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Food + Cooking

Southbound Reuben Meets Northbound Pimento Cheese


The gravitational (and emotional) tug of the college town is undeniable. Old habits. Old flames. Old haunts. In Athens, at the University of Georgia, I fell for the Varsity Drive-In, where they shellacked burgers with pimento cheese and dusted onion rings with cayenne. My wife, Blair, grew up in the college town of Auburn, Alabama, but her food fetishes are rooted in grad school, at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. When we were there last week for the Second Biennial Symposium on American Culinary History, she made a beeline for Zingerman's, the uber-deli thereabouts. Back in the early '90s, the Georgia Reuben—free-range turkey breast, true Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing on grilled Jewish rye bread—was her go-to sandwich. Sure, she loved the taste, but she also loved the reference to her region. It was gratuitous. It was ersatz. But far from home, she took what she could get. And she adopted it as her own. Over the course of our four days in Ann Arbor, Blair ate two Georgia Reubens, while I cadged my share of crusts and coleslaw. I was happy for her. (In the years since Blair finished school, I have become friends with Ari Weinzweig, a Zingerman's founder.) But I didn't stake a claim to Ann Arbor until Blair and I made a pilgrimage to Zingerman's Roadhouse, a relatively new outgrowth of the deli. On the menu, in addition to stone-ground grits and milk-marinated fried chicken, was a pimento cheese burger that challenged—but didn't quite vanquish—my memories of the Varsity.