VOICES: What is Dayton’s signature food?

First, let me say that you Daytonians have been welcoming. I moved here in May of last year knowing nothing about Dayton – except for the Wright brothers – and knowing only one person, and that was only by phone.

So I had to start from scratch – find out what’s where. Doctors. Grocery stores. Dry cleaners. Hardware stores. Most important, a good coffee shop. Found them all. Except for one thing.

I’ve not found a signature food that’s uniquely Dayton.

Oh, I’ve asked. And sought. Nothing.

This bothers me. I’m a native of Pittsburgh, moving to Toledo with my then-young family. Twenty-eight years later came the move to Dayton – Beavercreek, actually. I’m used to identifying a city by its food.

Another way of looking at this: When a visitor asks what’s a must-eat item, what do you say? In Pittsburgh there’s the Primanti Bros. sandwich that’s meat, cheese, tomatoes, coleslaw and French fries all between two thick slices of bread (the origin is that it makes a meal a truck driver can hold in one hand). For the record, there was a Primanti Bros. in Beavercreek, but it closed.

Just west of Pittsburgh is a series of small towns, each of which offer a steak salad that not only has strips of steak, but French fries. My wife recently ordered a steak salad at a northern Michigan town and asked if it came with French fries – the waitress looked at her askew; she had never heard of such a thing.

Speaking of northern Michigan, there you can find pasties (pronounced past-tees). It’s meat and root vegetables inside pastry dough and baked – another meal in one hand.

In Toledo there’s Tony Packo’s, famous for Hungarian-style sausages which in turn were made famous by being mentioned often on the hit TV series M*A*S*H*, of which one of the stars, Jamie Farr, is a Toledoan as was the character he played.

In Baltimore, where we’ve been to visit one of our sons, there are crab cakes – the best of which we’ve found is the size of a softball and is a meal by itself.

Cincinnati has Skyline Chili, and while there are Skylines here, Dayton can’t claim that as its own signature food.

I’ve been told about local pizzerias, ice cream places and potato chips that are Dayton-based, but to me don’t rise to the level of a famous, signature food.

Credit: Sarah Franks

Credit: Sarah Franks

This tells me, as a newcomer, two things. One, there’s a large transient population here, likely because of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and affiliated contractors, who don’t settle here long enough to establish whatever foods are popular in their cultures. Two, as inventive and entrepreneurial as Dayton has been and continues to be, those traits haven’t carried over into the culinary community.

Having said all this, dear readers, I admit that I may be – heck, I hope I am – wrong. There may be a dish here that merits a “you gotta try this” suggestion to a visitor or newcomer, like me.

So respond to this column by emailing edletter@coxinc.com with your suggestion. In the meantime, I’m going to snack on doughnuts and cookies I brought back from my favorite grocery store where I used to live.

Dennis Bova is a freelance writer living in Beavercreek after a 42-year newspaper career.

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