Garbage Plates are a Rochester icon, and their popularity hasn’t waned as the rest of the city has declined. The lasting appeal of the Garbage Plate is made clear through the number of local imitations, with names about as close as you get without violating copyright. Nick Tahou Hots, the inventor of the original Garbage Plate, even trademarked the term in 1992. At other restaurants around town, you can get a “Trash Plate,” or a “55 Junker Plate.” They all come with burgers or hot dogs, and some combination of meat sauce and sides. Some places will let you substitute in onion rings or sweet potato fries. But what does it mean that the Garbage Plate is the most famous dish from a rust belt city that has been trying to revitalize and rebrand itself my entire life?
Despite complaining about the decline of the city, Rochester residents remain dedicated to local food and sports, despite unappealing names and losing records; but none as much as the Garbage Plate
The Garbage Plate comes in many variations, but the original was made up of two hamburgers with a choice of two sides: home fries, beans, or macaroni salad. The dish is usually topped with ketchup, mustard, onions, and Rochester style hot sauce. The sauce isn’t spicy—it’s more of a hearty tomato and ground beef combination. You then mix it all together and use the two slices of bread to sop up any remaining sauce.
Maybe it matters that the Garbage Plate has stood the test of time. Like the city it calls home, it’s not particularly attractive, but it has “good bones” that make its supporters dedicated fans. The name itself doesn’t dance around the reality—the plate is an ugly mess of different shades of brown. Why pretend you’re eating it because it looks nice? You keep coming back because against all odds it tastes so good when you get that perfect forkful of burger, mac salad, and home fries covered in hot sauce.
Rochester is a city all about renewing itself, although what exactly “renew” means in this context is a bit nebulous. Jobs? Cultural life? A more lively downtown? We’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that an arts center or cultural district will spark a renaissance. Rochester sits on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, and is plagued by the same problems as other upstate New York cities—from bad weather to population loss. Millions in public funding has gone towards “revitalization” efforts, touching on almost every corner of Rochester’s downtown. Projects like Clinton Square, the Civic Center, and the Inner Loop were supposed to bring life back to a city that often appears dead, with empty streets and abandoned storefronts, but they all relied on the suburban commuter to sustain momentum.
About 60 percent of downtown Rochester is dedicated to parking. Buildings are set back, and the area is difficult to navigate on foot, with more in common visually with a concrete industrial park than a mixed-use, vibrant urban center. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, patron saint of urbanism Jane Jacobs writes about sidewalks and the walkability of cities at length: “Sidewalks, their bordering uses, and their users, are active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism in cities. To keep the city safe is a fundamental task of a city's streets and its sidewalks.” In Jacobs’ analysis, cities live and die by the state of their sidewalks, and they stay safe only as long as people have reason to use them. If Jacobs could see the state of Rochester today, where the streets are actively hostile to anyone on foot, she would doubtless condemn this as another failed attempt at revitalization.
It might be difficult to defend Rochester when people point out the myriad of problems associated with the city—violence, empty storefronts, underfunded schools. But, we can and will defend our hometown dish, and pounce on outsiders who make untrue claims about it.
Last March, The New Yorker ran a story about the Buffalo City Fair, a “day-long celebration of New York’s second-largest city.” Although the event was about Buffalo, it centered on a description of Garbage Plates, never once mentioning their Rochester origins. The local reaction was swift. Nick Tahou Hots tweeted “Maybe @ElizabethKateri and @NewYorker should do some fact finding on where the #Garbageplate originated, who serves it, and also give credit to the ONLY place who can call it a Garbage Plate. Just sayin. #Rochester.” Local minor league baseball team, The Red Wings, responded with a tweet saying, “We’ve cancelled our @NewYorker subscription.”
Rochester residents bristle at the idea that our most iconic dish might be attributed to any other location. Could the garbage plate have emerged anywhere else? Maybe. A cook in any city could have thrown together whatever was in the kitchen to satisfy some hungry college kids, sure. But would the city have embraced it the same way? It doesn’t have the wider recognition allotted to iconic plates like the Philly cheesesteak, or even Buffalo wings, but the name and look are just off-putting enough to give us a sense of superiority. You might not get it as an outsider, but Rochesterians get a kick out of knowing we’re able to see past the exterior to enjoy maybe the best drunk food ever invented.
The Garbage Plate seems to act as a stand-in for hometown pride. Diasporic Rochesterians bond over their love of the dish, and college kids home for spring break post pictures of their reunions with friends, always garnished with a Garbage Plate. Students at the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology that are new to the city are quickly initiated into the cult of the Garbage Plate.
The Red Wings, the local baseball team who tweeted about the New Yorker story, embody what the Garbage Plate means for Rochester. The team played as the Rochester Plates one night in 2017 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the original Nick Tahou version. In 2018, they continued this every week, playing as the Plates on Thursdays. This year in March, they introduced a new mascot, Mac, for the Plates. Mac is named, of course, for the traditional macaroni salad side on the original Garbage Plate. He looks a bit like a muppet, but in an ugly, endearing kind of way. He wears a Plates jersey decorated with traditional Garbage Plate toppings. Suspenders hold up his garbage can outfit, with the lid as a sort of newsboy cap. Local memes popped up almost immediately, comparing him to Philadelphia’s Gritty and Oscar the Grouch. He’s a little campy and a little silly, but we love him.
Revitalization projects come and go around Rochester, with each new idea bringing with it the hope that active life might return to the city’s downtown. But you can’t engineer how people will congregate and use a space; you can only give them the best starting point and see what they do from there. Rochester’s renewal can’t be a top-down injection of culture and minor infrastructural repair. Sure, those things are nice to have, but they’ll fall flat without a more organic renewal. Almost no one would have predicted the success and memeification of the Garbage Plate, but now it’s an immovable part of the Rochester food landscape. Stimulus packages pale in comparison to the local pride for the Garbage Plate.
I spent an entire semester talking Garbage Plates up to my boyfriend at the time, who was from New England. I’d describe them and send pictures when I was home—he had to try them. I finally found a place through Yelp claiming to serve as close to authentic garbage plates as I could expect to find in Boston. When we got there, the restaurant had been closed for health code violations.