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A Guide to Very Specific Midwestern Sandwiches

Because the difference between the right sandwich and almost-right sandwich is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.”

The sandwich — as popularized by John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich — was meant to be eaten with one hand as to leave the other free for card playing or gambling. Here in the Midwest, though, eating is a form of entertainment unto itself. We shovel food into our mouths with both hands, and the sandwiches served at our diners and county fairs demand all of a consumer’s attention. Here’s a list of sandwiches unique to the Midwest, most of them unwieldy, unhealthy, and unknown outside our region.

Polish Boy

Photo: Stu Spivack / Flickr

Cleveland’s hometown sandwich: kielbasa with coleslaw and French fries, smothered in barbecue sauce. The sandwich was invented by Virgil Whitmore, owner of Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q, because he happened to have a lot of coleslaw, French fries, and barbecue sauce lying around his restaurant. According to Cleveland Scene, Whitmore combined the ingredients “to come up with the delicious mess of a sandwich.”

Tenderloin

Photo: Darcy Maulsby / iStock

A pork fritter, bigger than the bun trying to contain it, served in every Indiana diner and grill. It’s such a Hoosier culinary staple that when Mitch Daniels was campaigning for governor, he ate one in every county in the state. For more cholesterol, fat, and calories, ask for an extra “breaded loin.”  

The Bay Port Fish Sandwich

When you leave Highway 25 in Michigan’s Thumb and drive down the macadam road to the water’s edge, you pass a wooden cutout of a mullet holding a fisherman upside down by his legs. This piece of folk art is entitled “Fish Caught the Man,” and it’s the logo of the Bay Port Fish Sandwich Festival, which takes place every summer on the first weekend in August. The festival has its roots in a stand that sold fish sandwiches to travelers for 25 cents. At first, the proprietors used herring, but when that became scarce, they switched to mullet. The festival also offers perch, walleye and cod, but mullet is the real Bay Port Fish Sandwich, which the Chamber of Commerce boasts is so big “it takes two hands to hold one!” 

Brain Sandwich

Photo: Robert Gibbs / Chicago Tribune

Deep-fried calves’ brains on rye bread. Widely enjoyed when St. Louis was a slaughterhouse town, now served in only a few south St. Louis taverns (including Schottzie’s Bar and Grill), which switched to pigs’ brains after the Mad Cow scare.  

Anything with Provel in it

Photo: LearningLark / Flickr

Provel (pronounced pra-VEL) is a processed cheese made from combining cheddar, Swiss and provolone. St. Louisans love it on their sandwiches. Provel’s prefab nature gives it a buttery taste and a gooey, greasy texture — easy to peel off a crust but less stringy than mozzarella. A salsiccia is a sandwich with Provel, peperoncini, and pickles with meat sauce on a sesame seed bun. A prosperity sandwich is open-faced toasted garlic bread topped with roast beef and provel. A Gerber sandwich is an open-faced toasted hoagie with garlic butter, ham, and Provel.   

St. Paul Sandwich

Photo: Eugene Kim / iStock

An egg foo yung patty, lettuce, pickle, and mayonnaise on white bread. Served in Chinese take-outs all over St. Louis.   

Primanti Sandwich

Photo: Adam Stone / Wikimedia Commons

A sandwich with coleslaw, tomato, French fries and your choice of meat between slices of Italian bread. (Pittsburghers love to put French fries on salads and sandwiches.) Served at Primanti Bros., the eponymous Pittsburgh restaurant. N.B.: A hamburger patty is most popular, but pastrami is the best.

Chipped Chopped Ham Sandwich

In Pittsburgh, “chopped ham” is a marbled loaf formed of mashed-together ham chunks. A specialty of Isaly’s, which sells it at supermarket deli counters and serves it sliced thinly (or “chipped") in buns at its few remaining take-out restaurants.   

Loose Meat Sandwich

Photo: Cindy Funk / Wikimedia Commons

Another term for a Maid-Rite, a dry, crumbly beef sandwich invented in Muscatine, Iowa in 1926 and now sold at diners across the Midwest. In northwestern Iowa, a Loose Meat is called a tavern, named for Ye Olde Tavern restaurant in Sioux City, which introduced the sandwich to the region.   

Magic Mountain

Texas toast topped with ground beef, French fries, and cheese sauce. Served at Ross’ Restaurant in Bettendorf, Iowa. When hot chili and onions are added, it becomes a Volcano.

Beef on Weck

Photo: Nick Gray / Flickr

Little known outside Buffalo, a sandwich consisting of soggy tissues of rare roast beef packed inside a Kummelwecken, a Kaiser roll studded with pretzel salt and caraway seeds. Best served with horseradish sauce, which makes every mouthful sweet, salty, and pungent. Buffalo was once a big beer town, and beef on weck was popularized by German brewers looking to parch their customers.   

Hot Ham and Rolls 

A Sunday post-church/post-hangover tradition at Milwaukee bakeries, taverns, and restaurants. Some establishments give away free hard rolls with the purchase of a pound of ham, so customers can assemble their hot ham and rolls at home, while others serve straight-up mini sandwiches. A staple of the Sunday buffet at the Holler House, the tavern with the oldest bowling alley in America.  

Horseshoe

Photo: bhofack2 / iStock

An open-faced sandwich of ham, turkey, or hamburger on two slices of toast, covered with French fries and smothered in cheese sauce. Invented in Springfield and second only to Abraham Lincoln as a local icon.

Italian Beef

Photo: bhofack2 / iStock

The Italian beef, also known as a “beef sammich” or “I.B.,” is a pile of sliced beef packed into a roll. Order one at Portillo’s, and the cashier will ask “Dipped?,” meaning dunked in its own juices, and “hot or sweet?,” meaning the flavor of peppers.   

The Belle Gunness

There’s nothing special about this sandwich, which is served at Indiana Deli & Catering in La Porte. It’s roast beef, turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise on whole wheat toast. But it’s named after La Porte’s most famous resident, a turn-of-the-20th century serial killer who placed lonely hearts ads in newspapers, only to rob and kill the men who responded. After Gunness died in a fire, numerous bodies were found buried on her farm.

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