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8 Regional Foods You Might Not Know

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A couple of weeks ago I linked to a map of the US in which each state was labeled with a kind of food associated with the state.

Many sites featured the map, and the comments were full of consternation and alternatives. Sure, Hawaii produces the pineapples, but the people who live there eat Spam. All over the world, people think fried chicken when you say Kentucky, but it's not a particularly native dish nor all that popular in the state. There are foods listed that some state's lifelong citizens had never heard of! So I looked up some of those obscure regional foods to see what they are all about.

1. Skyline Chili (Ohio)

Some of the confusion came because a food was attributed to a state when it is associated with one city. Cincinnati has a very particular way of eating chili, made famous by Nicholas Lambrinides, who opened Skyline Chili in Cincy in 1949. His Greek chili recipe includes spices not seen in American chili recipes elsewhere. The restaurant's recipe is secret, but those who made Cincinnati chili at home use cinnamon, cocoa, and/or allspice. The chili is served over pasta, and toppings are added depending on the diner's taste. Two-way chili is served over spaghetti. Three-way chili is served over spaghetti with Cheddar cheese on top. *Four-way chili is also topped with oyster crackers, and five-way chili sees the addition of kidney beans -which are not in the chili recipe itself. Image by Flickr user Susy Morris.

*Update: Lauren Doyle of Skyline Chili sends a correction on the way the chili is served:

A four-way is actually a three-way topped with either onions or red kidney beans, while a five-way is topped with both onions and red kidney beans. The oyster crackers are actually served on the side, and frequently are topped with a drop or two of hot sauce. These are small but important distinctions... at least, if you know and/or are a fan of Cincinnati-style chili! :)

2. Toasted Ravioli (Missouri)

Toasted ravioli is unfamiliar to many Missourians who live outside of St. Louis. The origins of this dish are in dispute, as several chefs in St. Louis' Italian neighborhood claimed to have originated the dish in the first half of the 20th century, although it may have traveled from Sicily. The ravioli is breaded and deep-fried, then sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and served with marinara sauce for dipping. You'll find toasted ravioli featured at several St. Louis restaurants or you can make your own with this recipe. Image by Flickr user jayne vidheecharoen.

3. Loose Meat Sandwiches (Iowa)

Loose meat sandwiches were not invented for the TV series Roseanne, which surprised me. The sandwich is described as a sloppy Joe without the slop, or a hamburger that falls apart. It is also called a Tavern sandwich, as it was served by Ye Olde Tavern Sandwich Shop in Sioux City, Iowa, beginning in 1934. The Maid-Rite chain has been selling loose meat sandwiches since 1926, so there is some controversy over the sandwich's origin. In Iowa, even national chains such as Dairy Queen serve loose meat sandwiches. If they aren't served at a restaurant near you, you can try them at home with this recipe.

4. Knoephla (North Dakota)

Spelled knoeplah in the map, this is actually knoephla, a dumpling of German origin that is used with chicken, potatoes, and spices to make knoephla soup. This picture is of knoephlah soup made by RoadFood forum member MTFoodie, from a combination of recipes posted in the same thread.

5. Benne Wafers (South Carolina)

Benne is a Bantu word meaning sesame. Sesame was brought from East Africa by slaves and planted in South Carolina, where it flourished. The seeds were used by the Gullah communities for many foods, including crackers and cookies. Benne wafers is a term used to refer to both sweet cookies and savory crackers, depending on the recipe used.

6. Chislic (South Dakota)

Chislic is deep-fried meat served on a skewer or toothpick. The name is believed to be derived from the German schaschlik or Russian shashlik, which were derived from the Turkich shish kebab. The meat can be beef, mutton, venison, or other game meat. It was introduced to South Dakota by a Crimean immigrant named John Hoellwarth in the 1870s. The reason this dish is not well known outside of South Dakota may be because other regions call it shish kebab. Image by Wikipedia member Gomboc2008.

7. Pasties (Michigan)

Michigan citizens cried foul when pasties were assigned to Michigan, as the dish is mainly popular in the Upper Penninsula (UP). Immigrant miners from Cornwall brought the delicacy with them in the 1800s, but other immigrant ethnic groups brought variants on the recipe. Cornish miners valued pasties because they were so portable, therefore easy to take to work for lunch. A fresh-baked pasty would stay warm for hours, even deep in the copper and tin mines. Pasties are made with a pastry shell resembling pie crust, folded over meat and vegetables and baked in portion sizes easily held in one hand. Ingredients vary, so here are several traditional recipes. Image by Flickr user Kevin D Weeks.

8. Jelly Pie (Arkansas)

The item that seemed to cause the most confusion and/or outrage was jelly pie for Arkansas. Many native Arkansans had never heard of it. But the Food Timeline has a recipe for jelly pie tied to Arkansas.

Jelly Pie (Arkansas)
4 eggs
1/2 cup currant jelly
1/2 cup butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Cream the butter and add the sugar and beat well. Add well-beaten yolks and jelly, and fold in the whites of eggs. Add lemon juice and bake without upper crust."
---The National Cookbook: A Kitchen Americana, Sheila Hibben [Harper & Brothers:New York] 1932 (p. 368)

I found another recipe in the November, 2002 issue of the Sandyland Chronicle from the 1944 Hempstead County Home Demonstration Clubs Cookbook. It differs in that it doesn't specify any particular type of jelly, which leads me to wonder how varied the resulting pies would be. Another recipe calls for strawberry jelly. It came from "an old copy of Southern Cookbook" which might possibly be from Arkansas. A commenter at the recipe page said the exact same recipe in her cookbook dated back to 1947. A grape jelly pie recipe is said to be from "an old food magazine," but it doesn't specify how old, or whether there's any connection to Arkansas. However, most recipes found by searching for "jelly pie" were for peanut butter and jelly pie, a sweet variant of peanut butter pie. The picture used for the map is clearly a slice of peanut butter and jelly pie, which is not connected to Arkansas in particular. Arkansas jelly pie appears to be a delicacy that has gone into history.

If you are familiar with these foods, let us know what you think about them!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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