Garbage Plates: An American Tale of Autonomy

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As rational individuals, we possess the power to make informed decisions when it comes to food. We exercise our free will to decide not only how we eat, but how we live. This autonomy, in essence, is a privilege of being American. And there’s nothing that displays Americana quite like eating a heaping helping of cheeseburgers, hot dogs, macaroni salad and fries.

Zoom in close enough on the Northeastern corner of the United States and you’ll find the city of Rochester, New York emblematically waving the flag for free will. Though some may know Rochester as the home of the imaging solutions company Eastman Kodak or the eye health supplier Bausch & Lomb, the city’s most appreciated and innovative contribution may be one that lies within the culinary world. That contribution is a little 3,000 calorie delicacy known as the Garbage Plate.

If the Upstate NY area has eluded you, it’s very possible you’ve never heard of a Garbage Plate or any of its similarly-titled imitators. Though the dish has been featured on shows such as Man v. Food and the Food Network’s Unwrapped, the Garbage Plate remains an enigma to many who live far from the region. The original incarnation came about way back in 1918 at a downtown Rochester diner called Nick Tahou Hots, which now officially owns the “Garbage Plate” moniker. At that time, the plate was called “Hots and Potatoes,” though it featured quite a bit more than that with baked beans, onions, macaroni salad, mustard, and a meaty, spicy sauce all mixing magnificently together. When The Great Depression struck the country, the dish was an affordable fix for empty stomachs at the sublime price of 35 cents. Several decades (and price hikes) later, college students at the restaurant allegedly started ordering the mound of madness by asking for “one of those plates with all the garbage on it.” It was then that the appetizing title was born.

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Wikipedia.com

Inevitable joking aside, I will plainly state that I love Garbage Plates. More accurately, I love Sloppy Plates, Junkyard Plates, Trash Plates and any other waste-related title they’re given for the sake of safely mimicking Nick Tahou’s. The slight irony, however, is that I fancy myself a fairly responsible eater. That might sound like typical hypocrisy in the truest American fashion, but I know plenty of legitimate admirable eaters (co-op shoppers, farmers market favorers) who still somehow succumb to a “plate” every so often. And though that decision does not require intoxication, alcohol certainly works as a spokesperson for garbage plates in the city of Rochester.

Nick Tahou’s may be the home of the original, but Mark’s Texas Hots is now the epicenter of consuming crazy calories. This seemingly-simple diner has two major things going for it when it comes to attracting “plate” eaters— it’s open 24/7 and it’s smack dab in the middle of Monroe Avenue’s bar scene. Just after 2:00 A.M. on any given Friday or Saturday night, you can wait in the velvet-roped line out front of Mark’s with a stumbly crew of shell-shocked individuals all dying to gorge on garbage. When the face-tatted bouncer finally opens the front door for you, the clamor inside is barely unlike the bar you just left. Despite how hectic it always appears, though, the food somehow always arrives to your booth quite quickly. Best of all, the “Sloppy Plate” at Mark’s isn’t just quick and convenient, it’s completely customizable.

A standard “Sloppy Plate” at Mark’s— at least as suggested by the menu— consists of either two cheeseburgers or two hot dogs and two sides (which could be crinkle-cut french fries, home fries, macaroni salad or baked beans), all covered in a quilt of meat sauce, mustard and onions. Hefty, huh? Well, when your brain backs off and gives your stomach full creative control, even crazier concoctions tend to come about.

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“I don’t think there’s anything we’ve ever refused to make,” says Darlla Ferera, a server at Mark’s Texas Hots. “We accommodate whatever people want.”

I’ve personally witnessed this unyielding accommodation on a few occassions. Though I can’t take credit for its creation (gladly, perhaps), I have subjected my stomach to a “Midlakes Plate” or two during a weekend Mark’s visit. Invented by a group of my friends who affectionately dubbed this dastardly dish after their high-school, the “Midlakes Plate” features a cheeseburger, two chicken fingers, fries, baked beans, macaroni salad and “everything on top” (meat sauce, onions, mustard and a generous splash of Frank’s Red Hot). Unfortunately, that’s far from the most extreme plate a patron of Mark’s Texas Hots has ever dreamt up.

When recalling the most insane requests she’s ever taken, Ferera easily lists off the components of one particular plate built from two cheeseburgers, fries, macaroni salad, baked beans, a couple fried eggs, a few mozzarella sticks, everything on top and even a bonus blanket of gravy to bring it all together. This monstrosity wasn’t a one-time transgression against the sanctity of sane eating, either. “That particular customer has gotten the same thing a few times, actually. They like it,” Ferera states.

Regardless of what exactly ends up being whimsically whipped together, any variation of a garbage plate undoubtedly sounds like a vegetarian’s worst nightmare. Rochester is a city of solidarity, though, and in the same way Mark’s Texas Hots accommodates all requests, their neighbors up the street at Dogtown are ensuring even the most animal-friendly folks aren’t left out of the fun. Though their traditional “Junkyard Plate” comes with the usual meatiness of any other plate, Dogtown also offers vegetarian options. Anyone looking for a meatless feast at the restaurant can choose between veggie dogs, veggie Italian sausages, veggie burgers and portabella burgers to pair with two sides to be topped with a veggie version of Dogtown’s Cincinnati-style chili. It’s a relief for many who might assume a place called ‘Dogtown’ would force you to get actual hot dogs.

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In the realm of food-related free will, I recently had an all-too-familiar Saturday night setting take an unexpected turn. As my friends and I interpreted “closing time” as “feeding time,” we strolled down Monroe Avenue towards the chaos that awaited at Mark’s Texas Hots. However, this night felt different for me. The usual plea bargain made between my stomach and brain just wasn’t happening; and though the autonomous attitude that typically guides me was in full effect, it was sending me in a different direction. I opted out of joining my pals for plates that night. As I walked home feeling fine rather than ineffably full, I wondered if my decision was fueled by newfound self-righteousness or just a spark of sanity. The next morning, I cured that ambivalence with an early lunch: cheeseburger, hot dog, fries, macaroni salad, everything on top.

Trevor Courneen is an intern at Paste and a proud Rochesterian. He will gladly join you for a Garbage Plate anytime. You can follow him on Twitter @trevorcourneen.

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