Graphic: Karl Gustafson
Acquired TastesIn Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.  

The first time I ate a St. Louis slinger, I was in Pittsburgh. I was working my regular Sunday shift at the Rivers Casino—6 a.m. to 2 p.m.—and I was very hungover. Unfortunately, peace doesn’t exist inside a casino, not even at sunrise.

Walking across the casino floor on my way to the kitchen, I heard the persistent ringing of slot machines, whose neon lit up the face of desperate gamblers and the elderly who’d been herded onto charter buses at 5 in the morning. Even after I made it to the kitchen, the slot sounds reverberated; they nested in my head like a swarm of bees.

That’s when the executive chef, a St. Louis native, slyly told me he had a hangover cure. By the way, whenever somebody says “hangover cure,” you can be sure they’re talking about a fried loaf of bread and a block of melted cheese. Hangover food isn’t for the lucid. You’re not in your right mind when you make such decisions: Sure, I’ll try a deep-fried muffuletta! People will often claim the food soaks up the booze, like they went to medical school and can tell you exactly what is happening inside of your gastro-intestinal tract. I suppose science does say that when you’re hungover your body craves fats, and alcohol does physically weaken the body to the point of laziness, but is eating like a raccoon who discovered Postmates the best way to fight a hangover?

I do remember that day at the casino, sweating whiskey through my chef’s coat, watching my boss bring over a monstrous oval plate full of potatoes, eggs, onions, toast, and a hamburger patty. He slimed the whole thing with chili, then “sprinkled” an egregious amount of shredded cheese on top. I ate it and I guess... I felt better? Wait, that doesn’t sound right. Nobody eats eggs, hamburger meat, and chili for breakfast and then feels better. Come to think of it, I actually don’t remember anything after that slinger. I think it erased my memory.

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St. Louis does bizarre things with food: Provel cheese on pizza, deep-fried ravioli, even gooey butter cake is cake that was famously made wrong. It’s almost like St. Louis takes whatever you think a dish should be and says, “This is ours now. Sorry.” But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. The nontraditional nature of St. Louis’ food practices used to bother me, but now I love it. Death to authenticity. Tear down the system, St. Louie.

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The slinger is an iteration of the Midwestern three-way (starch, meat, cheese), symbolic of the down-and-dirty diner culture that captures St. Louis. The slinger’s origins are vague and contested, of course. Like every Midwest concoction, there are a dozen people ready to don a horse and lance ready to defend their claim to the throne. People seem to land on Eat-Rite Diner as the rightful heir, but I’ve also heard that O.T. Hodge Chile Parlor, now-shuttered Regals, and Chili Mac’s are the true pioneers of the slinger. It’s since spread as far north as Chicago, where the Diner Grill—within walking distance of drunk revelers stumbling out of Wrigley Field—serves a venerated version.

I don’t think anybody should care about the exact origin story, as it’s lost to the sands of time now, but whoever coined the term slinger deserves a medal. They are a hell of a lot smarter than the person who gave Rochester, New York’s Garbage Plate its namesake. The garbage plate sounds like something you have to eat while wearing a dunce cap, while the slinger sounds snazzy, almost Texan. It’s a catchy tune, the St. Louis Slinger, and it makes me think this city might just be the king of diner culture.

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Tiffany’s Original Diner serves a version of the slinger, the Toby, with white sausage gravy. Rooster does a version with andouille sausage and biscuits, and offers a vegan option. Most vegan slingers seem to use the same concept—potatoes, toast, and veggies doused in bean chili—which raises an interesting question: What makes it a slinger? Isn’t the heart and soul of this thing the wacky hamburger patty? Does this breakfast crime scene doused with chili lose its spirit when it goes vegan? Hold the judgment for a second. St. Louis seems to be a town of humble culinary invention. There are many, many vegan crimes out there—joyless black bean burgers and lab-perfected Veggie HawtDogz—all which seek to desperately recreate some familiar meat vessel. However, the slinger at its core is a hash, and there’s no set ingredients for a hash. As long as it’s a hodgepodge of vegetables and potatoes covered in chili, I think you can call it a slinger.

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It couldn’t be further, philosophically, from the food in Los Angeles, where I currently live. I eat salads for breakfast and I’m on a diet that requires me to throw away doughnuts without even smelling them. Maybe a more qualified person could have written this, but guess what? I’m all you’ve got, pal. My first slinger experience is through my old boss. He shared his tradition with me hundreds of miles away in Pittsburgh, and it stuck with me so much that I’ve remembered it since. I can’t say where his slinger ranks exactly next to Diner Grill’s or Eat Rite’s, but I’m sure everybody thinks they know which one is best. People are fiercely loyal to their diners in St. Louis, but they also aren’t afraid of breaking convention. And I love that.