It’s technically an open-faced sandwich, but that’s like calling the Empire State Building an office park
By Ed Simon
With limestone cliffs overlooking the Celtic Sea and sandy beaches on the Bristol Channel, Devonshire, England features heaths growing heather and gorse and fishing villages with names like Ilfracombe and Lynmouth – it is absurdly British. Perhaps for this reason, around the turn of the twentieth century, an Anglophilic Pittsburgh city planner some 3,595 miles to the west appropriated the county’s name when laying out streets. Lined, appropriately, by Tudor mansions with crosshatch facades and the inlaid stained glass that marked upper class homes of Pittsburgh, Devonshire Street was one of the city’s toniest addresses. As neighborhoods filled with immigrants from Dublin and Naples, Krakow and Budapest (as well as Charleston and Biloxi), Devonshire Street advertised Anglo-Saxon connotations. Ironically, it was the son of Sicilian immigrants, a chef named Frank Blandi, who immortalized the street.
In 1935, while working in the kitchen of the similarly Anglophilic Stratford Club, Blandi invented Pittsburgh’s singular white-tablecloth dish, the Turkey Devonshire—that rich, calorie-laden pantomime of WASP cooking that is glorious, ungodly, and almost extinct. Technically, the dish is an open-faced sandwich, but that’s like calling the Empire State Building an office park or the Golden Gate Bridge a water crossing. Done right, it should be well over two thousand calories—a cassoulet dish lined with toasted white bread, upon which is layered a hefty portion of roasted turkey, all of it drenched in viscous cheddar cheese sauce, crowned with thick-cut bacon and tomatoes. A thin sprinkling of paprika and parmesan anoints the top. The whole thing is baked at medium temperature for several minutes until the cheese turns the enchanted glowing hue of an industrial orange sunset. Ideally, the surface should crust slightly, reminiscent of the French Onion Soup where the Gruyere bubbles over on the crock’s lip. Some recipes allow for crabmeat, shrimp, or even asparagus, but it should be noted that vodka and vermouth isn’t a Martini.
“When we first started working on the Devonshire, it didn’t look like it does now,” Blandi recalled in 1983, to Pittsburgh Press food writer Marilyn McDevitt Rubin. “It was flat.” But as God pulled the round earth out of the inky undifferentiated blackness of space, so too would Blandi tinker until the Devonshire emerged. The exact nature of this alchemy—what inspired Blandi, why this particular recipe – depends on who is doing the telling. His grand-niece Kim Ifft, who used to work at Alexander’s Bistro in Bloomfield, hypothesized to Hal B. Klein in Pittsburgh Magazine: “ My guess, if I were betting dollars to doughnuts, is that if we’ve all busted our hump by the end of the day, cooking, cleaning for people, you’re hungry. It’s late at night. You’d say, ‘Cook, make us something.’… Well, maybe there’s some leftover turkey. Maybe there’s some gravy. And you want to fancy it up. I can see how this gets better and better as you keep playing with it.”
Though the Devonshire may sound excessive to a generation raised on kale and quinoa (or the idea of kale and quinoa), Blandi’s dish was no exercise in decadence. Local food writer Dave Forman, who operates the blog David the Gastronome, told me it was the “high-class answer to liver and onions. It made folks feel special because they were eating something out of a clay pot that had been baked.” In mid-century Pittsburgh, the Devonshire was taken as an elegant recipe, enjoyed by the same people who ordered heavy dishes like Chicken Kiev and Steak Daniel, with Vichyssoise or tomato juice as an appetizer.
Apocryphally, Blandi was looking for an English-sounding name to match his English-sounding restaurant, eventually saw the street sign, and took the name as if the dish had always come from the land of Cornish pasties and white pudding. Culinary agnostics may note that his recipe bears more than a passing resemblance to Louisville’s fabled Hot Brown sandwich or the cheesy British classic known as Welsh Rarebit. But that’s of no accounting—creation myths have to create out of something. The Devonshire’s almost over-the-top WASPiness is indicative of Blandi’s Italian-American culinary humor. The white bread, the cheese, the bacon, the turkey, the Goddamn name. Only mayonnaise could have made the Devonshire whiter.
