The Horseshoe - Gastro Obscura

Prepared Foods

The Horseshoe

The original “nails” have disappeared from this cheese-smothered, horseshoe-shaped ham dish.

Sometimes there is a dish so iconic, so legendary, that unearthing its history becomes a journey into local lore, forgotten recipes, and thrice-cut potato wedges. In Springfield, Illinois, that dish is the Horseshoe.

Menus touting the Horseshoe abound in eateries throughout the Illinois capital, but according to many sleuths, none of these modern establishments offer the original recipe. In 1928, chef Joe Schweska invented the Horseshoe as a lunch item at Springfield’s Leland Hotel. Schweska began with an old-school steak platter: a steel oval plate surrounded by an iron or wood trivet (the raised border served as an important spud balcony). On top, he placed two pieces of bread, lying side by side, and a slice of ham cut directly from the bone in the shape of a horseshoe. Then came his iconic cheese sauce. Although it was based off Welsh rarebit sauce—which uses cheddar cheese, milk, butter, and beer—because it was 1928, and therefore during Prohibition, Schweska made his first Horseshoe sauce using nonalcoholic beer. After a good smother of creamy liquified cheese, the chef decorated the platter’s perimeter with freshly cut baked potato wedges, creating the “nails” of the horse’s shoe. (While that sounds simple enough, there is an ongoing debate over details of the original recipe, including the thickness of the bread and whether the slices might have “sandwiched the meat” instead of serving as the base.)

Over the years, Schweska’s Horseshoe has been transformed from a satisfying, stately midday meal into an excessive, gut-busting pile of meat and toppings. In addition to ham, many menus offer the dish with a hamburger patty, while other versions include buffalo chicken, fried pork tenderloin, or kobe beef. Meanwhile, the potatoes have been replaced by crinkle cut fries, tater tots, or hash browns, all served atop or submerged in the cheesy sauce.

To find just about any variation on the dish, it pays to check out one of the Horseshoe competitions that frequently pop up in tandem with local beer festivals and as battles between restaurants. As to when and where one can find the original Horseshoe? That’s a horseshoe of a different color. Even though most modern restaurants don’t offer exact replicas of the original version, cooks with a penchant for history can make Schweska’s original sauce using online recipes, though one might recommend a beer upgrade. 

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CormacRedfield CormacRedfield