One thing you need to know about Illinois is that it’s basically two states: north of I-80 is the city of Chicago and its many suburbs and townships, the kind of places filled with denizens who will happily say they’re “from Chicago” until otherwise pressed by someone who lives within city limits.
Below that line, however, Illinois essentially turns into Indiana—farmland, plains, and sparsely populated towns. It’s the part of Illinois that would just as soon see Chicago secede and become its own blue state, so they can finally be the red state they’ve always wanted to be. (Also: See Western Massachusetts, Eastern Washington state, any part of Oregon that’s not Portland.)
Culturally, politically, and economically, central Illinois carries a lot of similarities with the people and culture of Indiana; while I can’t say I’m a fan of all of it, I am a fan of the pork tenderloin sandwich, which crossed the blurred state lines between these two regions to become one of my favorite dinners.
To those unfamiliar, the Hoosier pork tenderloin sandwich (as it’s commonly known) is a curious creature. Imagine a pork tenderloin—those long, thin rods of dark-pink meat that you buy in hermetically-sealed plastic at the grocery store—pounded flat, breaded and fried. Yes, the entire thing.
Then, put that gargantuan, Frisbee-sized slab of meat on a normal-sized sandwich bun, making the whole thing look like a flying saucer made of schnitzel. There’s the Hoosier pork tenderloin sandwich, a meal so ridiculously disproportioned you’d laugh at it if you hadn’t been eating it your whole life.
(Iowans will also claim the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich as their own, and both are essentially the same sandwich. But according to this 2014 Chicago Tribune story—by current Takeout editor Kevin Pang—the Iowa variant, generally speaking, has the tenderloin pounded flatter, while the Indiana version is more often the thickness of pork chops.)
Growing up in central Illinois, the pork tenderloin sandwich was a staple of every sleepy diner and family restaurant within a hundred-mile radius of me. My parents, for one, loved the sandwiches at the Saint Augustine-based diner Club 41. But my primary conduit for these incredible sandwiches was Delaney’s Depot in Bushnell, Illinois, where I spent my K-12 years. A small but charming restaurant in Bushnell’s tiny town square, I remember going there on everything from special occasions to the odd Friday-night hangout just to chow down on a pork tenderloin sandwich.
And chow down you do; there is no shortage of sandwiches that force you to break out the knife and fork, but the pork tenderloin sandwich practically dares you to attempt a hands-only assault of its crunchy contents. Many people give in and take a knife and fork to the outside of the sandwich, cutting their way through it like the most down-home version of a pork katsu, whittling it down until it becomes more feasible to handle as a genuine sandwich.
But not this moi: my go-to strategy as a kid was to shift the bun all the way to one edge of the tenderloin, grabbing it by the bun, and slowly biting around the meat-only edges of the sandwich. Eventually, all that was left was what the bun actually managed to capture, and then you ate it like a normal sandwich. (If you valued your waistline, you didn’t eat much more than that and some of the onion rings served alongside in those cute red plastic diner baskets. Well, that and a couple of Diet Cokes.)
Now as with any regional food, there are myriad variations depending on the place, and it’s entirely likely that the sandwiches I grew up with weren’t authentic Hoosier-style pork tenderloins. One Food Network recipe for a “Central Illinois Pork Tenderloin” uses breadcrumbs and puts it on hoagie rolls with fancy mustard spreads and American cheese. Some places make thicker tenderloins breaded with either cornflakes or potato chips; others top them with all the typical burger accouterments: ketchup, mustard, sliced onion.
But our tenderloins were put on straight-up burger buns, the tenderloin breaded with crushed saltines. Mayo and pickles were our only decoration. To me, that’s the quintessential version of the dish—no muss, no fuss, unencumbered by foodie sophistication. It’s fried meat on bread; what more could you want?
Thinking back on the pork tenderloin sandwich brings me no small amount of melancholy, to be honest. Delaney’s is no more, having closed a few years back due to the rapidly-shrinking economy and populations of these small central Illinois towns. Even Club 41 closed for a year, though it has thankfully reopened in 2015. I’m sure there are plenty of places still making pork tenderloin sandwiches, but none of them were my places.
Even so, I’ll always remember this sandwich as something that always felt unique about where I grew up, a delicious quirk that even a young nerdy kid who couldn’t wait to escape for the big city of Chicago could appreciate.