Blandi would have a half-century-long career as effectively Pittsburgh’s earliest celebrity chef, working at the Park Schenley Hotel, the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and finally Le Mont, which served Mad Men-era haute couture, and remains a bastion of Franco-Normcore cuisine. Unknown outside of the region, the Devonshire was omnipresent on the menus of finer restaurants. The classic seafood restaurant Poli’s, not far from the Squirrel Hill tunnel, widely known for both its bronze-plated lobster doorknobs and its tank of actual ill-fated crustaceans, served it until closing in 2005. Nino’s on Craig Street in Oakland had it on the menu, as did its successor, More’s, an old-school restaurant where the elderly waiters had tuxedos, the walls were covered in Italianate paintings of varying quality, and the Caesar dressing was made table side. They closed in 2010. The more intimate red sauce joint Alexander’s in Bloomfield’s Little Italy was one of the last to serve the dish—that is, until 2020, when they turned off their stoves.
Regional dishes often have a mythologized creation, a moment in which serendipitous ingenuity lends itself to deliciousness. Some local cuisine seems eternal—who invented New England clam chowder, the New York big slice, or the California fish taco? But other dishes emerge from the firmament itself. Think of Anchor Bar proprietor Teressa Bellissimo, who, one upstate New York evening in 1964, whipped up a late-night snack for her son’s college friends, coating fried chicken wings with a mixture of butter and Frank’s RedHot sauce, a side of Blue Cheese dressing, and celery as a garnish, thus inventing the Buffalo Wing. Or when South Philly brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri first frizzled sheet beef, onions, and peppers, melted some provolone on top, and threw it all on a hoagie roll to create the first cheese steak.
The Devonshire doesn’t have the reach of the Buffalo Wing or the aura of the cheesesteak; you can’t find it at Applebee’s, nor is it a Superbowl staple. But it’s Pittsburgh’s exceptional gastronomic creation. These days, it endures on a handful of menus in western Pennsylvania, offered at a few diners, delis, and bars as an exercise in nostalgia. (Union Grill, in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, makes a great one.) Forman said today it’s often treated as a “fancier club sandwich, probably made with the same terrible, overcooked and dry turkey, using bacon that’s leftover from morning breakfast, and topped with a cheese sauce that has little cheese in it.”
When Pittsburgh’s culinary scene is discussed in the national media, it’s often as a shot-and-beer town partial to pierogies, kielbasa, and pastrami sandwiches piled high with fries and coleslaw—more Good Friday fish fry than brunch at the 21 Club. Or, conversely, Pittsburgh is celebrated as the gentrified come-back Rust Belt success story, a Zagat-rated foodie mecca for the New American cuisine, namechecking hip new establishments like Shadyside’s Chaz and Odette, and East Liberty’s Whitfield. But between Primanti Brothers and molecular gastronomy lay the Turkey Devonshire, too fussy to be mere bar food, but too stodgy to be on the menu of any restaurant catering to a hip clientele.
I must admit I love the Turkey Devonshire—it tastes like a reassuring cross between mac and cheese and a turkey Sandwich, exemplars of comfort food. But it’s not only the taste—Blandi’s dish is a culinary subversion. Just as John Coltrane deconstructed the vanilla melody of “My Favorite Things” and made it a baroque jazz masterpiece, or Mel Brooks appropriated the Western into the Borscht Belt brilliance of Blazing Saddles, so too did Blandi zhuzh away the bland of the turkey sandwich with some bechamel and smoked paprika broiled at 350 degrees. More than comfort, what the Devonshire represents is how somebody can come to the United States, see what’s being offered, and make it better. ■
Make your own version of the Turkey Devonshire with the recipe from Pittsburgh’s Union Grill here.
Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh, forthcoming from Belt Publishing.
Cover image of Union Grill’s Turkey Devonshire. Photo by Richard Kelly.
*Commentary pieces are the work of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.
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