There is no such thing as Italian food, according to thoughtful chefs who specialize in the varied and specific cuisines of places such as the Piemonte or Puglia. And they’re right.

As America continues to develop its culinary chops, one day there will be no such thing as American food, either.

The greatest influences on any region’s food are geography and history: People cook what’s available near them and what they learned growing up. In America, we have a third great resource: the collective knowledge of the cultures that have settled here.

But to define America’s regional cuisines, you don’t need a historian or a researcher. You don’t even really need a map. All you need is to talk to people about roast beef sandwiches. Looking at how meat meets bread around the country becomes a kind of culinary cartography.

The first plot point is in New York. Buffalo may be known for creating an industry based on a part of the chicken that used to be tossed out, but ask folks there what the indigenous dinner is, and you’re more likely to hear about beef on weck.

It’s a simple sandwich of roast beef on a unique roll, adorned only with horseradish for a good kick. You might not have heard of it if you don’t live in Buffalo. It’s a sandwich that was born there and hasn’t really left. And as with all great foodstuffs, there is lore.

Cheryl Staychock, the owner of Schwabl’s in West Seneca, N.Y., says that, as she understands it, a German immigrant was working at a bar in Buffalo that served roast beef sandwiches. Of course, it also sold beer, and profit margins being what they are, there was an interest in selling more beer. So the baker started baking coarse salt and caraway seed onto the crust of the kaiser rolls as a strategy to induce thirst. It worked. The roll became known as the kummelweck, and it became the star of the show.

If you move one Great Lake to the west, you’ll find yourself in Chicago, a city that has a history with beef that even Upton Sinclair couldn’t derail.

But beyond steakhouses and meatpacking plants, Chicago has Italian beef sandwiches. The meat is roasted in much the same way that Buffalo cooks prepare beef for their kummelwecks. The origins are even less clear than those of beef on weck, but the theory holds that the sandwich was developed by immigrants who had only cheap cuts to work with. They added giardiniera – a zingy salad featuring hot peppers – to the roll, and soaked the beef in its cooking liquid.

The only connection this sandwich has to Italy is the ancestry of the people that invented it. This sandwich is 100 percent Chicago. It even has its own designated stance. Somehow, it tastes right only if you eat it standing up, hunched over a counter so the excess juice runs down your arms. Roll up your sleeves and grab napkins.

Head due south of Chicago to New Orleans and you’ll find po’ boys, a favorite variety of which stars that same roast beef you see all over the country. Here, they scrape up all the bits from the roasting pan and call it debris. They stack it on a soft French roll with the most mundane of dressings – pickles, lettuce, tomato, mayo – and somehow the simple becomes singular. The memory of eating one of these while sitting at a wrought-iron table in the French Quarter might be the best souvenir you could have.

Fly to Los Angeles and order a French dip sandwich, and you’ll get something that looks like an Italian beef sandwich that someone forgot to put the giardiniera on. But that isn’t what it is. It’s a French dip, and it is loved for being exactly that.

Take the “roast” out of the equation, and our map gets even more points of interest. Philadelphia griddles slices of steaks and stacks them with cheese, an iteration embraced around the country and synonymous with its place of origin.

Baltimore grills hunks of beast and buns them up with horseradish and onion. Look for pit beef outside a generous radius of Charm City and see if anyone knows what you’re talking about.

Nebraska stuffs ground beef, cheese and sauerkraut in dough and bakes it. Want a runza? Your best bet is to drive on I-80 somewhere west of Omaha.

Then there’s Iowa.

Iowa’s entrant in this conversation isn’t something you’re likely to find anywhere else. It isn’t a burger. It isn’t a sloppy Joe. It’s a loose-meat. Which is what, exactly?

To say the loose-meat sandwich is like a sauceless sloppy Joe provides a visual but sort of misses the point. It’s its own thing. The ground meat is sauteed and seasoned and piled on buns that have little chance of containing it. It is at once a symbol of economy and generosity.

The lore surrounding this sandwich involves butcher Fred Angell, who in the mid-1920s in Muscatine, Iowa, experimented with different grinds of different cuts of meat, cooking them with different seasonings. When he hit on the one he liked best, he opened the first Maid-Rite restaurant, now a 40-location chain.

Now a loose-meat is an icon, a celebration of a place.

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BUFFALO BEEF ON WECK

Two things set this sandwich apart as it’s served in Buffalo: the kummelweck-style kaiser roll topped with caraway and salt, and a generous amount of horseradish.

The meat and broth can be refrigerated separately for up to 5 days. Reheat before serving.

Makes 12 servings

FOR THE BEEF:

One 3- to 4-pound boneless top round roast or chuck roast

6 cloves garlic, each cut lengthwise in half

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

1/2 bunch fresh thyme

11/2 cups dry red wine

4 cups water, plus more as needed

Prepared (white) horseradish, for serving

FOR THE ROLLS:

1/4 cup coarse sea salt

1/4 cup whole caraway seed

1 large egg white

1 tablespoon water

12 kaiser rolls or other firm sandwich buns

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Use a sharp knife to cut 12 slits in the roast, then insert a piece of garlic in each one. Liberally season the beef with salt and pepper on all sides.

