Food and Drink: A Midwest tradition continues in Hannibal

Food and Drink: A Midwest tradition continues in Hannibal
The iconic Maid Rite sandwich can be a mess, but not at Hannibal's Mark Twain Dinette. [Dave Faries]
Dave Faries

Any description of the Maid-Rite sandwich falls well short of the spell it casts over adoring fans.

To start with, the sandwich is almost childishly easy to prepare, composed of ground beef, perhaps some seasoning and a bun. The condiments – pickle slices and diced onion – hardly add a degree of difficulty.

And yet at Mark Twain Dinette in Hannibal, you are likely to encounter reunions where guests speak longingly, in reverence hushed by mystic chords of memory or with almost spiritual elation about the Maid-Rite.

The meat is transcendent – seasoned with a frugal hand so the husky savor of beef dominates. It rests on a pillowy bun that offers a comforting toasty sweetness. Flecks of onion complement this while deepening the raspy grumble from inside the bun.

Pickle slices sing through this, sharp and piercing. The briny note brings a welcome contrast.

Maid-Rites can be sloppy, which is why a spoon is the only utensil presented alongside. Here, however, there is just a thin spread of ground beef – not nearly enough to threaten your lap.

There are several points of contention in the Maid-Rite story. One is between the corporate ideal and the ways of remaining independent diners. If those who have looked into the matter point out that sandwiches at corporate operations tend to be tidy things.

The transition to corporate from a franchise model also turned into a spat that dragged through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Iowa’s state Senate had to pass an amendment in 2010 allowing an iconic independent Maid-Rite restaurant to continue using the name.

Another question tossed around involves the sandwich’s status. Does it belong in the burger category? It is ground beef, but served loose, not as a patty. Many label it as an old school tavern sandwich.

But as sandwich enthusiast Jim Behymer wrote in a 2019 article, “Back home we always called them Maid-Rites.”

Back home would be Iowa. Steamed loose meat sandwiches had been around for awhile. In 1926, a butcher in Muscatine, Iowa – bored, according to some versions of the tale – made a sandwich.

It was good, apparently. He presented one to a customer who took a bite and supposedly exclaimed something to the effect of “Boy, this is made right.”

The butcher, Floyd Angell, opened a restaurant and soon began franchising the Maid-Rite name.

Food and region can become closely associated. Consider barbecue’s varied locales, toasted ravioli and St. Louis, Minnesota’s Jucy Lucy and so on. Iowa, Illinois and parts of Missouri – that’s Maid-Rite territory.


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