Today I went back in time, back to an age when fast food and drive-ins were a novelty. I had this taste of vintage Americana in Greenville, Ohio, a small town better known as the home of the Kitchen-Aid mixer.
For the uninitiated (and that will include most people who don’t hail from Iowa), a Maid-Rite is a loose-meat sandwich, which means it’s ground beef that hasn’t been formed in to a patty so it’s similar to a sloppy joe but without the tomato sauce. The tradition of Maid-Rites started in Iowa where they are much more well known and dates back to the 1920’s, but the Greenville restaurant opened in 1934.
Maid-Rite sandwiches are small and a standard order seems to be at least 2 or 3, with stories of people eating double digit quantities. The meat is cooked in two special trough-like steamers. The buns are pulled out of a separate steamer, the bottom half is spread with yellow mustard, piled with meat and then topped with finely chopped onion and slices of pickle. A classic Maid-Rite is $1.50 and for 15c extra you can add cheese, making it a Cheese-Rite. The menu is limited with a couple of variations on Maid-Rites, ham and cheese or chicken and egg salad sandwiches. There are no french fries, only bags of chips but you can wash your sandwiches down with beer, soda or a milkshake.
I’ve been hearing stories about these legendary sandwiches for over a year and the visit was long anticipated, but as I gingerly unwrapped the crinkly white paper, I was worried that it could not live up to the hype. First appearances were not promising. Maid-Rites are not the most attractive of sandwiches and the soft white bun looked squashed and crumbled, even though it had only travelled a few feet from the counter.
I picked it up, trying to prevent the crumbly meat from falling out of the squishy bun and as I did I got a waft of beefy goodness. Things were looking up. The sandwich is extremely soft and the only crunch is from the onions and pickles. The flavor is surprising, much sweeter than I expected, with a touch of black pepper. The seasoning is a secret but guesses include beer, cola syrup and mustard.
It’s a satisfying sandwich that disappears quickly and I was soon on my third, understanding how they can become addictive. By the third one I had also worked out a method of holding it so that I didn’t lose half of the filling.
In addition to its craveable sandwiches, the Greenville Maid-Rite is also famous for its chewing gum wall. The exterior walls on both sides of the restaurant are covered by wads of chewing gum left behind by the patrons of days gone by. It’s disgusting but also strangely captivating and I’ve never seen anything like it.
After 76 years the owners have just opened their second restaurant in Oxford, Ohio (home of Miami University). The food will be the same, but they are hoping that chewing gum tradition won’t be replicated.
You can find Maid-Rite at 125 N Broadway Street, Greenville, Ohio (937.548.2251). If you are taking your Maid-Rites to go, or planning to freeze them (such is their following that people often do) you can request a cold bun. By the time you reach your destination the hot meat will have sufficiently steamed the bun.