In Praise of ...

the Horseshoe Sandwich:

Illinois' Quirky Burger Secret

It's a tale as old as time: a hungry someone seeks something new and a chef proceeds to deliver history on a platter. In this story, that someone was Elizabeth Schweska, of Springfield, Illinois, and that chef was her husband, Joe, who was employed by the LeLand Hotel at the time of his great invention. If you've never been to Illinois, it is unlikely that you've had (or heard of) the state sandwich seen on pub and diner menus across the Land of Lincoln.

The name just may be the most perplexing part about a horseshoe sandwich. In its current form, it doesn't look like anything you or I would call a sandwich. The USDA would agree, but they also leave a little room for "sandwich-like products." This is a better term than "pile of food," which is closer to the truth but starts to reduce the horseshoe to a college dorm invention when it's much more proletarian than that. You could call it an open-faced sandwich, but it wouldn't change anything about how locals and fans understand it. It is decidedly Midwestern in that it resists outside definition.

Picture this: two slices of toast, topped with two hamburger patties, fries, and a cheese sauce (the most polarizing component of the recipe). It's a cheeseburger and fries, deconstructed and remade a little more loosely. You're going to need a fork. So, where does "horseshoe" come from? According to lore, the original recipe consisted of plain toast and, instead of the hamburger used today, ham cut from the bone, resembling the shape of a horseshoe. The fries represented "nails" and the bread the "anvil." It is difficult and unnecessary to think of an updated metaphor. A horseshoe by any other name would taste as great.

Presently, the horseshoe most often takes its standard cheeseburger form, but many variations exist. You can substitute other cuts of fries (try one with tater tots) and other proteins (fried fish is a popular choice in Irish pubs), but you can almost never choose your cheese sauce. This will vary from kitchen to kitchen, but the recipe will probably be a closely guarded secret with its own mythology likely printed on the menu.

The original Schewska recipe used Welsh rarebit sauce, an 18th-century British dish consisting of hot cheese on toast. Now, you can expect a beer-cheese sauce, containing mustard, Worcestershire, cheddar, and the chef's choice of ale. The simple meal is so popular with Springfieldians that for a time, the local Steak & Shake had to learn to make the sauce to accommodate the volume of these off-menu orders.

While the horseshoe can be found all over Illinois and into some bordering states, it hasn't spread too much further just yet. Locals don't seem to mind. It's a secret no one's bothering to tell because our mouths are full, but we're happy to share some with you if you'll sit down awhile.