I guarantee you’ve seen it on a menu: “Flaming saganaki,” that savory and dramatic combination of fried kasseri cheese and ignited brandy vapor. It’s a staple at Greek restaurants–but it’s not Greek. It’s a product of Chicago, and it’s made its way all across the country.
You’ll find Americanized dishes across nearly every type of “ethnic” restaurant in the U.S., from fortune cookies at a Chinese spot to avocado-filled hand rolls at a sushi joint to marinara sauce at your local Italian hangout. These dishes are the product of assimilating immigrants and the combination of flavors from the homeland with American tastes and trends. Such is the case with flaming saganaki, a staple of Greek menus from New York to Los Angeles, from Dallas to Minneapolis. The flames, the smell, the accompanying cries of “Opa!“–all were invented in Chicago in the late 1960s.
While Greeks have lived in Chicago since the 19th century, modern Greektown is a product of the expansion of the Eisenhower Expressway in the 1960s. The project forced some of the existing businesses (and most of the actual Greek residents) out of the area, but made some commercial areas more accessible and created others. the restaurant scene almost immediately started booming, with spots selling gyros, dolmades, and moussaka sprouting up and down Halsted Street. Lines formed outside of places like The Parthenon, which opened in 1968. Greek food, put simply, was trendy.
Photo credit to: Mapbox/jultchik7/Flickr/Katie Martin/CityLab