Having lived in the Southland for the entire duration of my life, the first time I ever spent any considerable time north of the Mason-Dixon line wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s.
My trip into the place I had only previously heard my grandfather curse began with a long ride north on Interstate 77, a quick jolt on US Rt. 19 (The Ontario-Florida Expressway) over the New River, and then Interstate 79 for the remainder of the trip.
Just north of Morgantown, West Virginia, I crossed the storied imaginary line which had been responsible for a Civil War a century and a half earlier and the epicenter of a culture battle that has raged ever since.
“Pennsylvania Welcomes You” announced the bright blue sign as I exited the Interstate just long enough to use the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s bathroom facilities.
The Amish family who walked inside the building a few feet in front of me reminded me that I had entered a distinctly different world than I had grown up; however, the giant monument to fallen coal miners just behind me also reassured my southern south that there were folks just like me in Western Pennsylvania whose fathers and grandfathers came home black faced from coal dust every evening — men whose pockets were empty while their lungs were full of microscopic particles of deadly coal. I had gone north, but I was still in Appalachia.
That afternoon I arrived at my destination — a random community just north of Pittsburgh, caught somewhere between a suburb of a major international city and rural, largely uninhabited cropland. This is western Pennsylvania and though I was out of my element, I loved being there.
Going out to eat dinner, I elicited hardy laughter from the waitress as well as my guests when I requested a “Sweeeet Teeeeee” to drink.
“Where are you from? I just love how you twoolk,” she asked, in an accent that was probably more strange to me than mine was to her.
I never got a sweet tea that meal and the following day at lunch, when I requested Texas Pete to go with my hamburger, I was brought Texas toast. Turns out, Texas Pete isn’t as legendary in those parts as he is “back home” and very few people have ever heard of the product.
As wonderfully odd as all of these experiences were for me, the most bizarre foreign food encounter I had would be on my third and final day of the visit.
Feeling myself literally gain additional pounds each day from the restaurant trips and midnight snacking with my friends, I opted to go with the healthier option on our final time of eating together.
“I’ll take the grilled chicken salad please.”
Ten minutes later, while everyone else seated at the table was ferociously devouring their PA delicacies, I was staring at my salad like a calf at a new gate!
Perplexed as to why I had spent the last fifteen seconds silently staring at my plate with y jaw dropped open, my friend’s wife, a Pittsburgh native, questioned, “What’s wrong?”
“Ummmmm — I don’t know. They put French fries on my salad.”
“Yahh–?” she responded, with the sharp bristliness one would have expected a Western Pennsylvania native to have revealed in such a situation.
Still bewildered, I asked the returning waitress why there were French fries in my salad. Her response wasn’t much different than my friend’s wife.
Ultimately, I just assumed that French fries on a salad was just something that particular restaurant did and I rolled with it — and then raced back to the land of Sweet Tea, Billy Graham, and SEC football.
It wasn’t until a handful of years later when I returned, this time on business, that I realized that French fries on garden salads wasn’t just some rare specialty of a downtown restaurant, but it was in deed a Western Pennsylvania thing.
If you’re ever in Western PA and you order a salad from a restaurant in the greater-Pittsburgh area, you should expect two things: 1.) It will come with French fries atop the lettuce and cheese and 2.) No one will understand why you find this odd.
Just below Erie, Pennsylvania, people start making salads “normal” again, but don’t expect for them to know what Texas Pete is!
Though I still find it to be one of the weirdest regional culinary oddities I’ve ever experienced, I have grown to love the “Pittsburgh Salad” and long for the day when I can be back among my friends in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, eating salads topped with French fries.
Share this article with your friends on Facebook: