Regional foods span the gamut from the hallowed, like the Chicago hot dog, to the hyperbolic and very funny, like the Indiana pork tenderloin. Some foods, like the Chop Suey sandwich, look like a Lovecraftian terror between two buns, while others, like the cannibal sandwich, are shocking and grotesque, a piece of Upper Midwest Gothic that could have been prepared by a vengeful Edgar Allen Poe character. Often, the photos of these meals will be grainy, seemingly taken with an early 2000s camera in a dark room, like shaky evidence of a culinary cryptid. Regional American Food (@RegionalUSFood) is a Twitter account run by journalist Daniel Bromfield that examines these wonders.
Started in January 2021, the account instantly became popular, and it’s easy to see why. Turns out that some of America’s beloved regional dishes are mind-boggling concoctions that often raise more questions than answers. The account is proof of a crucial aspect of the human condition: Wherever people settle, they create specific cultural items. Sometimes it’s architecture, or musical genres, but other times it’s meat stew or plates of fried cheeses and potatoes piled on top of each other.
These foods demarcate space as much as any official border might, and they color in the lines of places that might not seem to have a clear culinary identity. Because not only do people invent strange meals, they take a militant pride in them and use these dishes to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. The account is a fascinating journey through the highbrow, rigid standards that are applied to low culture.
My takeaway, after scrolling through so many images of diner plates and gradient brown slop is a life-affirming pride. We are a vast, beautiful species. Often confused, yes, but also inventive, also inspired. Sometimes we make terrible and unholy mistakes. But sometimes we transmogrify common ingredients into sublime combinations. Regional food is a topic worthy of serious scholarship, and this Twitter account is a noble step toward cataloging these unique creations.
The Takeout had the chance to talk with Bromfield, the scholar of regional food himself, to discuss some things he’s learned.
The Takeout: What sparked creating Regional American Food?
Daniel Bromfield: I think I’ve just been really interested in regional American food for a while. I think the thing that sparked it was the Chicago dog. Question for you as someone from Chicago–is it true that ketchup is anathema on Chicago dogs?
TO: That is true, yes.
DB: I like that, applying that kind of dogma to food, there’s something kind of badass about that to me. Like, “This has to be this way,” or “No, or it’s not this, it’s gotta be from the Champagne region.” I think a California roll has to be fake crab, if it’s real crab then it’s not a California roll. I don’t know who’s in charge of that. That’s what I want to do when I’m older, I want to be on some obscure food council that just dictates the laws for what certain food is.
I used to have food porn accounts. I used to really like accounts that were like, “Oh my god, here’s the most delicious looking thing in the world.” And I’d torture myself with it late at night when I’m hungry there’s nothing to eat. So I did that for a while. I would go out of my way to post some obscure stew from Portugal that I found on Wikipedia at 3 a.m., it wasn’t just like, “Here’s triple stuff pizza.” Like I definitely wanted to be avant-garde with it. [Regional American Food] sort of feels like the conclusion of that.
TO: Do you think that the reasons that regional food is compelling to you is the same reason it’s compelling to your audience?
DB: I’d say there’s some overlap for sure. Definitely the weirdest things are the things that get the most traction, things like the giant pork tenderloin, or these bizarre regional pizzas. For me, I’m not really making fun of these foods. I’m not trying to be like, “Oh, look how gross it is.” Like, that’s definitely a valid response for sure. But it’s not a mean-spirited thing for me, I’m not trying to make fun of anybody. The reason I’m so passionate about this is because it highlights just how eclectic and how diverse America is. It just gives me a sense of just how huge the universe is, and the breadth of human experience, just to know that these things exist that only people know about in a 50 mile radius of some town. Like, to me, that’s the main reason I post–there’s so much out there. And that just fascinates me.
TO: How has your process grown? Do you do much research before posting?
DB: I used to just do my own research. Actually, I posted a lot of the really big ones early, like the Chicago dog and the Chow Mein sandwich, that’s my favorite, from Fall River, Massachusetts. And so nowadays, people will just DM me things. A lot of the time, it will be genuinely interesting things like the Camel Rider from Jacksonville, which is like cold cuts on a pita. That was really interesting. And that came from DMs. Scrambled dog, which is kind of a deconstructed hot dog. Like, on a plate, that you would eat a knife and fork. And this is like covered in chili. So like things like that, it’s really great that people want to send me these things. And a lot of it are people from those regions being like, “Hey, over here, we have this, and we call it that.”
TO: The replies to your posts are often just as cool as the posts themselves. It seems like a funny community that you’ve put together here.
DB: My favorites are the Europeans…the British and Irish are just like, “Oh, you Americans talk shit about our food and this is what you eat?” And then the Americans are just dunking on each other. And it will go on for 353 comments, and inevitably it becomes about like, Marxism or whatever. I love Twitter because of that.
I want to present my food posts very neutrally. Like I was saying, I don’t want to make fun of people, but I’m also not like, “Oh, this looks delicious,” either. I just kind of want to present it as, like a historical set of facts. I’m like, okay, you can look at this and you can laugh at it. This looks terrible. But also you can learn about it and find out about it. I consider myself a pretty intellectually-curious guy…I like to learn about shit and especially things I wouldn’t know about otherwise.
TO: What’s on the bingo board of regional American food? What things do people really like?
DB: The ones that get the most engagements are almost invariably the ones that are the weirdest and most disgusting looking to your average set of taste buds. The pork tenderloin is, I mean, it looks good, but it’s huge, people were posting it not because they want to eat it but because there’s a pork tenderloin that’s five times the size of the bun. How do you pick it up? I didn’t even I didn’t even know it’s possible to make pork tenderloins that big. What part of the animal is that?
TO: It is cool to learn that many of these dishes have ethnic lineages. Like Springfield-style cashew chicken was created by a Chinese immigrant who had to Americanize his food.
DB: Yeah, actually, about ethnic lineage. That’s another really cool thing I learned in the comments [about the cannibal sandwich] was the ethnic lineage, because in Germany I guess raw pork with onions is consumed pretty widely, it’s called “Mett.” Europeans are like, “Americans eat the grossest shit.” And then Germans and German-Americans are like, “Hey, this thing exists.”
TO: Have you noticed any regional trends, like Midwestern dishes tend to be X or Northeastern dishes tend to be Y?
DB: Not really, but the Midwest ones tend to get a lot of love. People are just very passionate. It’s like, “Yeah, this is, this is our thing.” The Midwestern things are generally the ones that like the chowder, the Southern Illinois chowder, was really kind of heartwarming. There’s all of these different traditions of just making a giant pot of meat stew out in public for a church benefit or to raise funds for something and just, like, it’s great. Everyone was so happy to see these people, just like different generations united in the parking lot, just making a huge amount of stew, it’s very heartwarming.