during the 20th Century.  And that is precisely what John Jakle and Keith Sculle have done in their book called "Fast Food."

KEITH SCULLE ON CAMERA: Well, in the 1890s, Springfield was a really hoppin' place.  People were coming to town to do business with the county courthouse, but especially to do business with the state capitol located just a few blocks away.  So in between those two nodes, you had a very vibrant economy for restaurants to thrive.  But it was also a very lively street trade: vendors for example, with push carts and so forth. There was a fellow by the name of Ed Crastos who is the most memorable. At least he’s the one that’s come down in the literature who was the guy that sold chili on little tin pans.

BURT WOLF: Springfield has had a long love affair with chili.  During the 1960s Springfield was a hotbed of chili activity with three chili canneries producing over four million cans of chili each year.  The state government passed a resolution proclaiming Illinois as the "chili capitol of the civilized world," and recognized the spelling of chili with two L's.  Today Springfield is peppered with chili parlors, one of the most famous and respected is Joe Rogers, operated under the direction of the founders' daughter Marianne.

SERVER ON CAMERA: Medium hot!  Hold the beans. 

MARIANNE ROGERS ON CAMERA: My Mom and Dad, Joe and Pauline Rogers, started a little cafe ... a little diner, and they had plate luncheons and my Mom made all of the desserts and everything.  Within six months people just started ordering the chili.  Then it evolved right into the chili parlor, and the rest they say is history.

KEITH SCULLE ON CAMERA: People who ate out, at the beginning of the century weren't seen in the best light. They were people that lived downtown on a regular basis. They might have lived in boarding houses, but they might have been about in the communities’ life downtown on the streets and so forth. There were associations apart from family life that those people had. As travel became far more common, people had to, of necessity, eat out. Well, roadside restaurants changed the way the country thought about food, and about the way they actually practiced eating. Very influential. 

MAN IN CAR ON CAMERA: Can I get a special with a root beer and cheese?

WOMAN ON CAMERA: I need a cheese special with a root beer. 

BURT WOLF: The Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop is considered to be one of the earliest restaurants to have a drive-up window.  This is the ancient forerunner of McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.


WOMAN IN CAR ON CAMERA: Hi.  Two maid-rites and a root beer.

WOMAN ON CAMERA: I need two maids and a beer!


WOMAN ON CAMERA: Two maids. Here you go. Have a great day.



BURT WOLF: It opened in 1924 and still serves it signature dish.  A mixture of crumbled steam ground beef, onions, mustard, and pickled relish on a steamed bun with a side of French fries, and homemade root beer in a frosted mug.  And because of modern freezer technology and Federal Express, Maid-Rite ships containers of the cooked meat and buns to Made Right devotees throughout the United States.  Root beer goes back to 1869 when a Philadelphia pharmacist by the name of Charles Hyers put together a blend of sugar, water, spices, and tree barks.  It produced a mildly alcoholic, naturally effervescent drink. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Traditional root beer usually contained birch bark, dandelion root, molasses and wintergreen oil. But the distinctive flavor that we associate with root beer comes from the addition of sassafras root which used to grow wild all over the eastern part of the United States.

BURT WOLF: The Federal Food and Drug Administration found that sassafras contained a carcinogen.  So today's root beer is artificially flavored.  But even with artificial flavoring, each year Americans consume over 200 million cases of commercially produced root beer.  In addition, there are thousands of people who make their own root beer at home.  Ah, but is it made right? 

KEITH SCULLE ON CAMERA: By the 1930s, things had changed to some degree.  The professional people in the community still found it desirable to eat at home for the most part.  They had no need to eat out and on the road.  Now, however, people who were traveling and by then in automobiles, and that meant more and more people traveling, found it convenient, in fact, necessary to eat on the road.  And restaurants began to change their pitch a little bit.  They began to have a little pizzazz in their decor.  Some of the food began to change its pitch a little bit.  They were presentable.  They were desirable places to eat.  They were even fun places to eat. 

