So which one does it for you? Chiavetta's chicken, kmmelweck rolls, Sahlen's hot dogs? Or is it another specialty unique to the Queen City? We Western New Yorkers love our hometown food. Each of us has at least one dish that, when biting into it, summons feelings of satisfaction and emotion comparable to finding true love, inner peace or perhaps a large sum of money on the front stoop.
So what happens when we have to live without it? What do you do when you move hundreds of miles away, when you head to your local supermarket and ask for the Weber's or Bison dip, and all you get are blank stares? What to do about this Need for The Food?
Those of us in this desperate situation far from home have learned how to cope. The initial stage is unavoidable. You hang your head and back slowly away from the stares, past the checkout counter, through the automatic doors, sans mustard or chip dip. Then comes the mourning period moping about in the kitchen, staring painfully at the disappointing contents of your refrigerator, being told repeatedly to shut up. There's often a coda to this: Some non-Buffalonian friend or roommate gets the bright idea of tossing non-Buffalonian food at you in a feeble attempt to keep you quiet.
The predictable stages continue: There are the familiar if awkward attempts to transport the food directly from Buffalo. Then comes slow acceptance that La Nova pizza will not suddenly appear. Then the final stage of food grief, which is the real reason for writing this story: realizing it's time to find a local substitute.
Get used to these stages of food deprivation, Western New Yorkers, whether you still live in Buffalo or, like me, moved away. Recognize their warning signs. That appetite for Buffalo food endures. Make your peace with the process, because that food grief is going to last as long as you're forced to go without.
When I was in college, I lived in the Midwest. Back then, I thought I was the only student who traveled back home, not with the stereotypical laundry bag in hand, but with a cooler. My trusty red and white 16-quart Coleman (featuring lid-locking handle) was ready to help me take back to school specific items I had politely but emphatically instructed my family to obtain for me.
I planned my days at home in advance around restaurants, strategically fitting in visits to as many as I could. When one paper I wrote just before a semester break began straying from De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" to Swiss Chalet's gravy, the thought occurred to me: Maybe I was not well and a little too spellbound by my appetite.
For some time now, I've worried I've fallen victim to some neurosis. In the eight years I've been absent from my hometown, this Need for The Food has not ebbed. If anything, it has magnified. I've gone so far as to buy a new car, giving me reliable means of transport to "visit family for the weekend," which I now realize is a thinly veiled excuse to score some Mighty Taco.
Which is why the opportunity to research this topic couldn't have come at a better time. Now I could talk to people, find out if others have gone through this. Under the guise of the "journalistic interview," I could ask any Need for The Food question. I could learn from others without confessing my own preoccupation.
Here's the good news. Turns out, I am not alone. This phenomenon is not specific to me. Many uprooted from the area have struggled with this food-left-behind phenomenon to the point where Buffalo Parties have become in vogue in Washington, D.C., New York City and Charlotte, N.C., to name a few. Newspaper advertisements in these cities call anyone stricken with the Hometown Hunger to join large assemblies of people partaking in Western New York cuisine.
Regina Campbell-Malone hasn't been to one yet. But it's only a matter of time.
"I've heard they're not just a house party," she says. "I mean, they sell tickets."
Regina, one of my fellow left-Buffalo-and-ended-up-as-Bostonians, has been living in Eastern Massachusetts for four years. "(Buffalo) food is such a huge deal," she says. "You wouldn't believe how many times this comes up."
Bob the Chef's is a restaurant in Boston where Regina has been able to find some reminders of home. The menu doesn't have her faves from Buffalo, but Bob serves a Sunday brunch that families enjoy after church.
It has a down-home feel that takes her back to her own family's Sunday brunch at the Original Pancake House on Main Street in Williamsville, she says. Regina also uses her own recipe to give store-bought rolls a whole new life as kmmelweck buns (see sidebar), and on a recent trip to Jamaica, she found a drink there called Ting, which comes pretty close to Squirt.
But when substitutions just won't do, when the craving is too intense, she relies on the real stuff. She has successfully brought Sahlen's hot dogs through airport security.
"Where's the Weber's?" is all the security agent asked.
Another plane ride left her panicked, and not because of turbulence. She'd checked a sealed box of four jugs of Chiavetta's sauce. And as she watched from the airplane as her luggage was loaded beneath her, she could see the box, opened by airport security. From her vantage point, it looked like three of the jugs were still in the box, but the fourth seemed to be MIA.
"Oh no," she remembers thinking. "They didn't mess up my Chiavetta's."
Luckily, both Regina and her sauce (all of it) disembarked safely. Behold, Regina's non-Buffalonian friends (who had probably told her to shut up during the mourning period) discovered a new wonder, and its name was "Chiavetta's."
