Dine Quixote: Hoppel poppel speaks to him in Milwaukee
A super hoppel poppel at Benji's in Milwaukee includes potatoes, eggs, onions, fried salami, green peppers and mushrooms, all blanketed by melted Swiss cheese.
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MILWAUKEE -- So where have I been and what have I eaten?
Dine Quixote just got back from his favorite city to the north -- Milwaukee. But before you all start chiding me for returning to the scene of too many food crimes, let me say that I did it for you, people of Pittsburgh. With the Steelers and the Packers perhaps heading to another collision in the next Super Bowl, I wanted to check on how the Milwaukee Museum of Art has been treating the Renoir -- "Bathers with Crab" -- that Carnegie Museum of Art lost to it as part of the traditional Super Bowl bet last time around. And that's what I did the night after landing. There was, you see, a huge exhibit of Impressionist works and our painting was centered on the Renoir wall. So I sat down in front of it and gazed at the crab and thought about what I was going to have for breakfast on Saturday morning.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have been on a diet, and Milwaukee, with its exploding restaurant scene, could have proved to be an insurmountable problem. There is a hot dog place around the corner from my daughter that is said to have the best hot dogs in the city. There is a chili emporium a few blocks away that garners raves from the students at Marquette. There's a stunningly beautiful Middle Eastern joint presided over by a truly creative chef whose roast lamb, when topped with yogurt and eaten with eyes closed, is a time machine to a mountaintop village in the Galilee.
So I unilaterally ruled that Milwaukee would be my one diet-free city, and spent the first night dreaming of hoppel poppel.
To find about hoppel poppel, all you need to do is grab a copy of Jane and Michael Stern's new book, "The Lexicon of Real American Food" (Lyons, Sept. 2011, $19.95). It runs across the country -- north to south and east to west -- providing explicit descriptions for regional delicacies. When I was growing up, one of these foods was the bagel. It all seems too silly now, but when I was a kid I was always having to explain why I was eating bread doughnuts.
The Sterns devote time and pages to egg creams (milk, selzer and Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup), New York System (chili dogs sold in Rhode Island), lamb fries (breaded and fried testicles), kringle and kolache (both pastry) and scrapple (tasty but hard to describe without saying bits of pig too often).
They also chronicle hoppel poppel, described as a scrambled melange of eggs, onions and potatoes, and in some delis, cubes of sauteed salami. Benji's in Milwaukee whips up a super hoppel poppel, adding green pepper and mushrooms and topping it with the diner's choice of cheese. When Sherri Panza and I sat down in the quasi Jewish deli in Milwaukee's Shorewood neighborhood, I chose Swiss.
This book adds to the Sterns' list of great books, which includes their masterpiece, "Roadfood." That one aids and abets the foodie's game of one-upmanship -- "Eaten it." Consider this book to be the food dictionary to culinary Scrabble -- a book to keep the players honest and plant the seeds of "What should we eat next?"
It is always good to know what food is available in a particular region, especially if it is something that you may never have conceived. Recently, someone tipped me to Southern biscuits with chocolate gravy -- not in the book and not something a dieter would order up at breakfast. Yet biscuits and sausage gravy was perhaps my first road discovery back before "Roadfood," the book, and before Sherri Panza, who now fills the passenger seat. I was sliding up Interstate 71 one winter day heading back to Kent State with my old buddy Natalie, who, as we neared a snowy exit, said, "Let's stop at that diner for some biscuits and gravy," a dish she had discovered while hawking wine jellies on the summer carny circuit. She ordered and what lay before me were two split biscuits holding up a sea of milk gravy speckled with crumbled chunks of sausage. Just right for the remaining hour of a cold, miserable drive. Fast forward a few years and now that dish is on breakfast menus at lots of places.
The sausage gravy story is historical lore among the members of my clan, who have heard it each time they sit down in a Bob Evans restaurant and I order a platter of the superlative biscuits and gravy.
Now, with the young Quixotes making their own forays into the food world, I can expect telephone calls as they describe what is set before them. My youngest, who already has traveled a bit, found herself one October weekend in Rhode Island.
"Did you eat any stuffies?" I asked, remembering the popular-in-Providence dish of chopped Quahog clams baked in their shells with breadcrumbs and seasonings.
"You made that up" she said.
"Nope," I replied, holding my copy of "The Lexicon." "Check page 259."
First Published December 8, 2011 12:00 am