BURT WOLF: Throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Springfield developed a middle class approach to restaurants offering foods that were attractive to travelers and office and factory workers.  Good eating meant friendly service and ordinary but reliable food in sizable portions.  The thirties also saw the introduction of the first Mel-O-Cream Doughnut.  Mel-O-Cream Doughnuts are a local specialty. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  I'm a hole-in-the-center kind of guy myself, with maybe a little glaze or sugar on the outside.  And I've always wondered who put the hole in the center of the doughnut.  Well, no less an institution than The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. has reported on the subject.  They tell us that a young man named Hanson Crockett Gregory of Clam Cove, Maine, was watching his mother make some doughnuts, and asked her why they were always soggy in the center?  She said if she cooked them till they were done in the center, they were burned on the outside, and so she took them out early.  Well, young Hanson, culinary genius that he was, took a fork, poked a hole in the center of the uncooked doughnut, so when they fried up, they were perfect, thereby creating the first ringed doughnut in history. 

And as long as we're dealing with doughnuts, here's a couple of additional bits of trivia.  During World War One, a Salvation Army worker in France prepared a batch of doughnuts for some American troops, which proved to be extremely popular and regularly requested.  When word got around that the American units loved doughnuts, they got nicknamed "Doughboys." 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The folklore around dunking says that an actress by the name of Mae Murray was having breakfast one day, in Lindy's Restaurant in New York City, and she dropped her doughnut into her coffee.  Well, she didn't miss a beat.  She picked it up, continued eating, and announced that both the texture and the flavor had been improved; thereby, dividing the doughnut-eating world between those who dunk and those who don't dunk.  And I dunk. 

BURT WOLF: The years that followed the end of the Second World War saw a continuing rise in the number of roadside eating places.  The Cozy Dog Drive-In opened on Route 66 in 1950.  For over a 100 years, the frankfurter, on its bun has been part of American gastronomy.  But Ed Waldmire changed that. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ed was visiting his brother in Muskogee, Oklahoma, when a diner cook served him a frankfurter that had been baked in a batter.  It took about 15 minutes to cook it in something that was really a homemade waffle iron.  But Ed realized that somewhere in that dish was an idea that could change the gastronomic history of America, and he began experimenting. 

BURT WOLF: Eventually he developed a secret recipe, and the equipment necessary to produce a corn batter encrusted, deep-fried frankfurter on a stick.  His wife named them "Cozy Dogs" and developed the logo.  Ed introduced them at the 1946 Illinois State Fair.  And his reputation was made. 

BUZ WALDMIRE ON CAMERA: Well, we got the Cozy Dog batter.  It's a dry-flour mixture that my father formulated 50 years ago, and we take three Oscar Meyer hot dogs, and then it's really pretty simple.  You just dip the dog in there, and ... set him right over here ... again, on a custom-made rack, for a rather commercial fryer.  It takes about two minutes to cook. And we probably go through ... between 3- and 500 a day.

BURT WOLF: It was a perfect food for people in motion.  And so Ed opened the Cozy Dog House on Route 66.  In recognition of his contribution to American road food he has been inducted into the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  But in spite of the fact that there are a number of patents in connection with the making of a Cozy Dog, knock-offs have proliferated throughout the United States in the form of a corn dog.  But a corn dog is not a Cozy Dog.  And the authentic version is only available here in Springfield, Illinois, made by Ed's son, Buz. 

KEITH SCULLE ON CAMERA: In the 1950s, in the 1960s, Springfield was participating in now legendary prosperity in this country.  And eating on the road was a common thing to do ... not only out of necessity but because it was a fun thing to do. 

