Nebraskans Know There’s No Substitute for Runza | Noshtalgia
There’s nothing worse than disappointing a good friend.
Unless, of course, said letdownee happens to also be an award-winning dining critic who has faithfully entrusted an overly ambitious, fellow food sleuth with sniffing out a long lost taste of home that’s eluded his well-traveled palate for ages.
Such proved to be the case with my first full-blown Noshtalgia fail: runza.
It’s A Family Affair
Washington Post food writer Tim Carman casually mentioned the Midwestern staple just as the two of us began plowing through a Kenyan feast of grilled meats, saucy vegetables and oven-fresh baked goods.
Come to think of it, it wouldn’t surprise me if the steamy, meat-filled samosas we greedily gobbled up that evening — chased with swigs of ice cold African lager, ‘natch — may have actually triggered his sudden stroll down memory lane.
According to Carman, the trademarked sandwiches are part and parcel of growing up in Nebraska — an assessment wholly endorsed by Omaha-World Herald food scribe Sarah Baker Hansen.
As her paper explained back in 2009, an enterprising local woman attempted to turn the multicultural mash up into a household name:
“This savory beef-cabbage creation is actually hundreds of years old. It’s a German-Russian invention known as the bierock.
“The late Sarah ‘Sally’ Everett of Lincoln coined the name Runza as an abbreviated approximation for what her family called the cocoon of dough enveloping a cooked mixture of ground beef and chopped cabbage. Everett opened the first Runza restaurant in Lincoln in 1949 with her brother.”
Six decades into the experiment, Runza Restaurants appear to be doing just fine. The burgeoning chain currently consists of 80-plus outlets spread across Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa and Kansas. The group has also branched out beyond its eponymous anchor, adding more familiar fast food items (such as custom burgers, onion rings) to its repertoire.
Per Hansen, the original recipe (“The traditional filling is what is in the classic — ground beef and cabbage inside a puffy bread bun,” she noted) has been joined by several genre-blending spin-offs, a carte that includes a cheese-filled version, Swiss-mushroom medley, cheeseburger-like creation and barbecue-bacon construct.
“There are tons of recipes out there for runzas, particularly in things like church cookbooks and the like,” Hansen said.
Carman appears to have benefitted from that same pioneering spirit.
“They were a special treat, mostly because each batch required my working mom, Kay Billingsley, to prepare, rest and roll out the dough. It was a labor-intensive process: She had to roll out the dough into thin sheets, cut the sheets into squares, spoon each square with a beef filling, seal the pockets and then bake them,” he said of the meticulousness required to fulfill his snacking needs.
While his family later ventured into new baking territory — “My sister, Deborah Kellogg, later adapted the recipe and stuffed runzas with all sorts of fillings,” he recalled — it dawned on Carman that this particular gift had passed him by.
“I used to ‘help’ by adding the filling and sealing up the pockets. My runzas always looked like the dog had taken a bite out of them,” he related.
Carman has remained effectively runza-less since moving eastward — save for an unsatisfactory run-in on Capitol Hill.
“I had one a few years back at a D.C. bar, where former Nebraskans gathered to watch Cornhusker football games. But they were sad imitations,” Carman bemoaned.
Lost in Translation
Running down Carman’s dream food turned out to be more challenging than most, largely because no one around here had any idea what I was talking about.
Turns out, the Germanic origin story he’d been fed as a youth was news to local vendors.
“Sorry to say, never had one and have never had any requests,” the proprietor of the German Gourmet (5838 Columbia Pike, Falls Church, Va.) reported back about the mystery meat pie.
“I have actually never had or heard of these,” Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe (2150 N. Culpeper St., Arlington, Va.) co-owner Carla Buchler admitted. “It sounds really good though; maybe we should try making them.”
And so it went, awkward rejection after awkward rejection.
Until I finally found someone who was able to set me straight.
“I have never heard the terms ‘runza’ and ‘bierock’ which you mentioned in your message,” Barbara Wiegel, a spokeswoman for the German Embassy in Washington, D.C., shot back in an email.
She went on to dispel the myth that Carman’s craving was born anywhere other than Sally Everett’s imagination.
“This is not a typical German snack food; typical German sandwiches are more similar to the US variety, consisting of bread slices and/or rolls that are layered with butter, meats (cold cuts), vegetables, cheese etc.,” she asserted.
Wiegel, who said she lived in Russia for more than 10 years, suggested that runza might have more in common with pirozhki.
“There are lots of varieties, not only savory pastries but also sweet ones filled with jam and/or cottage cheese,” she said of the accommodating finger food.
Sitting, Waiting, Wishing
With fresh marching orders in mind, I turned my heels towards Rus Uz (1000 N. Randolph St., Arlington, Va.), a neighborhood spot specializing in Russia-Uzbek cooking.
They, of course, serve pirozhki. But after reviewing the menu, I opted to hedge my bets by sampling fellow meat-filled delights, samsa (stuffed bread) and chebureki (deep-fried pastry pocket). Each appetizer had its finer points: wonderfully flaky shell gave way to mounds of zesty cabbage. Samsa sported a firmer crust shielding forkfuls of seasoned lamb. Chebureki packed a fabulous crunch.
But none came close to fitting the runza bill.
This came as no surprise to Nebraska Society of Washington, D.C., member John Zimmer.
“I don’t think there’s actually any place that sells runzas in D.C. or the surrounding area,” he said. And he would know.
The only way the Nebraska Society knows to sate members’ taste for the elusive treat is to ship some over in bulk, which they dutifully do each fall.
“While the Husker watch parties — which are now at 201 Bar — have been known to have other Nebraska foods like ‘Elk Creek Water’ [a grain alcohol-based punch] and Fairbury brand hot dogs, runzas are typically only flown back to D.C. for the society’s annual Taste of Nebraska,” Zimmer said.
So, save for giving the bar scene another go this October, it seems Carman is out of luck. Unless he considers giving home baking another go.
“I guess I’ve been afraid what my friends would think of runzas,” he said of his reticent to roll back the clock. “Nobody makes runzas for one. Not even [Washington Post Food Section editor] Joe Yonan.”
CQ Roll Call dining guru Warren Rojas will stop at nothing to track down your regional specialty/state dish/hometown favorite. Put him on the case by nominating your most sorely missed meals to firstname.lastname@example.org.