Dowagiac Eats: Examining the history of local food
The temporary exhibit at the Dowagiac Area History Museum, “Michigan Eats: Regional Culture Through Food,” makes the point that there are few foods that are uniquely Michigan that are eaten throughout the state.
Other states have foods that are clearly identified with that state, such as Maine lobster rolls and Louisiana gumbo or jambalaya.
In Michigan, pasties can be found throughout the Upper Peninsula, “Coney Dogs” are a phenomenon in eastern Michigan and the muskrat is a delicacy found in the Monroe area, but these items are not common throughout the state.
This got me thinking about local cuisine and what is uniquely southwest Michigan.
A visitor just asked if goulash is unique to the area. My friend Mike Moroz a few years ago told me he was making goulash and I asked him about it — I grew up with German heritage in Milwaukee and regularly had Hungarian goulash, so I was interested in how he made his paprika beef stew.
Instead, he told me about his baked casserole of ground beef, onions, spices and tomatoes. I said, “That’s not goulash.” I soon found out that locally, what Mike was making is indeed goulash — ask the folks at the Old Tavern Inn in Sumnerville. A cursory search online shows that it is not exactly a local phenomenon as “American Goulash” can be found across the nation.
Thinking about local food, I consider the city’s restaurant history. The first “restaurant” in what is now Dowagiac was the tavern/inn at McOmber’s stagecoach stop at North Front and Prairie Ronde streets. After the railroad’s arrival in 1848, hotels opened with taverns and restaurants attached. Early inns included the American House and the Dowagiac House. Nicholas Bock’s American House even fed the kids who arrived on the first Orphan Train in 1853.
Few residents opened full-time restaurants in the city’s early history. The 1899 city directory lists only two restaurants— the Capron (also a bakery) on Commercial and the City Restaurant at 230 S. Front St.
To show you the city residents’ priorities at that time, that same directory had nine saloons listed!
By 1907, the Ohio Café opened at the site of the current Post Office and it appears to have been Dowagiac’s fine dining establishment for a decade.
From the 1910s forward, more restaurants and diners popped up throughout the downtown district while hotels continued to offer dining. The Dixie Hotel across from the depot, which later became Champ’s Hotel and the Gaslight Inn, was a Dowagiac mainstay for decades. The Lunch Car Diner (and later incarnations) occupied the current site of Bakeman Barbers for years. George Klapchuck opened a restaurant in the 1930s in the current Beeson Street Bar. Some of the department stores, such as Harvey’s and Woolworth’s, featured dining counters and by the 1950s, places like the Root Beer Stand appeared on the edges of the city limits.
The Wigwam Restaurant in the Beckwith Memorial Building offered both a diner and fine dining from around 1945 to 1949. Named the Wigwam for local American Indian dwellings, its exterior sign featured a Plains Indian teepee and inside it had sloped high ceilings featuring Indian pictographs to make it look like a teepee. Waitresses dressed in faux-Indian costumes completed the theme.
Needless to say, this restaurant would not fly in the 21st century. During its brief history, however, it was a popular place.
An article on food in Dowagiac would not be complete without Caruso’s, the city’s oldest restaurant still in business. Tony Sorti opened the Chicago Candy Kitchen around 1911 and sold the building and business to Antonio Caruso in 1922. Offering sandwiches, sundaes, phosphate sodas and chocolates, Caruso’s Candy Kitchen has remained a Dowagiac tradition for several generations.
It has remained in the family throughout its history and still offers hand-dipped chocolates—according to Caruso’s 1977 obituary, it was one of the few places in the United States with hand-dipped chocolates. I imagine it is still one of the few.
This clearly is not a comprehensive look at the dozens of restaurants that have populated Dowagiac for 167 years. The museum, however, does have some interesting items related to these restaurants — visit the museum to see how much a steak dinner cost at the Wigwam!
Steve Arseneau is the director of the Dowagiac Area History Museum. He resides in Niles with his wife, Christina, and children, Theodore and Eleanor.
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