BURT WOLF: The late 1980s and early 90s saw the introduction of national restaurant chains that were based on a theme.  It was not only the menu and the speedy service that attracted local customers, but also the fact that they had grown familiar with the settings through travel to other cities.  A chain's restaurant in Springfield was the same as a chain's restaurant in every other town. The middle of the 20th century was marked by a strong interest in reformist middle class values and the majority of Americans drank very little alcohol.  But the chains that put up the theme restaurants were able to take advantage of the new acceptance of moderate drinking, many of which had a bar in the center of their floor plan.  The chains also moved into the malls.  The mall restaurants are often as much about entertaining as they are about eating.  Springfield’s most famous contribution to the world of food, however, is the horseshoe sandwich which contains neither horse, nor shoe, nor horseshoe. The original horseshoe sandwich is credited to the chef at the Leland Hotel who appears to have introduced it in 1928.  Almost every restaurant in Springfield has their own version. But many folks feel that the best place to get a taste of the traditional version, as well as some of the modern day variations is at Norb Andy's.  Josh Bales is the chef.

JOSH BALES ON CAMERA: Okay.  It starts off with toast.  It's two hamburger patties, fries, and cheese sauce.  Next is the club.  It has ham and turkey.  French fries topped with bacon and tomato, and, of course, cheese sauce.  Next we have my favorite, which is the chili cheeseburger.  It has the burgers ... the fries.  That's chili ... cheese ... green onions ... and, of course, more cheese sauce.  And this little guy down here is a half-size.  It's called a pony.  It has seafood, which are shrimp and crab, tomato, scallions.  And, of course, lots more cheese sauce. 

BURT WOLF: During my visit to Springfield, I stayed at a bed and breakfast called the Inn at 835.  And I used their kitchen to test a recipe for the horseshoe sandwich. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We're going to start by making the cheese sauce, which is really a classic Welsh rarebit.  First thing, a half cup of butter goes into the top of a double-boiler. 

BURT WOLF: A double-boiler is really a big sauce pan filled with water on a smaller sauce pan sitting on top of the water in the first pan.  The water in the first pan protects the food in the inside pan from direct heat. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A double-boiler is used to cook anything that would normally burn, separate, or curdle in a regular sauce pan.  They're also good for stopping the cooking quickly because you just lift up the pot. 

BURT WOLF: It's well made, roomy, and it has a long convenient handle.  It's made of stainless steel that won't interact with any of your ingredients and it has a circular ridge that helps it sit snugly inside the base pot.  When the butter is melted, flour is whisked in.  As soon as that is blended and smooth, you add the rest of the ingredients.  Milk, Worcestershire sauce, a good quality cheddar cheese that's been shredded, cayenne pepper, dry mustard, and salt.  Then turn off the heat and add some beer.  That's the sauce, and you hold it in a double-boiler while you prepare the rest of the dish. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  Next, you make two pieces of toast.  When we were testing toasters for inclusion in “The New Cooks’ Catalogue”, the Cuisinart Custom Control Model did really well.  It has seven different setting for darkness, which gives you a pretty good range of doneness. 

BURT WOLF: There's an easy- to-clean electronic control panel, with touch pads for one slice ... bagel ... defrost ... reheat ... lighter ... darker ... and cancel reset.  There's also a pull-out crumb tray.  Good design. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Next, I'm going to cook a couple of hamburgers and I'm going to do it on a George Foreman grill.  This is an electric contact grill.  It opens like a waffle iron, and heat cooks the food from both sides at the same time.  It has high wattage, which translates into better browning, and better browning translates into better flavor. 

BURT WOLF: There's an indicator that lets you know when the grill is hot enough to start cooking.  Very helpful.  The surface is slanted so the fats and cooking juices run out.  A small tray sits underneath the grill to catch the drippings. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now part of what was dripping out was fat but not all of it.  If you want to lose weight, in addition to the George Foreman grill, you're going to need an exercise program that includes something besides chewing.  That chewing is what my favorite exercise is.  And I do it as often as I possibly can.  I also like it when we swirl the wine around ... just before you swallow it.  That's a ... that's a great exercise there.  And look how it's building up these muscles. 

BURT WOLF: Okay.  We're ready to assemble the horse shoe.  The toast goes on the plate.  The burger's on top.  Then the cheese sauce.  And finally, a mound of French fried potatoes.  I'll tell you how to get the recipe for that dish and all the other dishes in this series at the end of this program. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now I can let you think that I made those French fries from scratch right here in this kitchen!  But I did not.  I brought them in from Norb Andy's, and I tell you that because whenever you are in Springfield, Illinois, you're always aware of the fact that this is Honest Abe Lincoln's hometown. 

