Forget those wings: Buffalo Beef on Weck is what folks in the Upstate New York really eat. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

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. Italy claims almost two dozen distinct culinary regions, and the country is smaller than California. The United States is huge, and although it might not seem as if we have the culinary regions to match, sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find them.

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 far and wide 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, hasn’t really left — and has certainly never gone away.

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.

Lost in the lore is the name of the bar where that happened. But Staychock lays out the facts as she knows them. Schwabl’s opened in 1837. “Roast Beef on Kummelweck” was on the original menu. And she hasn’t found a reference to the sandwich that predates 1837.

“We assume it was here,” she says.

She also has a theory about why you need to go to the eastern edge of Lake Erie to experience beef on weck. It’s the weather. Buffalo’s typically dry air is a key kummelweck ingredient.

“We don’t have a lot of humidity here,” she explains, “but when we do, it’s hard to keep those rolls up to our standards.” If there were too much moisture in the air, the salt would just melt into the bread: “Those rolls are temperamental.”


It’s called an Italian Beef Sandwich, but it’s 100 percent Chicago. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

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, then soaked it in the beef’s 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 bistro 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 be driving 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?

“It’s a totally unique sandwich,” says Bradley L. Burt, the president and chief executive of Maid-Rite, a 40-location chain serving Iowa and its neighbors.

To say that 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.


You could call the Iowa Loose-Meat Sandwich a sauce-free sloppy Joe, but there’s more to it than that. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

The lore surrounding this sandwich involves a butcher. His name was Fred Angell, and in the mid-1920s in Muscatine, Iowa, he liked to experiment 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.

Now it’s an icon, a celebration of a place. Burt says that when people get off the plane in Iowa, many head straight to one of his restaurants for a taste of a memory. For the same reason, some of the company’s biggest catering jobs are for weddings and class reunions. There are even stories about sandwiches being placed in caskets.

You may not be able to get a loose-meat everywhere you go, but if you’re leaving from Iowa, you can get it to go and take it with you.

Burt says the restaurants have fan clubs around the country, in places where there are no Maid-Rites. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that tastes better in Iowa because you’re eating it in Iowa.

“We’re a part of the landscape and the heritage of the Midwest,” Burt says.

That’s certainly true. But his sandwich is also a piece of a story that goes far beyond the Midwest, one defined in large part by the very specific ways America puts beef on its bread.

jim.webster@washpost.com

Webster is the co-author, with chef Mario Batali, of “Big American Cookbook: 250 Favorite Recipes From Across the USA.” He will join our weekly Free Range chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.