Academic journal article Material Culture

'I Know I'm Home When I Have One:' the Cultural Significance of the Garbage Plate of Rochester, NY

Academic journal article Material Culture

'I Know I'm Home When I Have One:' the Cultural Significance of the Garbage Plate of Rochester, NY

Article excerpt

Abstract Located on Lake Ontario in western New York State, Rochester as a city is home to many local food traditions. One of these is the comfort food known as the Garbage Plate. A dish that is pervasive within the areas surrounding Rochester, the Garbage Plate has taken on social and cultural meanings in the everyday lives of Rochesterians. The dish can be seen both as a hybrid of Rochester foods as well as a hybrid of local culture. This paper looks at the history of the dish and its symbolic nature to the Rochester area. Attitudes towards the food from the perspective of Rochesterians were gathered from responses to an online survey as well as detailed online interview responses. Through these individual responses, it can be seen that Garbage Plates are not simply something to be eaten; rather, they evoke recollections of the past, memories of friends and family, and are associated with feelings of a sense of place.

Keywords: home, Garbage Plate, Rochester, food, consumption


Regional foods are often an integral part of local cultural identity. Upstate New York is home to several culinary traditions. Some of these regional dishes, like the Buffalo wing, have become popular throughout the rest of the United States and into other parts of the world. Other aspects of the local food culture have not spread beyond the confines of the region. Though these foods have a rich history within the area, their importance has not transcended place. Instead these dishes have become firmly embedded within the local communities, maintaining a sense of importance and pride with those who call Upstate New York home.

One of these dishes is a favorite to Rochester, New York and the area surrounding the city in Monroe County, New York (Figure 1) - the Garbage Plate. This conglomeration of traditional comfort foods, only found in locally owned restaurants throughout the greater Rochester area, represents many of the homegrown culinary traditions by combining products specifically made in Rochester onto one plate. The dish coincidentally mixed several foods considered to be iconic to Rochester. In this sense, the Garbage Plate is a hybrid of Rochester food, because in order to be made it must utilize a variety of foodstuffs that originated in that city.

Not only is the Garbage Plate representative of local foods, but it is also a visible representation of the culture of Rochester. People in the area take pride in this dish, often seeing it as a representation of comfort, home, family, and friends. The Garbage Plate is not only a food to showcase Rochester cuisine, but also representative of surrounding oneself with family and friends, having fun, and being proud to call Rochester home.

This paper will explore the origins and geographic availability of the Garbage Plate in the Rochester area. As such, part of the paper will present a culinary history of the dish in order to explain each component and why the plate itself is a hybrid of local food traditions. As a former resident of the Rochester metropolitan area and someone who grew up in Rochester some of this information will be autoethnographic. Having now lived outside of Rochester and New York State for close to ten years, I have not yet found many dishes with such a rooted cultural embeddedness as the Garbage Plate. Often the only way to get information about particular aspects of material culture is from personal observations, in this case, of local food establishments. The paper will also look at the cultural contexts of the Garbage Plate through analysis of results of an online survey about the dish as well as responses to email interviews with a select group of survey participants. Though my parents moved to Rochester from Detroit, Michigan, I lived in Rochester for twenty years and frequently visit the city whenever I can. In that time I have eaten my fair share of Garbage Plates from various eating establishments and have found that the responses of the people I interviewed reflect many of my own feelings about the food and the city itself. …

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