By Pete Wayner
At least once a week during the month before I got married—the twilight of my bachelorhood—I left my small apartment in Upper Monroe after 11 p.m. and drove to Mark’s Texas Hots.
I picked up a double cheeseburger plate with mac salad and home fries, and returned home to enjoy it from the native styrofoam, taking each bite with great ceremony. This ritual was purely mine, something celebratory yet solemn, an observance of a time in life that, upon my impending nuptials, would be over.
Since then, I’ve started to learn what really good food tastes like: the ways salt, sugar, fat, spice, and herbs culminate into a completely novel, nuanced dish. Much of that education has happened here, in Rochester. None of it happened with a garbage plate.
Can Rochester do better?
To be clear, this isn’t an attack on a treasured piece of Rochester culture and history. Of course garbage plates are delicious—a savory piece of the local culinary story. And, while the occasion to consume 3,000 calories (yes really, 3,000) in one sitting grows more rare as I age through my twenties, garbage plates still fill a certain part of me beyond my stomach. That said, the fact that this pile of separate foods mashed together is Rochester’s culinary flagship—that in whatever bit of national media Rochester happens to make an appearance, so too (usually in the comment thread) does the garbage plate—may be selling our city short.
On the other hand, a city’s signature dish may have way more to do with its story than the sophistication of its flavor profile. And yes, a story does lie beneath the garbage. In 1918, Nick Tahou Hots—then called “Hots and Potatoes”—served a lot of young men who asked for “one of those plates with all the garbage on it.” The fact that the exact same scenario plays out a century later in dive joints all over the state is worth tipping your hat (and your scale).
So, which is it?
Was the plate appropriate for a certain time—when Rochester was still a scrappy culinary bachelor, before a marriage to surrounding farms, national/global trends, and risk-defying restaurateurs? Or is it a holy piece of our collective story that should endure throughout the food trends transforming the rest of the city’s foodscape?
There’s a comment section down there.