We drove through Ohio to visit the Serpent Mound, a 1,348-foot-long, 3-foot high, earthen representation of a serpent with its mouth gaping wide, apparently trying to swallow an egg — or perhaps the moon or sun. No one knows exactly what the giant snake is swallowing. In fact, no one even knows who built this mound. Or why. Or when.
The Serpent Mound is perhaps 3,000 years old. Lots of mystery surrounds this mound. Some have posited that the bends and curls of this monstrous serpent are aligned with celestial bodies, but much about this ancient Native American work of art remains unknown.
Not far from Serpent Mound is the Hopewell Mound Group, the earthen remains of an ancient “city” built by yet another indigenous group. In approximately 300 square acres are several pyramidal mounds. Most of the mounds were leveled in the early 20th century when, shortly after the U.S. entered WWI, a training camp was built on the site. It seems a monstrous act, but such destruction of indigenous culture is not rare. St. Louis, once called Mound City because it contained so many native earthworks, was built over destroyed mound structures. Across the Mississippi in Collinsville, Illinois, the great pre-Columbian city of Cahokia was, for the most part, leveled to accommodate a housing development and a drive-in movie theater (now both demolished, though one of the mid-century houses remains to represent one period of the archaeological record).
Traveling through the U.S., we’re always interested in what the “natives” are eating. In Cincinnati, the local dish is chili, 3, 4 or 5 ways. This is not chili most of us would recognize: spaghetti in a very light tomato-based sauce that contains Mediterranean spices like oregano, paprika, and cumin. Add shreds of mild cheddar, and it’s a 3-way; add onions or beans, a 4-way; add onions and beans, a 5-way. This seemed to me a monstrous concoction, with way too much flavorless cheese, limp noodles, and a vapid sauce.
So what explains the love Cincinnatians feel for this … mess? Because it’s theirs, a local dish they call their own and that is, for locals, comfort food. I’ve seen seemingly strange food like this all over the country, including Chicagoland.
Next month will see the publication of Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites. This book, co-authored by myself and Monica Eng, investigates the history behind 30 local and beloved dishes that might easily repel some, like the Mother-in-Law (a tamale in a hot dog bun, covered in chili) or the Breaded Steak Sandwich (a friend of mine said it was like eating moist, breaded carpet padding).
When it comes to local dishes, if you’re not from the locality, you’ll likely find yourself bewildered by foods that have become popular for reasons that are as mysterious as those behind building a gigantic serpent mound.
Serpent Mound is located at 3850 State Route 73, Peebles, OH; it’s about a six-hour drive from Oak Park, so you’ll probably want to stay overnight.