Heat the oil in a roasting pan (set across two burners) over medium-high heat. Sear each side of the roast, about 5 minutes per side, then scatter the onion slices and thyme around it.

Pour in the wine and water, adding more of the latter, as needed, so the liquid level comes about an inch up the side of the beef. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil; roast for about 3 hours, checking each hour to maintain the water level and adding more as necessary.

Just before the meat is done, prepare the rolls: Mix the salt and caraway seed in a small, shallow bowl. Whisk together the egg white and water in a separate bowl until slightly foamy; brush this mixture onto the top of each kaiser roll, setting the rolls on a couple of baking sheets as you go. Liberally sprinkle the rolls with the salt-caraway mixture.

Carefully transfer the roast to a cutting board and let it rest for about 30 minutes; leave the oven on. Strain the cooking liquid into a saucepan, discarding the solids, and keep it warm over low heat. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Bake the rolls for 5 minutes or just long enough to set the topping.

Cut the rested meat against the grain as thinly as possible.

Cut each roll in half horizontally. Stack several slices of beef on the bottom half, then top the meat with a generous amount of the horseradish. Briefly dip the cut side of each top roll half into the warm broth and place it atop the sandwich. Transfer the broth to a serving bowl, for more dipping at the table.

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ITALIAN BEEF SANDWICHES

This is fashioned after the classic Chicago sandwich. It’s worth taking the extra step of chilling the cooking broth/serving jus, because that makes it easier to remove fat.

You’ll need several clean pint jars for the giardiniera. The giardiniera needs at least 3 days’ curing time in the refrigerator and can be refrigerated for up to 1 month (not water-bath canned). Bring to room temperature before serving.

Makes 6 servings (1 quart giardiniera)

FOR THE GIARDINIERA:

3/4 cup apple cider vinegar

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon celery seed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

6 ounces hot cherry peppers, sliced

4 ounces small cauliflower florets (no large stems)

1/2 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped

1/2 medium green bell pepper, seeded and minced

1/2 medium red bell pepper, seeded and minced

1 medium carrot, scrubbed well and shredded

2 ribs celery, minced

FOR THE BEEF:

One 3- to 4-pound boneless top round roast or chuck roast

6 cloves garlic, each cut lengthwise in half

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

1/2 bunch fresh thyme

11/2 cups dry red wine

4 cups water, plus more as needed

6 soft sub rolls, for serving

FOR THE GIARDINIERA: Whisk together the vinegar, oil, salt, celery seed, oregano and crushed red pepper flakes in a large mixing bowl to form a dressing.

Add the cherry peppers, cauliflower, olives, green and red bell peppers, carrot and celery; toss until evenly coated. Divide the giardiniera mixture and all the dressing among 2 or 3 clean pint jars; seal and refrigerate for at least 3 days and up to 1 month. The yield is 1 quart. You’ll need about 1 cup for this recipe; reserve the rest for other uses.

FOR THE BEEF: Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Use a sharp knife to cut 12 slits in the roast, then insert a piece of garlic in each one. Liberally season the beef with salt and pepper on all sides.

Heat the oil in a roasting pan (set across two burners) over medium-high heat. Sear each side of the roast, about 5 minutes per side, then scatter the onion slices and thyme around it.

Pour in the wine and water, adding more of the latter as needed so the liquid comes about an inch up the side of the beef. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil; roast for about 3 hours, checking each hour to maintain the water level and adding water as necessary.

Carefully transfer the roast to a plate, cover with aluminum foil and refrigerate for several hours. Strain the cooking liquid, discarding the solids, and refrigerate it for several hours. (This will make it easy to de-fat the broth.)

When ready to serve, skim off and discard the fat from the top of the liquid; reheat the liquid in a large saucepan over medium heat.

Transfer the roast to a cutting board; thinly slice the beef against the grain and warm it in the broth. Pile the beef into the rolls, then spoon on about 3 tablespoons of the giardiniera per sandwich.

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IOWA LOOSE-MEAT SANDWICHES

Serve with mustard and ketchup on the side.

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 pounds ground beef (20 percent fat)

1 medium onion, cut into small dice

1 cup homemade or store-bought no-salt-added chicken broth

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 chopped chipotle pepper in adobo (optional)

1 tablespoon light brown sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

6 split hamburger buns, for serving

Dill pickle slices, for garnish

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the ground beef and onion; cook for several minutes, until they have browned, stirring vigorously and breaking up any clumps of meat. The end result should look like lots of small crumbles.

Add the broth, vinegar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, the chipotle pepper, if using, the brown sugar, salt and black pepper, stirring to incorporate. Bring to a boil, stirring, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the liquid has evaporated.

Use a slotted spoon to pile a large amount of meat atop each bottom bun half. Garnish with a couple of pickle slices, and serve with the top bun.

Recipes dapted from “Big American Cookbook,” by Mario Batali with Jim Webster.


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