This Bringing of Buffalo Food Products is a typical ritual for people traveling back from the Queen City. Consider a group of Buffalo exiles (also friends) now living in Greensboro, N.C. When one goes home, the others place their orders for everything from homemade pierogi to Scime's sausage. It's a given, with every trip.
"What do you miss?" I asked Don Ellington, a Greensboro resident since 1993.
"All the food in Buffalo," he answered, then proceeded to name specifics, one by one: tacos from Elmwood Taco and Subs at West Delavan, Ted's hot dogs, roast beef sandwiches from the Wellington Pub, pizza from just about any place. Bob & John's La Hacienda on Hertel Avenue came at the top of his list though, so let's go with that one.
Take Bob and John's chicken finger sub. When Ellington couldn't find any restaurant in Greensboro that served chicken finger subs ("I looked and looked," he said), he took action. Ellington called up a Greensboro restaurant called Amore's and asked them for a chicken finger sub.
"We don't sell that," he was told.
So Ellington patiently walked the chef through exactly what it takes to make one. Now, the sub is on the menu.
A short distance from Greensboro is Kernersville, and there you can find authentic Western New York pizza and wings at Ronni's, a restaurant owned by the Rainville family, formerly of Buffalo. Ritchy's Uptown Restaurant & Bar in Greensboro has the same pool-hall feel as the Pearl Street Grill. But for Buffalo native and three-year Greensboro resident Chris Paa, the only substitution for his beloved Buffalo food is to make his own.
Paa learned to make a Greek dressing that turns North Carolinian souvlaki into a close second to Pano's. Also, Paa and Ellington have bought unseasoned chicken wings from Chinese restaurants, swaddling them in their own homemade Buffalo sauce.
Charles Palermo, a resident of Chandler, Ariz., since 1976, is perfectly positioned to find alternates to Buffalo taco shops. Too bad it's the Italian food he craves. After being raised on Italian sausage from Mineo's Meat Market from the 1940s to the '60s, little else makes the grade.
"On the way home (from Mineo's), we'd stop on Niagara Street to get bread," freshly made, for a family feast, Palermo says. The only restaurant that even comes close to re-creating the familial atmosphere for him is the Olive Garden. True, there are some in Buffalo, and an endorsement by an Italian-food purist like Palermo carries some weight. But eating at an Italian chain restaurant when living in Buffalo is like eating at Taco Bell while vacationing in Mexico. Why do it when you have the homemade stuff right there?
I'm on Palermo's page. Bocce Club pizza was a staple for me, and Midwestern pizza just doesn't get it (my apologies to Papa John's in Columbus, Ohio, and many thanks for delivering until 4 a.m. on Saturdays). But Max & Erma's, a Midwestern chain, is a restaurant similar to the Creekview Restaurant in Williamsville. They have very different ambiences, but Max & Erma's offers the same homemade feel to their dishes as the Creekview (my personal favorites are their burgers and soups). Of course, the real reason I moved to Boston was not because of any responsible life choice, but because restaurants in the very Italian North End offer at least a close second to Bocce's.
So, if this food deprivation is a neurosis, it's a shared one that crosses miles and spans generations. And fear not. Although fellow Buffalo emigrs might have a better chance of finding true love, inner peace or hefty sums of money than home-cooked bliss beyond the city border, there might be something else out there that can at least tide us over until we return.
And who knows? We just might like it.
Regina's Kimmelweck Substitution
Mix together 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch with 1 cup water to make a slurry. Bring the slurry to a boil, then let it cool to room temperature. Dip homemade or pre-baked store-bought rolls in the slurry once it has cooled. Sprinkle on a generous amount of kosher salt and caraway seeds until your roll looks like a winner.
Chris Paa's Greek Dressing:
You need a wine bottle to put ingredients in. A funnel is a big help, too.
2 tablespoons crushed or minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon dried oregano (crush to release oils)
1 tablespoon dill weed
Juice of 1 lemon; some zest can be added if desired
Fill one-third of the bottle with vinegar (half red wine, half balsamic) and two-thirds with extra virgin olive oil. I like the added flavor of balsamic. Use red wine vinegar as a milder substitute. Add remaining ingredients. Cork it, shake it up and enjoy. This can be used as a marinade as well.
Regina's Chiavetta's BBQ substitute:
1/2 cup cooking oil
1 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cloves crushed garlic
1 1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Mix ingredients together and baste on chicken. The egg may sound kind of strange, but don't worry about it. The vinegar and oil prevent it from spoiling. Baste over poultry or other food of choice. This sauce keeps in the fridge for over a month.
Clarissa Markiewicz is a freelance writer, and currently affiliated with Harvard University.