Loose meat. No two words our culinary lexicon, when wedged side-by-side and thrown together, like the strangest of bedfellows, on signboard or menu, are more likely to strike fear and trepidation in the hearts and minds of prospective eaters than loose meat. How so? Because we don’t know, on first reading, if loose meat is a promise or a threat. We don’t know if the juxtaposition of loose and meat is just indelicate food writing, or if the two words, together, portend—for the hapless eater—the coming miasma of gastroenterological calamity and the promise of an involuntary ride on the thunder bucket of scatological chagrin. And yet there they are—loose meat—on every Maid-Rite menu across middle-America, describing exactly what you’ll get when you order The Original Maid-Rite sandwich, served on a warm bun.
I know, I know: with descriptors like that, the jokes write themselves.
But for higher-minded gastronomes yet unfamiliar with the wonders of Maid-Rite, think of this hallowed midwestern franchise as a collective repository and relic of homespun gastronomic charm whose menus remain so deeply antediluvian as if to somehow render them cutting edge in their insistently dogmatic, retro-chic goodness: deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, cheese curds, chicken salad, root beer floats—all of those dino-era classics with which your grandparents filled your Leave It to Beaver-esque childhood dreams of what food of that era was supposed to look and taste like. Heaven on a soggy paper plate.
Founded in 1926 by butcher Fred Angell, Maid-Rite first appeared Muscatine, Iowa, and has expanded with a glacier’s sense of patience over the years throughout Iowa and its contiguous farm-belt neighbors of Minnesota, Illinois, and Missouri. This plodding pace of expansion, however, has allowed Maid-Rite to achieve that perfect equipoise between being just accessible enough to annually indoctrinate faithful legions of new eaters, all the while remaining hard enough to find to so perfectly cultivate and inspire a fiendishly devoted and cult-like following of carnivores forever omnivorous for ground beef in its most excremental-looking of forms.
I visited my first Maid-Rite this summer in St. Cloud, Minnesota, one of just two locations in the entire north star state. Located inside Vuke’s Pro Fuel gas station and tackle shop, just off Roosevelt Road, on the south side of town, and but a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, the Maid-Rite of St. Cloud is, for all outward appearances, the kind of place you’ve likely read about in Steinbeck or Kerouac, or seen in the landscapes of Hopper or Leone: cinematic in its desolation and almost existential in its disconnect from the buzzing of the outside world. Inside is a different story, however. Inside, the Maid-Rite of St. Cloud is a warm hug of the familiar and welcome refuge from the ravages of the open road. It smells like a kitchen—your grandmother’s kitchen, in fact—and is crowded with precisely the kind of people with whom your better self should always yearn to lunch—farmers, mechanics, Minnesota State Troopers—people for whom the pleasures of the midday table, however humble, are indefatigably keen.
I ordered the Original Maid-Rite sandwich. I ordered two, in fact, paired with fries, then sat in a booth, and tucked into my meal. And while the anatomy of an Original Maid-Rite sandwich seems outwardly minimalistic in design—seasoned ground beef, pickles, and onions on a perfectly steamed bun; it’s really that simple—the effect is post-maximalist in its umami bomb throwing disbursement of sodium-saturated greasy goodness. I ate my first sandwich without breathing. The second I dispatched with the only slightly-greater dignity of having chewed my food before swallowing. I tore at the sandwiches. I devoured and gnashed. And when my meal was over, I sat above the Rorschach ink test of beef grease that had splattered across my plastic tray, the collateral damage, I guessed, of consuming the most pitiable of combined ingredients—ground beef; enriched white flour bun—prepared and served in the most inelegant of ways, and with a kind of shit-on-a-shingle gastronomic technique. I didn’t care. I simply wiped the meat-sweats from my face and laughed out loud for the sheer ebullience of having just bitten through all of that beefy bliss. I loved my Original Maid-Rite sandwiches, and the experience of having just eaten two left me wanting even more.
Which is not quite the same thing as saying the sandwiches were actually any good. On the contrary: by the metrics of culinary modernity, my meal might actually have been something beyond the pale of deliciousness. Too salty. Too greasy. Too strange tasting to modern palates otherwise accustomed to levels of acidity chemically engineered to operate as ballast against overwhelming amounts of mouth-coating dietary fat.
But so what? What if the ephemera of savor is determined by something other than—or in addition to—to the summation of ingredients of a particular dish? What if my meal Maid-Rite was made so deeply delightful by more than what I simply put in my mouth? What if it was the wax paper in which my sandwich came wrapped? What if it was the fraternity and fellowship of my brethren eaters? What if it was the red-aproned lady behind the counter who took my order with grandmotherly warmth? What if this whole Maid-Rite experience was really some proto-Proustian manifestation of associative synesthesia whereupon all of these stimuli combined for an environmental experience whose potency on determining if I should find the whole fandango pleasurable or not was far greater—on balance—than the sandwiches I shoved in my pie hole?
Fuck if I know. That will be up to you to decide.
What I do know, however, is that you should could consider me among the converted. Count me among the devoted many who will travel far and wide and always out of his way for the pleasures, keen—or not—as they are, of the Original Maid-Rite sandwich.
And as for that dubiously described loose meat sandwich, it turns out that it’s both a promise and a threat.
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