BURT WOLF: And speaking of Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln was famous for her white cake. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Actually it wasn't Mrs. Lincoln's white cake at all!  It was originally prepared by a famous baker in Lexington, Kentucky, to mark the visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825.  He gave a copy of the recipe to Mrs. Lincoln.  She baked it for Abe.  Abe loved it.  And so she baked it quite often in their home here in Springfield, Illinois, and in the White House.

BURT WOLF: This particular version of Mrs. Lincoln's cake was baked at a small family bakery called Incredibly Delicious.  The chef is Patrick Groth, who studied at the French Culinary Institute.  His wife, Beth, his mother, and other assorted relatives help out.  When Patrick describes this as a family business, he means it.  Springfield is the land of Lincoln but it is also the land of corn.  As soon as you pass through the suburban areas, you are surrounded by corn fields.  In the old days, cornfields were used only for growing corn.  But these days, the big idea is multi-tasking.  And so cornfields are being put to additional use.  This is the Springfield Corn Maze.

DOUG SCHMIDGALL: Flags in the air.

BURT WOLF: During the growing season, it is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.  But not when it's raining or the fields are muddy.  It all started in 1993 when a producer from Walt Disney teamed up with a designer of mazes to put a maze into a cornfield. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A maze is a puzzle with many junctions and paths.  You go in one place, come out another.  The trick, of course, is to figure out which path will lead you out.  The great American authority on corn mazes is a guy named Brett Herbst.  He has a company that teaches farmers how to put a corn maze into their field. You know, another word for corn is maize.  So it's only fair that a field of maize have a maze. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How did you come to put a maze in your field?

DOUG SCHMIDGALL ON CAMERA: I've seen advertised in a magazine, about three years ago.  And ... thought it looked kind of nice, and I decided to go ahead and try one.

BURT WOLF: Something in a magazine special that appealed to you?

DOUG SCHMIDGALL: I liked the design that I'd seen from the air.  I believe it was a design of a tiger, or something like that.  It looked kind of neat.  This one is a design like a dragon.  We had a little contest and a young man by the name of Wade Morrison give us a design, and we etched it out.  On one side, there's the head with the fire coming out of it ... and the other side is a tail ... kind of like a hammer on it.  And it's got wings on it and everything like that.

BURT WOLF: How much do you charge them to go in?

DOUG SCHMIDGALL: A dollar for the easy maze, and $2 for the hard maze.

BURT WOLF: What do you charge them to get out?

DOUG SCHMIDGALL: Fifteen dollars to get out if I got to come find them. 


BURT WOLF: And equally amazing are the foods at the county fair. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Mm-m-m-m ... I'm all shook up. 

MAN: Our funnel cake is ... you make the batter up ...special batter ... stir it up ... put her in there.  And it comes out ... and put powdered sugar on it. Or cinnamon. Whichever you like.  There it is. That's it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: All right, I don't want to waste this.  Would you like some?

WOMAN ON CAMERA: I have Dip-and-Dots ice cream. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ha!  They're like tiny little balls.

WOMAN ON CAMERA: Little dots. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Amazing, my dear Watson.  Thank you.

WOMAN ON CAMERA: You're welcome.

MAN ON CAMERA: This is taffy candy.  Salt water taffy.  This taffy here originated around the turn of the century right here in Illinois. Yeah, the salt water taffy kind of became popular by the seashore.  There's not really any salt water in salt water taffy. 

BURT WOLF: Well, that's a look at how the automobile has changed the way we eat and drink in America, and a taste of the local flavors of Springfield, Illinois ... the impact of Route 66 ... Cozy Dogs ... Maid-Rites ... Mel-O-Creams ... Chili ... Horseshoes... Lemon Shake-ups ... and Mrs. Lincoln's white cake.  I hope you've enjoyed this visit and I hope you will join me next time.  I'm Burt Wolf.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.